Born in London, the daughter of teachers, Ruth (Barbara), née Grasemann, worked as a journalist for Essex newspapers before creating her character Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, the protagonist of her first police procedural From Doon With Death (1964). Wexford's latest case is The Babes in the Wood (2002).
Parallel to her Wexford procedurals are Rendell's psychological crime novels wherein she explores themes such as sexual obsession, the effects of misperceived communication, chance and the humanness of criminals, in books such as Judgment in Stone, Live Flesh, Talking to Strange Men, The Killing Doll, Going Wrong, and Adam and Eve and Pinch Me.
Rendell created a third strand of writing with the publication of A Dark Adapted Eye under her pseudonym Barbara Vine in 1986. Books such as King Solomon's Carpet, A Fatal Inversion and Anna's Book (original UK title Asta's Book) inhabit the same territory as her psychological crime novels while they further develop themes of family misunderstandings and the side effects of secrets kept and crimes done. Rendell is famous for her elegant prose and sharp insights into the human mind, as well as her ability to create cogent plots and characters. Rendell has also injected the social changes of the last 40 years into her work, bringing awareness to such issues as domestic violence and the change in the status of women.
Many credit her and P.D. James for upgrading the entire genre of the whodunnit, shaping it more into a whydunnit. Several of her works have been adapted for film and television, including The Tree of Hands and the Pedro Almodovar film Live Flesh.
She has received many awards for her writing, including the Silver, Gold and Cartier Diamond Daggers from the Crime Writers Association, 3 Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, The Arts Council National Book Awards, and the Sunday Times Literary Award. She was made CBE in 1996 and a life peer in 1997.