Ruth Rendell, Suffolk’s Queen of Crime, is dead
Suffolk has lost both its Queens of Crime in about six months. PD James, who had come to love Southwold as a child and later made a home there, died in November. Now her friend Ruth Rendell is gone. She died this morning, after a stroke on January 7 had left her critically ill.
Ruth Rendell, 85, wrote more than 60 novels that sold milions - some under her own name and others as Barbara Vine (her middle name and the maiden name of her great-grandmother).
Some reflected her love and knowledge of Suffolk, the county she adopted.
Sudbury features in Gallowglass, for instance, and Bury St Edmunds in The Brimstone Wedding. A Fatal Inversion includes Polstead and Nayland, while Orford and Aldeburgh are found in No Night is Too Long.
Her later years were anchored to London, but Suffolk was in her soul. When the Labour-supporting socialist became a life peer in the House of Lords in 1997, the title she chose was Baroness Rendell of Babergh - acknowledging the district close to her heart.
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Rendell lived for a long time in an old farmhouse at Polstead, near Stoke-by-Nayland. Nussteads was a timber-framed and plastered building on the Boxford road that dated from the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Then there was The Old Forge at Groton, further towards Sudbury.
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There’s a lovely story about how she and husband Don were living in the farmhouse when hurricane-force winds struck in 1987. They had a large wood, which suffered badly.
The couple saved as much of the timber as they could, and had a bed built from ash. Craftsman Donald Simpson also used the wood to make a bed for PD James - Ruth’s firm friend for 40-odd years, despite the pair being on opposite sides of the political divide.
Ruth Rendell was a long-serving patron of The Suffolk Craft Society, a body created in 1970 to promote the importance of crafts and support the people who make them.
It was only in the early autumn of 2013 that the novelist’s home at Groton - the four-bedroomed Old Forge in Church Street - went on the market with a guide price of £690,000.
She said then that she’d owned it for almost exactly a decade, with the outlook from the back of the house the factor that helped her decide to buy it: “a panorama over the fields and hills, a house dotted here and there, but mostly beautiful green spaces, winding lanes and great trees”.
At the house, thought to be about 150 years old and standing in an acre or so, the forge had been converted into a reception room and gym.
The writer had also once lived in Aldeburgh, in a property called Edinburgh House, and 1994’s No Night is Too Long was set partly in the house next door: called The Tall House in the book.
A strong sense of place is a trademark of a Rendell tale, so it wasn’t surprising that Ruth Rendell’s Suffolk was published more than 20 years ago. It featured photographs by Paul Bowden and text by the novelist about her favourite places in the county.
It was a love she was only too keen to share. Author Jeanette Winterson spent time in Suffolk in the 1980s, thanks to Rendell. She met Ruth because they shared an agent. Rendell needed a house-sitter for six weeks, so Winterson obliged, and wrote her book The Passion.
Rendell is best known for her Inspector Wexford detective series. The intelligent and thoroughly decent Reginald Wexford appeared in her 1964 debut novel, From Doon With Death, followed by another 23 more stories. He made the leap to TV, too - played by George Baker.
“He’s very much me,” she told one interviewer when talking about her best-known character. “He doesn’t look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that’s me.”
The chief inspector did retire from the force, but appeared in further stories, the last one No Man’s Nightingale in 2013.
Her 14 novels written as Barbara Vine are more disturbing - taut psychological thrillers that began with A Dark-Adapted Eye in 1986 and ended in 2012 with The Child’s Child. A story of the betrayal that drives apart a brother and sister, it explores issues such as illegitimacy and homosexuality.
There was a standalone novel last summer. The Girl Next Door involved an investigation into a historic crime of passion after the bones of two severed hands are found in a box.
The author is said to have recently finished another book for publisher Hutchinson, due out in the autumn.
Her skills as a storyteller and creator of atmosphere earned a clutch of awards, including three of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Daggers in the 1970s and 1980s. Fellow author Ian Rankin once called her “probably the greatest living crime writer”, and the CWA gave her the Cartier Diamond Dagger for “sustained excellence in crime writing”.
