ITV 3’s documentary about that marvellous writer Ruth Rendell was full of good things, including quite a bit from the lady herself. I agreed with Val McDermid’s observation that Rendell has a particular gift for delineating the psychology of ‘difference’. Many of her most memorable characters are rather strange individuals, but she has this knack of making them come alive. When I created Guy, the charming sociopath who features in The Arsenic Labyrinth, I was much influenced by Rendell, and I found the scenes featuring Guy enormously pleasurable to write.
The programme identified three types of Rendell novels – the Wexfords, the Rendell stand-alones and the books written under the name of Barbara Vine. There were interviews with George Baker, who played Wexford so well on the small screen (and who also adapted some of the books for television) and discussion about how Kingsmarkham (a fictional town based on Midhurst in Sussex) has evolved over the years. The Wexford stories highlighted were Simisola and Road Rage, and these books reflect Rendell’s more overt focus on social and political issues over the last fifteen years. Rendell evidently relishes her political life as a Labour peer, but I must say that the political elements in her more recent books don't appeal to mean as much as her brilliant insights into criminal psychology.
Rendell and P.D. James operate on opposite sides of the political divide, but their friendship shone through in their interviews, and struck me as absolutely genuine. They are both fine writers, who accord each other a very proper respect – and they are both shrewd enough to recognise that this may disappoint the media, who always prefer a story of conflict.
Another crime writer from the Conservative side, Gyles Brandreth, spoke warmly of Rendell’s work,although I was baffled by his dislike of her Barbara Vine books – the first few in particular are superb, and other interviewees, such as Andrew Taylor, were adamant that the Vine books include much of her very best work.
I was, though, disappointed that the programme didn’t pay any attention to the non-Wexford Rendells. Several of these are genuine masterpieces. And I still think that A Judgment in Stone is one of the most gripping novels of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read.