Reading Ruth Rendell in a Time of Stress | By Carrie Shipers
Several years ago my husband had his left kidney removed because of recurrent infections. The operation itself—though it took longer and required a larger incision than we’d expected—was successful. It also was followed by months of complications: an abscess in his abdomen, severe pneumonia, blood clots in his lungs, and concerns about his heart function.
When I think about that time, there are two things that characterize it clearly: 1) the stress made my hair fall out, and 2) I rarely went anywhere without at least one Ruth Rendell mystery novel shoved into my bag.
I don’t remember how I discovered Rendell’s work, but for months I rarely read anything else. In the worlds she creates, people kill because of mistaken identity, because minor annoyances lead to uncontrollable rage, or because they’re trying to protect secrets no one is interested in guessing. Murderous schemes seem to spring quite naturally to her characters’ minds. In One Across, Two Down, a man contemplates killing his mother-in-law so his wife will inherit her savings: “Not murder, of course, not actual murder…An accident was what he had in mind. Some sort of carelessness with the gas or a mix-up over all those pills and tablets Maud took. A scheme for gassing Maud taking shape in his mind, Stanley walked into the house whistling cheerfully.”
Many of Rendell’s novels stand alone, but some feature a middle-aged detective, Inspector Wexford, whose optimism about the human condition is tempered by experience: he knows most people are no better than they have to be, but he’s grateful when he finds someone who is. Wexford himself is very likable—even noble—but he’s definitely an exception. Most of Rendell’s characters, both perpetrators and victims, are deliciously grubby, and grubby—like squalid—is a word she often uses.
When my husband was sick, I was angry almost all the time, and knowing that my anger was really fear did nothing to diminish it. I was angry with my husband for not getting well fast enough, angry at doctors who patronized me or held me responsible for my husband’s health, angry at the upstairs neighbor who vacuumed at odd hours, angry at strangers and close friends alike. And when I felt most unfit for human company, when the only refuges I had were waiting rooms (where at least we were surrounded by professionals), or the ten or twenty minutes I could spend with a book before it was time for dinner, medication, or wiping blood off the bathroom floor, I liked knowing that in Rendell’s world, my feelings were actually quite normal.
I still read her new books as soon as they come out, grateful to be once again in her capable hands and to revisit the streets of Kingsmarkham, the Sussex market town in which many of her books are set. But I never read them without remembering: my husband could have died but didn’t.