FROM THE ARCHIVES: This interview with best-selling mystery author Ruth Rendell was first published in The Armchair Detective Vol. 14 Issue 1, Spring 1981.
DCC: You are obviously a great reader of books. Your novels always include references to Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Arnold Bennett, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Rupert Brook. Why do you prefer to quote these writers as opposed to writers of mystery?
RR: It never occurred to me to quote writers of mystery in this way. I quote because I like reading and also because my readers have come to expect this kind of thing, especially from Chief Inspector Wexford who is a great reader. I am a very catholic reader and I suppose I read generally about five books a week. Also I have a good memory and so this stuff is stored and comes out. I find it pleasant for me and popular with my readers. Of course great writers do contribute to the detective – or, let us say, suspense – genre. In spite of what Julian Symons says in his excellent book Bloody Murder, Crime and Punishment is a thriller. It’s one of the world’s greatest novels and if we don’t think of it as a thriller, and would indeed be shocked to hear it called so, this isn’t because its form and progress is snot that of a thriller but because the writing and the examination of motive, guilt and remorse transcend to an amazing degree the usual suspense novel limitations. Graham Green wrote a number of thrillers he called entertainments. Trollope came very near to writing a mystery novel in Phineas Redux C.P. Snow and Kingsley Amis may be classed as distinguished straight, if not great, novelists, and both have written detective stories. Any crime novelist with the talent can write a crime novel that will be regarded as a “novel” if he or she takes the trouble and ignores silly hidebound opinion. Patricia Highsmith did in Edith's Diary.
DCC: Is it that you think that these writers of the mainstream are more profound or more eclectic in their vision than mystery writers?
RR: Certainly I do think that Shakespeare, Dickens and Forster have a wider scope than most mystery writers.
DCC: Why? Is it a question of limitations in the genre?
RR: I think it is a question partly of limitations in the genre. The writers we have specified are some of the greatest writers that the world has ever known, and I don’t think there is any mystery writer than I can think of that you would included in that category. Especially if it comes to Shakespeare, who is probably the greatest writer the world has ever known. I quote what comes into my mind, what simply has been stored and what comes up by associations. I think there is a gap between mystery writers and others just as there is a gap between science-fiction writers, the writers of romantic novels, and to some extent historical novels, and others. The requisite structure and form of genre novels curtail a novelist’s freedom. They also make fewer demands so that it’s not difficult within these forms to get away with sloppy writing and poor characterization so long as enough excitement, sex and mystery is injected. This therefore may make even the most aspiring and talented writer “not bother” or just give up trying. I think one sees quite a lot of this. Why attempt to create original situations, real or moving relationships, why try to give a picture of some aspect of the human predicament when critics will admit to being bored by this and readers become restless?
DCC: Since you think that Shakespeare is possibly the greatest writer the world has ever known, which of his plays are the most important in your writing?
RR: Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite play. There are more quotes from that play than any other in my books. That love affair has influenced the relationships of my characters more than any other, such as in the novels Shake Hands Forever and Make Death Love Me. As a matter of fact, “Make death love me” is a quote from Antony and Cleopatra. This is a love affair between people no longer young; it is a destructive relationship. In Make Death Love Me, that love affair comes to nothing because it is doomed from the start.
DCC: Are there any direct parallels between characters in Shakespeare’s plays and your novels?
RR: I tried to create a Cordelia character, Una, in Make Death Love Me, a truly virtuous, yet interesting, character. Also, the character of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, noble yet capable of treachery parallels my character in A Sleeping Life.
DCC: I suppose Macbeth, a play of murder, fear, betrayal and remorse, would seem a more obvious influence on a writer of mysteries.
RR: I like Macbeth, but it is not as important to me as the other two plays.
DCC: Your book titles are wonderful, taken from Shakespeare to Edgar Allan Poe. They are keys to the meaning of the novel. Is this how you begin a book, the title first, or do you start with an image of a character or a psychological perspective?
