Magical mystery tour

The most important chronicler of modern Britain is not Amis or McEwan, argues Christopher Bray, but

One rereads Dickens, Chesterton said, because the books are so memorable. One rereads mysteries, on the other hand, because they are so forgettable. But try not remembering Ruth Rendell. The only thing you forget in her company is yourself. If the novel's primary moral function is to help you see the world as others see it, Rendell is a moralist of the first water. Child killers, drugged-out wasters, catwalk models, care assistants, sociopaths, withered actresses, tormented middle-aged GPs - these are just a few of the alien lives this latter-day Dostoevsky has made sense of for those of us who like to think ourselves less troubled.

Astonishingly, she has inhabited these fractured minds while keeping her sights fixed firmly on the lie of the land. What John Updike's Rabbit books are to postwar America, Rendell's novels are to our post-Profumo nation - chronicles of altered states. Rendell is contemporary Britain's most piercing biographer. She can expound in a sentence what social historians and statisticians take whole books to explicate. If you want to know - better, if you want to feel - how this country has changed over the past four and a half decades, you could do worse than begin with From Doon With Death (1964) and work your way through her oeuvre.

It takes time. Not in the Flesh is Rendell's 44th novel (her 21st to centre on the investigations of the irascible but instinctively liberal Chief Inspector Wexford), and she has also written two novellas and several collections of short stories. Under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, meanwhile, she has written a further 12 books. The average Rendell book gestates over a nine-month period - a silkily somatic coincidence that this most Victorian of novelists has almost certainly clocked.

Because Rendell clocks everything. Life, she told an interviewer several years ago, is divided into reading and writing. Maybe it feels that way to her, but a Rendell reader can't help thinking of her as a woman who must spend an awful lot of time looking and listening, too. Hemlines, lipsticks, shoes, jewellery - Rendell delineates them all with a precision that can lend even the most mundane and quotidian of objects a spooky charge. Given a whole house to work with, she moves into Wilkie Collins territory:

Damp had marked the ceiling with curious patterns, some shaped like parts of the human body, a leg here in a high-heeled shoe, a disembodied head, and others like maps of islands in an archipelago or close-ups of the surface of the moon . . . He tried a light switch but the power had long been cut off. It was only four in the afternoon but a kind of premature dusk had come and inside here they needed their torches. The light they gave showed the way to the kitchen . . . It was more like a cavern than a place where food had once been prepared, dark, smelly, every surface beaded with condensation as if the furniture had sweated.

That perspiring upholstery is an image of suburban sickness of which Magritte or Man Ray would have been proud. And Rendell's surrealism is all the more disturbing for being tossed off so matter-of-factly at the end of a cunningly caesural sentence. Read it out loud and it sounds like a throwaway gag - except that nothing in Rendell is thrown away.

Roland Barthes once said that every word of a novel is significant. Rendell's genius with the whodunnit form works to make everything doubly vital. Without being remotely didactic, she is the pre-eminent thematic novelist of her day. Even if you start reading her to find out who did what to whom, you will soon enough find yourself wondering how her clusters of ideas about (in the case of Not in the Flesh) the withering of faith, the need for solitude, female circumcision, uncontrolled appetite and the desire to disappear are going to end up relating to the ostensibly central mystery.

Rendell's spectral style renders everything clue-like. She makes even the irrelevant seem pregnant with significance - pretty much a definition of the novelist's raison d'être.

But it is not good news that three of the characters in her latest book are writers. As writers know - and as Rendell (writing as Vine) proved with The Blood Doctor (2002) - getting words on a page is a dull business, and one singularly ill-suited to the thrust and parry of drama. Worse, for two lengthy sections of the book, Rendell abandons the dreamy deceptions of her omniscient narration and gives her pages over to one of these writers. What irks about these incursions is not that they aren't written in Rendell's gentle gothic, but that they are so emphatically "written". So much effort has gone into them that they can hardly be a red herring. When a cop working on the case that forms the bulk of the novel's narrative twice takes time out to read misery memoir extracts in a Sunday paper that read like comments on that same case, you'd have to be an ignoramus to miss their significance.

These inserts, along with an intro and epilogue that have been clumsily tacked on, speak of editorial intervention, as if Rendell's admittedly old-fashioned technique of telling a thrilling story straight - no gashes of white space across every page, no lengthy passages in illegible italics - was thought not up to the task of winning over new readers.

Not that there aren't pleasures in abundance here. The mystery is satisfyingly convoluted, the countryside of the South Downs is painted with all Rendell's customary gloom, and even the most minor of her characters is conjured into three-dimensional life with no more than a line of dialogue.

Verbless sentences; comma-free clauses; naturalistic phrasal enjambment: nobody talks like that in Agatha Christie.

Jane Austen, on the other hand, would have approved of Rendell's cliché-dissecting wit: " 'It was never shut before, that's all I can say.' As with many people who make this remark, it was far from all he could say . . ." But that is placidity itself when set beside the ironic jibes to which the well-read Wexford is given. At one point, trying to pry information from a nosy-parker neighbour he knows to be dissembling, he says: "It's unusual to meet with this sort of rectitude in these unregenerate days, Mrs McNeil. Did you ever find anything in that house which made you feel your - er, investigations were justified?"

But Wexford's own investigations aren't really justified this time around. There are plenty of themes in this book - which begins with the accidental disinterment of a rotting, purple-shrouded body, before bouncing off into debates about marriage, ageing, slave-labour capitalism and interracial relationships - but Rendell's orchestrating skills have deserted her and the result is diffuse and dissonant. Read An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) and you will learn an awful lot about the relations between men and women. Read Road Rage (1997) and you are made to feel what it's like to live in a village being strangled by the Highways Agency. Read End in Tears (2005) and you will never think about motherhood the same way again. Read any of the earlier Wexfords, in fact, and Not in the Flesh is going to be left looking a bit of a bag of bones.

At 77, Rendell is likely to have her best work behind her, but it's impossible to imagine her writing anything devoid of import. She is one of the rare breed that make you feel privileged to be around at the same time as they are. She doles out death so that we might feel more alive.

The Best of Rendell

Wexford classics
Shake Hands for Ever (1975)
A Sleeping Life (1979)
The Veiled One (1988)
Simisola (1994)

Rendell classics
To Fear a Painted Devil (1965)
A Judgement in Stone (1977)
The Keys to the Street (1996)

Barbara Vine classics
A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986)
A Fatal Inversion (1987)
The Brimstone Wedding (1995)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix