Ruth Rendell


"Thirteen Steps Down"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAY 7, 2005)

"This house was a dreadful place at night, such a place as shouldn’t be allowed to exist, he thought. Living here for long would drive you mad. You’d feel it moldering away and slowly rotting around you, the wood and the hangings and the ancient carpets disintegrating hour by hour, minute by minute. If you stood still and listened you could almost hear it, tiny drippings and droppings, moths chewing, flakes falling, splinters, rust and mildew turning to dust."

In the psychological crime novel 13 Steps Down author Ruth Rendell explores the mind of Mix Cellini, a severely disturbed young man who has recently moved to the Notting Hill district in London in order to pursue his obsession with his hero, infamous serial killer Reggie Christie. Christie, one of Britain’s most chilling murderers, strangled and then posthumously raped several women in the 1940s and 50s, burying their bodies in various locations around his notorious address, 10 Rillington Place. When the book begins, Mix Cellini visits the location of Christie’s former home, and he’s devastated to discover that the house has been razed to the ground and no longer exists. To Cellini, this is tantamount to the destruction of a national monument.

Cellini has a large flat inside the vast, rambling Victorian mansion St. Blaise House. The eccentric Gwendolen Chawcer owns the dilapidated old house, and she spends her days reading and remembering the only man in her life, Dr. Stephen Reeves. Cellini discovers that Gwendolen met Christie once and actually visited his house, and it’s a significant conversation for both Cellini and Gwendolen. For her, discussing the “unpleasant” Christie “awakened sleeping things” and she begins to reminisce about Reeves who attended Gwendolen’s mother decades before. These memories mutate into urgent daydreams in Gwendolen’s mind, and she imagines that one day he’ll return and finally claim her. The fact that Cellini’s landlady met Christie captures Cellini’s imagination, and this sparks fantasies for him and somehow makes Christie a closer reality.

Cellini works as an exercise equipment repairman, and the job—which involves house calls to repair various machines--allows Cellini a fair amount of flexibility. He uses this to indulge a second obsession he has with supermodel Nerissa Nash. As he relentlessly stalks Nash, Cellini’s life begins to slip into chaos. Indulging in his twin obsessions of the serial killer Christie and the supermodel beauty, Cellini becomes disassociated from reality and plunges into delusions of fame. As Cellini’s life spirals out of control, he leaves reality behind and begins to ask himself what his hero, Christie, would do in certain situations.

Rendell expertly weaves the fantasies of Cellini, the real-life crimes of Christie, and the daydreams of Gwendolen, while blending in a generous mix of the occult into her gripping tale. Strong characterizations sweep the novel along, and the reader is drawn into the minds of the diverse subjects. Rendell emphasizes that all the characters indulge in daydreams of one sort or another, but that Cellini’s fantasies are made of dangerous stuff. Cellini’s disturbed mind is also haunted by his superstitious nature, and he begins to frequent Madam Shoshana, a medium also used by Nerissa Nash. Madam Shoshana may or may not be a fraud, but she seems to possess a power that even she’s unaware of, and soon Mix’s life begins to uncannily resemble Christie’s horrible history in all the worst ways.

For crime buffs, one of Christie’s most infamous murders resulted in the execution of an innocent man, Timothy Evans. Christie managed to pin this crime on his tenant by pleading his back was too weak to allow him to perpetrate the crime. Timothy Evans was hung for the murder of his wife and baby, but years later, it was discovered that Christie was actually responsible for these crimes. This gross miscarriage of justice resulted in the suspension of the capital punishment in Britain. While 13 Steps Down is not Rendell’s finest psychological novel (for those try Judgement in Stone, The Rottweiler, and The Tree of Hands) it is nonetheless, a good, solid suspenseful read for Rendell fans.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 22 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from 13 Steps Down at Random House

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"The Rottweiler"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAY 7, 2005)

Ruth Rendell once again proves that she is uniquely talented with her latest psychological thriller, The Rottweiler. The title refers to a serial killer who, at first, was mistakenly thought to bite his female victims. In truth, he doesn't bite the women he kills; he would rather not touch them at all. He strangles them using cord or a similar object, and then takes a trinket from each body as a keepsake.

