Doyenne of British mystery Rendell takes on America
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Ruth Rendell, the creator of gruff
English sleuth Chief Inspector Wexford, is an elegant
75-year-old baroness who hopes a serial murderer can help her
make a killing in America.
The veteran British mystery writer whose books are
published in some 30 countries has a loyal following in the
United States, but sales of her books have typically been only
a tenth of the 500,000 copies she sells of each book in
Random House imprint Crown is billing “13 Steps Down” as
the book to change that, hoping it will put Rendell on The New
York Times best seller list for the first time in 20 years.
The book is told from the point of view of Mix Cellini, a
gym equipment repairman with an unhealthy interest in real-life
killer John Reginald Christie who was hanged 50 years ago.
“I really do literally put myself into a character’s
shoes,” said Rendell, a spry and elegant 75-year-old who could
not look more different from the sordid characters she creates
in the book, which is set in Notting Hill in London.
“I think about what kind of a background he had, what sort
of childhood he had, how he grew up, what he does for a living,
the way he wants to live,” Rendell said in an interview in New
York before the U.S. publication of the book this week.
“I think what would I do next if, as in his case, he goes
to look at the place where a serial killer lived and indeed
buried his victims and instead of finding this very squalid and
sinister street he finds it’s all gone and the whole place has
been turned into a very pretty little enclave of small, pretty
houses and gardens and trees and flowers and cobbled streets.”
“Whereas most of us would think that’s a very good thing,
he doesn’t. He thinks this is sacrilege, this is desecration.”
Mix lives as a lodger in a ramshackle mansion with the
elderly spinster Gwendolen Chawcer, who lives a misanthropic
existence pining for a doctor she last saw in 1953.
In a ploy to find out more about a model he is stalking,
Mix gets involved with a receptionist whom he ends up killing
and hiding beneath the floorboards.
Publishers Weekly said “13 Steps Down” was the best novel
Rendell had written in years, exhibiting “all her trademark
virtues: vivid characters, a plot addictive as crack and a
sense of place unequaled in crime fiction.”
Rendell said her picture of British life was more true than
the romantic idylls portrayed in Hugh Grant movies.
Fascination with serial killers, she said, was common to
readers around the world. “I think that people want
excitement,” she said. “It’s not that I think they approve of
this sort of thing or feel any kind of awful bloodlust.
“It’s just that it seems to them to be a kind of gritty
reality. They want to know about it and they would like to
think people who perpetrate this sort of thing are being
caught, so they can’t do it again,” she said.
In 41 years, Rendell has written more than 60 books,
including psychological thrillers under the pen name Barbara
Vine. Her characters are known for their cerebral approach to
the crimes they solve, and Rendell said she was simply not
interested in forensics and gruesome details of crimes.
“I don’t like that sort of thing,” she said. “I actually
find them very boring, real crimes.”
Ever since she was made a baroness in 1997, she has
conducted most of her research in the library of the House of
Lords in the grand surroundings of parliament in London.
“I never talk to the police … but you don’t need to,” she
said. “I’ve been told the police work is very accurate. I
haven’t checked any of it, I haven’t researched it, it’s just
Instead she delves into the psychology of her characters,
which in the case of Mix can be unsettling for the reader.
“I don’t want to create monsters who have nothing about
them that people can sympathize with or understand,” she said.
“I really want to create people who are bad, who are
completely amoral, or have no sense of right from wrong, no
principles, and yet they have something about them that is
pathetic or a cause for pity.
“And then of course they may do something so terrible that
there’s no room for sympathy and understanding any more.”
The latest Wexford novel “End in Tears” is coming out in
Britain this month at the same time as Crown is bringing out
“13 Steps Down” in the United States with an initial print run
of 100,000 and a big publicity campaign.
The Wexford series was made into a long-running television
series in Britain and several of her books have been made into
movies in France and Spain, but so far Rendell said there had
been no really successful movies in English.
She said she has no plans to retire. “People always say
‘Are you going to retire?’ They’ve been saying it to me for 15
years now. I would like to go on writing until I die.”