Archive for Crime Fiction

R.I.P. Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)

Posted in Literature with tags , , on May 5, 2015 by telescoper

I was saddened at the weekend to hear of the death at the age 85 of novelist Ruth Rendell; she had suffered a stroke in January this year and passed away on 2nd May 2015.

Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell, photographed by Felix Clay.

Ruth Rendell is often compared and contrasted with the other great crime writer P.D. James, who died in November last year; for an appreciation of her see here. They certainly both managed to transcend the narrow confines of the detective story to produce work that stands as literature in its own right, but other than that they were very different in style and approach. Ruth Rendell wrote more than 60 novels in her career, so was far more prolific than P.D. James. Although some were written in the classic mode of a detective story, she also wrote many books that were more psychological thriller than whodunnit. Like P.D. James and other writers of detective stories Ruth Rendell’s work in that genre usually featured the same fictional detective, in her case Chief Inspector Wexford; these were made into a successfull series of television adaptations, with George Baker as Wexford.

But she also wrote books that departed very far from the conventional structure of a mystery novel, some of them written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. P.D. James was definitely “old school” in the classic tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers, whereas Ruth Rendell had a more modern voice and greater interest in contemporary social issues. It’s not surprising that Rendell was politically to the left of P.D. James, either; she was made a Labour peer in 1997.

Ruth Rendell certainly had a flair for ingenious plot twists, and understood how to pace a story to make it compulsive reading. But many crime writers can do that. What was special about Ruth Rendell was that she created characters that were not only credible but also genuinely fascinating – even the people who do terrible things are portrayed as real people, not caricatures. She realised that crime fiction could hold up a mirror to society in a particularly effective way, and her novels also tackled politically sensitive issues such as immigration and the environment.

I have probably only read about 60% of the books Ruth Rendell wrote in her long career as an author, but that’s quite still a few and not one single book among them was of poor quality. She was a writer who found a distinctive voice and used it over and over again to say interesting things through her chosen medium. She’s one of the few crime novelists whose books I have regularly read all the way through in a single sitting and for many years has been my favoured author of that last-minute purchase to read on a plane.

Rest in peace, Ruth Rendell (1930-2015).

Rest in Peace, P.D. James

Posted in Literature with tags , , on November 28, 2014 by telescoper

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death, at the age of 94, of the great crime novelist P.D. James so decided to take a few minutes out of my lunch break to post this little tribute. I’ve long been a fan of detective fiction in general but there was something very special about the writing of P.D. James; the initials stand for Phyllis Dorothy, by the way. I think she was one of the few crime novelists who managed to transcend the whodunnit genre  to produce work of authentic literary merit in its own right; Ruth Rendell is the only other that springs to mind among contemporary writers of detective fiction. Her style was as polished and the subject matter as meticulously researched was you would expect from a direct descendant of Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading exponents of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction.

P.D. James is most famous for her series of fourteen books featuring the poetry-loving detective Adam Dalgleish, the first of which, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. That series contained many superb stories, such as Shroud for a Nightingale, Devices and Desires, and Death of an Expert Witness. She also wrote two novels about the female private detective Cordelia Gray, including An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. More recently she wrote a murder mystery  sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes to Pemberley. I bought this last year, but somehow never got around to reading it but will definitely do so now, as I now know it her last; I have read all her other books.

As well as numerous awards for her writing, P.D. James was honoured by the Establishment with an OBE in 1983 and a Life Peerage in 1999. It’s says most however that so many other authors, even those whose style is markedly different have offered heartfelt tributes to her (including these in the Guardian). The main reason why she was held in such high regard by fellow authors was simply that she was bloody good at being a writer; she cared about her craft and was proud of what she did.

