Ruth Rendell was born on February 17, 1930. Under her own name and the pseudonym Barbara Vine, Rendell wrote more than sixty police procedurals and psychological thrillers.
Rendell’s parents were both teachers. Her mother was of Swedish and Danish ancestry, and Rendell learned to speak both languages reasonably well from spending vacations visiting her mother’s family.
After high school, Rendell worked as a reporter for local newspapers. Stories differ about her aptitude for the job, though later in her life, Rendell would say that she was never a very good reporter. According to one report, she lost a job with one newspaper after filing a story for a sports banquet she hadn’t actually attended, and failing to report that the after-dinner speaker had died during his speech.
Rendell began writing fiction when she was in her mid-twenties, in large part because she simply wanted to see if she could. She wrote six novels in a variety of styles and genres, and told one interviewer that they are all now “lost and gone.” Her first submission to a publisher was a comedy of manners; the publisher rejected that book but asked to see something else.
She submitted a police procedural, and in 1964, From Doon with Death (e-book | print) became the first in Rendell’s series of novels about Inspector Wexford. Rendell’s novels usually deal with very current issues, which can make some of her early writing seem dated. For Rendell to be writing about a lesbian relationship at all in 1964 was somewhat daring, but today, that relationship reads as dysfunctional in ways that feel like old-fashioned offensive cliches.
The Wexford series continued for 23 more volumes. Romantic obsession was often the theme in the series, usually leading to murder when the target of the obsession is in some way disappointing.
From the beginning, Rendell decided not to limit herself to a single series character. She also wrote 28 stand-alone novels, beginning with To Fear a Painted Devil (e-book) in 1965. If sexual and romantic obsession are the theme of the Wexford novels, the Rendell stand-alones are often devoted to the relationship between mental instability and crime. Rendell took the psychological realism and precision of her character studies very seriously and often consulted with psychologists while writing each book.
In 1986, Rendell began publishing a third series of books under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, with A Dark-Adapted Eye (e-book | print). She never made any serious attempt to hide from the public the fact that Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine were the same person; in fact, the Vine novels are often published with “Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine” on the cover.
Rendell said that the 14 novels published under the Vine name were “softer and more feminine.” Like the Rendell stand-alones, they are psychological thrillers rather than police procedurals, but they are marked by more unreliable narrators and more complex plots; Vine’s common themes include the doubling of identities and the ways in which the past comes back to haunt characters in the present.
In 1997, Rendell was named Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She sat in the House of Lords as a member of the Labour Party, where the issues that particularly concerned her included literacy and libraries, abused children, and battered women. Her most significant legislative achievement was the introduction of the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003, which increased penalties for genital mutilation and made it a crime to take children out of the country to have such surgery performed.
Rendell died on May 2, 2015, four months after suffering a stroke. During her lifetime, Rendell’s work was frequently recognized by both the Mystery Writers of America and the (UK) Crime Writers Association. From the MWA, she received three Edgar Awards, two for the year’s best short story—“The Fallen Curtain” (e-book | print) in 1975, and “The New Girlfriend” in 1984—and one for the year’s best novel, Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye in 1987. In 1997, she received the Grand Master Award, a recognition of lifetime achievement.
Four of Rendell’s novels won the CWA’s Gold Dagger Award for the year’s best book. As Rendell, she won in 1976 for A Demon in My View (e-book | print) and in 1986 for Live Flesh (e-book | print); as Vine, she won in 1987 for A Fatal Inversion (e-book | print) and in 1991 for King Solomon’s Carpet (e-book | print). She received the Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1991; and in 2005, when the CWA gave a special “Dagger of Daggers” award for the best book ever to win the Gold Dagger, A Fatal Inversion was the winner.
Her work has frequently been adapted for film and television. The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (DVD) ran for twelve seasons on British television; the first six season were all adaptations of Wexford novels, and later seasons branched out to her other work. French directors have made films of several of her novels. Claude Chabrol adapted A Judgement in Stone (e-book | print) as La Cérémonie (DVD), and made a film version (streaming | DVD) of The Bridesmaid (e-book | print). François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (streaming | DVD) is based on the Edgar-winning story; and Claude Miller’s Alias Betty (DVD) is based on The Tree of Hands (e-book | print).
Also This Week
February 22, 1925
Edward Gorey was born. Gorey was a writer and artist best known for his macabre and vaguely ominous pen-and-ink drawings. His work is familiar to many from the PBS Mystery! series, which uses animated versions of Gorey’s drawings in its opening credit sequence. An overview of Gorey’s work can be seen in The World of Edward Gorey (print); Mark Dery’s biography is Born to Be Posthumous (e-book | print).
February 19, 1930
John Frankenheimer was born. Frankenheimer had a 40-year career as a film and television director. His career began in live television, and he won four Emmy Awards in the 1990s for directing TV-movies. His best-known theatrical films were made in the 1960s; they include The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds.
February 22, 1930
Marni Nixon was born. Nixon was a singer and actress; from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, she was Hollywood’s most popular “ghost singer.” When an actress hired to star in a musical didn’t quite have the voice for the role, Nixon was hired to do the singing for her. Nixon provided the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
February 18, 1965
At the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, William F. Buckley and James Baldwin held a televised debate on the topic “Resolved: That the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin, a leading writer of the civil rights movement, argued the affirmative; Buckley, among the leaders of the conservative movement, argued the negative. The spectators, mostly students at Cambridge University, voted overwhelmingly that Baldwin had won the debate. Nicholas Buccola tells the story of the event in The Fire Is Upon Us (e-book | e-audio | print).