Or, rather, there will be only the half-dozen or so she most likely composed before publication of The Girl Next Door, her most recent the book (or, as we must get used to describing it: her last).
It upset me when I heard Rendell had suffered a stroke earlier this year, but I’d hoped she’d recover. I’d assumed she would. She seemed like the sort. But no. Sadly not.
There’s no author who occupies anywhere near as much space on my shelves, or whose books I so purely enjoy reading, as Ruth Rendell. But enjoy doesn't seem like quite the right word. It is enjoyment but slightly more so and slightly different. I started reading her books about four years ago and since then my relationship with them has developed something of a reliance dynamic, a dependency. If I ever find myself amid a dry streak, muddling my way through a run disappointing novels, a stopover in Rendellland has always been a safe restorative. I finished reading The Crocodile Bird only last week.
Her books, for one thing, are so numerous. Formidably so. As well as that impending half-dozen I’m sure there could be others which have thus far gone unread. Her first novel, From Doon with Death, was in fact her sixth, her first five receiving only rejections from the publishers. She produced over eighty books in total: Rendell novels, Inspector Wexford novels, Barbara Vine novels, short story collections, novellas, a children’s book, a travel guide, an anthology, a think tank paper. I still feel something of a Rendell novice despite her occupying a substantial bloc of my shelf-space. There are always a handful of titles in the back of my mind: I must remember to look out for Shake Hands Forever! Need an Amazon add-on item! How much is Heartstones?!
Where is Rendellland? What does it look like? It’s a landscape which encompasses dingy London bedsits, neatly ordered suburbs and bucolic Suffolk country piles; is populated with ordinary people: men and women with jobs and families, but also with destructive urges and compulsive needs. They take trips to the supermarket and spend evenings watching television. But suddenly there’s a body in the basement, or a hider in the loft. Gradually, you see grudges being nursed, blighting mental illnesses going concealed or unchecked. Class bitterness is rife, repression endemic. It’s a site of plainness, but also of aberration, where guilt and hope, obsession and ecstasy, all find their terrible locus.
It is, of course, everyday Britain in all its mundanity and all its terror.
Barbara Vine came to life in 1986. Rendell often described her alter-ego as a separate person from herself, with a ‘less cold’ personality, someone who was ‘more feminine’, who was ‘a bit more serious, a bit more searching’. Vine was the product of a desire to turn out both a greater number of novels (Rendell and Vine have never shared a publisher), and ones which differed from her creator’s. She was never as rigid in her focus on the traditional structure and plotting of mystery fiction as Rendell, allowing instead more in the way of what her blurb writers like to call 'psychology'.
The best known of Vine’s books is probably her first, A Dark-Adapted Eye, a woozy, spooky coming-of-age tale, one of muddled parentage and unutterable wartime secrets. Others, like The Blood Doctor and The Birthday Present sold well and gained critical interest for their melding of fiction with an insider’s eye on how Westminster functions (Rendell sat in the house of Lords, attending weekly). But for my money, the best book written by Rendell was her third Vine, The House of Stairs.
A cursory summing-up of the plot – woman meets up and begins an affair with woman who was been released from prison where she's done time for killing first woman's best friend – demands resolution, an explanation. The course the narrative takes weaves between a late 80’s present-day and flashbacks of the 1960’s. It’s a very Rendell take on the decade: an era of drugs, swinging and rock music but, rather than providing the characters with opportunities for the breezy liberation and self-discovery one might expect, it instead nurtures their obsessions, drawing them further down into a squalour of sex and neuroses. There’s a triangle of characters: Cosette, a plump middle-aged woman trying to get in on the free love and psychedelia; Bell Sanger, a beautiful anonymous woman, the stranger in town; and the narrator, Elizabeth, a once-struggling writer who has turned to churning out financially successful but trashy novels.
This writing about writing theme belies how The House of Stairs is something of a novelist’s novel: the book's chief strength lies in its craft, the drama of these characters’ interactions playing out with a dreamlike structural confidence – drifting from past to present, neither taking precedence, both pushing the story on. What takes place seems dictated solely by a need to delineate these characters, to follow them in what seems naturally them and fills them with life. But there’s an undeniable readableness, and also a seamlessness, the whole tragedy meted out with a hermetically controlled precision.
It’s jarring to learn the book never received an award, nor was ever shortlisted. Nor was it singled out for praise beyond that which a new Rendell invariably receives. It's become a cliché to say that crime fiction suffers from literary snobbishness. And it became a cliché to describe of Rendell's Barbara Vine books as her 'literary' or ‘psychological’ output (there is more of an overlap between Rendell and her alter-ego than a nom-de-plume would indicate). Perhaps Rendell’s logic-defying prolificness is to blame for this. It’s hard to bring a clear-eyed assessment to an author who brings out more than one book a year. Your grasp of their capabilities is constantly on the shift; their books are judged as part of a whole rather than individually. If Ruth Rendell had only ever written A Dark-Adapted Eye, The House of Stairs and, say, Asta's Book, it’s hard not to think that she’d be spoken of in purpled tones as a literary colossus. As it is, these are instead thought of simply as a crime-writer's 'good books'.
Which is a shame. Barbara Vine’s novels are by most criteria successful: they engage and excite, they are thematically weighty, they are careful of structure, sophisticated of character and rich with allusion (The Wings of a Dove is unobtrusively referenced throughout The House of Stairs), they speak of their age, and yet are aware of how historicity functions, how some subject matters are touched with a timelessness. And yet, I’m going to hazard, it’s unlikely you’d heard of The House of Stairs prior to reading this blog post. You almost definitely won’t have read it.
In 2013 I noticed Penguin Modern Classics began had begun to reissue the back catalogue of Penelope Lively and Margaret Drabble, a pair of writers whose work I very much admire and whose sensibilities are similar to those of Vine’s. In that same year there was also an interview in which Ruth Rendell declared that The Child’s Child, the most recent novel written as Barbara Vine, would also be her final published under that penname. The book itself, whilst definitely not her best, was one I enjoyed and I'd hoped, optimistically, this ‘last book’ talk was just a bit of chucked-in interview-fuel, something to help the sub-editors with their headlines. But it seems that’s not to be the case.
I’d also hoped that both novel and interview-spiel would generate some kind of reappraisal of Rendell’s Vine-fictions. However, at the time of writing, The House of Stairs and many of Vine’s other novels are out of print. The rights to all of them still lie, presumably, with their original publisher: Penguin.
Perhaps now is the time for that reappraisal to take place.