Ruth Rendell's first volume of short fiction, The Fallen Curtain, was published in 1976, 41 years before her posthumous and presumably final collection, A Spot of Folly, was published in 2017 (review here). The 1974 title story had recently won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, the first of many prizes which the distinguished crime writer, whose first mystery novel appeared 55 years ago in 1964, would win over the course of her career in crime (fiction).
Bantam at the time was also reprinting their small stock of highly lucrative Agatha Christie novels, including Death in the Nile, which premiered as a film starring Peter Ustinov that same year. Christie, who had died just two years earlier, had two #1 bestselling novels after her death, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the latter to which Bantam also had the rights.
So perhaps not surprisingly the front cover of Bantam's edition of The Fallen Curtain heralds the books as being "In the great Agatha Christie tradition." Perhaps not surprisingly, but to Ruth Rendell distastefully. When she inscribed this copy I have to Albert Newgarden, she felt compelled to demur from what she deemed the fulsome Christie blurbage:
Not a compliment,
surely, to be
Oh, Ruth, for shame! Yet it's true that both she and PD James, England's other modern-day Crime Queen, all through the Sixties and Seventies chafed under the shadow of Agatha Christie, feeling relief only in the Eighties when they were finally able to step fully into their own light.
|She was not amused.|
Christie stories like "Philomel Cottage," "The Red Signal" and "Wireless" certainly remind me of Rendell at her eerie and malevolent best--though in some of her stories Rendell seems to be striving to leave the mystery genre behind her. Maybe the obligatory parlor tricks began to seem too artificial to an author yearning to psychoanalyze her characters. But she was good at parlor tricks too.
Some cynics might say that the title story of The Fallen Curtain seems like a natural to have won an Edgar Award for crime fiction, because it's well-written fiction that doesn't have much to do with actual crime. It does involve a man who as a six-year-old boy was said to have been briefly kidnapped by a strange Man, but he doesn't remember much at all about the incident.
What happens, then, when the curtain falls, and his memory clears? It's an interesting story but also one which "transcends the genre" so much that in my view it maintains only a tenuous connection with it.
There are 10 other stories in the collection. (Odd--why not 12? Interestingly the title story of the posthumous Rendell collection A Spot of Folly was originally published in 1974, in EQMM like most of these tales, yet is was left out of the collection, even though it would have rounded it off with an even dozen.) Some of them to me have a similarly tenuous connection with real crime fiction, but a half dozen are superb crime pieces.
"You Can't Be Too Careful" is fine piece of irony about a compulsively safety-conscious, "control freak" young woman. Today we would call her behavior evidence of extreme OCD.
"Venus' Fly-trap" is about the "friendship" of two older women, one a brash, never-married career woman and the other a reticent, twice divorced mother of three. The ending seems a bit forced by the structure of the story but it's nevertheless a well-poisoned little pill.
"The Vinegar Mother" has a similarly ill-assorted pair, young schoolgirls Mop and Margery, spending a break at the country cottage of Mop's parents. Chilling events ensue, symbolized by the titular piece of gobbldygook ("a horrible thing...like a bit of liver in a bottle"), which transforms wine into vinegar. I think this, with all due respect to "The Fallen Curtain," is the best devised short story in the collection, objectively speaking.
|red wine vinegar mother|
And my favorite in the collection, the clever "Divided We Stand," which deals with the problem of providing health care for elderly parents unable to manage anymore for themselves. Hey, I'm living this one. I liked it very much at the time when I read it two decades ago, but now I appreciate even more its grim pathos.
Esteemed horror writer T.E.D. Klein, who markedly contrasts with Rendell in having a decidedly tiny output of long and short fiction, in 1988 penned an unenthusiastic review of Rendell's Collected Short Fiction (which gathered 38 short works from her first four collections). In it he declared that "one of the most striking features of these tales is their misogyny."
It's true that there are some remarkably "nasty women" (as the American president might put it) in these collections, something which really jumped out at me on rereading. Rendell may have considered herself a political leftist, but it's hard for me to see these stories being written quite this way today by someone of a similar political persuasion. Certainly there are a lot of unpleasant people in general in these tales, but the women are to me especially striking.
Of course in the Seventies sexual mores were being pervasively challenged and Rendell reflects this changing state of affairs in her writing.
There are lots of unsatisfied wives looking for happiness in the sack with another man and conversely wives who are suffering, much to their husband's chagrin, from that great Seventies bete noire, frigidity. (Frigidity also pops up in "The Irony of Hate," another story from this period collected in A Spot of Folly.)
At the age of 45 Ruth Rendell herself divorced her husband of a quarter-century's standing in 1975 (she had married him in 1950 at barely twenty years of age); however, they remarried two years later. Rendell's only child, a son, had just graduated from college. Mid-life crisis? Rendell herself thought so. It does suggest that at the time the author felt she was missing out on something in life, like so many of the women in her stories.
After Rendell's death in 2015, Chrissy Iley in the Daily Mail claimed that in an interview with Rendell, the author admitted to her that she had separated from her husband "for some years" before their 1975 divorce and that she had in fact gone "off with somebody else for a bit. And then that fell apart." Rendell declined to name the other person in her romantic life at this time.
