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Murder she writes at your library

Patrick McWilliams
special to the daily

In a recent book of photos about literary London (“Imagined London”) Ruth Rendell – the queen of British mystery and thriller writers – appears in her domestic stateliness, smiling sweetly while wielding a meat cleaver. Classic Rendell.

Now a life peer of the House of Lords, Rendell began her successful life of publishing police procedurals (always starring Chief Inspector Wexler) and her collection of psychological thrillers (also using the nom de plume, Barbara Vine) in the 1970s. Now a woman of an advanced but thoroughly sharp-witted age, she is still producing entertaining novels at a rate of two or even three per year. By now she has published something like 65 works of fiction and two more of nonfiction. Many such prolific authors do not, in fact, do all of their own writing. Ruth Rendell does.

The Inspector Wexford mysteries are all set in a Suffolk suburb where a surprising number of murders occur – all far more interestingly complicated than simple assaults on the street, wife slaughter or gang killings. Interspersed with the murders and Inspector Wexford’s skillful detection are details of the good detective’s marriage and children – daughters of something less than completely satisfactory choices and behavior. My favorites are not really the police procedurals – a genre that Alfred Hitchcock abhorred.

But Rendell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James and several other British writers succeed in prose while Hitchcock, perhaps wisely, avoided the police when making films. The best of the Inspector Wexford novels combine Rendell’s elegant sentences with a firm grasp of plot. Police procedurals and murder mysteries in particular are – or so I’ve read somewhere – the most difficult challenges to the creators of plot. Rendell is an expert in arranging thoroughly believable coincidences (the stuff, after all, of plots) and in creating murderers who offer some interesting psychological quirks. She knows her murderers’ psyches. One of her nonfiction works is entitled “The Reason Why: An Anthology of the Murderous Mind.”

Rendell’s skills in characterization are great, and her talent for plot carries over brilliantly into her psychological thrillers – my favorites. In “The Bridesmaid,” Rendell builds a series of seemingly inconsequential choices and actions into a climax that caused me at least a shock. She also has novels, such as “Adam and Eve” and “Pinch Me,” which feature sympathetic characters who, nonetheless, create havoc, a trick she learned perhaps from Graham Greene. Yet she also has a deft touch with obsessed murderers who, at the same time, have some agreeable, if not charming, opinions and quirks.

I haven’t come close to reading all of Rendell’s books, nor do the Summit County libraries have all she has written. But almost all of her publications are available, one way or another, and I intend to spend my old age being mystified by her mysteries and mildly horrified by her thrillers – all of which are written in a prose that invites the same admiration as that of Britain’s best.

To start your own pleasurable readings, begin with “The Bridesmaid” or “A Sight for Sore Eyes” – both thrillers. Or, if mysteries are more your thing, you might think about reading her more or less chronological accounts of Inspector Wexford’s sleuthings backwards, beginning with her latest, “The Monster in the Box.”


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