Demons In Her View: The Ruth Rendell Information Site
THE PRIME OF BARONESS RENDELLThieves love the writer Ruth Rendell - she's been burgled four times in recent years. The queen of crime tells Emily Bearn that at least it means meeting real policemen.
Emily Bearn, The Daily Telegraph, 20 June 2002
Baroness Rendell of Babergh, more popularly ennobled as the "Queen of Crime", has agreed to meet me for morning coffee at her four-storey house in Maida Vale. This is an event as unexpected as anything that might occur in her books. For it is a known fact that the baroness doesn't do coffee breaks. Most days, she doesn't do lunch either. As she explains when we enter her kitchen (which contains two sofas, a fax machine, a cat-scratcher, a char lady and a hundred or so books), her mornings conform to "a certain rhythm".
Which is to say that she rises at 6.15; she feeds her cats (she has two, who are related); she exercises on her treadmill (which is in the bathroom); she eats some fruit (she isn't interested in food, unless it's in "a very good restaurant", such as Ranieri's in Rome where she likes the stracciatella); she attends her Pilates class; then she sits down at one or other of her four computers and writes a book. In the afternoon, she eats some more fruit ("possibly topped with muesli") then heads off for the House of Lords (she was made a Labour peer in 1997), walking some of the way and completing the journey by tube.
Ruth Rendell is disarmingly, perhaps pathologically self-disciplined. You can detect it in lots of things - in her silver-grey hair, of which there is not a strand out of place; in her flawless skin (she doesn't smoke but occasionally has a glass of wine, "sometimes two"); and in her figure, which, at the age of 72, looks like that of a 21-year-old. ("It might sound like showing off," she says, curling herself on the edge of a cavernous sofa, "but I have never had an ache or a pain.")
Her speech also appears strictly governed. Her accent flirts between Essex, where she grew up, and the wine and cheese parties which she grew into. But her concentration is relentless. She pauses to think, but never to "um" or "err", and for the hour we are together her eyes leave mine only once, when she utters a brief aside to a cat. ("Are you being a monster?")
But the most enduring legacy of Ruth Rendell's self-discipline will be her work. She has published 50 or so books ("I've lost track"), all of which (with the possible exception of Ruth Rendell's Suffolk, a rare attempt at non-fiction) have been best-sellers. The "psychological thrillers" are published under her pseudonym, Barbara Vine; the detective stories are published under her own name, and either way they are being disgorged at a rate of about two a year. The latest, The Blood Doctor, is published this weekend.
She says she never gets writer's block, because she "just writes". "I get a lot of letters from people," she says. "They say, 'I want to be a writer. What should I do?' I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it."
Rendell has got on with it faster than most. The daughter of two teachers, she started after leaving school when she joined a local newspaper. It was not a success. "I was no good at journalism," she says. "I didn't enjoy it and I knew I shouldn't go on." She quit at 20, when she married a fellow journalist, Don Rendell, with whom she had a son. (The couple divorced in 1975 and remarried two years later.)
She decided to write fiction and, after her first six novels were rejected, From Doon With Death was finally published in 1964 and marked the birth of Inspector Wexford: 52 years old, the very prototype of an actor playing a top-brass policeman. "I tried to make him as attractive to women as possible," she says. "I didn't want people getting bored of him too quickly." (Four decades on, many thousands still aren't.) She says she was "stunned" when the book was accepted, and had no difficulties providing her publishers with the next one. "A lot of people have a terrible struggle trying to write a second book," she says. "That was never a problem for me because by the time my first novel was published I'd already written the next one."
Rendell's name is indelibly lodged on the landscape of middle-England, but her work also has a passionate following among European film directors. Both Pedro Almodovar and Claude Chabrol have made fine films from her novels - Live Flesh and La Ceremonie - and this week Chabrol's compatriot Claude Miller continued the tradition with Betty Fisher and Other Stories, an adaptation of Rendell's 1984 novel, The Tree of Hands.
Rendell, by and large, is happy with the result. "I think he's done it very well, she says. "The foreign films of my books are always the best. British film makers have this infuriating habit of putting car chases into everything."
In this country Rendell's books have spawned any number of dramatisations, most of which she has found disappointing. She described a 1986 version of A Judgement in Stone, removed from Suffolk to Toronto and starring Rita Tushingham, as "perhaps the worst film I've ever seen".
Rendell's books involve nasty things like murders and wife-beating, but - unlike some of the film versions - she does not dwell on the gorier details. "I'm more interested in the motivation than the crime itself," she says. "I am fascinated by what makes people do dreadful things, not by how they do them." Her fascination has limits. She has invented one of Britain's most famous detectives, but has "never met a policeman, except when my house has been burgled." Nor has she interviewed criminals: "Quite unnecessary".
As a writer, she feels she has improved with age. "I look back at some of the early books and think they should have been better, which is a pity." She now thinks she is "not bad". She says she does not have role models, but has frequently expressed her scorn for Agatha Christie and her admiration for P D James. She once "slightly emulated" Patricia Highsmith, but now she doesn't emulate anyone. "I think you get to a point where you don't get much better," she says. "I don't like to think I've plateaued but I don't think I'm going to change dramatically."
Perhaps with that in mind, Rendell allows herself the odd holiday. The day before we meet she flew in from Colorado where she was visiting her son, who works there as a social worker. Like his mother, he is an only child, something Rendell believes has "advantages and disadvantages". She says she is feeling jet lagged, but you wouldn't guess it. She is dressed in a black shirt; a black skirt; black shoes and a black necklace and she looks immaculate. But she was so tired this morning she got up at 7.50am ("unheard of") and gave the treadmill a miss. "I'm not a health obsessive," she says. "I don't think it's the end of the world if I miss a day's exercise."
Following the death of her husband three years ago she lives alone but says she does not fear crime. "I am not fearful, but that might sound like showing off again," she says, pulling herself upright in the sofa. "When my flat in Notting Hill was burgled I didn't get too upset. I just put everything back in place and hoped they didn't come back." (They did. Four times in all.)
Rendell seldom stays in the same place for long. Since she started writing 39 years ago, she has moved house 18 times, notching up addresses in Hampstead, Highgate, Chelsea, Kensington, Leyton, Kilburn, Notting Hill and Cricklewood, to name but a few. "I've always enjoyed a move," she says. "I love the first night somewhere new."
She used to have a farmhouse in Suffolk, and a beach house in Aldeburgh, but has now confined herself to another, smaller house in Suffolk and her house in Maida Vale, in which she has lived for four years.
She describes herself as "compulsively tidy" and it shows. The sitting room, through which you descend into the kitchen, is swathed in spotless cream carpets and filled with antiquated-looking furniture that gleams and chintzy pink sofas that look unblemished by human contact. And yet, in its very orderliness, it is unmistakably Rendell. "I do feel quite settled here," she says. "I think perhaps it was rather dreadful having three houses. Two is more realistic."
For a woman who's spent most of her life making things up, Ruth Rendell is more realistic than you might expect. "One of the nice things about writing fiction is that you get a sense of reality," she says. "You cease to daydream. You cease to fantasise. It's quite a relief really."