Writing 'Wrong'

PHILIP, the hero of Ruth Rendell's The Bridesmaid, has a moment of clarity rather late in the game. A pleasant young man who abhors even hearing about violence, Philip remembers that "once, at a party, he had played a game where you had to say what a person would have to do to stop you loving or even liking them, wanting to know them. And he had said something silly, facetious, about being put off someone because they didn't clean their teeth often enough. He knew better now."

By the time Rendell's characters know better, it's usually too late. What do you do when you find, as Philip does, that you are in love with a murderer? Especially a woman who killed someone you hate to prove her love for you? Particularly if you're beginning to suspect she did in the wrong man?

The Bridesmaid, published in 1989, may be Rendell's masterpiece, a contemporary chiller as delicate and lethal as the Venetian glass daggers that play a crucial role in the narrative. But she is hardly a one-book author, or even a one-book-a-year author. In her native Britain, she is very well-known for her Inspector Wexford novels, a series of mysteries in the conventional style that have become a television staple. She's also published material ranging from a political pamphlet to a picture book on her native Suffolk, and has recently become a sort of editor-at-large for a publishing house.

Her increasing critical acclaim, however, is due to the works of psychological suspense. This material is more readily comparable to Joyce Carol Oates than Agatha Christie, and she produces it at a rate that makes Oates look as slow as Harold Brodkey. The count to date: 41 books, of which about half are chillers.

There's usually a murder in these novels, but often it's the wrong person who gets killed. The Lake of Darkness (1980) is about a lottery winner who wants to give some of his spoils away to the deserving poor, and ends up getting involved in a murder instead. A Judgement in Stone (1977) would be a straightforward tale of how an illiterate maid wiped out a yuppie family, except for the fact that the author tells you the whole plot in the first line: "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."

Going Wrong is the title of the latest, but it might as well serve for Rendell's work as a whole. Accidents happen, mistakes have brutal consequences, and the hero and heroine tend not to be smiling on the last page.

"Well, yes," Rendell concedes. "Mostly, the books end unhappily. Or it's a bit ambivalent." She pauses. "Now that you mention it, I'm having a job thinking of one that's not. But don't you think that my kind of fiction would be rather strange if it ended happily?"

These novels are the opposite of In Cold Blood, where the killers arrive from far away to destroy the happy family. In Rendell's world, you're likely to be related to, or possibly in love with, the killer. But her own situation, she notes, doesn't feature much of an enclosed family life. She and her husband Don live in an isolated cottage that has been described as looking like "just the sort of place where the hero of the old-fashioned detective story used to go for a quiet fishing holiday, only to discover a severed something-or-other in his worm tin." They have one child, now a college student in Colorado.

"I have a large extended family," Rendell concludes, "and most of them I can't say I'm very fond of."

Another thing she's not fond of is interviews. It is not considered a good idea to ask her personal questions, like how she divorced Don in 1975 and then remarried him two years later. "Some people are absolutely terrible," she says, "they ask me terrible things like, 'Have you ever thought of murdering somebody?' That is a very common question, and I don't like it." She gives her quick laugh.

Why doesn't she like it?

"I just don't like it."

Okay, okay, scratch that question.

"An awful lot of me is a writer, you know," she offers. "I'm not saying there isn't much else, but a great deal of my thought processes are concerned with what I'm writing or what I've been reading. We who write are not living, are we? We're escaping into a fantasy and making fantasies out of other people and if we read in our spare time, that is another fantasy. There isn't much reality -- whatever that may be. Even if I go for a walk in London, I'm looking at it from the point of view of writing about it. I'm also thinking about other people who have written about it, and those who might have lived in these streets and how they saw it . . . It's a bit odd, when you come to think of it."

Rendell's characters are also a bit odd. "I'm interested in disturbed behavior, and I'm interested in human behavior, which I must say I often find very strange indeed in apparently sane and so-called normal people . . . As Arnold Bennett said, we walk on a thin crust over terrible abysses. I feel there are terrible things waiting to happen. For instance, the less people show their feelings, the more contained and pleasant and smooth and bland they seem to be, the more horrible it would be if it cracks."

To an extent, this is the situation in Going Wrong. Guy is obsessed with a former girlfriend, but she restricts their meetings to lunch every Saturday. Guy will give or do anything to get her back, and seeing as how he's a bit on the wrong side of the law in the first place, circumstances soon turn nasty.

In real life, of course, most men would find someone else. "Well, the majority of people do, don't they?" Rendell agrees. "Very few men would take a girl out to lunch that way with no return, and be determined through thick and thin that she really did love him. Especially such a good-looking successful man, who's got other things in his life, or should have. He doesn't have to do this."

But that's what an obsession is.


Which brings up the question: Is Ruth Rendell, so good at chronicling obsession, at all obsessed herself?

