Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ruth Rendell: The Fairest One of All

Also read Ruth Rendell Upstages Two Recently Acclaimed Writers at:

     Ruth Rendell has produced over sixty novels since 1964 in three different series:  the Wexford/Burden police procedurals that take place in Kingsmarkham, a smaller English city in the home counties; psychological suspense novels that focus on various pathologies set in seemingly ordinary circumstances; and the Barbara Vine novels that are usually historical in setting and also furthest from the bread and butter tropes of
the Mystery/Thriller genre.  Rendell’s oeuvre so far has been as scientifically exact and as beautiful as a supreme cartographer’s mapping of the manners, morals, and changing social mores of Britain from the “You’ve never had it so good” Harold MacMillan years through the “downturn in the economy = the New Normal” David Cameron era. 

Ruth Rendell and Friend
I haven't read her books, but I like her already!

      She sold her first novel From Doon with Death for about $150 after a couple of “literary” novels were rejected.  It’s the first book with Wexford and there is a great twist that would not be as startling today because of the societal changes that she has chronicled.  The chief surprise of the Wexford/Burden relationship is that the older and more senior ranked Wexford is the philosophical progressive with greater compassion than the traditionalist, by-the-book Burden.  Rendell has finally ‘retired’ Wexford, though he’s still solving cases.  Of course, he’d be about 90 by now, but there’s a shorter lapse in the series than in real time.  Wexford and Burden have had to deal with many of the great cultural issues facing western nations over this period:  the emerging roles of women professionally and personally and how that affects men; recognition, tolerance, acceptance, inclusion of gays and lesbians, non-European
descendants, the mentally and physically challenged; the continued generational conflicts between a stratified British Empire class system and a meritocracy that took off at about the time that London started to swing.  Murder Being Once Done, Shake Hands Forever, An Unkindness of Ravens, Simisola, and End in Tears are some of the best examples of the Wexford series.

     Rendell possesses wit and irony in how she deals with the fictional worlds she creates.  She usually employs third person limited and complete omniscience in her narrative choice, thereby beginning with a layer of authorial detachment that she may undercut by her tone or by use of characters’ diaries or their other writings.  Her closest peer is P.D. James, but I find James’s novels moralistic and based in an Anglicanism that feels like latter-day Agatha Christie.  However, even Christie realized those limits and had Hercule Poirot kill off a villain in Curtain.  

     Rendell’s protean talent could not be met in a detective series so she immediately began stand-alone thriller suspense novels with To Fear A Painted Devil in 1965.  The poignancy of the killer’s decision to kill and the way in which a hobby became life supporting is almost unbearable.  It also reveals the lives of quiet desperation behind the tourist myth of the picturesque, quaint English suburb or town that the Kinks would address three years later in The Village Green Preservation Society.  In these books, Rendell shows how some wrong choices can unalterably change and destroy the lives of decent people, regardless of social class such as in The Secret House of Death, The Tree of Hands, and the intricately plotted and swooningly unhappy The Lake of Darkness.  

     She has also displayed an almost textbook analysis of psychosis and sociopathology in A Demon in My View (1976), the work that really moved her into the first rank of British novelists to consider seriously and that features a graduate student writing a dissertation about psychology without realizing that his landlord is a latent serial killer and that he accidentally pushes the killer’s mental ‘on’ button, The Killing Doll, A Sight for Sore Eyes, and Thirteen Steps Down.  I have to make special mention of A Judgement in Stone, which begins by telling the reader that a gracious, upper-middle class family is murdered by a religious fanatic and her illiterate accomplice because of their literacy and realistically details how those paths crossed and descended, and Talking to Strange Men, one of the best spy stories ever written and it’s set in an English boarding school.  There is a horrific sequence where a brilliant student has been tested by his spymaster and, due to a number of misunderstandings and intrusions by another character, finds himself without an easy way out from a child molester.  The resolution epitomizes a new British generation’s ‘keep a stiff upper lip.’   

