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Find more Ladies in Waiting
Ruth Rendell is arguably the best British psychological crime author writing today. She’s garnered just about every mystery award there is (including a Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger and the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award), and, after writing for nearly 50 years—and under two personas—she shows no sign of stopping. Under her own name, she writes both the Inspector Wexfield detective series as well as stand-alone psychological suspense novels and masterful short stories, while her books under the pseudonym Barbara Vine feature more complex characters and more emphasis on the psychological-suspense aspect of the plot rather than a crime.
Recent reviews infer she’s been slipping a bit, but grab any of her early novels, and I guarantee you’ll be haunted by her surprising plots, creepy characters, and memorable twists (20 years after reading it, I’m still haunted by the ending of The Bridesmaid!). No surprise then, that many authors seek to emulate her style: carefully plotted mysteries featuring characters that make the reader uneasy—and plots that uncover the deep, dark secrets we are all capable of harboring. The five authors listed below are sure bets for anyone who loves Rendell. But is any one of them good enough to be her equal? In part, perhaps, but none of them offers the complete package of the original herself.
The Sexy One: Nicci French
Nicci French (actually husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) creates engaging characters and cleverly constructed stories full of sex, death, and duplicity. In The Other Side of the Door (2010), Bonnie enlists the aid of her best friend in disposing her lover’s body and soon finds herself ensnared in a web of deceit that threatens to destroy her. French tells the story from two angles, in chapters titled “Before” and “After,” letting the reader follow both the events leading up to the man’s death and the events following it, alternating between past and present as the story assembles itself like a sordid jigsaw puzzle. While there’s certainly nothing subtle about French’s writing, she does a decent job of showcasing the evil that lurks within everyday people—a theme Rendell returns to again and again.
Thrill a Minute: Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah’s novels are faster paced and more thrill-oriented than Rendell’s, but in The Dead Lie Down (2010), Hannah channels Rendell’s knack with characters. Aidan confesses to his new girlfriend, Ruth, that he killed a woman named Mary Trelease years earlier—but Ruth knows that the woman, a painter, is still alive. Disturbed that Aidan’s words may foretell his future behavior, Ruth contacts Detective Sergeant Zailor, while Aidan confesses to Zailor’s partner, Waterhouse. When an actual murder is committed, Zailor and Waterhouse put both their careers and their developing relationship at risk to probe for the truth, even while questioning the mental stability of those involved.
Most Likely to Succeed (Rendell, That Is): Erin Kelly
Relative newcomer Erin Kelly gets my vote as the runner-up in this pageant. Kelley writes suspenseful tales that keep the reader on edge until the last page, and, much like Rendell, she shows sinister skill in creating realistic, creepy characters that make readers squirm. In her dark and twisted debut, The Poison Tree (2011), shy college student Karen is blown away when she meets gregarious and free-spirited Biba and her handsome brother, Rex. Karen is soon swept up in their unconventional lifestyle, which includes all the drugs, drink, and drama that she can handle. They are young and carefree—well, except for some family skeletons in the closet that threaten Biba and Rex’s unfettered, privileged existence. By the end of the summer semester, two people will be dead, one will be in jail, and one will be on the run.
Doyennes: P. D. James and Minette Walters
It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything from Minette Walters or P. D. James, but they’ve long been suggested as read-alikes for Rendell. This is more or less appropriate: though they don’t have the same underlying sense of dread and mayhem at which Rendell excels, both authors have a penchant for throwing more red herrings into their plots than you can count. In Walters’ early novel The Sculptress (1993), Olive is on death row for the brutal murders of her mother and sister. She spends her days in prison carving tiny, grotesquely distorted human figures out of wax. Best-selling author Roz, who is investigating Olive’s case for her new novel, slowly realizes that Olive may be innocent. Walters mesmerizes her readers with a sleek, exciting tale whose slick veneer disguises a sinister, menacing evil.
James’ series character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, gets a lot of comparisons to Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, and for good reason—both characters are intelligent, respected men who find themselves solving intriguing crimes. In what is possibly the last novel of the series, Private Patient (2008), Dalgliesh is planning his wedding and contemplating retirement from Scotland Yard. But before either of those life-changing events can take place, there is another case to solve, and Dalgliesh finds himself investigating a closed-room mystery involving a well-known journalist who has been killed following surgery at a private clinic.
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