Rendell's best-known creation, Chief Inspector Wexford, was the hero of many popular police stories, some of them successfully adapted for TV. But Rendell also generated a separate brand of crime fiction that deeply explored the psychological background of criminals and their victims, many of them mentally afflicted or otherwise socially isolated. This theme was developed further in a third series of novels, written under her pseudonym Barbara Vine.
Rendell was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in 1930, in South Woodford, Essex (now Greater London). Her parents were teachers. Her mother, Ebba Kruse, was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish. Rendell was educated at the County High School for Girls in Loughton, Essex, the town to which the family moved during her childhood.
After high school she became a feature writer for her local Essex paper, the Chigwell Times. However, she was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner she hadn't attended and failing to report that the after-dinner speaker had died midway through the speech.
Rendell met her husband Don Rendell when she was working as a newswriter. They married when she was 20, and in 1953 had a son, Simon, now a psychiatric social worker who lives in the U.S. state of Colorado. The couple divorced in 1975 but remarried two years later. Don Rendell died in 1999 from prostate cancer.
She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1996 Birthday Honours and a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk, on 24 October 1997. She sat in the House of Lords for the Labour Party. In 1998 Rendell was named in a list of the party's biggest private financial donors. She introduced into the Lords the bill that would later become the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. In August 2014, Rendell was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.
Baroness Rendell received many awards, including the Silver, Gold, and Cartier Diamond Daggers from the Crime Writers' Association, three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, The Arts Council National Book Awards, and The Sunday Times Literary Award. A number of her works have been adapted for film or television. She was also a patron of the charity Kids for Kids which helps children in rural areas of Darfur. There is a blue plaque on one of her homes, 45 Millsmead Way, in Loughton. This was unveiled by her son, Simon on 24 February 2016.
Rendell had a stroke on 7 January 2015 and died on 2 May 2015.
Rendell wrote two unpublished novels before the 1964 publication of From Doon with Death, which was purchased for £75 by John Long; it was the first mystery to feature her enduring and popular detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. Rendell said that the character of Wexford was based on herself.The Monster in the Box, released in October 2009, was widely rumoured to be Wexford's last case. This was incorrect; however, it was the final novel featuring Wexford as an employed policeman: in the novel that followed, The Vault, he retired.
In addition to these police procedurals starring Wexford, Rendell wrote psychological crime novels exploring such themes as romantic obsession, misperceived communication, the impact of chance and coincidence, and the humanity of the criminals involved. Among such books are A Judgement in Stone, The Face of Trespass, Live Flesh, Talking to Strange Men, The Killing Doll, Going Wrong and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. For the last novel published in her lifetime, The Girl Next Door, she returned to the Loughton of her childhood, with an implied comparison of the moral climate of wartime England and 2014.
Rendell created a third strand of writing with the publication in 1986 of A Dark-Adapted Eye under her pseudonym Barbara Vine (the name was derived from her own middle name and her great grandmother's maiden name). King Solomon's Carpet, A Fatal Inversion and Asta's Book (alternative U.S. title, Anna's Book), among others, inhabited the same territory as her psychological crime novels while further developing themes of human misunderstandings and the unintended consequences of family secrets and hidden crimes. The author was noted for her elegant prose and sharp insights into the human mind, as well as her cogent plots and characters. Rendell injected the social changes of the last 40 years into her work, bringing awareness to such issues as domestic violence.
The Inspector Wexford series was successfully televised, starring George Baker as Inspector Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as Detective Mike Burden, under the title The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, with 48 episodes from 1987 to 2000. Rendell praised Baker's performance, stating "It was a marvellous achievement as an actor to make him more and better than the author intended." Many of her other works have been adapted for film and television. She said that Chabrol's 1995 version of A Judgement in Stone, La Cérémonie with Sandrine Bonnaire, was one of the few film adaptations of her work that she was happy with. The novel was also filmed in 1986 with Rita Tushingham. Chabrol made La Demoiselle d'honneur in 2004, based on The Bridesmaid.
Other adaptations are Diary of the Dead (1976), from the book One Across, Two Down; the 1997 Pedro Almodóvar film Live Flesh; The Tree of Hands, directed by Giles Foster for Granada with Lauren Bacall (U.S. title: "Innocent Victim"); and another version of The Tree of Hands, Betty Fisher et autres histoires (2001, a.k.a. Alias Betty), with screenplay and direction by Claude Miller.1975 – Mystery Writers of America Best Short Story Edgar: The Fallen Curtain
1976 – Gold Dagger for Fiction: A Demon in My View
1979 – Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (shortlist): A Sleeping Life
1980 – Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (shortlist): Make Death Love Me
1980 – Martin Beck Award: Make Death Love Me
1981 – Arts Council National Book Award for Genre Fiction: The Lake of Darkness
1984 – Silver Dagger for Fiction: The Tree of Hands
1984 – Mystery Writers of America Best Short Story Edgar: The New Girlfriend
1986 – Gold Dagger for Fiction: Live Flesh
1986 – Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (shortlist): The Tree of Hands
1986 – Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award (shortlist): An Unkindness of Ravens
1987 – Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award: A Dark-Adapted Eye
1987 – Gold Dagger for Fiction: A Fatal Inversion
1988 – Angel Award for Fiction: The House of Stairs
1990 – Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence
1991 – Gold Dagger for Fiction: King Solomon's Carpet
1991 – Cartier Diamond Dagger for a Lifetime's Achievement in the Field
1996 – Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
1997 – Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award
1997 - Life Peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh
2004 – Mystery Ink Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement
2005 – CWA Dagger of Daggers (best crime novel to have won the Gold Dagger award (shortlist)): A Fatal Inversion
2007 – Gumshoe Award for Best European Crime Novel (shortlist): The Minotaur
2007 – Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award (longlist): End in Tears
2010 – Lost Man Booker Prize (longlist): A Guilty Thing Surprised