The year 2015 was marred by the deaths of several of our most popular authors, notably Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) and Henning Mankell, as well as several others.
Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)
Ruth Rendell was born in 1930. Her mother was Swedish, her father English. She grew up speaking Swedish and Danish as well as English. She apparently led a fairly uneventful early life; the only cloud coming in 1948, when she was working for a local newspaper. Assigned to report on a local dinner with a speaker, she wrote up the event without actually attending it. Unfortunately, the speaker had keeled over dead in the middle of his speech, a fact she obviously failed to report. She sold her first novel – a Superintendent Wexford – in 1964 for 75 pounds. The character, she later claimed, was based chiefly on herself. Rendell went on to write another 23 Wexford books. They were her most popular work, especially after they came to serve as the basis for a much-beloved television series, the biggest fan of which was the Queen (who did wonder, facetiously we hope, how one small rural area could produce so many murders).
Henning Mankell (1948-2015)
Born in 1948 in Stockholm, he grew up living with his father who was a district judge in the northern part of Sweden. He moved to western Sweden at age 13 and dropped out of school three years later to join the merchant marine. Mankell began writing in 1968; his first successful play was produced a year later; it set out to criticize Swedish colonialism in South America. A successful novel in 1978 gave him the funds to travel to West Africa, where he would spend much of the remainder of his life, particularly in Mozambique, where he led a successful life as a theatrical producer. Mankell wrote over 40 successful bestselling novels in his lifetime, but did not reach the North American audience until 1991, when his first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, was translated into English. Thereafter at least one Wallander book was usually on the North American bestseller list. The series was also successful on television, first in Sweden and then in English in Britain and North America. In the last Wallander novel, The Troubled Man (English translation in 2011), Mankell took his character to the brink of senile dementia. Wallander was a classic Scandinavian character, suffering from angst, having trouble relating to women, and usually confused about his priorities. Mankell also wrote 48 or more plays and several series of books for children and a number of TV adaptations. His wife, at the time of his death, Eva, was among other things the daughter of Ingmar Bergman. Throughout his life he was an active left-wing agitator, although most of the world did not know of this side of his life until 2009, when he spent some time aboard a ship attempting to run the Israeli blockade of Palestine. This led to his arrest and his deportation by the Israelis back to Europe. Throughout his career, Mankell gave large sums of money to charitable institutions and in 2011, donated a fortune to setup an SOS Children’s Village in Mozambique. His last project was on behalf of refugees. In his last months, Mankell described in words the sufferings and feelings of a dying cancer victim, in a series of powerful radio blogs.
Hazel Holt (1928-2015)
Following graduation from a girl’s high school in Birmingham, England, Hazel Holt attended Newnham College, Cambridge then joined the staff of the International African Institute in London where she became acquainted with Barbara Pym, subsequently finishing Pym’s autobiography, one of her novels, and eventually writing Pym’s biography. Like many female authors, she turned to serious writing only after retirement. She had considerable success in North America with My Dear Charlotte which turned the words of Jane Austen’s letters to her sister into a murder mystery. She was later successful with a series of mysteries featuring Sheila Malory. The 21st Mrs. Mallory title, Mrs. Mallory and Death is a Word, will be available in mass market ($10.99) in May.
Eric Wright (1929-2015)
Born in South London, England at the start of the Depression in 1929, Wright’s family was working class and resolutely poor. After military service, he moved to Canada in 1951, attending the University of Manitoba from which he received his BA in 1957. Beginning in 1958, he taught English at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto until his retirement in 1989. Wright was the author of four detective series, one of which – The Charlie Salter police procedural series, which began with The Night the Gods Smiled – made his career. The Salter books were not the first Canadian police procedurals, but they were the first to reach a large audience and to have a long shelf life. Wright wrote three other detective series, but none of them were particularly distinguished. He also wrote a memoir Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, which dealt mainly with his early life. The Charlie Salter series was noteworthy for Wright’s laidback style and agreeable plotting. Unlike many cops of his generation, Charlie was happily married and suffered very little angst. Wright received a number of awards for his writing and in 1998 was given the Derrick Murdock Award for Lifetime Contributions to Canadian Crime Writing. He died of kidney cancer.
Peter Dickinson (1927-2015)
Peter Dickinson was born in northern Rhodesia in 1927. His parents subsequently removed to England so that their children could be educated in English schools. Dickinson pere died shortly after the return, leaving Dickinson’s mother with four children to educate and very little money. Dickinson won a scholarship to Eton and subsequent ones to King’s College, Cambridge. He then joined the editorial staff of Punch Magazine, where he remained for 17 years, before setting out on an independent career as a writer. He first wrote children’s stories because he had success entertaining his own children on automobile journeys. Over a long career Dickinson won virtually every literary award given for children’s books, many more than once. The Telegraph obituary insisted that if sales were taken out of the equation, Dickinson would probably be regarded as England’s leading writer for children. Although less well-known than his books for children, Dickinson also wrote well regarded crime fiction, highly prized by discriminating readers. His series of six volumes starring Scotland Yard’s Jimmy Pibble ended with a typical flourish, in which a bed-ridden Pibble, in hospital after a heart attack, manages to solve a rather nasty case of homicide. An earlier Pibble had a pair of elderly identical twins competing with one another in what the author described as a “baroque spoof.” Another series of alternate history crime books, regrettably only two in number, was set in the royal household of King Victor I of England. He was married to author Robin McKinley, whose book Sunshine was a favorite of several Bumsted daughters.