Life is hard for us, American-based fans of the incomparable mystery author Ruth Rendell. Every time her new book comes out, we either have to sit around waiting for over 18 months for an American edition to come out, or hunt around for a copy someone might have brought from Great Britain and might be willing to sell. Some people, of course, are lucky enough to have close friends in Great Britain and can pester them for a copy of Rendell’s new book. I have not been blessed in this department, so I have to cast my lot with used books sites.
Ruth Rendell is admirable on several accounts. As an auto-didact, she has a range of vocabulary and the breadth of erudition that many of her Oxford-educated peers do not possess. She is 80 years old, but this prolific writer keeps releasing new books on a regular basis. The great changes that have taken place in our Western societies over the last 50 years and the incapacity of many people to adapt to said changes form one of Rendell’s favorite topics. Still, this writer who was born in 1930 has an astonishing understanding of today’s realities. In my favorite novel by Rendell ever, 13 Steps Down, she created a memorable character of Gwendolen Chawcer, an elderly bookish spinster who is terrified of “new-fangled” (her favorite word) devices such as computers and microwaves. Even though Rendell understands how terrifying modern reality can be to older people, she seems to have a perfect grasp of today’s modes of existence.
Her most recent novel* Tigerlily’s Orchids (Import Edition) Hardback is not Ruth Rendell’s best work but it’s still a joy to read. The book is light on mystery. You pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen, and there is little (if any) suspense. The strength of Tigerlily’s Orchids (as well as of this writer’s entire corpus of work) lies in Rendell’s gift of creating delightfully quirky characters who are weird in most endearing ways. I am usually horrible with characters’ names (which, believe me, is a huge problem for a literary critic.) You can see me engrossed in a book and ask me what the names of the protagonists are, and more often than not I will not be able to say. Ruth Rendell, however, is so good at creating memorable characters that even my unreliable memory always retains their names.
What I like the most about Rendell’s books is her skill in taking any minor quirk in a character’s personality and demonstrate how this touch of strangeness can gradually develop into full blown insanity, taking this character along some very dangerous paths. I might be projecting here, but I believe that everybody has this little place within them that houses some uncanny oddity, some little spot of the bizarre, some minor obsession. We keep it under control – for the most part – but it’s very pleasurable to imagine it unleashed, they way it is in Rendell’s books. I have read interviews with Ruth Rendell and I have no idea where this proper and quite sheltered older lady** found her deep knowledge of the darker side of human psyche. Still, nobody writing today describes a gradual slippage into insanity better than Rendell.
If there is a Rendell fan among my readers, please make yourself known. I have tried foisting Rendell’s books on everybody around me but, somehow, I can’t find a true lover of Rendell’s books among people I know.
* Rendell’s The Vault is scheduled to appear in 2011 to the delight of her fans all over the world.
** Rendell is also a very kind human being. When I was a teenager in Ukraine, I wrote her a letter to express my admiration of her novels, and she responded with a long letter and a gift of books. It was next to impossible to find new Enlgish-language books in my country at that time, so this gift was priceless to me.