The Rottweiler takes place in a London neighborhood, and much of the action revolves around an antiques shop owned by Inez, a widow who pines for her adored late husband, Martin. Inez also rents out flats above her shop to an assorted group of tenants. We gradually get to know a great deal about Inez, her tenants, and her gorgeous employee, Zeinab.

Why is Rendell such a mesmerizing writer? One reason is that she takes the time to delve into each character's mind and heart. In the pages of this novel, we meet an unrepentant serial killer, a few thieves, a charlatan, and an alcoholic, among others, but Rendell does not merely use her characters as props. She opens a window into each individual's personality, and she lays bare his or her weaknesses, strengths, vulnerabilities, hopes, and dreams. We may not like these people, but we understand them.

Besides the serial killer plot, there is a poignant and heartbreaking subplot that deals with the plight of Will, a development disabled man who relies a great deal on his Aunt Becky for love and emotional support. Becky is Will's only living relative, and although she cares for Will, she would like to live her own life, free of responsibility for this man-child. However, she is crippled by guilt, and she can think of no way to break free of him. As usual, Rendell writes with dark humor, cynicism, and deep insight into the many ways that people destroy themselves and others, and she holds the reader in the palm of her hand throughout.

In Rendell's world, there is no such thing as fairness. The good are not always rewarded for their virtue, nor are the evil always punished for their sins. Why would we want to enter such a bleak universe? The reasons are simple. Rendell's effortless writing is both lucid and beautifully descriptive, she maintains a high level of suspense until the last page is turned, and she has an unusual and thought-provoking perspective on human nature. That is why Rendell has always been in a class by herself.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews

 

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"Live Flesh"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAY 7, 2005)

"He could actually recognize one of the trees here, a gnarled oak with a hole in its trunk shaped like an open screaming mouth. He must have fixed his eyes on that hole in the tree trunk while he was raping the girl and the little dog howled. Sarah Dawson, her name had been. Victor realized by now that Clare and David had no idea of the associations of this place for him. It was simply a place they liked to come to. The rape of Sarah Dawson had taken place at least twelve years ago and they had probably never heard of the case. Why Clare wouldn't have been more than about fifteen herself then, he thought." 

"How could he have done such a thing? What had impelled him to harm that girl, to cause her such pain and terror, to beat her until her jaw had been broken and she had to have operations and orthodontic treatment? Victor had never asked himself such questions, they were a novelty to him, and he felt stunned by the inquiries he was making of himself. But they were too much for him and he shirked deeper probing."

Live Flesh is not the usual crime mystery/thriller. It is, however, a thrilling psychological study of a rapist, Victor Jenner, who suffers from chorea, a disease of the nervous system marked by involuntary, jerky movements of the arms, legs, and/or face. Sometimes this illness is called "live flesh." Victor also has a severe phobia of tortoises, along with a multitude of other neuroses. Throughout the novel, he feels a need for psychiatric treatment, but never follows through. Typically, he blames the system for not providing him with therapy. He does understand that he has serious problems, though, and more often than not knows the difference between right and wrong. The inimitable Ruth Rendell thoroughly explores Jenner's motives, secrets, and complex emotions. She paints a chilling portrait of a man doomed by violence he cannot control. This is obviously much more a book driven by characters, and their development, than by action. The heart of Live Flesh lies in the complexity of Victor Jenner's personality and how he interacts with others, two characters in particular. These people are all steeped in a web of consequences stemming from one single event, a gunshot, which alters their lives forever.

Victor Jenner was convicted of shooting a young police officer in the lower back and permanently crippling him. Jenner had been holding a young woman hostage in her bedroom, after breaking and entering her home, while escaping from the scene of an attempted rape. David Fleetwood, the officer, had been trying to gain the woman's release. Victor was not tried for the attempted rape, or the numerous other acts of sexual violence he had successfully committed; the police probably had no idea he was responsible for the crimes.

After ten years Jenner is released early, for good behavior. He has serious problems adjusting to life after incarceration. But then, he always had problems adjusting. His irrational thought processes cause him to blame everyone but himself for the events leading up to the shooting. Underneath, however, he feels tremendous guilt for giving in to his irresistible urges which cause so much harm to others. The author allows the reader to enter Jenner's mind, his very thoughts, throughout the novel. He constantly constructs false scenarios which absolve him of guilt. Primary among his rationalizations is that if David Fleetwood had not taunted him by saying that the gun was a fake, a replica, then he wouldn't have had to fire it in order to prove that it was real. Other rationalizations include: if the girl hadn't screamed, then he wouldn't have had to hold her hostage; and if his uncle hadn't owned a gun, which he had easy access to, he never would have had it in his possession. Victor is also firmly convinced that he is incapable of restraining himself because of the chorea, which acts up when he is stressed. He believes that his behavior is as blameless and uncontrollable as the involuntary twitching which torments him.