Even the happily married Marjorie Crossley in "Divided We Stand" is a mostly unsympathetic figure, as she doesn't want to be saddled with any responsibility for caring for her eighty-year-old stroke victim mother and thoughtlessly palms everything off on her younger sister, Pauline, who has had to give up her job and any hopes of a relationship and has even had a nervous breakdown in the process. In her bland way Marjorie is one of the most unlikable people in the Rendell canon, even if you can understand her impetus toward selfishness in this instance.
Pauline is a single career woman for whom Rendell allows us to have some sympathy, but other such women in the tales come off as grotesques and monsters, like Della Galway in "You Can't Be Too Careful" and, worst of all, Merle in "Venus' Fly Trap," one of the most repellent embodiments in Rendell's oeuvre of her lifelong disdain in her fiction for loud, overbearing and overweight women.
Ruth Rendell grew up in an unhappy home with ill-assorted parents, like her sister Crime Queen PD James, and, like James, she identified much more with her father than with her afflicted mother. Rendell's father was Arthur Grasemann and her mother Ebba Elise Kruse. Born in Sweden of Danish descent, Ebba was the daughter of a machinist, Max Kruse, and his wife Anna Larsen, who moved to London with their family in 1905.
The Grasemann's ancestry in England goes back to the 18th century, the family having come originally from Germany. Rendell's gr-gr-gr grandfather, merchant and commission agent Christian Frederick Grasemann, son of Johann Gottlieb Grasemann of Frankfurt am Main, in 1810 married Mary Petley, of Lavenham, Suffolk, at St. Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London. The couple had three sons and eight daughters, the last of whom, Bertha, was born in 1837, when her father was nearly 60, and died in 1921, less than a decade before Ruth Rendell was born.
|Plymouth Co-operative Society Store|
Family fortunes declined in Rendell's branch of the family over the next couple of generations, with members have descended socially, as it was perceived, from business to manual labor. Christian's grandson, Ruth's great grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, labored in a brewery in Bristol, in his later years making his rounds on the premises as its nightwatchman. His wife Emma Mary Vine, daughter of a cooper and the source of half of Rendell's "Barbara Vine" pseudonym, was a seamstress. Their son Frederick Charles, Jr., Ruth's grandfather, who married Ada Hockaday, the daughter of a drayman, delivered milk bottles for the Plymouth Co-operative Society (perhaps a source for some of Rendell's leftist ideals).
Frederick and Ada's son Arthur Grasemann, Ruth's father, left school at 14 and was apprenticed in the dockyards. However, according to Rendell he somehow managed with the support of his determined mother Ada to get into a university, upon graduation becoming a teacher of mathematics and science.
In early 1929 Arthur, who was nearly 29, married Ebba Kruse, an elementary schoolteacher who was was nine years older than he. The couple's only child, Ruth Barbara Grasemann, was born in London the next year. Regrettably for their young daughter, the marriage was not a successful one.
Ebba had come to England when she was fourteen and not then even an English speaker. She never really adjusted to the country and the couple experienced considerable prejudice. Rendell's Grandmother Ada refused even to attend her son's wedding with a "foreigner." Rendell termed her parent's union "a great disaster." In addition to the challenge of her "foreignness," Ebba, it seems, was not the domestic type and she failed to live up to her Arthur's exacting standards.
As a result, Rendell recalled, she grew up with "highly emotional parents who were always fighting and generally expressing their feelings, bursting into tears and so on, which, though hazardous at the time, I think didn't do me any harm"--though she admitted it did imbue her "from a very early age with a sense of doom." Elsewhere she stated, "I felt exasperated with them, because I felt people should...at least put up a show of getting on in front of their child."
Rendell spent some time in the Thirties with Danish relatives as a child (from whom she learned to speak Danish and Swedish). Did her parents actually stay together? In 1939, when Rendell was nine years old, Arthur and another male schoolmaster were living in Oxford and boarding with a married couple, William and Dorothy May Pinkney, while Ebba with another female schoolteacher was living away to the east in the Cotswolds, at the market town of Northleach in Gloucestershire. They boarded at the Vicarage with elderly Reverend Griffith Wight Jenkins and his organist and housekeeper, Eunice Heaven (seriously). In 1942 Rendell herself at the age of 12 was evacuated from the London environs to Northleach. She recalled:
....in 1942 I was evacuated to the Cotswolds....I lived in one house in the village and my mother was in the vicarage. The vicar had a maidservant who was pregnant and she drowned herself in a pond. I don't think it was particularly uncommon....But I wonder that they told me--I was only twelve.
Rendell makes it sound like this was the first time both her mother and herself had been in Northleach, but records show her mother was already living at the Northleach Vicarage in 1939, so what's the story, I wonder?
Rendell herself with stark contrast characterized her father Arthur as "a very good, sweet and caring father" and Ebba as "a very vague strange woman." Nearly forty when Ruth was born, Ebba began exhibiting symptoms of multiple sclerosis when Ruth was a child, which didn't help the trying family situation. It was Rendell's father, a great reader who quoted extensively from his favorite authors, who taught her the value of self-discipline in life, she recalled. Rendell's son later pointed out to her that Arthur Grasemann, who died in 1973, shared many attributes with Rendell's benevolent series detective Inspector Wexford. Rendell had to agree. Was her mother, no Dora Wexford she, conversely a source of some of those problematic women in Rendell's fiction?
It does seem that the men come off better than the women in The Fallen Curtain, with a major exception being callow Peter Milton in "The Double." Even the Man, as he's called, in the title tale...well, read it for yourself and see how it turns out, if you haven't yet done so.