DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
She's Britain's queen of mystery and the Baroness of Babergh. Ruth Rendell has written 60 novels of murder and suspense, some of them under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. She's also a member of the House of Lords. Rendell was on a rare trip to the United States last week, so we invited her into our New York studio to talk about her new book, "Thirteen Steps Down." I asked her how her duties as a parliamentarian have affected her writing.
Lady RUTH RENDELL (House of Lords; Author, "Thirteen Steps Down"): It would be very hard to say specifically, but the detective stories I write, the Wexfords, are also about social issues now; I call them the political Wexfords.
ELLIOTT: You're referring to a recurring character in your books, Reginald Wexford.
Lady RUTH: And one of them is about multiethnicity and race in the countryside, and another one about environment and the next one about domestic violence. Well, I think that what I've learned in the House of Lords has helped me to get certain facts right, and certainly made access to information much easier.
ELLIOTT: I'd like to know more about how you do organize your life. If you have written more than 60 mysteries, you're obviously a very prolific writer. How much time do you spend writing, and how much time do you spend, say, preparing for the House of Lords?
Lady RUTH: I spend about three and a half hours a morning writing five days a week. I then have my lunch, and I go into the House of Lords in the afternoon--we don't sit till the afternoon--and I will probably stay in there till 7:30 or 8 or even 10.
ELLIOTT: That sounds like a long day.
Lady RUTH: It is, but I like to be occupied and busy. To be idle and have every day as the same, I wouldn't care for that.
ELLIOTT: Let's talk about your new book, "Thirteen Steps Down." The main character, whose name is Mix Cellini, is obsessed with a serial killer, Reginald Christie. Your American readers might not realize that he was actually a real person in England.
Lady RUTH: He was doing his killing. He killed a number of women in London in the late 19--well, throughout the 1940s. And he lived in a horrible house in West London, in Notting Hill, in a nasty part of Notting Hill then, and in a really truly, dreadful, squalid street. And after he was--because we still had capital punishment then, and he was executed. And after that, the house and the whole street was pulled down, and now it's been built up again but in a such way that you would never know it had once been like that. You wouldn't even know where his house had been.
And my character in the book doesn't have the attitude that most of us had to him, that he was a monster and really best forgotten. For him, he's an iconic character and he is obsessed with him and would rather like to be like him.
ELLIOTT: One thing that many of the critics have written about you is that you have a very rich sense of place in your books. London and other parts of England are very different now than they were when you started writing. Does that help you come up with new things to write about?
Lady RUTH: I suppose it must do, yes. Yes, I think so. Social change, of course, suggests things. For instance, I don't think I could have written "Thirteen Steps Down" even 20 years ago. I don't think people then had that obsession with fame, with wanting to become--get themselves into the news at any price, for any reason.
ELLIOTT: One of the things that has long distinguished your mysteries is the connection that you show between crime and social ills, racism or class stratification. It's as if you're saying, you know, `Crimes are not just the work of amoral individuals.' Is that a correct read of what you're trying to accomplish?
Lady RUTH: I think it's a very good estimate of it, yes. Yes, it is. In a case of a person like Mix, he's partly the way he is because he had a bad childhood, and he had a bad childhood because he was living--because there were a lot of social ills that hadn't been put right, such as his mother giving birth to him so young and having--taking up with a violent man. I think you mean that sort of thing, and if I write about it like that, it's because I believe it to be true.
ELLIOTT: How do you keep coming up with new plots and new crimes to tell? You've been writing for 40 years. I would think it would get difficult at some point.
Lady RUTH: Look, I found the whole thing difficult, but it isn't--any of it isn't easy to me. You know, I don't know, but I do seem to be able to think up new ideas. And I hope I don't repeat myself, but why or how? I don't think anybody could say that about what they do.
ELLIOTT: And you're writing--What?--one or two books a year now?
Lady RUTH: One, really, and then there will be a Barbara Vine that will come across that. The recent Barbara Vine is the first in three years, and there's been one book a year as well as that.
ELLIOTT: Can you tell us more about Barbara Vine? When do you decide whether you're going to write a Ruth Rendell mystery or a Barbara Vine mystery?
Lady RUTH: I don't think the Barbara Vines are mysteries in any sense. I must say that. They are different, and that is partly how I decide. The idea would come to me and I would know at once whether it was to be a Barbara Vine or a Ruth Rendell. And to me, they are entirely different. The Barbara Vine is much more slowly paced. It is a much more in-depth, searching sort of book; it doesn't necessarily have a murder in it. It's almost always set partly in the past, sometimes quite a long way in the past. And I think all these things come together and make them very different from the Ruth Rendells.
ELLIOTT: When did you develop your fascination with crime?
Lady RUTH: Well, I don't know that I am fascinated with crime. I'm fascinated with people and their characters and their obsessions and what they do. And these things lead to crime, but I'm much more fascinated in their minds.
ELLIOTT: Is there a favorite character?
Lady RUTH: Do you mean in my books?
ELLIOTT: Yes, that you've become attached to.
Lady RUTH: Oh! Oh, I don't think so. I hope they're real to other people, but I'm not sure that they're real to me. I mean, I've been asked if I'm in love with Wexford, but of course, to me, when I finished writing about him for the time being, I just put him away in some compartment in my mind and forget him. But I can bring him out again. And I don't feel that--I don't feel I have a life in my books that is with me all the time. I do when I'm thinking about them or writing about them, but not the rest of the time.
ELLIOTT: The novelist Ruth Rendell, who also publishes under the name Barbara Vine. To be perfectly proper, we will identify her as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, member of the British House of Lords. Lady Rendell's latest mystery is called "Thirteen Steps Down."
Thank you so much for being with us. I enjoyed our conversation.
Lady RUTH: Thank you. And I'd like to congratulate you on doing that last bit. You did it very well, perfectly accurately. Most people don't, I must tell you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: The first chapter of "Thirteen Steps Down" is on our Web site, npr.org.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.