August 2, 2023
Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell

Messages Wrapped in Mysteries

Laura Kelly Robb

Ruth Rendell wrote stories that often involve complicated social issues such as homelessness, youth underemployment, racism, and child abuse. To avoid producing books that read like issue-laden tracts, Rendell employed techniques that engage the reader in the story well before coming face to face with questions of morality and policy.


Whether or not a writer aims to incorporate weighty questions into the text, it might be worth looking at some of Rendell’s approaches to concocting mysteries. Her career included two dozen Chief Inspector Wexford novels and thirty additional stand-alone books, as well as many short stories. Praised for her ability to drill down into the souls of her characters, Rendell left us a trunkful of ideas on how to make a mystery enthralling and entertaining.

This commentary looks at Simisola and The Babes in the Wood, as well as two books outside the Wexford universe, Portobello and Judgement in Stone.


Wrap the characters in details

Rendell imagined a panoply of characters and drew them in sharp relief. 

Of a psychiatrist, Dr. Peacock, in Portobello:

She was a white-haired woman, the hair copious and long, with the face of a Russian ballet dancer and the barrel-shaped body of a bricklayer.

Of an elderly witness that Wexford suspects suffers from dementia in The Babes in the Wood:

Shand-Gibbs listened courteously, occasionally nodding, or giving a puzzled smile.  He was like someone who has tentatively claimed to understand a foreign language, but when addressed in it by natives, finds it beyond his comprehension.

Of a dangerous friend of the main character in Judgement In Stone:

Joan Smith’s coiffure, wiry, stiff, glittering, had the look of one of the yellow metal pot scourers displayed for sale on her shelves. Her face was haphazardly painted, her hands red, rough, and untended.

Again, in The Babes In the Wood, Rendell, unbowed by standard grammar rules, describes the estranged grandmother and piles on the details:

She looked as chilly and stark as her artwork, a long lean woman…She must be well into her seventies, he thought, and yet the last thing you think about when you look at her is that she’s old. That in spite of the wrinkles, the white hair, the gnarled hands.

Rendell’s descriptive powers extended to the settings and other mood influencers like the weather and the seasons. When added to her work drawing nuanced characters, her stories gain emotional depth.


Re-discover the most important characters

To keep Chief Inspector Wexford entertaining across dozens of novels, Rendell would reveal new facets of his character. In The Babes in the Wood, he and a female detective encounter a meeting of church elders who proceed to tell them women aren’t included because it was a woman who brought about expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Wexford displays unusual sensitivity:

She [the detective] said nothing, but he was aware of a tremor of rage running through her.

In Semisola, Wexford surprises his colleague by bringing up the subject of racism:

‘We’re all racists,‘ said Wexford as if he hadn’t spoken. ‘Without exception.  People over forty are worse and that’s about all you can say. You were brought up and I was brought up to think ourselves superior to black people. Oh, it may not have been explicit but it was there all right.’

Also in Semisola, Wexford reveals, before the interrogation of the victim’s co-worker, that he can tell if someone is lying. After the interview, he notes:

She had lied a great deal, he thought, and he could pinpoint the moment at which the lying began: it was when he first uttered the word ‘key.’

In Portobello, a non-Wexford novel, Joel Roseman, the only Jew among a group of neighborhood friends, confesses to having an invisible friend, Mithra, since childhood. Joel appears in various scenes, accompanied by the unseen Mithra, as a reliable, mature companion despite troubles at home. Only after several encounters does Rendell shows the role of Mithra and reveal the isolation Joel has always felt:

He felt Mithra’s presence rather like a perpetual touch, as if his visitor had laid a hand lightly on him and rested it there.

Her technique of adding to character descriptions over the course of several encounters enlivens the long and winding trail of her detectives’ investigations. While they visit and re-visit homes and workplaces, Rendell keeps the narrative fresh by performing what one Goodreads reader called “a slow lift of the curtain.”


Lighten the Theme with Humor

Rendell’s interest in human despair and the desperate acts that might follow would make for very dark reading if it weren’t for her flashes of humor. They temper the story and often go hand-in-hand with reminders of our resilience.

In The Babes in the Wood, Wexford finds himself ill at ease in an informant’s home where flouncy curtains fill the room:

It had the air of having been put together by an interior decorator recovering from a nervous breakdown.

In Judgement in Stone, Giles, a solitary teenager and recent convert to Buddhism, sets off for a walk to the nearest village. Rendell starts with soaring prose and then pulls the plug:

A limpid blue sky, pale green wheat growing, a cuckoo calling—in May he sings all day—an exultation of birds carolling their territorial claims from every tree. Pretending that none of it was there, refusing, in spite of his creed, to be one with the oneness of it, Giles drove over the river bridge.  He intended to get as little fresh air as was compatible with going out of doors. He loathed the country.

In Portobello, the high-functioning Eugene has become fond of a sugar-free candy, neurotically imagining that he’s dangerously addicted. He treats himself to one of the pellets he’s been battling all day to forget, but he tries to cover his tracks when he realizes he’s not alone in his living room:

His mouth was empty and dry.  He heard himself utter a low moan and turned it quickly into a cough.

In Judgement in Stone again, Jacqueline, the lady of the manor, rebuffs her sister-in-law when she calls Eunice, their sole employee, ‘creepy.’

‘You’re as bad as George.  I don’t want to make a friend of my servant. I want her the way she is, marvellously efficient and unobtrusive. I can tell you, she really knows her job.’

‘So do boa constrictors,’ said Audrey. 

Much more could be said about other Rendell traits such as structuring plots around red herrings, and her overall narrative lyricism as opposed to extensive use of dialogue. She was also a good student of irony and adept at hollowing out stereotypes. I wish she were still here to coach us herself.


About the Author

Laura Kelly Robb writes mystery and suspense novels.  The Laguna Shores Research Club, published by TouchPoint Press in 2022, tells the story of an artist in St. Augustine whose search for her neighbor’s killer reveals a web of corruption.  A sequel is expected in 2024. A fan of history, outdoor sports, and yoga, Laura lives on the Georgia coast and takes a break from the heat each summer in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected]

Laura Kelly Robb