Prolific crime novelist and Labour peer

Ruth Rendell: February 17th, 1930 – May 2nd, 2015

 

Ruth Rendell, Lady Rendell of Babergh, who has died aged 85, wrote more than 50 crime novels and several collections of short stories starting out in 1964, when her country detective, Insp Reg Wexford, first stepped before the reading public in From Doon with Death.

Many of her books were adapted for television or made into feature films; the Wexford books in particular were an enormous television success, with the actor George Baker playing Wexford as a gruff but kind rural policeman, solving crime in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham.

It has been said of Rendell that she suddenly changed her style when, in the 1980s, she started writing under the name Barbara Vine, but the truth is that from the beginning, even in the Wexford tales, she concentrated more on character and psychology than old-fashioned police procedure.

She wrote 24 Wexford books and produced an equal number of thrillers under the name Rendell. Her first novel as Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe award. The next year, a second Barbara Vine, A Fatal Inversion, won her the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger.

The distinguishing mark of the Barbara Vine stories was their attempt to enter the heads of psychopathic killers and rapists. This was to make them an uncomfortable read for fans of Wexford, who were used to the kindly country policeman standing between them and an unsafe world. Warring camps Because of this, Rendell’s fans fell into two rather warring camps, those who liked the Wexford stories and those who felt that Barbara Vine was a great “real” novelist breaking new ground. The books were all, however, bestsellers.

Although Rendell did not like the title often bestowed on her – queen of crime – calling it snide and sexist, she did not go along with the many reviewers, among them AN Wilson and PD James, who called her a great novelist.

“Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer,” she said. “I don’t mind because I do the very best that I can and thousands, millions of people enjoy my books.”

A very private person, who could appear unco-operative or obstructive to interviewers. Nevertheless, she announced on being made a life peer in 1997 that she was going to take an active part in politics. That year she had given £10,000 to the Labour Party election campaign.

In the House and outside she remained on friendly terms with her great crime-writing contemporary the late Baroness James (PD James), who sat as a Conservative.

Daughter of Ebba (née Krause) and Arthur Grasemann, she was born in South Woodford and grew up in suburban east London, in Leyton.

Her mother, who had been born in Sweden and lived in Denmark until she was 12, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Ruth, an only child, was brought up in part by a housekeeper to whom, she said, she was much closer than she was to her mother.

Her father she described as “endlessly patient, endlessly loving, and endlessly kind”. She put a lot of him into the character Reg Wexford.

On leaving school she became a journalist but resigned from her newspaper after she skipped the annual meeting of a local tennis club and wrote the story up from the chairman’s pre-prepared speech. When her report appeared in print she learned that the chairman had dropped dead in the middle of his speech. Remarried Aged 20 she married Don Rendell, a reporter she met at an inquest. In 1975 she divorced him, but later remarried him. Asked why, she said that after they separated, she found she couldn’t live without him, because he was the sort of man with whom you could go on a 200-mile car trip and never have to say a word.

Frequently interviewed, she was never a willing subject. Asked once too often what she would have been if she hadn’t become a novelist, she said a country and western singer. Asked what drove her to write she replied: “I like to sit at a desk and type.”

Rendell was extraordinarily generous. She gave a large amount of money away. She was vice-president of the housing charity Shelter and raised money for Little Hearts Matter, which helps children with heart disease. She said she knew what it was like to have no money, adding: “I don’t think it’s good for people to be born into money and not know what it is never to have it.”

Her husband died in 1999. She is survived by her son, Simon.