RR: Not all my titles are mine. They mostly are. A Judgement in Stone was thought up by a friend of mine. I scarcely ever start with a title. I would say that I have never started with a title, I have never started with a character, I always start with an idea and this usually comes from something somebody has told me. I don’t mean saying, “I have got a wonderful idea for a novel,” because that is usually hopeless, but telling me a story without any idea of its being material for a novel. I read a story in a newspaper or somehow or other, pick up something else, the two will be put together and from this conjunction, the novel will come. For instance, with A Demon in My View, I was at the time living in a flat in which I found a shop window model or torso made of a sort of plastic in a garden chair. I was sharing this flat with a cousin of mine at the time and he is called Richards. There was somebody who had another flat in the same house called Richards and their correspondence got mixed up so these two ideas came together and gave me the idea for A Demon in My View. Most of my novels were founded on this kind of conjunction, I think.
DCC: To get back to the detective novel as a genre, is it fair to say that earlier detective novels did not reflect the world outside, but instead offered a world where the status quo remained unchanged? In the drawing rooms and Country estates of Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, all was right with the world. But, if good still triumphs over evil in the contemporary detective novel, surely our sense of just what is evil is more ambiguous. In the words of Robert Browning, whom you quote in on of your novels, we are “on the dangerous edge of things.”
RR: I suppose that earlier detective novels did reflect to a certain extent life as it was; I think that people did live like that, at any rate the upper class did. The concern with good and evil in the detective novel has something to do with the proliferations of the knowledge of psychology and psychiatry. Before that, although Freud and Jung were very, very well known in scientific circles, they were not known in popular circles, so that before the Second World War black seemed blacker and white, whiter. I think that psychology has a very profound effect on detective novels. But this is a question for a dissertation! I can’t begin to answer it. I can only touch on it here. Just an example – a novelist writing detective, or indeed most, fiction in the early part of this century has to show a girl child brought up in a household where child abuse regularly happened. The girl was beaten by her father and mother, as were her siblings. She grows up loathing violence, particularly violence against children, and herself becomes a gentle and kindly mother. The novelist writing today knows from psychological and sociological studies that this is most unlikely to be the picture. Battered children grow up into battering parents. A chain of violence is set up and the abused girl abuses her own children. One might say here that such a character might be a very likely protagonist in a crime novel while the old-fashioned, ignorant-of-psychology development of the character would make her more suitable for inclusion in romantic fiction.
DCC: Are you particularly interested in the question of good and evil and morality? Is this why you chose the detective genre to explore your ideas or your perceptions about humanity?
RR: I have to say here that I didn’t choose it, it almost chose me. I wrote many novels before my first novel was accepted. I had never submitted one of them to a publisher and the first novel I ever did submit to a publisher was a sort of drawing room comedy, which is a very hard difficult genre for a young writer to try and deal with. This was kept for a long time and then returned to me and I was told that they would accept it if I would completely rewrite it. I wasn’t prepared to do this and they asked if I had done anything else. I had written a detective story just for my own entertainment or fun, and that was my first published novel, which is called From Doon with Death. It was quite successful for a first novel, and I was caught up really because of this success within the genre. Having now established for myself a means of livelihood, I was constrained to work within the detective genre and doing so I found that I preferred to deal with the psychological, emotional aspects of human nature rather than the puzzle, forensics, whatever most seem to come within the ambience of the detective novel.
DCC: In your most recent novel, The Lake of Darkness, you twice quote Arnold Bennett: “Humanity treads ever on a thin crust over terrific abysses.” What is the “crust” and what is the “abyss,” because that tone pervades many of your novels?
RR: Yes! It’s something that I feel very much myself going through life; I feel that disaster is imminent. What is the abyss? It is very hard to say what the abyss is because, of course, one doesn’t really ever confront the abyss. The abyss is some kind of disgrace, humiliation, suffering, pain, disaster, poverty, famine, starvation and death. The crust is that thin rim which one has established over it, on which one treads hoping never to break it, hoping that there will never be any kind of fracture of this because one will tread carefully and go easily. It happens a lot in my novels. I feel it, I have known people who feel it, I know people who live in this kind of way. We dread the postman’s know, the ring of the telephone because the foot may tread on it and you go through. It is a neurotic state, I wish I didn’t have it, I have it. Many of my characters have this sense of disaster: if he had not answered his phone, gone out at this point, got up at this moment, things would have been very different. I see that life is ruled by these particular things. Other people see it differently. Much of my life and my writing is ruined by these factors.
