Ruth Rendell's The Rottweiler

The Times has identified Ruth Rendell as a “criminal mastermind of unparalleled breadth and depth.” Awarded several honorary doctorates, Rendell has also won Gold and Silver Dagger Awards, two Edgar Allan Poe Awards, the Arts Council National Book Award, and the Sunday Times Award for literary excellence. In addition, she has won the Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre and the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Her work has been short-listed for the coveted Whitbread award and been translated into 25 languages. As Washington Post reviewer Michael Sims noted, Rendell’s “list of honors is longer than most authors’ bibliographies.”

In 1997 she joined the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She is now an octogenarian with no signs of slowing down. Rendell’s books fall into three categories: the Wexford mysteries (see my post on End in Tears), the stand-alone mysteries, and those written under the pseudonym, Barbara Vine (see my post on The Minotaur). The Rottweiler is one of her most engaging stand-alone novels, “especially sure-handed” according to Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

The novel begins with the unsettling news of a murder by a suspected serial killer. Nicknamed the “Rottweiler” by the press, the murderer has killed three women, each time stealing some trinket from them. Rendell presents a closed-world of characters, all associated with a Victorian house converted into an antique shop/boarding house. The possibility of a serial killer lurking somewhere in the vicinity keeps these characters on high alert. Rendell is master of the hidden menace lurking amidst the ordinary and the everyday.

Like most of her novels, The Rottweiler is less a “whodunit” than a “why-done-it.” The ultimate mystery in her fiction is the psyche of the murderer. Rendell’s forte is the seriously disturbed individual, and, in this novel, she probes the depths of a serial killer’s mind.

This killer leads an eerie double life, complete with two separate identities and names. Yet he is not alone in doing so. Rendell introduces a number of characters who lead secret lives. Zeinab is known by three different names; she manages to keep her true identity hidden from her employer and two fiancés. Ludmila and Freddy are masters of deception. Even Will has a secret that he hides from everyone.

Rendell narrates the novel through multiple narrators. By doing so, she presents characters through a dual lens; we see them from their own perspective and from that of other characters. We are constantly aware of the discrepancy between the personas the characters adopt and the hidden lives they actually lead.

The novel contains multiple plotlines tied together by the theme of deception. The ultimate swindler in the narrative is the serial killer. By expanding the plot to suggest similarities between different stories, Rendell produces an eerie effect: the lives of the characters echo the secret life of the serial killer. Hence the novel suggests the potential for evil within everyone. The Rottweiler is a novel rooted in the ordinary, the mundane. It is the menace that lurks within seemingly ordinary characters and beneath the surface of an apparently commonplace world that is so unsettling in the narrative.

“Psychologically acute and extremely disturbing, Ruth Rendell’s work is outstanding,” writes Natasha Cooper. How does Rendell compare to other mystery novelists? The Times’s Donna Leon says it best: “In the world of contemporary crime fiction, Rendell really is top dog.”

Rendell, Ruth. The Rottweiler. Scarborough, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2003.