The nation, meanwhile, presented her with a CBE in 1996.
An only child, Ruth Rendell was born in South Woodford, Essex, in February, 1930. Although she was loathe to speak much about her childhood, she did say a couple of years ago that teacher parents Ebba (her mother a Swede who grew up in Denmark) and Arthur were temperamentally unsuited and had a disastrous marriage. It did not help that her mother began to suffer from what we’d now know was multiple sclerosis.
Ruth married at 20. She’d met husband-to-be Don Rendell, a fellow journalist, when she was on the Chigwell Times. Early married life was spent in a small cottage in Leyton she didn’t care for at all.
Famously, Rendell later handed in her notice, or was sacked, after writing a report about a tennis club dinner without actually going along... missing the crucial fact that the after-dinner speaker died in the middle of his talk.
The couple’s only child, Simon, was born in 1953. He became a a psychiatric social worker, lived in America, and had sons of his own.
Rendell began writing fiction in her 20s - short stories first (which she said weren’t up to much) and then books.
From Doon with Death was an experiment, to see if she could produce a detective story. Publisher John Long gave a £75 advance. The following year, an American publisher offered 15 times that.
Ruth and Don aroused curiosity when they divorced in 1975, only to get back together and remarry a couple of years later. It’s not something she ever wanted to explain, saying it was private.
Don died in 1999 of prostate cancer, after a long illness. His widow said she’d urged him to go to the doctor earlier, but he hadn’t. It might have won him some more time if he had.
Even a couple of years ago Rendell was still rising at 6am, working out and then writing for about four hours most mornings. The afternoons would often take her to the House of Lords - a 40-minute walk took her half way, before she caught the Tube. She campaigned long about issues such as female genital mutilation, helping to introduce a law stopping girls being sent abroad for the procedure.
Interviewers spoke about her sense of discipline and order, with objects neat and tidy and her life regimented, too. She had a fairly dry way of talking and didn’t waste words. The silences, which came when she decided she’d said what she wanted to say, could be unnerving. She invariably ate the same food for lunch every day: bread and cheese, fruit and salad.
Exercise was important. There was talk of her working out at home on a cross-trainer and a Pilates machine, and a Pilates class once or twice a week. Walking was a passion. Rendell often walked several miles a day. As with Charles Dickens, it offered valuable space in which to think about stories.
About 18 months ago, journalist Laura Barnett asked her how she would like to be remembered. The author told her: “I don’t really care. Nobody will go on being remembered for a very long time, unless you’re Shakespeare or Milton.
“I have no hope of being remembered at all.”
Suffolk library closure ideas ‘shocking’
Four years ago, Ruth Rendell was one of the well-known novelists to protest when Suffolk County Council mooted the closure of two thirds of its libraries.
The proposal to shut 29 branches, unless volunteers came forward to run them, was described as shocking.
The baroness urged locals to fight it. “I can’t say how strongly I feel about this; what a shocking thing it is,” she said.
“I’m not surprised by the closures, just the number of closures. I don’t know what they think they’re doing. How can they do this to libraries and do this to books? It’s very bad and sad and awful.”
She added: “Naturally I don’t like the Government – I’m a Labour peer – but the idea of closing 29 libraries...
“There are all kinds of things going on at libraries. They might say people don’t read books like they used to, and that may be true, but it is a great shame. A lot of people can’t afford to buy books, particularly older people who have been reading all their lives.”
She continued: “I first went into a public library when I was seven and it was lovely; it was my entrance into books. The thing is, if they are closed they will never open again.”
Fortunately, the eventual outcome was much better than many feared, with volunteers rallying to the cause.
Less than a year ago, though, the author was actually gloomy about the general prospects of reading itself. She lamented it had become a “specialist activity” enjoyed regularly by only a minority of Britons.
The novelist explained how the realisation that reading for pleasure was no longer an everyday pastime for most people “strikes terror” into her heart. One could see the decline of literature in national life, she warned.