DCC: So is the crust really the social rituals and the masks we create to inadequately cope with this deeper sense of reality, which is the abyss? Is the abyss the deeper sense of reality?
RR: I don’t think the abyss is necessarily the deepest sense of reality. I see it in very much more fundamental, almost occult terms. It is almost a superstitious thing, as if the crust is created by ourselves, but if we tread very, very carefully and observe certain rituals we wont go through. This is probably fantasy but I think that is how I see that abyss, I see the abyss as always there, and yet at the same time, I see that the abyss is probably nonsense. But it is very real to me, and I have to tread. It is almost like the person who treads on the squares rather than on the lines, touches the wood to avoid going through, not anything so real as your social crust and reality abyss.
DCC: In A Judgment in Stone, the narrator says that “there are age-old desires in man which man needs no instruction to practice,” like murder. Do you think that murder dwells in the hearts of all people to be aroused like an atavistic knowledge when circumstances demand it?
RR: No, I don’t think I do really, just in some people. I don’t think it dwells in me at all. I think that I have this in common with many people who write about crime, that to me, it is a most abominable thing and I cant imagine ever committing it nor that anybody close to me would ever commit it. It seems to me the most frightful thing and always will seem that way.
DCC: So presumably you would be against those critics who interpret detective literature as a kind of mythical acting out of rituals in our past. The idea that there is the sacrifice, there is the victim. Do you think those critical observations are far fetched?
RR: If the desire to murder, to follow these critical analyses, is an age-old one as many people do think, (and I am sure you have seen the analyses of the detective genre in terms of Cain and Abel and Sophocles and so-on) what about the whole idea of the victim ritual? Colin Wilson, in one of his books, has written that the people who get murdered are of a definite type.
DCC: Would you say that this is true of your victims, the people who get murdered?
DCC: How would we recognize them?
RR: I don’t know, it is not something I have ever been asked before, nor is it something to which I have given much thought. I don’t recognize murder victims but I recognize people of that kind. I am not one myself and perhaps that makes it harder. There seem to be some people who invite pain, and I think it’s quite distinct from masochism, quite a different thing. There are some people who seem to be forever on the defensive, forever expecting to suffer, forever expecting pain, forever expecting victimization.
DCC: In novels of crime, the victim is not usually a fully developed three-dimensional human being; the killer is always more interesting. In your novels, like A Demon In My View and A Judgment in Stone, you also find the killer much more interesting than the victims. You don’t develop the character of the victims as you do the murderer.
RR: I suppose my victims are the victims by accident normally. They are victims by chance. In some literature the victim chooses to become a victim but in mine the victim doesn’t choose, it is the killer who does the choosing, if choosing in the word. In A Judgment in Stone, the whole thing happens by chance. Eunice is not a killer by chance, she was going to kill somebody and she had already killed her father. So, I think that what I am saying is that with me it is the killer that is interesting and not the victim.
DCC: You often refer to criminology. Do you read books on criminology?
RR: Not much. However, I do read psychology. I read Freud, Jung, and Adler because it interests me very much. But I don’t read much criminology, I think criminology is very unsound.
DCC: You mentioned Freud and Jung and they both felt that guilt about the ultimate punishment on murderers. Would you say that you are particularly interested in the effect of guilt?
RR: Yes, I am sorry that I am because I think that guilt is a horrible thing. I am amazed it goes on being so effective. Even if guilt doesn’t seem to have been brought into people’s lives, they make it for themselves. It seems as if they make it out of nothing. It almost seems to be an infectious thing, and they take it out of the air and there it is to affect their lives. It is almost as if there is a need for guilt inherent in human beings.
DCC: In your novels, the mundane often precedes passion and pain. Are you interested in that juxtaposition of the ordinary with the painful and the passionate?
