To Make the Skin Crawl
THE FLAT ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE surrounding Ruth Rendell's shrimp-pink farmhouse is crossed with hedgerows and dotted with cottages and ivied Church of England parsonages. Colchester, already ancient at the time of the Norman invasion, sleeps just 10 miles to the south. In the book-filled study where Rendell sits, cat in lap, the only sound from the outside world comes from a lawn mower as her husband Don putters about their garden.
"When I'm working," says Rendell, whose 48 books have made her one of the most successful crime writers in the world, "I want to be able to get up and look through a window and not see anybody." And so in this quiet corner of England, Rendell, 65, delves into morasses of psychosis and criminality. In America she is best known for the Chief Inspector Wexford mysteries, traditional police procedurals imbued with Rendell's leftish politics—including the latest, Simisola (Crown Publishers) about race and murder in a small English town.
It is in Rendell's other books, though, some written under the nom de plume Barbara Vine and often narrated from the criminal's point of view, that her fascination with the extravagantly damaged and dangerous side of humanity comes through. In 1977's A Judgement in Stone, an illiterate housekeeper, enraged that her employer keeps leaving notes for her, murders an entire family. In The Crocodile Bird (1993), a single mother isolates her daughter in their country cottage and systematically kills any man who intrudes "No one," says P.D. James, Britain's other reigning queen of crime and Rendell's good friend "has explored with greater sensitivity and compassion those dark recesses of the human psyche. She is one of the remarkable novelists of her generation."
The roots of Rendell's morbid fascination probably reach back to her upbringing in East London. The only child of two schoolteachers, she recalled in a 1991 radio interview that "there was always a great deal of arguing, quarreling, shrieking, threatening. I hated it." In self-defense, she says, she created a sort of "inner voice," which described the things that happened at home as if they were events in a story.
That created an interest in stories and narration that led her, after high school, to a job as a reporter for a newspaper chain, where she met her husband, Don (retired as a writer for London's Daily Mail). Rendell quit journalism after four years, frustrated at not being able to "rearrange the endings" of stories. For the next decade, while raising her only son, Simon, now 42 and a psychotherapist in Colorado, she wrote for her entertainment alone. "I wrote lots of novels and never tried to get any of them published," she says. In 1964 she finally submitted one for consideration. "They didn't publish it," she notes, "but they asked me if I had done anything else." She gave them From Doon with Death, the first Wexford mystery—and was paid $210.
"I didn't really take off for 10 or 15 years," Rendell says. "Then I won several prizes and began to sell well." Her books have been adapted for television and have won her three Edgar awards, the mystery writer's Oscar.
When she's not at her farmhouse in the Suffolk countryside, Rendell stays at one of two other homes: a mews house near London's Regents Park and a seaside home in Aldeburgh, 100 miles from London. She rises around 7, does an hour of aerobic exercise, then spends the morning writing. After lunch with Don she takes care of correspondence and paperwork and then goes for a long walk. It is on those promenades that she works out plot details sometimes thinking through four or five chapters before writing a word. "I don't know whether I'm very good or not," she says. "But I know I would not be happy or content with myself if I didn't write."
LYDIA DENWORTH in Suffolk