I used to think Ruth Rendell wrote crime novels I wouldn’t be interested in. Why? Well, I was twenty-two and a bookseller at a famed indie, the Odyssey Bookshop, and read only “good” fiction. Naturally this meant I could quickly sort any book into one of two categories—cream or crap—just by looking at the jacket. Ruth Rendell was three times my age, primly dressed in her author photos, and living in England. What could she be writing about other than afternoon tea gone dreadfully wrong or stodgy people killing each other with grub poisoning in some damp garden? Surely cunning kitties were involved. Yawn.
Fast forward seventeen years to my kitchen this afternoon. One of my best friends is, long story, manny to my three rascally children. The kids call him Uncle Mommy but his real name is John. He’s tall, bald, wears huge 80’s glasses and plaid Bermudas year-round. In Massachusetts. He loves crime fiction, cats, coffee, and my kids. In short, John is absolutely ideal. So back to the kitchen. I’m getting a refill on green tea because I’ve sworn off coffee for the millionth time and John is pouring…more coffee. And doing an erratic little hop-skip dance that I immediately recognize as the “Marion Dance.” “Can’t get Marion out of your head, can you?” I ask. “Nope,” says John, “She’s just the most excellent character ever. The way she has to skip, dance, or dart instead of simply walking anywhere. And her ferret-y little face and list of rich old people she wants to poison with morphine. Her awful apartment. The way she gets everything in the end. The Water’s Lovely – it’s so good it kills me.”
And I agree. Even though I read this novel oh, about a hundred books ago, the unforgettable characters and plot are still with me. The story of two young sisters—one a hot Marc-Jacobs-clad socialite, the other a retiring hospice worker with a soul-crushing secret—and the people they know (the hideously awesome Marion being just one plum in this superb pie) is a brilliant, unflinchingly modern psychological thriller. By none other than the supposedly-buttoned-up-and-boring Ruth Rendell, who is now one of my favorite crime novelists. John’s too, though he never had a period of nonsense where he didn’t rush to read anything new by her like I once did. Rendell is primarily celebrated for her Inspector Wexford series, the first of which was published in 1964. Unassailably terrific as the Wexfords are, her one-offs, like The Water’s Lovely, are the novels that I like best. Try The Rottweiler or Thirteen Steps Down.
As many of you reading this will know, Rendell also writes as Barbara Vine. Ms. Vine’s latest, The Birthday Present, is just as stunningly good if not better than expected (that’s saying a lot) and features a fascinating here-and-now incarnation of Mr. Darcy that you’ll alternately crush on and revile. The Barbara Vine before that, The Minotaur, is top-shelf too. If you loved The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (and who didn’t?), you’ll love The Minotaur. If we had time, John and I would happily set up the Middle-of-Nowhere in New England Chapter of the Ruth Rendell Fan Club. You might be wondering how I came to my senses where Rendell is concerned. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard deserves credit for that.
Soon after I began working at Vintage Books, Vintage Crime / Black Lizard acquired the rights to publish Rendell’s backlist. That got my interest. Because Vintage Crime / Black Lizard most decidedly does not publish annoying and cloying tea cozies. Might I have been…mistaken…about Ruth Rendell? We know the answer to that. And if Ms. Rendell sees this and wants to make a silly, wrong-headed young sprite of a bookseller the victim of a most satisfying crime in her next novel, I won’t blame her.
Oh – one other great thing about John? He still works part-time at the Odyssey and brings me galleys of crime novels from other publishers that I otherwise wouldn’t see until pub date in a bookstore. If you don’t know who Sophie Hannah is, then you need to get your hands on Little Face. Within 24-48 hours you’ll be counting the days until October, when her next novel, The Wrong Mother, will be released. And I’ll still be wishing, as I often do, that we published her. But we can’t have every last brilliant crime writer at Vintage. That wouldn’t be fair, now would it? Must repeat to self.
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Jen Marshall is a crime fiction fan and publicist at Vintage and Anchor Books. Her blog posts are called CrimeCandy because having access to a room full of Vintage Crime / Black Lizard titles is truly like being a kid in a candy store. An amazing perk that never, ever loses its shine