Ruth Rendell As a Case Study in Anachronism
At the Guardian Books Blog, Imogen Russell Williams lodges her beef with the recent work of Ruth Rendell, namely that it’s past its sell-by date and a strange amalgamation of tacked-on modernity with old-fashioned values. Her earlier work from the 60s and 70s “can be depended on to deliver a controlled hit of cosily sociopathic, retro fun,” but the later books? Not so much:
satisfactory. Her latest books are peppered with anachronisms,
preventing readers from being drawn smoothly into the flow of the
novel. A character in her most recent book, Portobello, complains of a
rumour that all prescriptions will cost a pound in future. A rumour? A pound?
In a book beetling with mobile phones and all the trappings of the 21st
century, this is a disconcerting reminder that Rendell presumably makes
use of the House of Lords prescription service and is unaware that the
rest of us have been paying considerably more than a pound for quite a
while. Prescriptions for plebs currently cost £7.10 – but they've been
incurring charges since 1952. Get with the programme, Ruth!
And on it goes. While I think Williams is being a bit nitpicky here, there is a larger concern when authors keep at series for a long time, or deliver a book a year on subjects that they owned in their heyday but have a less firm grasp on as they age. There’s a point when many people realize they don’t have the time, energy or inclination to keep up, stay modern, or alter their viewpoints with changing times, and frankly, the result of such efforts between pages (or read with e-ink) can be pretty damn embarrassing. So should Rendell roll back the clock and write “period” work that’s set in the 1960s and 70s? Somehow I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I wish she would remedy my main problem: a stunning lack of empathy for her characters that’s crept in over the last decade, if not more.
UPDATE: Ed Gorman writes a tremendous response that should be read in full.