Some novelists write comedies of manners. Ruth Rendell wrote autopsies of manners. The 73 novels and short-story collections she published were chilly and unforgiving, written with the precision of a scalpel wielded by someone who waits until the blood has settled, the better to observe, probe, and describe the body laid before her with as little muss as possible. Rendell peeled back the layers and described exactly what she saw. Her method allowed no pretense of unfamiliarity, no false shock at whatever she found in her dissections, whether curiosities or diseases. But neither was there any nihilism.
It’s tempting to think of Rendell in relation to another English artist, the painter Francis Bacon, whose subjects often looked as if they had undergone an autopsy by hatchet. But whether screaming in horror or lying in ravaged repose, Bacon’s subjects mocked the impulse to turn art into statements of empathy. Pity and terror were beside the point, Bacon suggested, when suffering was the fact of existence. The quintessential Bacon image, capturing both his vision and his method, is Figure With Meat (1954), in which the screaming pope is less important than the hanging sides of beef framing him.
For all the cool control of her books, all of the refusal to be scandalized, Rendell could not, as Bacon did, accept the ugliness she saw. With her death last May at the age of 85, the contemporary English novel lost its finest and most stringent moralist. Not that there was anything prim or scolding in Rendell’s work. As a writer, she possessed a piercing knowledge of how the minor sins of pettiness, vanity, and hypocrisy often slide effortlessly into the commission of larger sins. Her severe contemplation of those sins, small and large, seemed that of an appalled humanist in an appalling age.
It’s why Rendell’s Inspector Reginald Wexford, over the course of 24 novels spanning the prime of his career to his retirement, never becomes a wise and charming codger. He is a man whose impatience is directly linked to his accumulation of experience, his conviction that humanity should be able to do better, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Wexford isn’t gruff or sarcastic in the manner of hardboiled heroes, nor is he an eccentric or a “character” in the manner common to the English detective novel and epitomized by the work of Agatha Christie, which Rendell loathed. Wexford doesn’t dispense warmth easily to strangers; instead, he acquits himself with polite formality on social and professional occasions. His inner monologue, though, is that of a man who has no impulse to shield himself from what he really thinks. He knows, for instance, that he loves his daughter Sheila, a successful actress, more than his other daughter Sylvia, whose slightly disheveled life irritates him, and who is aware of how her father judges her. The history of Wexford’s partnership with the detective working under him, Mike Burden, is one of withheld approbation slowly turning into professional respect and genuine friendship (just as Burden grows from a somewhat brash young man to a shrewd and seasoned veteran).