RR: You do come across people to whom the ordinary and the mundane seem to be all, especially if you come out of an English middle-class. But the ordinary isn’t everything. The passionate is also there. I try to bring the conflict out in my books, I think So many people are unable to express their feelings. This is surely a twentieth century phenomenon. Victorian men, if contemporary writing is to be believed, used to weep freely in company. I think we’re returning to a time when men wont think it unmanly and shame-making to cry when much moved. When I talk about people to whom the ordinary and the mundane seem to be all, I’m thinking a good deal about those who suppress all their feelings except small enthusiasm and small disappointments, the kind of people who are always saying, “Nevermind” or “It’s no good making a fuss.” I have seen women of this kind flung suddenly into widowhood after forty or fifty years of marriage, seen them unable to cry, unwilling to talk, numb in their ignorance of how is the right way to act. In two cases I’ve known such women have complete mental breakdowns a few months later. I’m also talking about their having, these people, shocks or occasionally astounding things happen to them. Then they burst into hysteria, exaggerated amazement or joy. In my work I am interested to show sad, shy, inhibited people moved to passion and expression of their feelings. Contrast is so important, isn’t it? One of the things that keeps us interested, wanting more, turning the page. One of the ingredients of suspense often.
DCC: P.D. James feels that women writers are more attuned to that contrast, the contrast between the crime and its setting, the library, the rectory, or the respectable village. Would you agree that women are much more attuned to the contrast between the crime and its setting than men are?
RR: No, I don’t think I would say that. I don’t wish to make these differences between men and women. I don’t think they actually exist.
DCC: So therefore, you wouldn’t agree with literary critics who feel that perhaps there is such a thing as a female narrative voice.
RR: No, I don’t think there is such a thing as feminine or female intuition either.
DCC: You would agree with Coleridge and Virginia Woolf that all great minds are androgynous?
RR: Yes, all minds, whether they are great or not.
DCC: On the subject of women, it has been suggested that women are more ruthless than men, that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. In your novels, such as A Judgment in Stone, The Face Of Trespass, Shake Hands Forever, it seems that you might agree.
RR: People are still shocked by the fact that a woman may have these feelings, these fantasies that men have, because if you look at my novels really the men are just as intensely evil or bad or whatever as the women, but these people are women and they are picked out. I don’t think that women are gentler, kinder, more violent, more savage, or more subtle than men. I really don’t think that there is any difference. There may be a difference brought on by conditioning but I don’t really think that there is any basic difference.
DCC: Actually, I would have guessed that you would feel that way. There was a British judge called Gerald Sparrow, who wrote that the female mind is not logical, therefore, women murder by inward compulsions. He derived this theory, which I find a faulty syllogism, from years on the bench in various parts of the world. However, as you quite rightly say in your novels, men like Arthur in A Demon in My view, is a classic case of a man driven by inner compulsions.
RR: I think that women are driven by inner compulsions, and I think men too equally. I think if you were to look at John Christie and his murders, which came out of his curious psyche, they were quite irrational. You could say the same for such killers as Hague and Hume and also for the women. I don’t think that many people who have murdered do so from rational motives. It will be quite hard to find famous or infamous or notorious murderers who have done so from rational motives. I wonder what Mister Justice Sparrow meant when he talked about that. Would he be able to produce murders who have murdered from what would be a rational motive, to get a large sum of money or to rid one’s self of somebody who is an actual menace? It would be terribly rare if you analyzed any murder case to find these people. These are not the motives from which people commit murder.
DCC: In A Demon in My View, this definition of a psychopath is given: “The psychopath…is in positive conflict with society. Atavistic desires and a craving for excitement drive him. Self-centered, impulsive, he disregards society’s taboos.” But elsewhere in literature this definition can be seen as positive, a throwing off of society’s shackles, a bid for freedom, vision, a search for God in man. In The Lake of Darkness, Finn sees killing as a fire baptism into the kind of life he wanted to lead, and the kind of person he wanted to be. Is this a perversion of the creative instinct or is it Finn’s negative explorations into awareness?
RR: I think I see his exploration as a creative instinct but it is not an instinct I would applaud. I think people do feel like that. I feel like this attitude is negative and that it’s positively wrong and harmful for writers or anyone else to look upon it as in any way part of the creative instinct. It seems to me to be just there, just negative, just wrong and almost not the kind of thing one should do.
DCC: Again, in both The Lake of Darkness and in A Demon In My View, Finn and Arthur both try to master impulses; one does it by mysticism and the supernatural and the other by acting out the murder. What is the ideal balance between socialization and the so-called “natural man”?
