Fans love prolific authors—more books means more to love, right? But it can be difficult for newcomers to decide where to start, especially with an author who alternates a long-running series with decidedly different stand-alones. But we’re here to help! Find the way to reading happiness with our Booklist Reader Guides.
The Queen of Psychological Suspense
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), passed away on May 2, 2015. She wrote about seemingly regular people—but scratch the surface, and you’ll find all kinds of dysfunction and horror underneath. Over an illustrious writing career that spanned five decades, she penned 24 Inspector Wexford series titles, 28 stand-alone novels, 9 short-story collections, 3 novellas, and 14 books as her alter ego, Barbara Vine.
Inspector Wexford Series
The undaunted Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford made his first appearance in Rendell’s 1964 debut, From Doon with Death. The series is decidedly British, and each novel can stand remarkably alone—Rendell pays more attention here to the crimes at hand than to Wexford’s backstory. Though each installment contains plenty of detail about Wexford and his personal life, readers won’t feel lost if they haven’t read the other books. New readers can also rest assured that there’s no need to read them in any particular order.
Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992), which finds Wexford dealing with two deadly shootings, is a good place to begin. As Booklist said at the time, “Almost from the start, Rendell toys with her readers: she all but tells us the crimes are connected; then she recants; then she recants the recantation, leading up to a denouement that is quite simply a masterpiece, one that demands a single breathless, uninterrupted reading.”
Blistering social commentary runs through all of Rendell’s works. A favorite of mine is Road Rage (1997), where Wexford is caught in the middle of a dispute over road construction in a sleepy Sussex market town.
Several of the Wexford titles were made into episodes of a popular British TV show that ran from 1987 to 2000, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. Many of her short stories featured here as well, but the episodes centering on Wexford were best-loved by fans.
I’ll never forget the first Rendell novel I read. Browsing the stacks at my favorite used bookstore, I came across The Bridesmaid (1989). I was instantly hooked by the odd characters, the slow burn, and the shocking twist ending. No matter the genre, my favorite fiction always features realistic characters and settings. When it comes to suspense, I love “real” people caught in unreal situations—and Rendell never disappoints. The Booklist starred review notes, and I agree, 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.” I give readers my personal guarantee that they will not be able to forget the ending of this one. I returned to the bookstore right after finishing the book and bought all the Rendell books they had in stock.
While her novels have decidedly varied plots, all carry the same creepy themes of twisted personalities, shocking secrets, and strange twists. 2014’s The Girl Next Door tells the story of a group of elderly friends bound together by a grisly discovery they made as children. The Keys to the Street (1996) is an excellent glimpse into the life of a lonely young woman and the lengths people can go to to be cruel to one another. From the starred Booklist review: “Without a doubt, Rendell ranks with today’s finest writers, and this book is one of her best, examining the intricate and complex relationships between people, the possibilities and influences of good and evil in each life, the odd quirks of human nature, and the darker side of the human soul.”
One caveat to the uninitiated: Rendell’s books are very much of their time. Her novels from the 1960s and 70s are rife with stereotypes and cultural references that may be foreign to today’s readers, and some of the more egregious racism and sexism may even turn some of them off.
Writing as Barbara Vine
Rendell began exploring characters even further in the mid-1980s when she began to publish under the name Barbara Vine.
The Vine books share the same just-under-the-surface tension as her other titles but have an even tighter focus on the characters, rather than the events that unfold. In his review of Grasshopper (2000), Bill Ott sums it up perfectly: “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.”
Her best-known book as Vine, Anna’s Book (1993), is the story of three women whose lives are linked not only by their familial ties but also by their strong characters. The Child’s Child (2012) is an absorbing embedded novel in which themes and characters keep recurring from novels of Victorian times to those of contemporary London.
Without a doubt, Erin Kelly is Rendell’s heir apparent. Her characters are intense, her plot twists are vivid, and she never fails to stick the landing with her shocking endings. Her debut, The Poison Tree (2010), is very much in the vein of early Ruth Rendell. Kelly weaves a tale fraught with drama and questions, and unreliable characters abound. The Burning Air (2013) showcases Kelly’s knack for creating realistic, discomfiting characters.
Minette Walters’ novels of psychological suspense (ranging from 1993’s The Sculptress to 2014’s The Cellar) also make for spot-on read-alike suggestions. For a look at five more contenders, see “Ladies in Waiting: 5 Authors Who Would Kill to Be Ruth Rendell.”