When Ruth Rendell was about to read from her latest macabre suspense novel, The Bridesmaid, at Toronto's International Festival
of Authors earlier this fall, she confided to the audience, “I'm told I’m supposed to frighten you all.” The celebrated British crime novelist—whose works range from complex por-
traits of psychopaths to more conventional police-detective thrillers—was in North America to promote The Bridesmaid, her 33rd book. In an interview with Maclean’s, the trim, well-groomed Rendell, 59, acknowledged that some of her works create strange notions about their creator in the minds of the public. Said Rendell:
“People expect me to be devious and sinister.”
The London-born author says that she now wants to pursue another vein of psychological suspense, writing as Barbara Vine, the pseudonym she has used for three novels published since 1986. ‘Tm more interested now in what ordinary people do in the face of extreme pressures,” she said. Rendell herself, as one of the most popular crime writers in the English language, handles the stresses of literary fame with apparent ease. She is gracious but firm with the media, declining to discuss her personal life. Married at 20 to journalist Donald Rendell, she has a grown son, Simon. Six years ago, she and her husband escaped the hubbub of London by moving to a 15thcentury cottage in Polstead, Suffolk.
There, Rendell continues to build on
her prodigious output of 33 books in 25 years.
Her compellingly readable books—which have won her virtually every major crimewriting award, from the U.S. Edgar Award to Britain’s Silver Dagger Award—are now available in 16 languages. An estimated 15 million copies have been printed worldwide. Much to her irritation, she has been labelled by reviewers and jacket blurb-writers as “the new Queen of Crime” and the rightful successor to Agatha Christie. “It’s all so much rubbish, these tags,” she says. “My books are nothing at all like Agatha Christie’s, and the Queen of Crime—I mean, really.”
Rendell is right, of course. Christie’s novels were mostly set in idealized British villages disrupted by a violent murder. Her amateur detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, were elderly eccentrics whose chief role was to
restore order and justice to the essentially benevolent place. But in Rendell’s fictional world, murder and violence are not shocking aberrations, but an all-too-prevalent occurrence behind the closed doors of suburban towns and London row houses. Murder irrevocably shatters the lives of those encountering it—and their notions of what normal life is.
Life could not be more non^l—or conventional—for Philip Wardman, the main character in The Bridesmaid (Doubleday, $22.95). But almost from the first page, there is an inexorable sense of unease, even though the setting is wholly innocuous. Philip is a likable young man working for an interior design firm. He lives with his widowed mother and two sisters in a lower-middle-class suburb of London and worries about them in a vague way. But he is soon distracted from those domestic concerns by Senta, a bridesmaid at his elder sister’s wedding.
To Philip, Senta bears a remarkable resemblance to the beautiful marble statue in his family’s backyard—which plays a significant part in the murder that follows. Senta seduces the shy Philip, telling him that she knows that she has met “the twin to my soul, the other
half.” As he becomes increasingly obsessed with the sexually voracious Senta, Philip is drawn into her seedy, strange milieu. Living in a semidecayed house, she inhabits a twilight world of wine, sex and half-baked mysticism. She confuses Philip by telling him half-truths about her work in the theatre and her early family life. He ignores much of her conversation, mostly about astrology and their shared destiny, but then Senta demands that, to prove their love, each of them has to kill someone to place themselves “outside ordinary society.”
It is a credit to Rendell’s skill that she makes that melodramatic premise credible. She is able, through her closely observed portraits of daily life, to create a believable world that fills Philip’s days. His job, which involves visits to unpleasant women having their homes renovated, is fraught with boredom and with sometimes humiliating demands. Home is a predictable but also comforting round of TV, meals, family chatter and walking the dog. Mired in that mundane routine, the infatuated Philip ascribes Senta’s proposal to the overheated imagination of an actress—until she convinces him that she really has killed a man with her silver dagger.
The Bridesmaid is one of several Rendell novels, although not the most successful, about deeply disturbed characters in a wholly realistic social setting. Other titles, such as Master of the Moor (1982) and The Killing Doll (1984), created unforgettably creepy characters, even more convincing than Senta. By contrast, the most conventional Rendell tales are the 14 Wexford books, which have inspired eight TV series in Britain. They feature police Insp. Reginald Wexford, a sensitive family man who figures out the murder puzzle with a mixture of traditional police methods and psychological insight. His normalcy is reassuring, and through his eyes Rendell observes the social and economic changes that are altering the fabric of British life. Many readers have written to the author asking if she has a special fondness for Wexford. “I’ve been asked mad questions about whether I’m in love with him,” she says. Far from it—in fact, Rendell has said that she plans to kill him off in a novel to be published posthumously.
When asked how she creates such complex yet recognizable characters, Rendell responds that, while she does not know any psychopaths or murderers, “I do know people who are not very far off that.” She says that in order to create a character, “It’s only necessary to stand beside somebody in a bus queue, or sit in a pub listening to other people’s conversations.” Added Rendell: “The writer’s imagination should be able to do the rest.”
With two books out this fall— The Bridesmaid in hard-cover and a Barbara Vine paperback called The House of Stairs—and yet another Barbara Vine work, called Gallowglass, due for release next spring, Ruth Rendell’s fertile imagination shows no sign of slowing down. That clearly is a boon for her devoted, and sometimes spooked, fans.
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