In the mystery genre, no one can compare with the amazing British authors Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. The first of these authors created the genre* while the second one took it to incredible heights in a number of extremely well-crafted novels. Compared with the psychological and literary sophistication of Rendell’s work, Christie’s novels seem primitive. The language is simple, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plots are quite similar.
One thing, however, is shared by the two queens of the detective genre. Both Christie and Rendell know extremely well how to manipulate the gender stereotypes of their times to create a mystery their readers will not be able to solve. Take, for example, Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger and Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion**. In The Moving Finger, Christie attempts to prevent the readers from guessing the identity of the criminal by relying on their misogynistic vision of what constitutes “male” and “female” kinds of crime. This particular gender stereotype has lost its currency completely in the decades that elapsed since the novel was published. As a result, The Moving Finger is one of the lesser known of Christie’s novels. A modern-day reader will have no trouble guessing what really happened since the gender stereotype is the only thing standing between the reader and the realization of the criminal’s identity.
Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion is one of this prolific author’s best mysteries***. Vulnerability is the topic she explores in this novel in a stunningly successful way. Her characters are vulnerable to all kinds of things: sexual obsession, insanity, the desire to fit in at all costs, fear of rejection, the desire to fit in, alcoholism. The question of which one of them will prove to be the only truly resilient one remains unanswered until the stunning ending of the book. However, if it were not for our deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes, that ending would not surprise us in the least.
Hopefully, the gender stereotypes that Rendell based her novel on will pass into oblivion one day, just like the ones that informed Christie’s outdated mystery I have discussed here****.
* Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created the genre of the police procedural, not the mystery novel as such. Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes vicious fun of Sherlock Holmsian type of characters. Rendell has written quite a few police procedurals (her Inspector Wexford series), which I consider to be vastly inferior to her mystery novels.
** The novel was published under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine.
*** A Fatal Inversion, The Bridesmaid and Thirteen Steps Down are Rendell’s best novels, in my opinion. If I weren’t wary of making this list too long, I would add The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy and No Night Is Too Long to the list of her best work. If you like the mystery genre but still have not read anything by Rendell, what are you waiting for? She is absolutely the best.
**** I have tried to discuss the plots of these novels as little as possible here to avoid spoiling the pleasure of their future readers.