As Chief Inspector Wexford continues his investigations in A Guilty Thing Surprised, Peter Guttridge travels to Suffolk to meet the gallant policeman’s creator, best-selling author Ruth Rendell…
Even with a small map of Suffolk it isn’t easy to find the home of Ruth Rendell. The prolific author of the Inspector Wexford ‘whydunnits’, suspenseful thrillers and Barbara Vine books, lives in a Elizabethan farmhouse concealed in a fretwork of narrow winding lanes. “Tell her we don’t see enough of her,” the landlord of the village pub says cheerily, after he has given elaborate directions.
As far as the private Ms Rendell is concerned, however, people see her far too much. The problem with being celebrated, alongside P D James, as the leading British crime writer is that celebrity distracts from writing.
“I feel I have too many photographs taken and I do too many interviews,” she says briskly. “I could be continually hopping on planes, taking up invitations to attend intensely boring festivals on film noir if I wanted to. I had my photograph taken approximately once a fortnight last year and I think that’s too much.”
A vegetarian who loves the outdoors, runs occasionally, walks regularly and enjoys the odd aerobic workout, Ruth is just too healthy to be a crime writer depicting so vividly psychopaths, rapists, murder and mayhem. At 57, she looks 10 years younger, with a nice smile and clear, startling blue eyes. But anyone looking for clues to that contradiction in her personal life would have a hard time. This author’s private life is pretty much a closed book.
It is on record that she has married Don Rendell, an ex-Daily Mail journalist, twice: divorce the first time was followed by remarriage two years later. Cordial and chatty as she is, she won’t say much about this unusual and romantic event. Sitting on the sofa in the sunny conservatory at the back of the house, she explains: “I’ve suffered a lot from being questioned about my marriage and remarriage and I don’t propose to suffer again. I’ve suffered by having things appear in newspapers - and I don’t want any more of it.”
Ruth met her future husband when she left school at 18 to go and work on the local newspaper in the leafy London suburb of South Woodford. Don Rendell was her boss on the paper. When she was 20, they married and had a child, a boy, three years later. In 1975, she and Don divorced. Two years later they remarried.
The couple share many interests. “Don often reads what I tell him to read,” she says. “He asks me, ‘What should I read now?’ and I say ‘read that’.” He is the prime mover over their interest in opera and art. “Don goes to opera much more that I. He is really interested in paintings, too, though we buy them together.”
“He has absolutely no resentment about my success,” she goes on. “He likes my work. He is the first person to read the manuscript. If he makes a suggestion, I will - probably - put it in.” He isn’t always right, however. She smiles, “he read Shake Hands for Ever - which is generally held to be the best Wexford - and said,‘That won’t win any prizes.’ And of course it did!”
Chief Inspector Wexford is her most popular creation, the character for whom she is best known. He has many traits recognised by her son as belonging to Ruth’s father. “It’s true up to a point. Wexford uses expressions my father used. You see, you’ve got - consciously or unconsciously - to use people.”
“I had no idea he would be so long running!” she declares. And she admits that now, when she writes a Wexford (the latest, The Veiled One, came out in April), she thinks of actor George Baker - who plays the Chief Inspector in the televised versions of her murder mysteries - as the policeman. She also admits that Wexford could never really exist. “He is unreal. I’ve never met a Wexford and I shan’t. The closest contact I have with the police is if I commit some traffic offence - which I don’t do very often.” Ruth drives a Volvo “rather fast!”
Some recent press interviews have suggested she wants to bump Wexford off because she is tired of him. “It’s nonsense to say I’m sick of Wexford,” she says bluntly. “I do get bored with him when I’ve just finished one of his books but in two or three years time I’ll be ready for him.”
Ruth Rendell books sell in their millions, in 10 languages. Although she received only £75 from her publisher for her first Wexford novel - “and that was pretty mean even then”, she snorts - the book was subsequently published in America and she could live from her writing almost from the first. Quite how lucrative the occupation is, she won’t say.
“The only question I really resent,” she explains, “the only question I think is impertinent, is how much money I earn. I get asked that a lot at dinner parties. I think it’s because I’m a woman. I bet they wouldn’t ask if I was a male barrister. In fact, I asked a male solicitor that once when he asked me and he became furiously angry!”
However much she earns, Ruth Rendell is able to afford an enviable lifestyle. Each year she visits America to see her seven publishers and, from now on, to call on her son who is studying in Colorado. She travels a fair amount, and many of her trips end up in her novels. Even Kingsmarkham policeman, Wexford, has been to China and other exotic places thanks to the author’s travel bug. “I’m going to Burma soon,” she grins, and adds, “I think it quite possible I might take Wexford.”