Ruth Rendell: a master of murder and mayhem
A few months ago I went to the theatre to see the stage adaptation of Rendell’s novel, A Judgement in Stone. First published in 1977, this novel of Rendell’s has consistently popped up as another author’s favourite novel from her large body of work. Why?
It may have something to do with the opening line…
‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
Why would anyone want to continue reading a novel when the murderer, the victims and the motive given in the opening line? Ah, but this is Rendell country and always with her work, ‘the reason why’ (a title she gave her anthology of crime fiction) is the most powerful part of Rendell’s novels. Rendell said it herself many times, it wasn’t the crime she was interested in, but how people got themselves to that point in the first place. What events and state of mind had led them to kill someone else? And that is exactly what she does with A Judgement in Stone.
For many of us book lovers who don’t think twice about our ability to crack open and read a book, Rendell highlights a problem that still plagues society today. For Rendell herself, words and writing were her passion. The theme of illiteracy is not something in the past, but still troubles society in the 21st century. That is why, despite being published forty years ago, this novel is still relevant today where 1 in 6 children struggle to read. In recent months Scotland’s government has been lambasted over the rising number of children who can’t read. As Rendell perfectly points put with subtlety, this condition causes stress to those affected as they try to hide their illiteracy from others – much the same as Eunice Parchman, although thankfully the situation doesn’t end the same as A Judgement in Stone.
Rendell places Eunice in what can only be described as a personal hell. Where Eunice thought she would be happy cleaning a grand, old house, she is surrounded by books and writing and everything else that is alien to her. This is compounded by the Coverdales who in their ignorance, continue to press the written word on to her, and to Eunice it is as though the Coverdales secretly know her disability and are rubbing her nose in it. It all ends in a very explosive climax.
That is what Rendell was wonderfully good at. She took the mundane and turned it into the macabre. She took issues of the day and placed them in her novels, making them current, and a moral compass of today’s society.
Issues of the day could not still be explored within the short story, however Rendell was one of the full writers who could still deal with a theme as well as make her reader get a feel for the characters. None of the people who populate her fiction were throwaway characters. Everyone had a purpose. The same could be said for this latest collection, A Spot of Folly.
This new collection gathers up all those short stories that were missed from previous collections. This does not mean they are sub-standard, in fact I had read several of them through magazines I had collected over the years. Even in the space of ten or so pages, Rendell builds tension, delivers fractured and immoral characters and all delivered with her dry sense of humour at the strangeness of life. It also shows the wide breadth of Rendell’s ideas and her willingness to explore other sub-genres. I refer to ‘The Haunting of Shawley Rectory’ which is a marvellously atmospheric ghost story. Rendell was a huge fan of M R James and here you can feel Rendell’s homage to this great writer. She also tackles the day a nuclear bomb is detonated with devastating and heart-wrenching effect. ‘In the Time of His Prosperity’ was originally published under her Barbara Vine pseudonym and the only one she ever did under the Vine mantel. Also added, is ‘The Thief’ which was part of the Quick Reads series and a masterly tale of how lie upon lie can lead to destruction. Many of her early works deal with the vagaries of marriage. Stories such as the title story, ‘A Spot of Folly’, ‘A Drop Too Much’ (which I read in a battered copy of Winter’s Crimes Vol. 7 from 1975 and loved), ‘The Price of Joy’ and ‘Digby’s Wives’ are all shot through with Rendell’s humour as well as a clever and devious twist. Do not think these are stories collected from the cutting room floor. These gems from across the decades show how Rendell grew and developed to become one of the most important writers in crime fiction. It is her last goodbye as there will be nothing else after this. A Spot of Folly is a wonderful assortment of amuse-bouche, each one to be savoured.
What’s your favourite Ruth Rendell mystery? Let us know in the comments below – and check out ten of Chris’s favourites here!