RR: Both the people are ill, they are ill in the psyche, they are both psychotics, in fact, extreme psychotics. I don’t know, are you asking what could be done for these people?
DCC: No. I am really thinking in terms of responses that argues for a throwing off of society’s restrictions. This is the negative definition of society, the Rousseauian notion that man is in chains, but he is born free. As I have said before, murder in some writers’ novels is seen as a blow for a return to the natural man, when we were free from society’s laws and rituals, like Arthur or Finn who act out of their impulses. For Arthur it is a way of preventing himself from committing the actual murder when he acts out the murder with the dummy. Finn also tries to master his impulses, which Freud believed is the price we pay for society, for civilization. We repress or suppress the instinct so that we have to master our impulses. Another school of thought would say in accordance with Blake, “Sooner murder a child in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
RR: That’s terrible, isn’t it? It is far better to feel these unsatisfied desired than murder a child in his cradle. Blake must have been having an absolute off day when he said such a dreadful thing. I think that, for me, both Finn and Arthur are highly undesirable elements; they are there because they exist. Arthur knows that what he is doing is wrong. Finn doesn’t, he is amoral, he has no idea. I think that I am saying Arthur knows that there is an absolute right and Arthur knows he is wrong. I feel that Finn is a lost soul. I don’t think much could be done for Finn really, and I am talking in psychiatric terms. I think he is lost and gone.
DCC: Am I right then in assuming that you are really quite opposed to these philosophical and psychological conversions of murder and psychopathy into philosophical methodology?
RR: Yes, I am. I really think that a whole Nietzschean philosophy is awful and ultimately leads to Nazism. That kind of thinking disgusts and bores me. Finn disgusts and bores me.
DCC: Is this why you make sure that Finn gets caught?
RR: But he doesn’t.
DCC: The implication at the end is that he will.
RR: I left it open because I hoped to use him again.
DCC: I see. I thought that it was quite definite that he would get caught.
RR: He doesn’t quite get caught, if you think about it, rather as James Bond doesn’t get caught in From Russia with Love. It’s probably an unwise thing to do because when these people come back they are never the same again. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t. When I first wrote the end of The Lake of Darkness, I thought that that would be the end of Finn and then I thought, well, maybe I will use Finn again and so I left it open. It is open, just.
DCC: Did you kill or did you have Arthur killed because you felt there was no other solution for him really?
RR: I thought there was no other solution for Arthur. I think it was better for him. I think life for him was an absolute torment. I think there are a lot of people who are like him; they perhaps don’t go to his extremes, but I do think there are a lot of people in a sad psychotic state. I know a lot of people in a bad neurotic state. It seems that an umber of people believe that most people that one encounters in this world, were leading happy, rational, lucid and logical lives, but I don’t find that. I find that an enormous number of people I know are in a very bad state, a bad psychotic state. It appalls me.
DCC: Your novels remind me sometimes of Thomas Hardy. I don’t know if he is an influence, but Thomas Hardy employed murder thematically, as a means of embodying the tragic vision in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, to name only two. I feel this is close to your work.
RR: My father was a great admirer of Hardy. When I was a child he used to get me to listen to him reading Hardy aloud. I used to have to sit on my father’s knees and have great masses of Hardy read aloud to me, which bored me horribly, so I never read any more Hardy for many years. I went back to reading Hardy when I was about thirty.
DCC: What about the whole idea of murder as a symbol of the embodiment of the tragic vision of life?
RR: Yes, I do see things much the same way as Hardy saw them. You know I feel a bit humble about this because of course Hardy was a very great writer in spite of being so disorganized and such a mess. I think Hardy is very close to me in a visceral sort of way. I’m not sure what that means. That’s probably why I didn’t answer it? Life is tragic, though this need not be taken in a maudlin or sentimental way. Murder happens in my novels because I write within the crime novel genre and because I like writing melodrama. Graham Greene says in his Ways of Escape that this was the answer he gave to people who asked him why he wrote such thrillers as The Ministry of Fear and Our Man in Havana. He enjoys the vicarious living with and handling of melodrama. So do I. I would always have the tragic vision whatever kind of novels I wrote because it is my temperament to regard life as terrible, fearful, marvelous, and awe-inspiring. Murder is the way I express this concept in my books. If I were an historical novelist, I daresay I should do it through battles; if a writer of science fiction – but, no, I cant for a moment imagine myself a writer of science fiction!
