This Bird Had Flown*

Ruth_Rendell_1672119cMany crime writers (well, many writers in any genre) will tell you that they’d love to leave a distinctive mark on their genre and innovate it in some way. Few can actually do that. Ruth Rendell was one of those few, and her passing leaves a gaping hole in the world of crime fiction.

To me, anyway, Rendell helped bring the traditional mystery into the modern age. Her Inspector Wexford stories have several elements of the traditional whodunit novel. But she added other elements as well; integrated new themes and more contemporary contexts; and used that series to explore social issues as well as the mysteries at hand. What’s more, the Wexford series blends ‘home scenes’ and domestic life in with the actual crime story in innovative ways.

Her writing had a powerful impact on the genre in other ways too. Crime fiction fans can tell you that with novels such as To Fear a Painted Devil and A Judgement in Stone, Rendell explored the psychology of crime using new approaches. All sorts of themes, such as obsession, paranoia, phobias, and family dysfunction are woven into her work. Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, she was a ‘game-changer’ when it came to writing about human interaction and human thinking.

What’s especially noteworthy (at least to me) is that Rendell didn’t indulge in gratuitousness to make her points. Some of her books are quite dark, but the stories don’t hinge on mindless brutality. Building suspense and creating a truly chilling story without brutality isn’t easy.

As a reader, I must confess I haven’t liked every Rendell/Vine story I’ve read. Even her most devoted fans will admit that some of her novels and stories are better than others. But what I do admire about Rendell is her willingness to try out different themes and different approaches. She saw ways in which the elements of the traditional mystery could be given contemporary settings and contexts, and she took the risks involved in being a part of that evolution.

Rendell’s work has many, many dedicated fans, and there are good reasons for that. But even if you’re not among them, it’s hard to deny her impact on the genre. And that in itself is worth remembering.

For crime writers, Rendell had another kind of impact. Many of us have learned a lot from her writing style, her plots, her characters and other aspects of her stories. I know I have. For instance, I admire her skill at peeling away the veneer of the supposedly peaceful, suburban idyll to reveal the ugliness that could lie beneath it. She was also, to my mind, quite skilled at building real psychological suspense without gore. And some of her stories bring larger social issues and problems down to the human level; I admire that too. I’d like to be able to do those things when I grow up. If I grow up.

So, would I want to be Rendell? No. But I think that’s the point. She wasn’t really a ‘clone’ of other writers. Instead, she followed her own path. I think writers do their best work when they find their own voices. Hers, anyway, changed crime fiction.

She will be missed.


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).


Filed under Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell

35 responses to “This Bird Had Flown*

  1. Keishon

    Excellent post, Margot. I was nodding my head along with everything you said. I’ve only read three of her books. I can’t wait to explore the rest of her backlist.

    • Thanks very much, Keishon. I’m glad you thought the post was OI. Rendell has quite a backklist, so as you discover it, I’ll be really interested in what you think of it.

  2. Sad news, indeed. I loved the Wexford novels and I think her Barbara Vine novel, A Fatal Inversion, is so good. Not everything was to my taste, but you’re right. She didn’t rest on her laurels, which she might easily have done after the success of the Wexford books, but did some daring things with the crime novel.

    • That’s just exactly it, Christine. Rendell experimented and did indeed do some different, daring things. Some stories didn’t hit the mark, and some only did with her die-hard fans. But even so, there’s no denying she ‘stretched’ herself. And several of her novels really are top-of-the-line in my opinion.

  3. Fine tribute Margot – she was a writer that really made her mark.

  4. She will be missed indeed. Like many lovers of the genre Ruth Rendell was one of the authors I read and she was so good. Like you, I didn’t enjoy all of her books under either name although I was fonder of her Vine voice as my interests developed into the psychological. There was nothing more chilling than the way she could look behind the closed door of a seemingly respectable home and reveal terrible things A fine tribute to an author who contributed so much to the genre and gave this reader at least a huge amount of pleasure.

    • Thank you, Cleo. And I agree completely about Rendell’s ability to look into the lives of seemingly ‘normal,’ respectable, even happy homes and examine what might lurk there. So haunting when she was at her best, I think. She certainly did push the psychological novel towards its more modern form, and I think she deserves to be well remembered for that too. I’m glad her work enriched you.

  5. Great tribute, Margot. I’ve only read a couple of the Wexford books, though I watched many of the TV adaptations. I can’t in truth say I was a great fan of her work, but I agree with all you say about her influence. I’ve been meaning to try some of her Barbara Vine books for years, since several people have told me they prefer those ones.

