‘A Demon in My View’ by Ruth Rendell (Was She Drawing a Map of Hell?)

Ruth Rendell, one of the most prolific, successful, and critically acclaimed mystery writers ever, died in May of this year. She worked to the end, publishing her last novels in 2014 and 2015.

A Demon in My View came out in 1976 and promptly won a Gold Dagger Award. It was made into a movie in 1992, starring Anthony Hopkins, and I have just re-read the novel after a lapse of several decades. You know you’re getting old when you toss the word “decades” around like that.

I have read some of Ruth Rendell’s most recent works. When I do, I always wind up asking myself, “Why in the world am I reading this? It’s just a story of horrible people doing horrible things, no glimmer of redemption anywhere, just life that is nasty, brutish, and terribly stupid…”

In A Demon in My View, Rendell explored the mind of a psychopathic killer hiding in plain sight among “normal” people. The killer has found a safe way to satisfy his urge to kill women without actually killing or even hurting anybody. But the whole system is innocently and unknowingly upset by a new neighbor, and a catastrophe becomes inevitable.

Ruth Rendell was a great mystery writer with a true gift for piling up suspense. What interested her was not so much the mystery, but the psychology of the characters involved in it. Occasionally she wrote a mystery in which we know from the start “whodunit,” and the story goes on to explore how and why the murder was done.

Throughout her career she wrote about persons who do evil things. But they did them in a certain social context. Much of her focus was on the British working class and under-class, but she sometimes visited the upper crust.

What I get in A Demon in My View, and in the works of Ruth Rendell in general (most of which I have read), is something which my wife calls a kind of photograph of British society and culture, but which I am coming to think of as a map of the British portion of Hell–which is probably not too different from any other nation’s neighborhood.

In some 40 years’ worth of fiction, I find depicted a society in which Christian faith is almost totally extinct; there is no sense of sin, no shame, hardly any awareness that the word “sin” means anything; and there is a code of conduct which boils down to a mere two questions–“Will it make me feel good?” and “Will I get away with it?”

Well, okay, if you’re going to write about murderers, you’ve got to give them a few psychological quirks because there must be something in them that makes them murderers. But in Rendell’s fiction, I find it hard to understand why everybody is not a murderer. There is almost no morality to restrain anyone from doing anything. And nobody feels guilty about lying, cheating, stealing, or committing adultery because they have no sense that any of these behaviors is wrong, and worthy of condemnation. (In the later novels, characters do feel guilty when they let slip a remark that is not Politically Correct. I pray that is not the beginning and end of the role of the personal conscience in the UK today.)

Not that I feel there is any danger of Ruth Rendell leading me into a moral No Man’s Land. I think it fair to say that she is not advocating, but trying to reproduce what she sees. Throughout her career she has been very, very careful not to say anything by way of judgment. If she judged what she saw, she kept it to herself. I am told that she finally revealed something of her true feelings in a 2014 novel which I haven’t read yet. But in everything else I’ve read, Rendell got out of the way and simply let you see the picture.

It’s not a pretty picture.

I don’t think it hurts Christians to know what we’re up against, culturally.

It should inspire us to earnest prayer.