By Philip Hall
Ruth Rendell, who died on 2 May aged 85, was the doyen of modern UK crime writers. Her work, while all in the thriller genre, far transcended that niche. Her most famous character was Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, in many ways an idealised policeman. Her Wexford novels were police procedurals showing Wexford as shrewd, tough but at the same time very humane and humorous.
However Rendell moved beyond the standard crime novel with a long series of thrillers which interspersed the Wexford novels. These dealt with very varied topics such as romantic obsession, communication breakdown, family secrets, hidden crimes, chance and co-incidence. All were written with great psychological insight. Some of these were written under the pen name of Barbara Vine.
Rendell won many awards for her work but most notably she was created a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She was concerned with social issues such as racism, welfare dependency and domestic violence.
To refer to just one book, Simisola is about a missing black woman, an immigrant in domestic service. Wexford is deeply shocked to realise that he, who considers himself tolerant, makes casual assumptions about black people. He wrongly assumes that another missing black girl is the one he is seeking. While there are few black people in Wexford’s home town of Kingsmarkham, one at least is in an influential professional position as his doctor. The missing girl’s name is unknown and few cared about her (she was referred to as “sojourner” by Wexford and the police). In the last line of the book her name is poignantly revealed as Simisola, at last a significant person.