Kate Hamer: ‘Why I love Ruth Rendell’
by Kate Hamer
Anticipating Ruth Rendell’s final book soon to be published – Dark Corners – it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that this is to be the final work. Rendell’s books gripped me from the very first time I came across them.
Although the Inspector Wexford novels are wonderful it’s the stand alone novels that she published under her own name and as Barbara Vine that truly hold me. I first read her work in the mid-nineties, so I was quite late in coming to her. The first one I read, perhaps because it was the first, is still my favourite. In The Bridesmaid, Philip Wardman is a naturally squeamish character – his ideal woman is a statue of the Roman goddess Flora in his mother’s garden. When he meets Senta Pelham, a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding, she seems the living embodiment of that statue. She is child-like, extremely beautiful, given to whims and extremes – even, the suggestion that they prove their love for each other by committing murder.
Yet it wasn’t the plot that stayed with me in this book. It was the detail, the writing of which reflects the obsession of Philip for this woman. Senta lives in a decaying old basement in Kilburn and I can recall the feel and smells of it still. The dirty sheets, the airless room in a long hot summer that somehow she manages to emerge from, perfumed and beautiful, every day. She is quite terrifying. There is one moment that I think really did something to my development as a writer too – I haven’t read it for several years now (I always end up giving this book away I think it’s so good) so I’m recalling from memory. It’s a tiny event – Philip comes across Senta in the street and she has dyed her hair a silvery grey and at first he doesn’t recognise her until she puts her hand out to touch his arm. The feeling of vertigo this induces in him seemed to me a kind of warning that all is not right. He ignores his instincts and plunges back into the relationship – to his cost. As a writer it was a pitch perfect lesson on things shifting in an instant – those heightened surreal moments.
I think this is where her power lies, and why when I first came across her writing it struck me so hard. There’s a psychological tension that seemed genuine and she just seemed to see crime from a different angle. Murder is borne of weakness not strength. Her characters are often hunted, obsessive, misguided and pulled by strings they are barely aware of. “Crimes are more often committed out of fear than wickedness,” Rendell once said, “people live frightened desperate lives.”
The terror is always borne out of the characters. Another novel that particularly stands out for me is Going Wrong. Good-looking Guy is from the wrong side of the tracks and is unhealthily obsessed with the upmarket Leonora but as the plot spins Rendell cleverly begins to turn who is the real bad guy. It all ends badly, of course! Nothing illustrates this character led approach better than the opening line of A Judgement in Stone – “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” That says it all.
The Tree of Hands, The Crocodile Bird, A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and so on – she was incredibly prolific – each one draws you into its own little shimmering nightmare. If you haven’t read her before just try one, you may find yourself hooked for life.