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Ruth Rendell: 'If I were to kill Wexford, there'd be an outcry'

Where does Ruth Rendell end and 'Barbara Vine' begin? Jane Jakeman goes to the House of Lords to discuss secrets, lies and flesh-creeping horrors

Saturday 15 June 2002 00:00 BST

Somebody had the audacity to look round and say, why aren't there any kidneys?" Baroness Rendell of Blabergh is describing breakfast in the House of Lords after an all-night sitting. Now Ruth Rendell, also known as Barbara Vine, is the author of over 50 books about murder. So I'm not sure if the frisson down my spine engendered by "kidneys" is due to my imagination, or her reputation. The Lords is a mixture of the magnificent and the naff, with splendid fireplaces filled with fake-coal fires. This comfortable aspect has its appeal, and Rendell views the place with great affection. Our two great Queens of Crime, PD James and Rendell/Vine, are both life peers, poised like shield supporters on either side of the House. Baroness James takes the Conservative whip; Baroness Rendell is a Labour supporter.

She takes her political duties seriously, and although at present sporting a superbly tailored suit, discreet make-up and skilfully sculptured hair, she once slept overnight in a tracksuit to vote for a bill at 3am. (This was when the gargantuan breakfasts were served.) "It was the Countryside Bill," she says, "the matter of rights of way, which is very contentious, especially with these landowners. They didn't want the public going all over their precious acres."

Does she, as a Labour voter, feel any conflict with the lifestyle implied by the Lords? "It's a very friendly place. I've made very good friends in here, and lots of other acquaintances." The cosy atmosphere may soon undergo radical changes, since the peers are, in a rather Lewis Carroll way, reforming themselves. The present bill substitutes an elected body to represent the disenfranchised hereditary dukes and baronets, earls and marquises whose ancestors ruled the kingdom for centuries.

This transmutation forms an elegiac background for the new novel by "Barbara Vine", The Blood Doctor (Viking, £16.99). Inheritance is its theme, not only of privilege, but of disease. The book's narrator, Lord Nanther, is preparing a biography of his great-grandfather, a physician to Queen Victoria and expert on haemophilia. In the process, he has to dig deep into his family history, disturbed by a letter which mentions "monstrous, quite appalling, things", which include a classic Victorian murder in a railway carriage. Meanwhile, the present Lady Nanther suffers inexplicable miscarriages. The whole is a rich mixture of fearful implication, political change and medical mystery. It's the 11th publication under the name of Barbara Vine.

This prolific writer seems to switch easily between authorship as Rendell and Vine, a name derived from a great-grandmother on her family tree. The Vine novels are noted for psychological complexities and studies of deeply twisted mentalities. I ask how she starts a book and gets her themes, often featuring people who seem normal on the surface, but are on the edge of sanity.

"I have read a lot of psychology in my time," she says. "I think about the people I have known who do odd things, and then imagination works with the rest. The number of people who tell you very transparent lies, for instance, which anyone with any kind of insight would see through, and then another lie is told which covers up the first one. I find that very interesting – and when you've got a character like that, you begin to think, well, suppose you take it a little bit farther, then what happens?"

Her ideas also sometimes come from her son, a psychiatric social worker. "He'd been reading a book about shipwrecked mariners, people left on desert islands. Some were put ashore as punishment. I thought, I will write a novel about someone who maroons somebody else, and his terrible remorse at doing such a thing. I went to Alaska to do it. That one is a Barbara Vine, called No Night is Too Long. He'll give me books about peculiar people."

In spite of the complexity of her plots, she begins a book without any detailed plans and the narrative develops as she goes along. "I don't know at all what will happen with the Vines. I have a vague idea, a theme, and so on – in the new book it's the theme of heredity ... and I have my characters. I can somehow only write books that are quite exciting and suspenseful. I don't tidy them up at the end; there are lots of loose ends left. I just feel that if you have a situation the next step should unfold and come out of it. PD James writes her salient episodes first and connects them up afterwards. I couldn't do that. If I did that and started the connecting process, when I got to the events I had written about it would all be completely different, and I'd have to do it over again."

The books featuring her series detective, Inspector Wexford of Kingsmarkham, are more traditionally centred on the conventions of clues and investigations. But they are not plotted in advance. "Even with them, I don't really know what will happen."

Is she planning to kill off Wexford? It was rumoured a few years ago she would do so, in a work to be published after her death. "I shouldn't think so. If I were to kill Wexford, there'd be an outcry. I have thought I might write a novel which would be published posthumously, but if I write anything, I really want it to be published. I don't want it hanging round in a bank."

Wexford is likely to remain his placid self, not following the modern trend of the angst-ridden investigator. "I don't suppose that policemen in fiction have much to do with policemen in real life. People who invent a detective create the kind of policeman they would like themselves to be interviewed by. I think if I were a witness I would like someone like Wexford to talk to me. He's very popular ... Men identify with him, especially older men. He's not a glamour figure. I get fed up with the turbulent sex lives of other people's policemen."

It might also be difficult to kill off his wife, since a number of women have written asking to marry Wexford. "Somebody wrote to me and said that if Dora died, she would like to be in the running."

Whatever the name on the cover, her books feature tension and atmosphere rather than bloodthirstiness. She enjoys reading contemporary fiction, and in the field of crime she likes PD James and some books by Val McDermid, but loathes writing with a high content of violence. "I hate torture with a fierce hatred. My favourite charity is the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I wouldn't have it in any of my books and reading about it makes me terribly angry. There's a lot of torture in modern American books and I won't read any of that."

Does she get disturbed by her own subject-matter? "No, not at all. I can be disturbed by other people's work. I don't believe in ghosts at all, but I am very frightened by Victorian ghost stories, of which I have read thousands. I couldn't read M R James if I were alone in the house after dark." She mentions "Casting the Runes", about a man who puts a hand under the pillow to find a box of matches and encounters a mouthful of teeth. "If I were to read that in bed and put the light out, I would not dare put my hand under the pillow."

This is precisely what is so unnerving in her writing: the transmutation of something perfectly commonplace into the deeply sinister. Reading MR James may leave her awake: the rest of us just need a good Rendell or Vine to make us keep the lights on all night.

Ruth Rendell - Biography

Ruth Rendell was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in 1930, daughter of a British father and a Swedish mother. Both her parents were teachers. She was brought up in London suburbia, which forms the setting for many of her books. She worked for local Essex newspapers and married a fellow journalist, Donald Rendell, who died in 1999 (they had one son). In 1964, her first novel, From Doon with Death, featuring Inspector Wexford, appeared. It was followed by a string of successes; some have also been televised by ITV. A Judgement in Stone (1977), about an illiterate woman involved in a murder, was particularly praised. She also writes thrillers under the name of Barbara Vine, dealing often with psychopathic loners. Noted Vine titles include A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), A Fatal Inversion (1987) and King Solomon's Carpet (1991). She has twice won the Gold Dagger of the Crime Writers' Association and its Diamond Dagger for a lifetime achievement. She was created Baroness Rendell of Blabergh in 1997. The Blood Doctor, by Barbara Vine, is published this week by Viking.

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