An expert witness of the human condition: Ian Rankin on Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s Dark Corners reminds us that, at its best, crime fiction is capable of holding up a mirror to society.

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Carl is a crime novelist with one book published and another under way. His father has left him a house in Maida Vale and a collection of “alternative medicines”. On the first page of her final, posthumously published novel, Dark Corners, Ruth Rendell intimates that at least one of these facts will lead to Carl’s ruin.

Carl has a girlfriend called Nicola and a lodger called Dermot. Dermot soon becomes problematic. He is creepy, noisy and nosy and burrows his way into Carl’s life. When Carl sells slimming pills to an actress friend who then overdoses and dies, he finds himself the victim of blackmail. Confiding in Nicola only makes things worse and Carl’s world is soon spinning out of control. Rendell handles all of this with her usual economical brilliance and although Carl is no Raskolnikov, when his way of life is threatened, a violent demise is never far from his mind.

In the meantime, the dead actress’s friend Lizzie has moved into her flat and begins to live the life of the deceased, dressing in her clothes and pretending that the chichi abode belongs to her, in scenes that echo the Hollywood film Single White Female. But then Lizzie is kidnapped and held to ransom, while her happily retired father finds that his hobby of exploring London’s bus routes leads to him foiling a terrorist plot. Back in Carl’s world, Dermot’s new girlfriend, Sybil, is proving to be as much of an impediment as Dermot. Something must be done and Carl reckons that there is only one avenue open to him.

Dark Corners is twisty, character-­driven and claustrophobic. Rendell’s London seems full of everyday menace, while her prose remains elegantly understated. And yet . . . It would be lovely to describe this as a fitting peroration to one of the most
accomplished careers in crime fiction but it is not quite vintage Rendell. There is a sense of subplots not adequately explored, or left hanging. Characters don’t always act plausibly and there are a couple of coincidences too many. My initial thought was that perhaps Rendell had finished the book towards the very end of her life but I have learned that the manuscript was handed over before her stroke at the beginning of 2015. That stroke took away one of the all-time greats, the author of more than 60 novels, together with glittering collections of short stories, plus works of non-fiction.

I interviewed Baroness Rendell at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2007 and remember precious little about the encounter, other than that I was as nervous as a schoolboy up before the head teacher. Her reputation was fearsome. She took no prisoners and was not about to abide lazy questions or glib theorising. Her first novel, which introduced Reg Wexford to the world, had been published in 1964 (when I was four). I only started reading her in 1987, the year my first Inspector Rebus book was published. She soon became a compulsion. Her fictional town of Kingsmarkham was no pastoral idyll. She took on female circumcision (and, as a life peer for the Labour Party, she introduced to the House of Lords the bill that became the Female Genital Mutilation Act).

She also dealt with racism, misogyny, social change, refugees and their mistreatment, the rise of celebrity culture and much more. Some readers preferred her non-Wexford books, the ones in which she shone a torch on London’s dispossessed and dysfunctional. Dark Corners is just such a book. Rendell once said she thought that “to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden” – and so it proves for poor Carl, although his burden only increases afterwards.

Rendell’s enduring legacy is that she took the English crime novel away from Mayhem Parva (Colin Watson’s disparaging shorthand for the idealised village that became the location for many golden-age whodunnits and its way of life) and gave the genre a new breadth, depth and confidence. Her books were realistically contemporary and there was room within them for rigorous and explicit social commentary. The “puzzle” element of the whodunnit was never quite enough for Rendell.

I once described her as an expert witness of the human condition and plenty of readers seem to agree. The MP Gerald Kaufman has argued that, were she not thought of as a crime writer, she would have won the Booker Prize; for some readers, her psychologically complex “Barbara Vine” novels were attempts to do just that. Above all, she was an extraordinary entertainer whose opening lines grab you by the eyeballs:

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” (A Judgement in Stone)

“The world began to fall apart at nine in the evening. Not at five when it happened, nor at half-past six when the policemen came and Eve said to go into the little castle and not show herself, but at nine when all was quiet again and it was dark outside.” (The Crocodile Bird)

“The gun was a replica. Spenser told Fleetwood he was ninety-nine per cent sure of that.” (Live Flesh)

There is an immediacy, a confidence, about these openings. We are in the hands of a born storyteller, which is why it is surprising that in Dark Corners she glosses over Carl’s career as a novelist – his experiences at the sharp end of crime and punishment might have been used to some effect in the novel he is trying to write.

Still, the book is at its best in its atmosphere of palpable dread and awful inevitability. Dermot, a churchgoer who admits to himself (and therefore to us) that he has “no honour”, makes the skin crawl. Alongside Carl, Lizzie and Sybil, he is psychologically damaged. The dark corners referred to in the novel’s title are not only physical spaces in Rendell’s London suburbs but the nooks and crannies of the human mind, places where reason starts to fracture and where our uglier impulses are made manifest and given free rein.

Ruth Rendell died in May, a scant five months after the literary world had lost P D James. These were indisputably the two giants of post-1945 crime fiction in the UK. They were also great friends and admirers of one another’s work. James was possibly the better stylist and held more dearly to the motifs of the classic English detective story. Rendell’s world seemed more urbanised and atomised, appealing to European film-makers (Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh, François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend) in a way that James’s work did not.

It was Rendell who probably had the bigger influence on the generation of British crime writers that followed, writers exploring the margins and the marginalised of our contemporary cities and towns, locating crumbling relationships, misshapen desires and motive-yielding acts of violence. But is this the end of the story? The rumour persists that, several years ago, Rendell penned a Wexford book to be published at some point after her death, a book that would add a final full stop to the inspector’s long, illustrious career. It may or may not be true but we will always have her work to remind us that crime fiction at its best holds a mirror up to society, showing us that dark corners exist everywhere and within us all.

Ian Rankin’s next Inspector Rebus novel, Even Dogs in the Wild, is published next month by Orion

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell is published by Hutchinson (288pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy