On finding Ruth Rendell’s last manuscript
Selina Walker's moving account of editing Rendell's final novel, Dark Corners, after the writer's death.
Like something from fiction itself, Ruth Rendell's last manuscript, Dark Corners, was found - complete - on a memory pen, after the writer's death.
Where was the pen found? In Rendell's handbag. This is a small and feminine detail that made me smile. This belied all the things she embodied in her life: an irrepressible fighter for those in the margins, someone who eschewed the ordinary, a tireless writer of over sixty books. It belied also her refusal to be predictable, changing course and pace for each project, that she is respected worldwide for her sinister and astute writing, and that she truly was a mystery.
Then again, as someone as shrewd as Rendell may point out, where else would you keep it?
With Ruth Rendell’s death we lose not just an inspiring and tenacious crime writer but a woman whose activism and perspicacity shows us all that an older lady, with a handbag, is nothing to underestimate.
We are honoured to have the following piece by Selina Walker, a publisher with Century and Arrow, explaining what it was like to edit the last Ruth Rendell mystery - and how she selected the title, Dark Corners:
Publisher, Century & Arrow
Ruth Rendell's final novel, Dark Corners, is an acute psychological study of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances.
It's the story of a Londoner, Carl, who sells a friend some slimming pills he has found in the bathroom of the mews house he has recently inherited. But he forgets to warn her that an overdose could be dangerous, and when she dies he begins to worry that he is responsible. Subjected to blackmail for murder by his sinister-looking tenant, Carl almost immediately gives in, and soon he spirals into paranoia, self-recrimination, and ultimately another murder ...
Ruth wrote it during the second half of last year. I know this because as well as being her paperback publisher, we lived on the same street and I knew her socially. One evening over a drink, she asked my husband whether he was aware of the rental rates of houses in our area. Property was, she told us, going to be one of the major themes of her next novel and she was currently doing her research, something she always enjoyed.
She must have finished it just before Christmas because following her stroke in early January, a computer key was found in her handbag – and there it was, her new novel, its final sentence in place, ready to go to her literary agent and of course to us, her publishers.
I was not Ruth's primary editor; this role belonged to her long-term editor and close personal friend who sadly passed away last year. So when I was asked to work on this book, I felt honoured, moved – and also terrified. Without Ruth, what right did I have to correct words or sentences or suggest changes to her plot-lines, all aspects that editors routinely suggest to the authors they work with? Most importantly, would this be a book Ruth herself would be proud to publish?
I opened the attachment on my office computer with some trepidation, but soon realised I needn't have worried. There it all was: a characteristically sinister psychological crime novel set around the Little Venice canals in west London where Ruth lived. And it was uniquely, unmistakably Ruth. Her characters - Carl, Lizzie, Lizzie's father Tom, and Carl's tenant Dermot – lifted from the pages, as did their narratives.
I soon realized, too, that my role would be confined to ironing out the odd continuity lapse between scenes and storylines, to checking that descriptions, place-names and timings were consistent (they sometimes weren't), and to sorting out the occasional plot-glitch. I remember vividly one evening in the office when I felt particularly close to Ruth. I had come across a quote about half-way through the novel in which Carl sees Dermot looking like 'the duke of dark corners', a quote from one of Shakespeare's most disturbing psychological plays, Measure for Measure. Immediately I knew we had our title, and fancied that this might have been Ruth's intention all along.
Before long Dark Corners was ready for a wider audience, and I sent it to key people within the company who knew Ruth's books well and who had worked with her for longer than I had. I also went through the manuscript page by page with her literary agent and with Ruth's son, and I sent it to Ruth's long-term publisher in America for her valuable input. And finally I sent it to Ruth's friend and bestselling crime-writer, Val McDermid. Val had very generously offered to give the book a first read, and we felt it was essential that someone of her stature proclaimed it worthy both of Ruth and of publication, which she did.
And so we approach publication. The novel that existed first on a computer key has become a first draft which gradually incorporated not only my thoughts and edits but others' too. It has become a book proof and been sent out to newspaper and magazine reviewers. And now it is a book – Ruth’s final one – that all of you will read and enjoy and, like me perhaps, feel sad that there won't be a new Rendell next year.
In 2013, Ruth wrote a piece about her writing life. 'Next year,' she said, 'it will be 50 years since my first novel was published. 50 years! I'm rather pleased. I think it's wonderful and I'll do it until I die.'
What's wonderful and moving and so meaningful to all of us who knew her is that this is exactly what she did.
In the Duke Vincentio's absence from Vienna, his strict deputy Angelo revives an ancient law forbidding sex outside marriage. The young Claudio, whose fiancee Juliet is pregnant, is condemned to death by the law. His sister Isabella, soon to become a nun, pleads with Lord Angelo for her brother's life.
When Carl sells a packet of slimming pills to his close friend, Stacey, inadvertently causing her death, he sets in train a sequence of catastrophic events which begins with subterfuge, extends to lies, and culminates in murder.