Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ruth Rendell has been for years the undisputed queen of the dysfunctional family – strangers who come together by accident or fate and because of who they are plunge into some unfortunate, usually fatal situation. 13 Steps Down, just out in paperback, is a prime example. Into a huge, shabby mansion in London’s Notting Hill owned by an 80-year-old woman named Gwendolen Chawcer comes a tenant called Michael Cellini, known as Mix. (Chawcer and Cellini: Rendell does like to have her fun with names).
Gwendolen, the only child of a domineering professor, inherited the house and a small but adequate income when he finally died. Most of her clothes are relics; she has no interest in food or shopping of any kind; what she really likes to do is spend every minute reading her father’s old books. “It was a strange life she led but a safe one, as any life must be that is without fear or hope or passion or love or change or anxiety about money.”
But money has recently become a problem, so she has reluctantly rented out one of the empty apartments at the top of her house to the deceptively ordinary Cellini – a man in his 30s who repairs exercise equipment and has a pair of obsessions that border on the psychotic. He moved to Notting Hill because it used to be the killing ground of Reggie Christie, a necrophiliac serial killer of women whose bodies he interred under the floorboards and in the walls at his home at Ten Rillington Place – a house and a street that no longer exist, much to Mix’s disgust.
Cellini also has an unhealthy interest in a model called Nerissa Nash whose lovely face and body are everywhere, and imagines them becoming a couple. He stalks her from her home not far away from his to what he thinks is her gym (it turns out to be the office of a particularly greedy fortune teller), and even combines his twin obsessions into a strange brew.
In lesser hands, given a setting like this, the first killing might become merely a question of who and when. But Rendell has written more than 60 books over the last 40 years, collecting the highest praise from critics and enough awards from her peers to fill a small pawnshop, and she’s not about to let down the side by doing the expected things. Be ready for a few surprises, even a believable coincidence or three.