"I don't know that I'm particularly obsessive," she says, "but I am an addictive person. I don't smoke or drink or anything, but when I smoked I was very compulsive about it. I can get to be obsessive about things, I can get to be addictive. If I don't do certain things in a routine it bothers me. I feel everything will fall apart. I think that helps me to write about obsession."

There's a bit of a contradiction in Rendell's life. In her books, things go wrong and people fall through the ice, but writing about all this has made her life go very right indeed.

"Well, I hope so, yes," she says. "You're beginning to make me feel a bit uneasy . . . Perhaps it all will go wrong." She laughs, and then abruptly stops.

A Life in Talk

NEARLY a half-century ago, a woman named Willie Mae Wright began working as a domestic for Elizabeth Kytle in Atlanta. Wright came in once a week to clean, but she and her employer also spent a good while chatting.

"Willie Mae would rather talk than eat pound cake, as she would say, and I enjoyed hearing it," says Kytle. "I said, 'I want you to tell me what your life was like,' and she started off with, 'When I was a child, I was the biggest jackass in Carroll County.' "

Kytle found the stories affecting enough that she eventually turned Wright's life into a book, a first-person biography published in 1958. Willie Mae has an immediacy and appeal that is heightened by the reader's realization that this is a life that otherwise would have gone unrecorded. There are descriptions of soon-to-be-forgotten bits of Southern customs:

"We didn't know nothing about no undertakers then; and if anybody died, they sent for Momma. Her and two other women were the shrouding women. Dead folks is so heavy, it would take three women to do it . . . They'd close the mouth by tying a clean white rag under the chin, and lay a dime on each one of the eyes."

And, of course, relations between the races:

"You couldn't hardly find a job and, if you did, you didn't make nothing. One woman I worked for, I'd work all week and then she'd say: 'Here's a nice dress I'd like to sell for fifty cents.' It'd be so big I could have flung a fit inside it and never popped a seam . . . Regular, every week, she'd palm off things on me that way."

Wright died in 1973 at the age of 75. Kytle, now living in Cabin John, has seen Willie Mae through several editions, with the latest just off the presses. EPM Publications, a McLean firm, has equipped its version with a foreword by Howard sociologist Joyce Ladner, who argues that Willie Mae is not merely an historical document, but is of great value to the current generation.

The book, she writes, demonstrates "that harsh conditions need not be the sole determinant of one's life chances. Now, at a time when there is much talk about a 'permanent' underclass, Willie Mae challenges us to dismiss notions of permanence and inevitability."No Room in the Middle LONGTIME customers of a used-book store know what it means when the shop suddenly boasts many more customers than normal: The place is going out of business. So it is with Bartleby's Bookshop, a Bethesda outlet that featured secondhand material you would have a hard time securing elsewhere in the region, but which still couldn't find enough customers. On Jan. 26, the store will close for good.

This is bad news for Bartleby's patrons, and also for the two other secondhand stores in the immediate vicinity, Georgetown Bookshop and Old Forest. Together with the remainder section of the Bethesda Olsson's -- uneven, but nevertheless among the best sources for serious and scholarly remainders in the region -- and Mystery Bookshop of Bethesda, which also stocks secondhand reading copies, these stores formed the closest Washington could get to a booksellers' row.

When it began in the Woodmont Corner in 1984, Bartleby's sold primarily new books, with a sprinkling of old and antiquarian. In 1988, it relocated to another spot in the mall, in the process jettisoning the new business and concentrating on second-hand fiction, history, philosophy and similar upscale subjects. The lease runs out this month, and owner John Thomson has declined to either pay higher rates or move. "The level of business doesn't justify keeping an open shop," he says, adding that he plans to exhibit at book fairs and issue catalogues.

The larger issue here is that the secondhand market seems to be undergoing the same phenomenon that has already happened with new books: The so-called "mid-list" is being squeezed out.

In both cases, the top of the market is doing fine. Serious authors from Gail Godwin to John le Carre sell more hardback copies than would have been presumed possible 10 or 15 years ago, while first editions by such contemporary writers as Larry McMurtry or Anne Tyler can fetch hundreds or even a thousand dollars.

Meanwhile, there will always be a place for the mass market, whether it's James Michener or Robert Fulghum being sold new in Crown stores or used in a Second Story outlet. But those books in between, neither especially common nor particularly coveted, increasingly have no home where they can all be readily discovered.

One of Bartleby's specialties, for instance, was literature in translation, for which it was unrivaled in the metro area. It was always a mystery to me why this section, filled with de Beauvoir, Queneau, Asturias and Walser, wasn't more popular in a city with at least some claim to cosmopolitanism. Then I remembered publishers don't seem very enthusiastic anymore about issuing this material in the first place. The audience, they say, just isn't there. Neither, shortly, will Bartleby's.