Born: 17 February 1930, South Woodford, Essex, UK
Died: 2 May 2015, London, UK
Rendell was a keen observer of human nature, and of what made people tick (usually, in her books, like bombs about to explode):
“I’m more interested in the motivation than the crime itself. I am fascinated by what makes people do dreadful things, not by how they do them.” (Emily Bearn, ‘The Prime of Baroness Rendell‘, Daily Telegraph, 29 June 2002)
Where to start?
Her short stories are stunning. I’d compare them to Christie and Dahl at their twistiest, Get hold of the Collected Short Stories (has The Fallen Curtain, The Fever Tree, Means of Evil, and The New Girl Friend), and read your way through.
Chief Inspector Wexford
The Wexford books are good, solid police mysteries, with a psychological angle. Wolf to the Slaughter, A Sleeping Life, Put On by Cunning, An Unkindness of Ravens, and Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (maybe the best) are all clever. Simisola is ambitious, but the moralising is heavy-handed.
Her early Wexfords combine ingenious plots and misdirection with psychological acuity and a strong storyline. Her best solutions are surprising, and are built around a memorable plot idea, such as Schwärmerei or eonism. They are tightly focused, essentially novellas rather than long novels. There are frequently two threads: the investigation into the crime is paralleled by a personal crisis in the life of the investigating policeman.
In her more recent Wexfords, theme is often more important than plot, and the works tend to be longer and more sprawling. From the mid-1990s, she lost interest in plotting and clueing, and used the detective story as a vehicle for social commentary.
Simisola (1994), the first of these works, is unsuccessful, because Rendell’s determination to ‘Make a Serious Point about Racism in Britain’ warps plot and characterisation.
Since then, Rendell has written about the environment, wife and child abuse, religious cults, IVF and surrogate mothers, and Muslim cultural integration and genital mutilation—all no doubt very worthy, but the plots are weak.
Non-series psychological suspense
One never quite knows what her psychological suspense novels will be like.
These are firmly in the tradition of Francis Iles and Patricia Highsmith, focusing on an innocent caught up in a crime, an intimate study of a psychopath or of a perverse relationship.
Rendell’s imaginative treatment of themes, her use of mythic or folkloric archetypes, and her ability to create and sustain a menacing atmosphere recall the ghost stories of M.R. James, whom she admired. Many of these books play on the difference between fantasy / delusion (whether in fiction, games, or false assumptions) and reality.
Many are brilliant: The Face of Trespass and The Lake of Darkness are early, tightly constructed, and ironic; A Judgement in Stone, generally seen as her masterpiece, is compelling; and The Crocodile Bird is one of her warmest books: a beautifully written coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s relationship with her murderous mother.
Several, let’s be honest, are too grim or weird for me to enjoy: A Demon in My View (protagonist is a serial killer who ritually strangles a sex dummy, and torments babies and animals), The Killing Doll, Live Flesh (protagonist is a rapist, who also asterisks dead sheep), and Talking to Strange Men.
In the ’80s, Rendell created a new pseudonym: Barbara Vine, to write even darker psychological novels. I’ve only read a couple, so not enough to comment. I liked The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, though.
Rendell is a really good writer, but her subject matter can be bleak: disordered minds, deranged personalities, and an often misanthropic view of life.
Rendell was, as she admitted, a neurotic personality, and suffered from several phobias. Although involved in progressive causes, she believed that ‘the world is an amoral place’ and doubted whether ‘any families are ever happy’. (Marianne Macdonald, ‘Her dark materials’, The Telegraph, 11 April 2005)
- From Doon with Death (1964; Wexford)
- To Fear a Painted Devil (1965)
- Vanity Dies Hard (1965)
- A New Lease of Death (1967; Wexford)
- Wolf to the Slaughter (1967; Wexford)
- The Secret House of Death (1968)
- The Best Man to Die (1969; Wexford)
- A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970; Wexford)
- One Across, Two Down (1971)
- No More Dying Then (1971; Wexford)
- Murder Being Once Done (1972; Wexford)
- Some Lie and Some Die (1973; Wexford)
- The Face of Trespass (1974)
- Shake Hands for Ever (1975; Wexford)
- A Demon in My View (1976)
- The Fallen Curtain (1976; short stories)
- A Judgement in Stone (1977)
- A Sleeping Life (1978; Wexford)
- Make Death Love Me (1979)
- Means of Evil (1979; Wexford short stories)
- The Lake of Darkness (1980)
- Put On by Cunning (1981)
- Master of the Moor (1982)
- The Fever Tree (1982; short stories)
- The Speaker of Mandarin (1983; Wexford)
- The Killing Doll (1984)
- The Tree of Hands (1984)
- An Unkindness of Ravens (1985; Wexford)
- The New Girl Friend (1985; short stories)
- Live Flesh (1986)
- A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986, as Barbara Vine)
- Heartstones (1987)
- A Fatal Inversion (1987, as Barbara Vine)
- Talking to Strange Men (1987)
- The Veiled One (1988; Wexford)
- The House of Stairs (1988, as Barbara Vine)
- The Bridesmaid (1989)
- Gallowglass (1990, as Barbara Vine)
- Going Wrong (1990)
- The Copper Peacock (1991; short stories)
- King Solomon’s Carpet (1991, as Barbara Vine)
- Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992; Wexford)
- Asta’s Book (1993, as Barbara Vine)
- The Crocodile Bird (1993)
- No Night is Too Long (1994, as Barbara Vine)
- Simisola (1994; Wexford)
- Blood Lines (1995; short stories)
- The Brimstone Wedding (1996, as Barbara Vine)
- The Keys to the Street (1996)
- Road Rage (1997; Wexford)
- The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998, as Barbara Vine)
- A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998)
- Harm Done (1999; Wexford)
- Grasshopper (2000, as Barbara Vine)
- Piranha to Scurfy (2000; short stories)
- Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001)
- The Babes in the Wood (2002; Wexford)
- The Blood Doctor (2002, as Barbara Vine)
- The Rottweiler (2003)
- Thirteen Steps Down (2004)
- The Minotaur (2005, as Barbara Vine)
- End in Tears (2005; Wexford)
- The Thief (2006)
- The Water’s Lovely (2006)
- Not in the Flesh (2007)
- The Birthday Present (2008, as Barbara Vine)
- Portobello (2008)
- The Monster in the Box (2009; Wexford)
- Tigerlily’s Orchids (2010)
- The Vault (2011; Wexford)
- The Saint Zita Society (2012)
- The Child’s Child (2012, as Barbara Vine)
- No Man’s Nightingale (2013; Wexford)
- The Girl Next Door (2014)
- Dark Corners (2015)
- A Spot of Folly (2017; short stories)