DCC: Human relationships are crucial in your novels. I would like your response to the following relationships in your novels. First of all, sexual love is clearly a prime concern of yours; lovers are either destructive or they are redemptive; there seems to be no middle ground. For example, Wexford and his wife are clearly an example of a redemptive relationship; they have a wonderful marriage even though he does tend to see it as a kind of sanctuary, which can have its problems as well. Burden and Gemma Lawrence in No More Dying Then also have a nourishing relationship. The destructive relationships, however, seem to outnumber the redemptive ones – Nell, Tate, and Vedast in Some Lie and Some Die; Fabia and Margaret in From Doon with Death; Francesca and Martin in The Lake of Darkness; Gray and Drusilla in The Face of Trespass and many more. Sexual love is invariably full of deceit and very often leads to murder. In A Judgment in Stone, Melinda precipitates a disaster course which leads to the death of her family because “she was in love.” In The Face of Trespass we are told, “O Love, what crimes are committed in thy name.” Would you say that this is a fair evaluation that I am giving?
RR: Yes, I would.
DCC: Are you primarily interested in sexual love relationships and the consequences of them?
RR: Yes, I suppose I am. I would have thought that most people would say that intense sexual relationships lead to pain and unhappiness rather than to happiness and fruition. When relationships are very intense and these are very intense, they are fiery, they are full of passion. Therefore, if you are going to talk about Wexford’s relationship with his wife, it is one that has worked out over the years, it has calmed down, it has become probably not very sexual and it is the way a sexual relationship ought to come to its final flowering. I do think anyway that very intense and violent sexual attraction leads to disaster rather than to happiness and calm.
DCC: Another aspect of human relationships is of course the family. People are often troubled within the family, estranged or blighted as children, like Arthur in A Demon In My View. The family motif is explored extensively in Murder Being Once Done; in Best Man to Die, Wexford’s relationship with his daughter, Sheila, is used to counterpoint the essential selfishness of another family.
RR: Family relationships are important to me. While I have no siblings, I still have a very large family. I think relationships are terribly important and one should know who one is. In order to make Wexford a real person, it seems to me essential that he should have a wife and children and grandchildren and forebears, and I cant imagine writing a novel with a protagonist who isn’t deeply rooted in his ancestry.
DCC: The relationship of servants to their employers is also explored in A Judgment in Stone where the class structure and the changing contemporary mores lead to murder and death. Do you think that this interrelationship between people, whether it is a professional or private one, is the crux very often for murder? Would you say that this is a prime thought in your mind when you are writing your books?
RR: Relationships in general interest me and I am always watching them and watching how people react to each other. The family relationship is very important as an impetus to murder, but what makes people commit the murder is something that seems on the face, trivial. It seems to happen superficially about some very small trivial thing, about what time you have dinner or whether you come in too late or what time you are getting up in the morning or what sort of thing. I think these things are in families and I write from what I have experienced or seen or think I have seen or think I have sensed.
DCC: Murder is the central motif in your novels. Rebecca West once said that it is easier to write about the dynamically bad than it is to write about the dynamically good. Is it easier to write about the dynamically bad?
RR: Yes, I think it is easier to write about the bad whether it’s the dynamically bad or just the bad. I suppose that this is something to do with the fact that good is always the same and the bad is very different. The bad is more diverse. I think Somerset Maugham wrote a story trying to work this one out. It is an Italian story and I think it is just called “Giovanni.” It is about a man who is an Italian peasant who leads an ordinary life with his wife and children. He is born and he marries and he has children and he dies, and as Maugham himself says, “I have managed to hold your attention to the end and I have written about someone who is entirely good.” But he really doesn’t hold your attention; the story is very dull. I think that because goodness, saintliness is dull, it is always the same. It simply observes the rules; it proceeds in a pure fashion. It is not interesting to us because we demand excitement and variety which evil has in almost an infinite progression.
