My Accomplice: Ruth Rendell by C.L. Pattison
C. L Pattison, author of THE HOUSEMATE, picks Ruth Rendell as her accomplice...
Posted on August 19, 2019 in My Accomplice
Tags: C l Pattison, Ruth Rendell, The Housemate, my accomplice
I was 14 when I discovered Ruth Rendell, in the gloomy aisles of my local library. ‘One of the best crime novelists writing in Britain today,’ declared the quote emblazoned across the cover of her 1977 classic, A Judgement in Stone. And it was no exaggeration. After devouring this deliciously bitter tale of class hatred with its killer first line – I began gobbling up Rendell’s novels as quickly as I could find them.
Fortunately for me, Rendell was prolific. From 1964, when her country cop Reg Wexford made his debut, she wrote more than 50 novels, many of which have been adapted for TV or made into movies. I’ve never cared much for detective stories, so my preference has always been for the dark and complex chillers Rendell wrote under the pen name Barbara Vine (an amalgam of her middle name and her great grandmother’s maiden name).
As a fledgling journalist in the mid-1990s, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Rendell at her northwest London home. She was poised and well dressed, with hair carefully swept off her face and fingernails perfectly manicured. A famously private person, she didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a reputation for being prickly with interviewers. I found her surprisingly friendly (perhaps because my admiration was obvious), and I remember being thrilled when she graciously agreed to sign my dog-eared copy of No Night Is Too Long, the book she was promoting at the time.
There are many reasons I believe Rendell would make a magnificent accomplice, but perhaps the most compelling was her willingness to take risks. From her earliest writing days, she wanted to do more than create traditional whodunits. She laced her mysteries with then-unfashionable themes such as racism, environmental damage and domestic violence. Edgy and astringent, she was one of the first female crime novelists to plumb the darkest recesses of the human psyche, paving the way for the rest of us in the process.
It should be pointed out that Rendell’s unwillingness to play by the rules was in evidence long before she became a published author. After leaving school at 18, she became a journalist on her local newspaper (though not, I remember her telling me, ‘a very good one’). Tasked with covering the annual meeting of a local tennis club, she wrote up the story without actually attending the event. Her article failed to note that the after-dinner speaker dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of his speech. Suffice to say, she handed in her resignation before she could be sacked.
Another reason I believe we might have made a good team is the fact that there are certain similarities between Rendell’s way of working and my own. Like me, she didn’t believe in carrying out exhaustive research for her novels. ‘I’m not an investigative journalist, I’m in the business of imagination,’ she told me. By way of example, she referred to the homosexual relationship that forms the centrepiece of No Night is Too Long, a gripping tale of love and death set against an icy Alaskan backdrop. ‘The idea of asking a lot of gay people how they felt would be disastrous for me,’ she said. ‘I have a lot of gay friends and I just used what was stored up in my unconscious.’
And just like me, Rendell was an avid walker, frequently using this precious ‘alone time’ to hash out storylines in her head. As she revealed during our interview, some of her best plots had been developed during her solitary rambles. ‘My ideas usually come from some chance remark, then once I’ve got the idea I work out the plot as I’m walking,’ she said. ‘Thinking while I’m sitting in a chair doesn’t work for me.’
I also suspect that Rendell’s natural modesty would have made her a dream collaborator. ‘Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer,’ she once said. ‘I don’t mind because I do the very best that I can.’ And, by anyone’s standards, her best was never anything less than brilliant.