     Rendell’s most obvious antecedent for these novels is Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley et. al), but is blessedly free of Highsmith’s misogyny.  Instead, she takes an almost Chekhovian view of her characters or as one of Jean Renoir’s characters stated in The Rules of the Game “everyone has his reasons” and she bears that out.  Another point to keep in mind with Rendell’s work is to look at the copyright date of her books because that becomes a clue as to whether an individual work might seem time-bound and reflective of a specific era or possesses a classic timelessness.

    Searching over the past and reconsidering it is at the heart of Proust’s novels and also in the mystery genre of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which is one of the greatest historical reconsiderations written in the 20th century, regardless of classification.   Tey investigates the killing of the Little Princes in the Tower of London and concludes that Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) was responsible for their assassinations, rather than their uncle Richard III. Using her middle name, Rendell began another group of books under the pen name Barbara Vine in 1986.  This is probably when she became most noteworthy to American readers.  Unlike Tey, she doesn’t re-examine actual past crimes but, instead, presents crimes that feel completely authentic because of their period detail.

     Her first two Vine books are classics of the past fifty years, regardless of any critical or publishing classification.  A Dark Adapted Eye is about an extended family’s reactions to a murder that was committed in the early 1950s and for which the killer was hanged (right before that law was changed).  For a great deal of the book, the reader isn’t exactly sure who was killed.  The reason for the killing is slowly revealed and it packs a powerful punch – it’s almost an inverse of King Solomon’s judgment.  However, Vine never definitively reveals the central mystery of the conflict that led to the killing.  It’s a plot masterstroke in a book that is a panoramic history of the English middle-class from the 1930s to the 1950s.  A Fatal Inversion (1987) perfectly captures the difference between being twenty and thirty and the enormous changes that Thatcherism wrought in Britain as it moves back and forth between 1976 and 1986.  Anna’s Book, which looks at a
murder in 1910s London and the popular literary practice of nostalgia in rediscovered diaries, and The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy, in which a deceased lionized writer’s connection to a gay murder in 1959, is revealed through a faux literary novel that could have been an excerpt written by Anthony Burgess or Robertson Davies – though it’s all Vine, are other great choices in this group.

     Stephen King wrote of his admiration for Rendell and placed her on an equal par with Ian McEwan – a ‘literary’ writer though no more serious than Rendell.  On a sidetrack, I have to give a shout out to Entertainment Weekly and King for his op-ed pieces that ran for a decade.  What they said about popular movies, TV, music, and books was all of a singular viewpoint and commanding intelligence and as compelling as Pauline Kael’s 1970s criticism.  I always knew where he was calling from and even if I didn’t agree with his opinion, I loved being made a companion to his reasoning.  I wish Uncle Steve would have continued, but I’m glad he did it for as long as he did.  It was a superb group of articles.

     There's been a British TV series based on the Wexford police procedurals.  Rendell admired Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie, which was an adaptation of A Judgement in Stone.  We haven't seen it, but we did see Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh, starring a young Javier Bardem, which captured and externalized the psychological wildness of the novel in a way that was both witty and sexy.  I wish he'd use another of her books for a movie because the cross-cultural frisson between these two major artists sets off sparks.
A Scene from Pedro Almodóvar's Live Flesh

     Joyce Carol Oates once wrote a very positive blurb about Rendell and stated her admiration for her craft.  I found that to be the damnation of faint praise.  After all, Oates, though spoken of as a Nobel candidate and extraordinarily prolific is, at heart, a writer in the romance genre, though she’s been ‘kicked up a notch’ since her début to be considered a ‘literary’ or ‘serious’ writer.  Rendell realizes that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ whereas some of Oates’s books can do double duty as doorstops.  I could take half a dozen of Rendell’s best books and set them alongside them, Wonderland, You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, We Were The Mulvaneys, and Blonde; I’d place my bet on Rendell to last longer in the literary consciousness.

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