The mystery world has lost one of the grande dames. The much-lauded Ruth Rendell (winner of numerous mystery awards, including the 1991 Cartier Diamond Dagger for a Lifetime’s Achievement in the Field, not to mention being awarded a CBE in 1996), who had suffered a stroke at the beginning of this year, passed away on May 2, 2015. I’ve long been a fan of Rendell’s particular brand of psychological suspense. She wrote characters as seemingly regular people—but scratch the surface, and you’ll find all kinds of dysfunction and horror underneath.
I first came across Rendell’s books when I was in college. I was browsing the stacks at my favorite used bookstore, and came across The Bridesmaid (1989). I’ll admit, it was the cover that intrigued me more than anything. Once I read it, however, I was hooked by the odd characters, the slow burn, and the shocking twist ending. The Booklist review notes that “Rendell neatly juxtaposes the concerns of everyday life—Philip’s work and family—against the growing terror surrounding his relationship with Senta. Psychological suspense from a master.”
Suffice it to say, I returned to the bookstore right after finishing the book and bought every one of Rendell’s books they had on the shelf.
While I was never a huge fan of her Inspector Wexford books (which are much more “true” mysteries), I did enjoy the books she wrote as Barbara Vine. They feature the same weird psychological bend, but have an even tighter focus on the characters, rather than the events that unfold, though they are still as shocking as her other tales. In his review of 2009’s Grasshopper, Bill Ott sums it up perfectly, saying that “The characters are twisted in a hard-to-define but distinctly unsettling way; the plots circle around themselves, moving steadily closer to an inevitable but unpredictable cataclysm; and, above all, the building tension is internalized by both the characters and the reader.”
While I mourn the fact that there will be no new Rendell novels to savor, I must admit that my biggest concern here as a librarian is that now that Rendell is no longer with us, how long will it take before we weed all of her books? Let’s face it, it’s hard to generate interest in writers who are no longer writing, and Rendell’s novels go way back—and many are unfortunately quite dated (her first, From Doon with Death, was published in 1964, and like her other novels from the 1960s and 70s, is rife with stereotypes and cultural references that may be foreign to today’s readers.) I know I’ll be sad when the day comes that I can’t find a Rendell left on the shelves—so I implore my library friends to keep recommending and displaying them.