There’s something distinctively English about the detective novels of P.D. James, although that something is a something that clearly tends to polarize people. Some find her approach a bit too detached and genteel, some find it, “cosy”, snobbish and class-ridden, and some think that she was just an anachronism, harking back too much to the era of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Yet others can’t understand the attraction of the genre at all. People are welcome to their opinions of course, but I think that the best detective fiction is not just about setting a puzzle for the reader to solve, but also posing questions about the nature of a society in which such crimes can happen. Far from being “cosy”, great crime writing actually unsettles bourgeois attitudes. The solution of the mystery may offer us a form of comfort, but the questions exposed by the investigation do not go away. As Val McDermid
wrote in the Guardian
, “People who know no better sometimes describe her work as cosy. If a scalpel is cosy, then so was Phyllis”.

Rest in Peace, P.D. James (1920-2014).

Gremlins in the Vault

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on February 24, 2013 by telescoper

Here I am, on campus again (this time on a Sunday). Just going to finish off some urgent things in advance of a busy week next week: tomorrow in London for the first meeting of the 2013 Astronomy Grants Panel; Tuesday all day interviewing for a new faculty position in Physics, Wednesday preparing the University’s equivalent of the 5-year plan; most of Thursday interviewing prospective PhD students; continued, p. 94….

Anyway, I thought I’d warm up my typing fingers this afternoon with a quick post that’s got nothing to do with my job and will probably generate negligible interest among my readers, but the subject got on my mind so here goes anyway. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m a bit of a fan of detective stories. I haven’t blogged much about Crime Fiction per se but I have referred to various examples in the course of other posts. Having recently given up entirely on television and done a bit more travelling on buses and trains, I’ve had a bit more time to read so have started to clear the sizable backlog of books I’ve bought but never actually opened.

All of which brings me to The Vault by Ruth Rendell. This is the 24th book to feature her detective Inspector Wexford, although Wexford, having retired,  is no longer an Inspector in this book. The plot of The Vault revolves around the discovery of four bodies (two male, and two female) in a coal hole belonging to a posh house in St John’s Wood. Wexford is drawn into the subsequent investigation by a friend of his who is still a policeman and thereafter the story interweaves two different genres (the Police procedural and the psychological thriller) in Rendell’s inimitable style, alongside beautifully nuanced description of the parts of London in which the drama unfolds.

In parenthesis I’d say that Ruth Rendell is one of the few crime novelists whose writing transcends the limitations of the crime genre and establishes her as a major literary figure in her own right, a feat only rarely accomplished in the history of detective fiction, the American Dashiel Hammett being another example.

When I bought it I didn’t realize that it was a kind of sequel to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes in which Wexford does not appear. In The Vault, set 12 later, Wexford only has the four initially unidentified bodies to work on; he hasn’t read the earlier book either. Anyway, to cut a long (detective) story short, three of the bodies relate to the earlier plot whereas the fourth was added to the coal-hole collection about 10 years later. As for the initial three, it seems two were victims of the murderous third who accidentally fell into the hole after disposing of their bodies there.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and detail of Ruth Rendell’s writing as much as ever, but when I’d finished the book I was troubled by one glaring problem with the plot. If the murderer, Teddy Brex, had indeed fallen into the coal hole by accident, who closed the manhole cover that sealed him in? It’s essential to the plot that nobody find the bodies for a dozen years, but surely if the lid had been open someone would have looked inside? Worried that I was just being dense and had missed some detail, I searched around the net and found a blog review on which a similar comment was made.

Part of the pleasure of reading a mystery novel, as is the case with a crossword puzzle, is to see the pieces fall nearly into place at the end. That’s always happened with Ruth Rendell’s books before, but this one left me profoundly unsatisfied. For a writer of her quality, the lapse was most disappointing. It won’t put me off reading other books, of course. Maybe it’s all explained in the earlier book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a flaw in this one.

Anyway, this particular fly in the ointment led to an interesting little exchange on Facebook about plot errors in The Day of the Jackal so I thought it might be fun to use it as an example, and see if anyone out there in internetshire can think of similar narrative gremlins affecting films or novels? They don’t have to be detective stories, of course, although for reasons described above I think they are especially irksome in that context.

The comment box beckons, but make sure you don’t fall in…