Ruth Rendell turned 80 on February 17th. Her publishers threw a bash for her at the House of Lords, where she's a Labor Peer. She's still producing at least one novel a year, and they're better than what people half her age are writing - considering what Agatha Christie was producing at 80, Rendell's recent novels (as well as those of her good friend P.D. James, 89) are all the more remarkable. But surprisingly, despite 45 years of highly laudatory reviews from American critics, Ruth Rendell is less familiar to many American readers of British crime novels than are James (her only competition as "Queen of Crime"), Ian Rankin or Val McDermid. What a pity!
I'm known to some as "Ruth Rendell's #1 American Fan." My friends know it, and so do my co-workers. And though I haven't been able to get her to put it in writing, so does Ruth Rendell.
Ruth Rendell is my favorite writer - well, actually, there's one writer I like better than Ruth Rendell, and that's Ruth Rendell when she writes as Barbara Vine. I started reading her in the late 1980s (with a Vine, the first under that name, the Edgar Award-winning A DARK-ADAPTED EYE) and by the mid-1990s she had eclipsed all other writers for me, regardless of genre. News of a forthcoming Rendell book always sets in train several months of sweetly torturous anticipation, and this anticipation is ratcheted up even higher (if that's possible!) if the new book is a Barbara Vine.
Her 6th Vine novel, ASTA'S BOOK (published in the US as ANNA'S BOOK and now out-of-print here, dammit!) is my favorite of all her books, and has become just about my favorite book, period - at last count I've read it 13 times - it's become an annual tradition for me. It isn't unusual for me to read a new Rendell or Vine twice within the first year of publication, either, and at this point I've read several of my favorite Vines - A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, A FATAL INVERSION, THE HOUSE OF STAIRS and THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING - anywhere from three to five times each, or perhaps more; I've lost count. They're eminently readable and re-readable (in my humble opinion, at least).
Most of 2009 wasn't my favorite year, but Christmas came early for me in 2009 - on November 12th, in fact, at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado, where a dream came true for me: I met Ruth Rendell! She didn't know she was going to meet me, but when I introduced myself to her, she smiled with recognition at my name. And why not? Although there had been some correspondence between us in the past, within the weeks preceding that night she'd signed bookplates for me (via an internet buddy who arranged it), responded to an email, and, while at her publisher's offices in New York the week before, had personally inscribed a copy of her new book for me which had arrived three days previously (I'd begged an Advance Reader's Copy/Uncorrected Proof from someone at Scribner a month or two before, and they evidently remembered me while Rendell was in the offices - hence the surprise arrival of
I'd always promised myself that if I got the chance to meet her, I'd bring as many books as I could, particularly all the first editions I have of her early works - I made sure ahead of time that it was okay with Tattered Cover, and then shipped the books to the home of the friend I would be staying with. I didn't take them all to the signing, as it turned out, but I took a good many (all of the old ones, of course), and you've gotta hand it to Ruth Rendell, because she was very indulgent of this fan: she signed about 50 books for me that night!
(Added to what I already had - I've been collecting her books since the early '90s, remember), I now have close to 100 books signed by her - not only that, but when the London bookseller I usually order her new books from finally came through with her latest book after numerous delays and excuses such as "Ruth has been traveling..." (as if I didn't know) and what she would or wouldn't write as an inscription (I got so tired of their excuses that I finally emailed them in frustration "I'm sure if you 'll ask her to write something like 'To Philip Swan - It was nice to meet you at last in Denver,' I'm sure she'll be most obliging!" - I'm still imagining their chagrin when they saw her write the following:
She also signed several different copies of my beloved ASTA'S BOOK for me, including a newly-published Czechoslovakian edition my dear friend Vicki in New York had brought back from Prague only the week before, and which she Fed-Exed to me in Colorado - it arrived on the morning of the 12th and I was able to have Ruth Rendell sign it that evening - in fact, she hadn't even seen this edition yet since, as she told me, she no longer receives foreign editions of her books because she doesn't have the space for them. She usually signs her Barbara Vine novels "Ruth Rendell as," but in this instance, for obvious reasons, she also signed "Barbara Vine" - lucky me!
I framed the picture taken of us together that evening, with the inscription "Sometimes the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true..." and sent it to her. I felt kind of funny about sending it, worried that maybe I was going just a tad overboard, but fans send authors things all the time, don't they? Anyway, she liked it very much and wrote me: "The package containing the photograph (beautifully framed) arrived yesterday. It's a very good photograph, isn't it?"