DCC: Do you think that because we hold goodness to be an ideal and therefore unattainable, that underneath all the philosophizing and socializing, we, in fact, because evil is taboo and therefore has a strange kind of fascination, think that evil is more exciting than good?
RR: I think it is perhaps more exciting because goodness is channeled into one perfection and evil is more diffuse. Do you think people who are actually good and pure exist? I have known several of them, but I would hesitate before I put them on paper. It is something that Balzac could have done but not me.
DCC: Do you think that underneath the surface of the culture, even though we idealize goodness and condemn evil, that we really do feel closer to the evil in man than the ideal goodness of man? Even St. Paul says, “The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, I do.” Even the saints seem to feel closer to evil than good.
RR: Yes, I do think so. We should go to psychiatry to find more suitable terms. We are now beginning to know that we are not as good in a nineteenth century and a pre-nineteenth century sense. In other words, we have these desires and needs and wishes that don’t fit into that kind of terminology or worldview.
DCC: Your working out of good and evil is much more complex in your non-Wexford novels. Approximately half of your books, however, employ Chief Inspector Wexford. What attracts you to the use of Inspector Wexford and let’s say the detective genre, when clearly you’re pulled to the more complex exploration of human nature and murder outside of the format?
RR: I should say money.
DCC: Wouldn’t your novels sell as well?
RR: I really don’t quite know, but I have a great fan mail for the Wexford novels. They say, “Please can we have another Wexford.” I feel that I had better go on doing Wexfords for these fans who long for him. I would rather write the other kind of novel and I do now write more of the other kind than Wexford. I brought out a collection of Wexford short stories last year to keep up the Wexford, and my new book in May will be a Wexford. I will go on producing them. I quite like the man. I am very fond of him really because he is me and he is my father.
DCC: Well, the erudition certainly is you.
RR: I think he is me. He is an Aquarian, you see, and I am an Aquarian. We have our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground and so I don’t mind going on doing him. I do prefer doing the others. I will eventually kill him in a posthumous Ruth Rendell.
DCC: Why did you make your literary alter ego a man; why not a female detective or police inspector? I guess they don’t have female inspectors.
RR: I think they do. You have to remember first of all that Wexford was born at the age of 52 in 1963 or ’64. Things were not as they are now. If he had been born today, he would probably have been a woman and he certainly would have been about eighteen to give me plenty of scope. He was also a man because like most women, I am very much still caught up in the web that one writes about men because men are the people and we are the others. I was very much caught up in that in 1963, much less now, of course, and so, he was a man because a policeman, a judge, a doctor, a lawyer, whatever it was, was a man in 1963 and for many people it would be so today.
DCC: Have you ever thought of writing a novel now wherein you make Inspector Wexford a younger man? Jean Stubbs told me that she made a mistake in her first Lintott Novel, because she made Inspector Lintott too old. She is now going to writ a novel and recreate him at a younger age.
RR: Yes, I have thought of it, but, you see, the thing with me is that I find it rather hard to write about any age except that in which I live. I have written a very long historical novel about the Oxford movement in which I was very interested. I did an enormous amount of research into Newman. Well, I am sure that at the time I was almost a world authority, but I was very dull and I found that although I could do all this, I was never happy with it. I feel that I have to write about the here and now. If I were to take Wexford back into the 1950s I could do it, but to do all this without the feeling that I know exactly what’s going on does not appeal to me; I would rather keep him artificially younger than he should be.
DCC: Jean Stubbs also has the advantage that Lintott is in a different historical period.
RR: That’s right. She is not dealing with her own period anyway.
DCC: You are often compared to Agatha Christie, which I don’t understand, because you couldn’t be more different. You can correct me if I am wrong, but do you not find Agatha Christie superficial?
RR: Although she had some wonderful plots, marvelous ideas, I don’t think she ever bothered to go into her characters in depth. I don’t think she ever studied the time that she was living in, and her novels are peopled with a group of stock character. I don’t believe that in the 1930’s one was simply hedged in by the judge, the solicitor, the model, the secretary, the colonel, the maiden aunt, and it cannot be that in any age there were more stereotypes, I would think, than in any other. That is why I would say that she was superficial and I don’t think that I am. I wish I could think of her plots and her wonderful surprises, and I think in that way she was vastly superior to me, but I don’t think she was my equal in characterization and emotional content. I think her emotional content, the relation between her characters is non-existent.
