When I was very little I had a picture book called The Story Snail, about a lonely little boy who wanted to tell stories but didn’t know how to begin. He was befriended by a giant talking snail who told him one hundred wonderful stories, which the boy then shared with his new friends. When they ran out, the boy found that he had learned to tell his own; he had become a storyteller simply by learning from a great. It was by this system that Ruth Rendell taught me to write. Those 10,000 hours they say you have to put in to get good at something? Most of mine were spent lolling on a sofa, a Ruth Rendell paperback in my hand. There are worse ways to spend an adolescence.
I was fourteen when I picked up A Fatal Inversion. Written under Rendell’s Barbara Vine pseudonym, it is a flawless, lyrical story about obsessive love and youthful privilege, set in rural Suffolk in the long hot summer of 1976. When I opened the book I was a keen and curious reader: by the final page, my long-held but vague desire to write had zoomed into pin-sharp focus. This was the kind of thing I wanted to do. Of course, I wasn’t ready at fourteen. I had my GCSE French oral in the morning for a start. But I read, and I read. The beauty of discovering an established writer at the height of her powers is the back catalogue. My local library had literally yards of Rendells and Vines on the shelf, and I tore through them like a termite.
I knew that I wanted to write mysteries, but not police procedurals: I just don’t have that kind of brain. The Chief Inspector Wexford novels aside, Rendell often dispensed with the question of ‘whodunit’ altogether, occasionally solving the physical mystery on the first page; the suspense is all in the psychological unravelling. 1977’s A Judgment In Stone opens with the memorable line, ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Murderer, victims and motive are laid bare in the first sentence yet the novel grips to the last full stop. Crucially, it was all done without recourse to graphic violence. Rendellian torture is purely psychological.
She could see the squirming darkness in the everyday, something that fires me, too. One of her most memorable short stories features a husband and wife being driven to murderous psychosis by a loose bathroom window that kept banging in the night. Who hasn’t listened to their spouse eating an apple and looked longingly at the knife drawer? It was through reading Rendell I discovered that accident, loss of control, is as likely, and often far more interesting, than premeditation. My books always contain a murder but they are psychological thrillers, concerned with what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do.
Sense of place is hugely important to my novels, and Rendell was a psychogeographer before the term was coined; her stories are indivisible from their settings. She captured that strata of London, where rich and poor, bored and desperate, live cheek by jowl in the mansions and bedsits, squares and estates of our capital. Some locations she returned to time and again; Highgate, Maida Vale, Regent’s Park. There is a swathe of London, from Portobello in the West to Crouch Hill in the north and most of the land in between, where it is hard to walk very far without treading in her characters’ footsteps. Naturally, when I left my home in metropolitan Essex to move to the capital – the same, one-way journey Rendell herself made at a similar age – these were the streets I sought. When I wrote my first novel, The Poison Tree I set it on the edge of Queens Wood in Highgate. (The Poison Tree, incidentally, is a novel about obsessive love and youthful privilege – sound familiar? – I tried so hard not to mimic A Fatal Inversion, but have been told by more than one reader than in doing so I inadvertently captured the spirit of another Vine classic, The House of Stairs. Meh.) My second, The Sick Rose, took place partly in Kensington. It was not until my third novel, The Burning Air, that I charted my own territory, a thickly-wooded valley in remote Devon.
Her political, occasionally almost polemical, style inspired me too. Rendell unabashedly dramatised the causes close to her heart, especially in the later Wexford novels, with Not In The Flesh memorably confronting the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. The novel I’m writing at the moment, about a young couple who witness a rape, and take the law into their own hands to secure what they believe is the right outcome at the subsequent trial, is, in part, an opportunity for me to climb on board my soapbox. Rendell will be my gold standard in using compelling drama as a Trojan horse for this.
Occasionally I have been asked to defend my devotion, usually by people who say they ‘don’t read crime fiction’, never having tried it. I would always do so with relish. In fact, Rendell was held in almost uniquely high esteem for a genre writer, having the respect of her peers in the literary establishment as well as millions of devoted readers. Perhaps an element of snobbery remained, as she was denied the heavyweight prizes. Had she not cut her teeth writing detective fiction, her 1998 Barbara Vine outing The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy – about the secrets uncovered on the death of a beloved writer – would surely have been listed for the Booker it so wryly referenced. The same goes for No Night Is Too Long had it carried Ian McEwan’s byline, or Asta’s Book Sarah Waters’.
My loss is not personal, in the sense that we never met. The closest I came was a couple of years ago at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival where she had just given a talk, and I was due to appear the following day. She was checking out; I was hot and flustered after a long journey from London and holding a bottle of freshly-expressed breastmilk, much of which was also on my top, for the hotel to keep in the fridge for me. I felt that I lacked the gravitas to impress my heroine. I was happier in the audience.
Recently, I found an early Rendell, The Face of Trespass, in a charity shop. I thought I’d read them all, so to me it was like finding a lost Beatles album. The novel was written before I was born, the idiom dated and the technology on which the plot turns obsolete, yet it was more gripping than anything new I had read in years.
If you have never read Ruth Rendell, I envy you, and urge you to begin today. Her stories will stay with you for the rest of your life: and they may yet inspire you to write your own.