  6. It’s always sad when the crime writing community loses such an important author. I also believe when a writer follows her own path that’s when magic can happen.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Sue, on both counts. Rendell certainly had an impact on the crime fiction community, and her loss will be keenly felt. But if there is one thing we can learn, it’s to follow her example and find our own voices.

  7. Even though I’m not a huge fan I can acknowledge her influence on the genre, and I’ll always have a soft spot for ROAD RAGE, one of my favourite crime novels with an environmental theme

    • Road Rage is an excellent novel, Bernadette. I can see why you like it as much as you do. It’s one of my top Wexford novels, too. And you have a point: one doesn’t need to be a big fan to acknowledge Rendell’s impact.

  8. Kathy D.

    I haven’t read more than a few of Ruth Rendell’s books, one stand-alone and one with Inspector Wexford, but i admired her writing skills and her taking on social issues and helping to push forward enlightenment on many important topics. And I know that she will be missed in the crime fiction community and larger world.
    My uncle who was very particular about the crime fiction he read loved the Inspector Wexford series. He wouldn’t read the others but every time I talked to him he would reiterate his love for those books. I know many people feel the same way.
    Ruth Rendall leaves her legacy in her books; we are lucky to have them.

    • She certainly has left her legacy in her books, Kathy. And you’re right that she took on several social issues and explored them in her work. Your uncle isn’t alone, either; a lot of people love the Wexford series. If you get the chance to read more of Rendell’s work, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  9. To lose three greats in less than two years is a blow indeed: Reginald Hill, PD James and Ruth Rendell. And they were all active and writing right up to the end. I can’t claim to have read all of Ruth Rendell’s books, but I have enjoyed many of them and I do like the way she always challenged herself to try something new and different, rather than regurgitating the same book 30 times, as some series writers start to do.

    • Oh, you put that so well, Marina Sofia! Many writers do start to tell the same story again and again, and it’s soon enough painfully obvious. But Rendell didn’t do that. She certainly leaves behind a wide and varied legacy of reading. And it has been a difficult couple of years for crime fiction fans, hasn’t it? Those three losses have hit hard.

  10. Col

    Great post Margot. Sad loss. I’ve only read one book of hers as a teenager which doesn’t really count.I was probably two young to appreciate it. I should’nt put her off too much longer.

    • Thank you, Col. I know what you mean about teenage reading… If you do get the chance to read some of her work, I’ll be interested in knowing what the adult you thinks of it.

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  12. None of us get to stay here forever but luckily we get to leave all of our published words behind. Ruth may have left the planet but we’ll be able to enjoy and learn from her writing while we’re still here.
    Great tribute, Margot.

    • Thanks, Peter. And you’re right about what writers can leave behind. At some point, we all take our leave, but as you say, what we’ve written doesn’t. And that’s certainly true in Rendell’s case. Her body of work has millions of fans, and those of us who write can learn a lot from it.

  13. You know, I wasn’t sure, at first, why you choose this title for this post.

    I get it. I think it is quite effective.

    I liked Ruth Rendell and Inspector Wexford (Was he an inspector? I can’t remember.).


  14. This is a very lovely tribute, Margot. I am a great fan of the Wexford books, but have only sampled her non-series books a bit. Out of my comfort zone, usually. But I have a few more on my shelves to try.

    • Thank you, Tracy. That’s the thing about Rendell. Some of her books are definitely out of a lot of people’s comfort zones. But I admired her for taking those risks.

  15. I have very different reactions to her books, but that’s a tribute to her very different books: she didn’t repeat herself. And she was a great asset to the world of crime fiction – an ambassador, and a good person. A sad loss, and your post reflects that beautifully.

    • Thanks very much, Moira. Her passing is a blow to the world of crime fiction. As you say, she did the genre a lot of good, and was indeed a terrific ambassador. You’re right, too, now I come to think of it, about having different reactions to her books. She certainly dared a lot of different things; to me, that means that she wasn’t ‘cookie cutter.’ So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise that the same reader may feel differently about her different books.

  16. I have not read any of the Rendell or Vine books that I can remember, but I like the idea that she forged her own path and that she dealt with some darker themes. I guess it’s time to get familiar with her work.

    • I do recommend her writing, Pat. She certainly did what worked for her, and had quite an impact on the genre. And you’re right; some of her stories certainly take on the darker sides of human nature.

  17. Margot, your post is a fine and worthy tribute to the Great Baroness Ruth Rendell.

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