Ruth Rendell, one of Britain’s best-loved authors, who delighted fans for decades with her dark, intricately plotted crime novels, passed away on May 2. Baroness Rendell of Babergh, the creator of Inspector Wexford and author of more than 60 novels, had been admitted to hospital after a serious stroke in January and died in London.
The crime writer Val McDermid voiced the sorrow of many Rendell fans when she heard the news. “Ruth Rendell was unique. No one can equal her range or her accomplishment; no one has earned more respect from her fellow practitioners. Current British crime writing owes much to a writer who over a 50-year career consistently demonstrated that the genre can continually reinvent itself, moving in new directions, assuming new concerns and exploring new ways of telling stories.”
Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House UK, said: “Ruth was much admired by the whole publishing industry for her brilliant body of
work. An insightful and elegant observer of society, many of her award-winning thrillers and psychological murder mysteries highlighted the causes she cared so deeply about. She was a great writer, a campaigner for social justice, a proud mother and grandmother, a generous and loyal friend and probably the best read person I have ever met. Her many close friends in publishing and the House of Lords will greatly miss her wonderful company and her truly unique contribution to our lives.”
Rendell’s novels included the Inspector Wexford crime series and the psychological thrillers she wrote as Barbara Vine. Her debut, “From Doon with Death,” introduced Wexford in 1964. “He sort of is me, although not entirely,” the author told the Observer in 2013 when the inspector made his 24th outing, in “No Man’s Nightingale.” “Wexford holds my views pretty well on most things, so I find putting him on the page fairly easy.”
Rendell landed her £75 publishing deal after a decade of life as a mother and housewife. She had been a journalist on the Chigwell Times, but resigned after it emerged that her report of a local tennis club dinner had been written without attending the event, meaning she missed the death of the after-dinner speaker during his speech.
Ian Rankin said he’d viewed Rendell as “probably the greatest living crime writer” and added that “if crime fiction is currently in rude good health, its practitioners striving to better the craft and keep it fresh, vibrant and relevant, this is in no small part thanks to Ruth Rendell”.
Rendell’s death closely follows that of fellow crime writer PD James, her good friend and political opponent in the House of Lords. A tribute by the broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson this weekend called them “the George Eliot and Jane Austen of the homicidal novel: different minds and style but equal talent”. He credited them with saving British detective fiction from the disdain of serious literary critics.
Rendell won prizes including the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for “sustained excellence in crime writing”, and, as a Labour life peer, helped pass a law preventing girls being sent abroad for female genital mutilation.
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