DCC: I would agree. On the other hand, I have read that you admire Patricia Highsmith and Julian Symons.
RR: I admire Patricia Highsmith for her peculiar slow build-up of tension. I can’t do it. I don’t quite know how it is done and it ought to be very dull, but it isn’t. It is very exciting. I admire the texture, the detailed background. I always admired the kind of writing that deals with the food people eat and the furnishings of their houses and the music they listen to. I am always quoting Somerset Maugham, and I don’t know why because I don’t really much admire Somerset Maugham, although I did when I was very young. He says that what we want to know about people is what they had for breakfast, and we do know with her. I want to know that; I don’t think you can ever have too much detail in texture, and I like that with her. I like this mounting tension and I like the understatement.
DCC: How about Julian Symons? He is quite different.
RR: I like very much the English suburban environment and the people. I like the marriage situations. Again, I like the family relationships and the horrible tensions and the houses. I am very fond of houses in London and the streets and the suburbs, and he is very good on that.
DCC: What other writers do you admire?
RR: My favorite novel of all novels ever written is The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. If I had one novel that I could take to the desert island, I would take The Way of All Flesh because it is an understated, down-to-earth novel, with complex human relationships and a family. I am very interested in the relationships between parents and their children.
DCC: But you always include murder; you don’t write novels where murder doesn’t exist. Why didn’t you write your version of The Way of All Flesh?
RR: When you start writing about murder and within the detective genre, it is very hard to get out of the genre.
DCC: Are you affected by your reviews?
RR: Yes, I am very much affected by them. Bad ones upset me very much and good ones give me a lift, but hey don’t give me such a lift as the bad ones upset me. I suppose I think it is rather awful that one is more easily made unhappy than made happy. I hope I learn, I don’t know.
DCC: Have you found that there have been reviewers or scholars who are particularly perceptive and sensitive to your work?
RR: Ah, I don’t know. You see, one tends to think that those who say that one is terribly good, are perceptive, and those who say that one is bad, are not. (Both laugh.)
DCC: One critic singles out your use of atmosphere as an illustration of your talent and another critic referred to this negatively as, what this critic called, “An overdose of atmosphere.” Now that is very strange and very confusing, of course, for people who think that critics are creating a kind of absolute criteria of aesthetics. DO you have an ironic distance from this critical conflict?
RR: Yes, I suppose so, because you see when you get to that point, it is ridiculous. Yes, I would think that was nonsense just as it is nonsense for Patrick Cosgrave in the New Statesman to say that he didn’t like The Lake of Darkness and bring back Wexford. I am very much affected by critics, but I hop I am not absurd about it. Yes, I do create a lot of atmosphere. I am very fond of houses, districts and people. What would they have me do instead?
DCC: Is the conflicting critical response towards your work a good thing, because it shows that your work cant be categorized into neat analytical parcels? Would you say that this conflict is a good thing because the way the boundaries of what you are doing are far larger than if everyone agrees that, “Yes, Ruth Rendell is turning out yet another Dostoevskian exploration of human nature in this particular way,” and so on?
RR: What I would really like would be for everybody to say in very large 48 point type on the front page of the Guardian, every day, that I was like Dostoevsky. (Laughs) Yes, I would like that, but they aren’t going to do that.
DCC: Could you tell me a little about your next book? You say you have completed it and we can expect to see it in May of ’81.
RR: All of my books come out in May because one of the nice critics said a new novel from me is like a breath of spring, you see. You can imagine that when my publishers got a grasp on anything so catch-on as that, they grabbed hold of it, never forgot and never will forever. SO even when I am long dead they will go on bringing out reissues of Ruth Rendell in May. The new book is called Put On By Cunning and it’s a Wexford. Put On By Cunning, which is a quotation from Hamlet, incidentally, is about a claimant rather like the Titchborrne claimant. It’s a claimant to a fortune and heredity and it’s partly in Kingsmarkham and partly in California. Wexford goes to California, so we have three chapters in California, kindly edited by my Indianan friend just to make sure that I don’t make horrible errors with the American conversation and idioms.
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