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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.

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

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist