Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930- ) writes a range of different crime stories, but she began with Inspector Reg Wexford, and the Wexford stories remain her most popluar.
Rendell is reticent about her personal history. Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers. Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man. She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’. After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times. She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950. They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later. They have one son. She wrote six books before she approached a publisher. When she did, her books were instantly successful. From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories. In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and now continues to produce books in all three categories. In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government. Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her recent (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor.
In 1996, in an interview in The Irish Times, Rendell commented that ‘I would think that the old-fashioned detective story which is so much a matter of clues and puzzles is certainly on the way out, if not already gone. Crime novels now are much more novels of character, and novels which look at the world we live in’. This is certainly true of her own work. However it is equally true that the character of Inspector Reg Wexford has developed a lot since she began the series. In the early books, Wexford’s role was basically to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret. Now, he is a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. It has been suggested that Wexford was modelled on her father, and she says in response ‘Wexford has a very dry sense of wit, he is liberal, literate, but he can get quite exasperated and hot-tempered and he quotes a lot from literature. All these things are true of myself and my father’. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like – I’ve done that more and more’.
Inspector Wexford, later Detective Chief Inspector, does not have a fully fleshed out biography as do some fictional detectives. He is middle aged, tall and broad and inclined to put on too much weight if he doesn’t watch what he eats, which he hates doing. Though he didn’t go to university, and is somewhat abashed by the new young breed of university-educated detectives, personified by his nephew, Superintendent Howard Fortune, he is self educated and very well read. He is shrewd in his judgements of people. He is also compassionate, often in contrast to his assistant, Inspector Mike Burdon, who can be rather narrow and rigid. He is married to Dora and has two grown up daughters. His family life is stable, and his professional life not in danger from jealous colleagues or hated superiors, as is sometimes the case with other detectives. He can become obsessed with an investigation, to the frustration of both his wife and his boss.
The Wexford books are:
From Doon with Death (1964)
A New Lease of Death (1967)
Wolf to the Slaughter (1967)
The Best Man to Die (1969)
A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)
No More Dying Then (1971)
Murder Being Once Done (1972)
Some Lie and Some Die (1973)
Shake Hands Forever (1975)
A Sleeping Life (1978)
Sins of the Fathers (1980)
Put on the Cunning (1981)
Death Notes (1981)
Speaker of Mandarin (1983)
An Unkindness of Ravens (1985)
The Veiled One (1988)
Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992)
Road Rage (1997)
Harm Done (1999)
Babes in the Wood (2002)
End in Tears (2005)
Not in the Flesh (2007)
The Monster in the Box (2009)
In 1987, a TV series entitled Inspector Wexford and based on the books was begun. It starred George Baker as DCI Reg Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as DI Mike Burden. Now many people, Ruth Rendell amongst them, can’t think of Wexford without seeing Baker. He, in return, says in his memoirs how much he likes and admires Wexford, and enjoyed playing him. The series ended in 2000, and unfortunately there are no plans to film the more recent books.
When Rendell talks about looking at ‘the world we live in’, she means not only the physical setting of the story, but also its social and moral setting. Wexford operates in the imaginary town of Kingsmarkham, set somewhere south of London. The crimes he investigates are those of ordinary people, who faced with some challenge or choice, reveal a capacity for violence which is inherent in everyone under certain circumstances. In her work as Ruth Rendell Mark II and Barbara Vine, the psychological impulse to crime and violence is much more fully explored. But it is also present in the Wexford books.
Rendell describes most of her recent Wexford stories as more ‘political’ than the earlier ones. They deal with racism, environmental issues, and child abuse. Rendell has always held left of centre views, and has been active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was then new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show the world as it is has led her to tackle issues she thinks are important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond the ordinary police procedural.
More information about Ruth Rendell can be found here.
More information about the TV series can be found here.