A Twist in the Tale

Two years after the death of Ruth Rendell, Clerkenwell publisher Profile is releasing a collection of rediscovered stories about “murder and mayhem” in time for Halloween. Andre Paine explores the sinister imagination of the late crime writer.

 For 50 years, Ruth Rendell was one of Britain’s most popular crime writers. As well as a long-running series of books featuring Chief InspectorWexford – also successfully adapted for TV – she wrote standalone psychological thrillers alongside suspenseful novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. As one critic said, her body of work contains a lot of bodies.

Rendell’s particular talent was for entering the minds of disturbed characters in chilly yet compelling books. Perhaps her sinister imagination was most evident in her stories: Rendell was a master of the short form and the shock ending. Two years after her death, local publisher Profile Books has secured the rights to a collection of “10 and a quarter” stories (the macabre “Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror” is just 50 words) in time for Halloween. Described as “tales of dark deeds and heart-stopping suspense”, A Spot of Folly is a publishing coup for Profile.

“It’s really exciting,” commissioning editor Cecily Gayford tells The Post. “I’ve alwaysbeen a huge fan of Ruth’s so this feels like an enormous privilege.” Rendell was such a prolific author – she published more than 70 books – that once you are drawn into her forbidding fictional world, it’s almost impossible to leave.

“I’ve read and reread her novels so many times that it’s hard to pin them to a particular time in my life,” agrees Gayford. “The first novel I read would have been a Wexford novel, though, because I strongly remember discovering the sunlit and sinister town of Kingsmarkham and being totally gripped by what was happening there.”

Rendell’s fictional market town of Kingsmarkham features in “A Drop Too Much”, a non-Wexford tale. A Spot of Folly also includes the only short story ever written under the Vine pseudonym. Several tales in the collection were discovered in old magazines, including “Digby’s Wives”, the creepy matrimonial history of a possible killer. Elsewhere, Rendell writes about a cold-eyed love rival committing murder in Paris, a compulsive liar whose thieving ends in disaster and a bleak account of nuclear attack.

“You can definitely see how the short story form plays to her strengths as a writer – the way each one has an elegant twist in the tale, the psychological acuteness that is even more on display when she focuses in on one or two characters,” says Gayford.

As well as psychological chills, a couple of the stories include supernatural elements – perfect for Halloween reading. “Her ghost stories are often also crime stories – the awful things that happen are done by real people, but she leaves you with the sense they might be prompted by a supernatural force,” explains Gayford. Of the 10 stories, the editor singles out “An Irony of Hate” in which a husband decides to kill his wife’s best friend, although the murder doesn’t go to plan.

“It’s such a masterful piece of work which makes you cringe in sympathy at the protagonist’s predicament even though it’s completely his own fault!” says Gayford. “And I love that it subverts what you’d usually expect from a murder motivated by jealousy.” Gayford says jealousy is a recurring theme in Rendell’s work, alongside “the dynamics within families and particularly between husband and wife”, as well as “the role that memory and the past play in our present”.

There’s always a fascination with authors who are able to create dark and terrifying fiction. In 2013 The Post witnessed Rendell speaking at an event where she described entering the thought processes of the insane.

“It is like going over a threshold,” she said. “I don’t think it has affected me a bit.” The author had something of a prickly reputation and carefully guarded her privacy (she never explained why she divorced her husband in 1975, then remarried him two years later). While she may not have opened up to journalists, she was popular with fellow authors.

 “She was a wonderful writer,” Donna Leon tells The Post. “I had lunch with her a few times and I found her very warm, charming and very funny.” When Rendell died in 2015, the bestselling writer Val McDermid helped to shape the manuscript found on a USB stick in the late author’s handbag. McDermid said it was a “privilege” to work with the editor on that final Rendell novel, Dark Corners. Now fans have a final collection of previously unpublished tales to savour. If you haven’t already discovered Ruth Rendell, these short stories are the perfect place to start.

A Spot of Folly (Profile) is published on 5 October.