We were delighted when Sophie Hannah, award-winning crime writer and die-hard Ruth Rendell fan, agreed to write the introduction to our new collection of Rendell short stories, A Spot of Folly. Here's what she had to say.

Strictly speaking, when I was asked to write the introduction for this collection of Ruth Rendell short stories, I should have said no. As a devoted Rendell fan, I was hugely tempted, but busy with other projects and stressed about deadlines. I nearly did say no – until I remembered that reading Ruth Rendell was what I did for many years while I was supposed to be doing other more soul-destroying and oppressive things. Reading Ruth Rendell was what saved me from alienation and disillusion during my student days. Besides, if I said no, I would have to wait until the publication date to read these exciting stories that I hadn’t known existed, whereas if I said yes, I would get to read them immediately. To cut a long story short … it turned out that I couldn’t resist.

I first discovered Rendell when I was supposed to be doing no such thing – I was supposed to be working. During my gap year I worked for Manchester Theatres Limited, where my job was to distribute leaflets around the city centre, advertising our shows. Illicit shopping was far more fun, however, so one day, instead of leafletting, I ventured into Hatchards bookshop. There I found two whole rows of Ruth Rendell novels. I knew from my first glance at the blurbs that this was a writer I would be spending a lot of time with. I bought From Doon with Death, the first Inspector Wexford novel, and loved it. But then I must have been distracted by other things, because I didn’t immediately read any more. Silly me.

A year later, I went to university, and very much didn’t want to be there – I was on the wrong course, one I had chosen based on what I’d been told I was good at, not what I wanted to do, and I felt thoroughly miserable. I’m not exaggerating when I say that buying the set texts for that course made me feel physically sick. Good old Ruth Rendell came to my rescue. The set texts bookshop had a fiction section, containing a row of Rendells. In that moment, I knew that these books, and not Don Quixote, were what I would be immersing myself in for the next few years.

The hookiness of Rendell’s writing was something I hadn’t experienced since discovering Agatha Christie at the age of twelve. I started to collect the books, including those written as Barbara Vine, and bought a new bookcase specially for that purpose. Very soon, Rendell was up there with Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie on my official Favourite Authors Of All Time list. I watched Inspector Wexford on television, bought a cassette tape of the soundtrack and listened to it non-stop in the car. It drove my boyfriend mad. I went to see Rendell speaking at Waterstones in Manchester, and she said something I’ve never forgotten: that it’s vital to hook the reader from the very first line. If the first line is not gripping, the reader won’t persevere.

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And boy, was Rendell gripping. The first line of A Judgement in Stone, the first paragraph of A Dark-Adapted Eye (a Barbara Vine book), the amazing twist in The Secret House of Death, the atmospheric blending of past and present in Asta’s Book … the list could go on and on. In Rendell’s universe, oddness is absolutely commonplace. It’s everywhere, and fascinating; it’s in all of us, however hard we try to hide it. There is no (good) Us and (evil) Them – we’re all desperately trying to seem normal and functional while wrestling with twisted obsessions and weird preoccupations. For this reason, many readers don’t find Rendell’s fiction reassuring enough, but I’ve always felt the opposite. Rendell gets it. She doesn’t tidy people up in fiction. She understands that most real people are far weirder than most novels allow their protagonists to be. As a reader, I can only feel reassured around those writers who truly understand how dysfunctional humans are.

Rendell mastered the short story form as well as the novel, publishing seven original short story collections in her lifetime. The stories in this collection are previously uncollected, and each one is a miracle of narrative construction – shapely, taut, suspenseful. She offers the same narrative satisfaction in her stories as she does in her novels, which is not true of all writers. Many short stories give us simply a slice of life, a snapshot of a moment. Rendell’s, in contrast, have beginnings, middles and ends and they keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

The stories in this book are amazingly gripping. Many protagonists, despite being devious themselves, are oddly naive. They run into trouble because they imagine everyone around them is more virtuous and less calculating than they themselves are. They fail, in one story after another, to make the imaginative leap from knowing what they’re capable of to working out that others might be capable of similar immorality.

A recurring theme is the human ego and the harm it can do. In the title story, ‘A Spot of Folly’, the protagonist cheats on his wife and has dalliances with other women mainly so that he can boast to his male colleagues – if he doesn’t get to boast, he seems to feel that his sexual prowess almost doesn’t count. Most of the stories feature people who imagine they’re more in control of their lives than they in fact are. They break interpersonal and social contracts thinking that they’re unique, that everyone else will play along – but time and time again, Rendell’s protagonists discover that promise-breakers attract other promise-breakers. The law of karma is strong in these stories – nobody gets away with anything. The protagonist in ‘The Price of Joy’ undervalues what he has simply because he has it; he values what he’s discarded and can’t get back. This book is full of unrestrained ego and all its satisfying narrative possibilities.

Traditional crime fiction, say some, offers the satisfaction of good triumphing over evil, while a lot of contemporary crime invites readers to sympathise equally with the victim and the perpetrator. Rendell chooses a third option in these stories, and shows that often killer and victim are equally dreadful and that it’s foolish to care about either. It’s easy to say that Rendell is a misanthrope, but that’s a simplistic reading of her work. Rather, she appears to be saying that there is a self-seeking and remorseless streak in human nature of which we must all beware. She brings to life the worst that could happen, always springing from dangerous delusions and disastrous decisions. To claim that she painted all people as awful is as daft as suggesting that Edgar Degas believed all women should be ballet dancers.

There are three ghost stories in this collection. ‘Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror’ is three lines long and is superb. Utterly chilling, it shows us how much can be communicated in very few words. It’s the best tiny story I’ve ever read, even better than Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-worder about baby shoes. The other two ghost stories here are longer: one is conventional, one isn’t. In both, ghosts take on the role played by the human ego in the non-supernatural stories, and cause people to commit dreadful crimes.

The last story here – about a family in denial of what they know to be true: that the world is about to end after some kind of nuclear disaster – is the perfect chilling note to end on. The protagonists don’t mention their impending doom, and pretend they don’t know what’s happened. In this final story, we start to feel that any delusions we harbour, whether ghostly or egotistical, might be entirely understandable in the face of the horror all around us – which might be nuclear destruction, as in this story, or it might be what we know of the world, life, death and other people. It’s rare, from my perhaps-not-sufficiently-highbrow perspective, to find a collection of short stories that’s as satisfying as a novel, but this one passes the test with flying colours. It’s the perfect addition to all Rendell fans’ collections and the perfect starting point for those who are new to her work.

Sophie Hannah 

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