Ruth Rendell, one of the country’s best-loved crime writers, was a literary phenomenon who penned over fifty crime novels. Time after time, she delighted millions of readers with her forward-thinking, psychologically thrilling stories and series detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford.
With such a brilliant, extensive body of work, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. We asked Chris Simmons, Online Editor at CrimeSquad.com and lifelong fan of Ruth Rendell, to pick his ten favourite novels for us.
Over to Chris:
Top 10 Ruth Rendell Novels
1. From Doon With Death (1964)
Originally published in 1964, Ruth Rendell’s debut and first Wexford case was re-issued in 2014 to celebrate 50 years in the industry. Rendell herself wrote an afterword for this new edition. She wrote that even though only written in the sixties, her debut should be viewed as a piece of historical fiction as so much had changed in society since its first appearance. Having read it recently I can confirm that practices like leaving your front door unlocked and your garage open when out for the day just wouldn’t happen today. The denouement, although not as shocking today as back then, does show a glimmer of what readers could expect from Rendell’s subsequent novels. For 1964, the solution was definitely pushing the envelope and making people think about different aspects of a society that was rapidly changing back then.
2. A Demon in my View (1976)
This title was to give Ruth Rendell the first of her four CWA Gold Dagger awards. This drama is played out on a backdrop of a large house of tenants in London – a house in which you have different people with different tastes and backgrounds all living in tiny rooms under the same roof. Rendell has revisited this set up of different personalities under one roof on several occasions, but I feel here Rendell excels at creating a claustrophobic and explosive atmosphere. The main of the book centres on Arthur Johnson who deals with his ‘urges’ via the mannequin in the basement. But one day she is gone and Arthur has to channel his urges elsewhere. Here, Rendell leaves the denouement to the very last sentence, something she would become world renowned for in years to come.
3. A Judgement in Stone (1977)
The opening line to this novel is ‘Eunice Parchment killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write’. Providing the name of the killer, the victim and the motive at the start of a crime novel is a very brave way to begin. Some might wonder why you should read the book at all if you know what is going to happen – but that is what Ruth Rendell is so good at: you never know what to expect, even when you think you are in receipt of all the facts. This is a bold novel and again shows that Rendell had definitely changed up a gear and was getting herself ready for even better books to come. Time and time again this novel has been quoted by many other writers as their favourite Rendell.
4. Live Flesh (1986)
Ruth Rendell was at her writing zenith during the eighties, but it was during the late eighties that she produced some of her most innovative novels. Rendell won her second CWA Dagger with Live Flesh and in the same year released the first of her novels under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, A Dark-Adapted Eye (which went on to win the Edgar in the U.S). By this point in her career, Rendell had become a force to be reckoned with, an unstoppable energy who wrote some of the most astonishingly brilliant novels in contemporary fiction. Live Flesh is a psychological study of Victor Jenner who shot and paralysed a policeman. Victor suffers from ‘Chorea’, a condition that makes his flesh involuntarily jerk and pulsate – making it look like ‘live flesh’. Now he has been released from prison and wishes to make amends. The first is to start a friendship with the man he put in a wheelchair. But as Victor’s delusions begin to unravel, Rendell slowly reveals Victor’s mania. This is an astounding portrait of a man who lays blame for his own actions at everybody’s door except his own. A worthy winner as the crime novel of 1986.
5. The Veiled One (1988)
This title was to send Wexford in new and unexpected directions. This is the first time that Ruth Rendell had merged the assured plotting of a Wexford case with a tang of her psychological novels. A woman is found garrotted in the municipal car park. Before Wexford can get to the crux of the case, he is the subject of a bomb attack outside his own home. Here Burden steps up to the plate to complete the investigation which somehow involves Clifford Sanders and his domineering mother. This case deals with ‘transference’ – Clifford’s dependence on the righteous, if not always friendly, Mike Burden. This was the precursor of other Wexford cases where Rendell introduced a psychological aspect to one of Wexford’s cases.
6. The Bridesmaid (1989)
It is funny how some books stand out in your memory. This came out in hardback in 1989 and my sister bought it for me for my birthday. I think I remember this as it was the first time anyone had bought me a hardback book – very decadent in those days! The Bridesmaid is a much darker Ruth Rendell title and one that may make some feel uncomfortable with its bleakness. Rendell’s tale centres on Senta who has skin as white as marble. To Philip, who meets Senta when she is bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding, she looks just like Flora, the marble statue in his mother’s garden. And so starts a Gothic love story of obsession, passion and infatuation. Rendell had perfected her craft by now and with dexterity brings Philip’s whole life crashing down within the last sentence. Sublime.
7. Simisola (1994)
This is one of Ruth Rendell’s more potent novels. Simisola deals with racism (both intentional and unintentional) and the trade of slavery. Many have commented in subsequent novels that Rendell has become too preachy on the theme of political correctness. However, here I feel she strikes the right balance on a very explosive subject. Wexford’s doctor is only one of eighteen black people living in Kingsmarkham. When his daughter, Melanie goes missing, Wexford takes on the task of finding the missing girl. Then a body is discovered and a dark underbelly to Kingsmarkham is uncovered. This is one of Wexford’s more memorable cases.
8. The Keys to the Street (1996)
This book is Ruth Rendell’s love letter to London. Based in and around Regents Park, Rendell weaves a web of lies and deceit amongst those outcasts of society – and not just the homeless who inhabit the park, but others like Mary Jago who is running away from a life of submission and pain. There are gruesome murders involving this small group of people, but it is the interconnecting relationships that are fascinating here. Bean the manservant, to my mind, is one of Rendell’s most memorable characters. This book may also put you off having chicken soup ever again! And to add to its brilliance, this novel has recently been released as an audio edition, narrated by the brilliant actor Simon Russell Beale.
9. Road Rage (1997)
NIMBY: ‘Not In My Back Yard’ is a group acting against the proposed Kingsmarkham bypass which will ruin the local natural habitat. To emphasise their cause, members have kidnapped a number of people – one of whom is Wexford’s wife, Dora. As the protesters make their presence felt, a woman’s decomposed body is discovered. For any crime fiction reader, you can normally count on one hand the amounts of times you have truly been ‘surprised’ and totally shocked by the deliberate misdirection of an author. Although not one of her more famous titles, Road Rage had that wow factor when I reached the solution of Ruth Rendell’s puzzle. I remember vividly marvelling at how I had been led down the wrong path! And so, for me, it has stuck in my mind as one of her finest and memorable novels.
10. The Girl Next Door (2014)
I have chosen this recent offering from Ruth Rendell to highlight her sustainability and also her willingness to transform with the times. Rendell is the proverbial literary chameleon. Not all her novels have worked, but at least when picking up a Rendell you never know what to expect with each book. At least she hasn’t written the same novel fifty times but under a different title! I think that is why I love Rendell’s books so much. Right up until the end she was pushing the envelope and trying something new. And there is no better example than The Girl Next Door. Although there is a crime element threaded throughout the novel, this is more about age, getting older, how the passage of time appears to happen in the blink of an eye. When a tin baring the gruesome treasure of two pairs of severed hands is found to have been buried in the 1940s in a series of tunnels that were once the play den of the local children, the discovery ensnares those surviving children of the Second World War. Some moved away and some have stayed in the vicinity. As old friendships reignite over this new development, those who thought late life had left them with little excitement, now find themselves with a new lease of life after decades of familiarity. But is it the new life they want or will the old one do? Rendell brings these people together and the dynamics between them ripples out over the decades as truths are finally learnt. And all due to the discovery of this severed hands. This is another grand achievement from a writer who does not rest on her laurels.