Ruth Rendell likes to play with identities — most of all her own. When she sits in Britain’s House of Lords, she answers to Baroness Rendell of Babergh. Under her given name, she’s published whodunits for 46 years. And as author of a separate collection of psycho-sexual thrillers, the 79-year-old takes the nom de plume of Barbara Vine.
Her latest Vine novel, “The Birthday Present,” out now from Shaye Areheart Books, allows the author to merge her political and literary worlds. The story, set in early Nineties London, tells of young Conservative Party politician Ivor Tesham, who fears his rise to power could be derailed after a kinky game involving his mistress goes fatally wrong. Rather than come clean to the police, Tesham plays a game of cat and mouse with those embroiled in the plot.
Rendell, considered a grande dame of British mystery writing along with her peer P.D. James, drew on her firsthand experience of Britain’s corridors of power for Tesham’s character. “I know a lot of people like him, oh yes,” she says with a chuckle. “[A politician being disgraced] is something you see, whether you’re in the House of Lords or in the Commons, all the time. You see it threatened or you see it actually happening.”
The novel takes place at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister and Conservative leader, shortly before the party’s fortunes flounder under Prime Minister John Major amid allegations of mismanagement. And while Tesham’s Nineties-era fears of tabloid journalists and diary columnists seem a minor threat compared to today’s 24-hour, online news coverage, Rendell says it’s a far cry from what politicians once managed to sweep under the carpet. “I think they could get away with almost anything in the Sixties and Seventies,” says Rendell. “There are all sorts of people who [were rumored] to have had long-standing love affairs, like [Harold] Macmillan’s wife Lady Dorothy and Robert Boothby…but it never got in the papers,” she says. “It has got much more intense. You could say in some ways it’s a good thing…at least it makes them think twice before they go into absolute corruption.”
When it comes to her own work, Rendell approaches it with certainty and is always clear which of her names she’s going to write each novel under. “It is when I get the idea that I know,” she says. “I got the idea for ‘The Birthday Present’ from something somebody told me about creating this sort of game…for a couple of lovers to do if the affair is getting a bit tired. Once I’d heard of it, I thought ‘This has to be an MP [member of parliament],’ and as soon as I got there I knew that it had to be a Vine,” she says.
But Rendell, who plans to take a break from writing for a few years, is reluctant to examine too deeply how her two literary identities differ. As she puts it succinctly: “I think that the Ruth Rendells are a bit lighter.”