Queen of suspense, Ruth Rendell | india | Hindustan Times
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Queen of suspense, Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell created Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, the hero of her best-selling novels, "just for fun".

india Updated: Dec 10, 2005 19:10 IST

By JILL LAWLESS

Half a century ago, Ruth Rendell confesses, she found she had a knack for murder, dark secrets and lethal obsessions. Millions of readers would not have it any other way. The doyenne of British mystery writers says modestly that she began her literary career with some "very bad" unpublished novels. Then, "for fun," she wrote a mystery centred on Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, a liberal, literary small-town detective. She never looked back.

Rendell says she realized that "suspense and a sort of tension and a sort of mystery was my forte.

"That is what I do, and although I love all sorts of other fiction, that is really what I do. And I think one ought to do what one does best."

At 75, she is fearsomely prolific, the author of more than 60 books over a 40-year career. They appear at the rate of at least one a year- 20 mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Wexford; chilling, elegantly plotted psychological mysteries; and the thick multigenerational thrillers published under the pen-name Barbara Vine.

Rendell's books have sold more than 7 million copies around the world and inspired a popular series of television adaptations, "The Ruth Rendell Mysteries."

13 Steps Down, the book Rendell's publisher hopes will make her a best seller in the United States, follows an unremarkable exercise-machine repairman named Mix Cellini as he becomes- partly through temperament and partly by accident- a murderer. Mix is a bundle of very recognizable modern obsessions- fascinated by a real-life serial killer who lived in his London neighborhood half a century ago, infatuated with a supermodel who lives nearby and hooked on the idea of becoming a celebrity. In Mix, the mix turns lethal. Rendell's books, it has been observed, are less whodunits than whydunits.

"I suppose I am interested in people, as anybody who writes fiction must be," says the elegant, immaculate Rendell, who looks far younger than 75. "I want to know why people do what they do- I want to know why I do what I do.

"I think that there are a definite number of people now who would do almost anything to be famous. Mix has no way of getting famous except to be the escort and companion of a model who will, by her beauty and fame, get herself into the newspapers. I think this is something that's on the increase. I see people who do all they can to get themselves on reality TV shows.

"Now it looks as if anybody can attain, not just 15 minutes of fame, but perhaps a lifetime, if they're brash enough, ruthless enough, bold enough."

Steve Ross, vice president and publisher at Crown, Rendell's U.S. publishing house, said her great skill is a "grasp of fundamental human psychology, particularly the psychology of the twisted mind." "She's an incredibly insightful writer about those dark corners of the human mind," he said.

The darkness at the heart of Rendell's books seems a long way from her bright, book-saturated Victorian house. Filled with light even on a gray London day, it overlooks a pretty canal lined with blue, green and red houseboats in the neighborhood Londoners- optimistically- call Little Venice.

The canal makes headlines from time to time, when police or unlucky passers-by discover a body.

"I don't think the world is a particularly pleasant place," said Rendell. "It is, of course, for some people. But it is a hard place, and I don't think it's being cynical to say that." It's not just Mix's celebrity obsession that fixes 13 Steps Down in an instantly recognizable modern-day London. This is an up-to-the-minute city where people discuss the Iraq war, and where an aspiring serial killer must battle for a precious parking space. Rendell strives to anchor her classic thriller plots in a very modern landscape. The Wexford mystery Road Rage centered on environmentalists' opposition to a highway bypass. The Blood Doctor grappled with plans to reform Parliament's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.

It's a topic in which Rendell has a personal interest. She was appointed to the Lords by Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government in 1997- as Baroness Rendell of Babergh- and takes the work seriously. She writes in the mornings and attends Parliament most afternoons to debate and vote on legislation. (Mystery novelist P.D. James, to whom Rendell dedicated 13 Steps Down, also sits in the Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park.)

It sounds like a punishing schedule, but Rendell is ferociously well-organized. 13 Steps Down, published in Britain last year, has already been followed by the Wexford mystery End in Tears. There's another Wexford completed but not yet published. A widow since her husband's death in 1999, Rendell says she has no plans to retire. But she acknowledges she may one day have to stop writing.

"I try to give a picture of London, and the countryside, and what's happened to people and exactly how it is now," she said. "I don't know how long I shall be able to do that. You do your very best, by talking to people, by going about, by attending social functions, just by walking about London, which I do a lot- to hold onto that, so you can go on giving a picture of now. But as you grow older you feel it slip away.

"And I fight against that, but I don't know how long I'll be able to fight against it."

That said, the as-yet-unpublished Wexford is "particularly up-to-the-minute."

Rendell says she doesn't write crime novels, exactly; she thinks the traditional detective story is dying- killed off, in part, by DNA technology and "CSI"-style forensics.

"If people wrote detective stories now they would not be the exciting and suspenseful fiction that we associate with that term, because so much is done in the lab," she says.

"I don't think my readers are very interested in forensics. I'm not. My readers don't like a tough cop, a lot of violence and torture and so on. ... They want the working-out of things to be a cerebral business and not a matter of action."

Rendell still enjoys writing the Wexford books, relishes the challenge of keeping them fresh, respects the devotion of her readers.

"With a series character like Wexford, people do regard him as a real person that they become extremely attached to," she says. "Women have written to me over the years and said that they were in love with him and would I kill his wife because they'd like to marry him."