Many 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).