Lay Death at Her Door was inspired most directly by The Chill (Ross MacDonald) and Lolita. If you have read all three books, the connection will be obvious. But while I was writing, I also read every novel Ruth Rendell ever wrote. Her influence was profound.
I love that she gets right next to the drama at the heart of the murder. She even does this in her detective stories, the charming Wexford series. But it’s her standalones that I admire most. Often called howdunnits and whydunnits, books like Lake of Darkness, Going Wrong, A Demon in My View, and A Dark Adapted Eye (what a great title!) take us into the lives of people who kill and are killed.
I’m not talking about books written from the POV of a murdering psychopath—I don’t read these as a rule. Mostly, Rendell’s books are about people shaped by their environment and experience and propelled by recognizable, even universal, human emotions. When her character is a psychopath, we still experience that character’s humanity and vulnerability.
In the classic detective story, the murder takes place in the past, or off-stage, and the protagonist asks questions and pores over evidence and makes deductions. These actions make good reading—I especially love the reasoning and problem solving process (I used to teach logic).
But we don’t “see” the murder, the life-and-death drama. If it’s truly a whodunit, even if the build-up to murder is there, the ultimate act can’t happen onstage, obviously, or there’d be no mystery. We find out what happened by a confession, or by the detective announcing who is guilty, or by some other form of “tell” rather than by way of full dramatization.
Some of the best detective fiction uses multiple points of view to draw us into the deadly combination of emotion and crucible — though the murder will still be off-stage. Rendell has been a force in this kind of crime novel, as has PD James.
And that’s my current influence. Sisters in Crime here in Central Texas just celebrated James’s 94th birthday, and as a result I’ve dragged out her books and plan to reread them all.