Ruth Rendell, who died recently at the age of 85, was one of the greatest crime writers of her generation, along with the late P.D. James. Rendell's first novel was published in 1964, and her final book will be released this fall. In a career spanning half a century, she published prolifically, and for a lesser writer that could mean the publication of more than a few sub-standard works.
Not so Rendell. Her productivity was truly amazing, but even more so, in some respects, is the high quality she sustained throughout her career. Yes, there are some "lesser" Rendells, but they are far outnumbered by the first-rate ones.
She is perhaps best known for the long-running series of books featuring policeman Reginald Wexford. He debuted in From Doon with Death in 1964 and appeared in 23 more books, most recently No Man's Nightingale (2013). There are many fine novels in the series. Simisola is one of my favorites. It is stunningly good, I think, and there is a gut-wrencher in the last line of the book. Hard to pull off, but Rendell did it well.
In addition to the Wexford books, there were the "other" Rendells -- the stand-alone crime novels that many of her fans often found too disturbing to read. One of them, A Judgment in Stone (1977), is high on my list of best crime novels of the twentieth century. It has a memorably chilling first line: Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. You know the ending when you start the book, yet the suspense of getting there is almost unbearable. Rendell writes brilliantly about the devastating effects of illiteracy and the link to crime.
In 1986 Rendell adopted a pseudonym, Barbara Vine, though it was never a secret. The first Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, given by the Crime Writers Association in the UK. It's another tour-de-force, and I think it's a must read for anyone who wants to be well-read in the genre. The follow-up, A Fatal Inversion, is another stunner. One of my favorite Vines -- besides these two -- is The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, a fascinating dissection of character.
Rendell was fascinated by abnormal psychology, and she turned that fascination into a legacy of brilliant, often disturbing, crime novels. At heart, I think she was an anatomist, in the way that she could dissect character and get at the core of what made her people tick. You could never mistake a book by Ruth Rendell for that of any other writer. She was truly one-of-a-kind, and we as readers are the richer for her amazing body of work.