Obituary: Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE, author

Born: South Woodford, Essex, 17 February 1930; Died: London, 2 May 2015, aged 85

Ruth Rendell: Crime writer whose talents were so broad she needed two brands to express them. Picture: Getty
Ruth Rendell: Crime writer whose talents were so broad she needed two brands to express them. Picture: Getty

Ruth Rendell was one of the late 20th century’s most prolific and successful writers of crime fiction, having published around 80 novels, novellas and short story collections since her debut, From Doon With Death, in 1964. This book was also the first appearance of her most enduring character, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, who afforded her work a new degree of visibility when primetime ITV series The Ruth Rendell Mysteries brought his cases to life between 1987 and 2000, with George Baker in the role of Wexford.

Publishing two dozen Wexford novels over the course of five decades, Rendell also wrote standalone detective stories and a number of books from 1986 onwards under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which were similar in theme, but darker in tone, to her usual works. Politically active and a significant donor to the Labour Party, she was made a CBE in 1996 and a Labour peer in 1997, sitting in the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, while her support for charity was as prolific as her writing. A 2002 interview with the Guardian stated that she gave around £100,000 a year to various charitable causes she supported.

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Rendell was born in South Woodford (then part of Essex, now in North London) in 1930 as Ruth Barbara Grasemann, the daughter of two teachers, with a mixed English (through her ­father, Arthur), Swedish and Danish (both through her mother, Ebba) heritage, and an ability to speak all three languages. An only child, she was raised in East London and evacuated with her mother to the Cotswolds during the Second World War.

While she remained fiercely guarded about certain areas of her private life in later interviews, it is known that her childhood involved a certain degree of unhappiness, partly due to her parents’ poor relationship and also her mother’s premature death from multiple sclerosis when Rendell was a child. She has partly attributed her love of language and particularly good grammar to Ebba, who learned perfect English having arrived in the country without a word of the language at an inter-war time when Germanic-sounding accents were enough to earn mistrust and hate.

As a young woman, however, Rendell was closest to her ­Thomas Hardy-loving father, and Wexford’s dependable sense of fairness and justice has been attributed to his example as well as Rendell’s own opinions. After leaving the County High School for Girls in Loughton, Essex, her first job was as a local news reporter on the Chigwell Times, where she met her husband Don Rendell, who worked on the Stratford Express. The couple married when she was 20 and their only son Simon was born in 1953, with the poor conditions they experienced living in the substandard housing of East London at the time lending the future author a valuable instruction in the lives of the working poor.

Even in this early job, Rendell’s compulsion to write creatively was evident, often to her disadvantage. She once wrote a news story about a house she had visited and invented a ghost which was supposed to have occupied the place, prompting a complaint from the home’s owners to her newspaper on the basis that she had devalued their property. Her career in journalism, meanwhile, came to an end when she filed a report about a local tennis club meeting she had not attended which omitted the fact that the after-dinner speaker had died while addressing the audience.

After this, Rendell stayed at home to look after Simon and the house, all the while writing her own novels in secret with an ever more fierce dedication. Having completed a number of manuscripts, the publication of From Doon With Death in 1964 (the publisher bought her manuscript for £75) both vindicated her choice and crystallised her ambition to write for a living. Set in a quiet Suffolk market town, the novel played upon the then-shocking reveal that the victim had taken an extra-marital lover, a twist which would sum up much of her work throughout her life.

At once, Rendell bridged the gap between traditionalism and mould-breaking by couching her characters and settings in the conservative landscape of small-town English life, while the subject matter which wove its way into her stories displayed a keen interest in hot-button social issues. Throughout her career, her works addressed such issues as domestic violence, homosexuality, feminism, race relations and the environment.

Interviewed in 1981 by The Armchair Detective, Rendell said she was more interested in researching psychology than criminology in relation to her books, and suggested that what she wrote was rooted in human relationships more than anything else. “Family relationships are important to me,” she said. “While I have no siblings, I still have a very large family. I think relationships are terribly important and one should know who one is.”

Speaking on Radio 4 a decade later, Rendell told her interviewer: “I am curious about people. I want to know their secrets… because I am the last person to whom I would tell a secret, people would tell me their secrets.”

Rendell was honoured throughout her career by the Crime Writers’ Association (winning four Gold Daggers for the crime novel of the year and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement), Mystery Writers of America (three Edgar Awards for book of the year and the Grand Master Award) and with the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 1990. A Guilty Thing Surprised was longlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010. Other adaptations of her work, meanwhile, included Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed 1997 film Live Flesh, based on Rendall’s 1986 book of the same name.

Her peerage also led her to a second career in later life which she treated seriously as a vehicle for change, introducing the bill that became the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 into the Lords, supporting the legalisation of assisted suicide and signing a letter alongside 200 other public figures which stated her opposition to Scottish Independence. She sat across the House from her friend and fellow crime-writing peer, the late PD James, and their works separately drew interesting comparisons on whether the individual or the society around them was to blame for their crimes.

Of her beliefs, which saw her support campaigns including CND in the 1980s, Rendell told the Guardian, “I’m a very bad Christian, but I am a Christian. I think that all women, unless they are absolutely asleep, must be feminists up to a point. And socialist, well yes, of course, it’s not a fashionable word but I am very much of the Left.” Of her own death, she told the Independent in 2013 that she would prefer to die while writing, and has spoken of killing off Wexford – who retired in 2009 – posthumously. His final book No Man’s Nightingale was published in 2013, while Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is due later this year.

Ruth Rendell died in London at the age of 85, having suffered a serious stroke in January this year. She remained married to Don until his death in 1999, barring a divorce and remarriage separated by two years in the mid-1970s, the reason for which she never revealed.

She is survived by her son Simon, a social worker, who now lives in Colorado, USA, and his two adult sons.