The plot takes an unusual twist when Victor looks to meet the man he maimed, now wheelchair bound. His delusions allow him to think that, for the first time in his life, he has found true friendship. I must say that I really empathized with Victor, right up until the conclusion - which is a stunning one. His crimes are heinous, but so is the life he has to live with himself. I don't absolve him. I just feel terribly sorry for him - which is all Ms. Rendell's doing. Her characters are rich and so believable. And her narrative is spellbinding. This is a brilliant analysis and portrayal of a deranged man.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
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"The Keys to the Street"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 15, 1999)

London's Regent Park is architected as a maze of inner and outer circles which do not align. Until a person is familiar with the park, they can easily be mislead. Within the park is the London Zoo, a lake and a road that "on a map looks like a wheel with two projecting spikes." Iron spikes surmount each of the gates into the park, some straight and pointed, others twisted at right angle or ornate and blunted.

Mary Jago, normally meek and compliant, is leaving Alistair, her boyfriend, for what she tells him is a trial separation. Her own altruistic act of donating bone marrow to an anonymous man has revealed Alistair to be a brute and bully and she knows she must get away from him. Per a recommendation of her grandmother she is spending the summer house sitting for the Blackburn-Norris'. As she is settling into the routines of her new situation, she receives a letter from the Harvest Foundation saying that enough time has passed and she may meet the donor recipient. This she does and finds an inexplicable bond with the recipient, Leo Nash. But this is just the inner circle of the story.

Meanwhile there is the "dog man," Bean. He's a former servant who at the age of seventy-one has found that walking dogs for the people who live around Regent Park is a fine way to support himself. Well almost, this cruel man is on the look out for something juicy that he might cash in on. His life intersects with Mary, since he walks the Blackburn-Norris's shih tzu twice a day.

Then there is poor addicted Hob who will do anything for a "rock" to help him with his "states." Here is reliant on Carl and Gupta to provide hints at people needing jobs done (usually some form of bodily harm) and also to supply him with his drugs. He leaves straws strewn throughout the park as he satisfies his habit.

Finally, there is Roman, a heart broken man who, despite being able to afford a roof over his head, has chosen to wander the streets. Mary in her gentle ways is one of the few "insiders" that sees and acknowledges Roman. Through Roman we meet the other dossers. And it is these homeless men and women that are the victims of a serial killer who impales them on the spikes of those great gates.

I like the way Rendell has constructed this mystery much like the architecture of Regent Park with stories running as outer and inner circles that don't quite meet up. The reader has to jog along and learn each of these character's perspectives, of which all are interesting on their own as much as any story of human nature is. The thing is Rendell does tell you everything you need to solve the murders, but since they are almost incidental to the larger story, it is easy to miss. After all, it is only easy to get around the park after you are completely familiar with it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews
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"The Crocodile Bird"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 07, 1998)

Chilling. That is the first thought that comes to my mind when I think about this book.  Liza Beck and her mother Eve are obsessively attached to Shrove House in whose gatehouse they live.  Liza has been sheltered from the outside world - no school, no TV, no friends, nothing except literature.  But now, Eve is about to be taken away by the police so she sends Liza to live with a school friend in London.  Instead Liza runs off with her boyfriend, Sean Holford.  As she tells Sean the story of her life, we learn of the murders she has witnessed.  By the way, the crocodile bird is the only living creature that can enter the jaws of the crocodile and clean its teeth without being devoured. 

My friend, Adina, introduced me to this UK writer while we were traveling the Intracoastal Waterway on our sister boats. Whether writing under her own name, or her pseudonym Barbara Vine, she is a proficient and prolific writer. Any novel that I have read of hers I've enjoyed immensely. I find that Rendell/Vine writes more intelligently than what we expect for this type of dark mystery.  Until I put this page together, I didn't realize that she also wrote a mystery series.  I promise to check these out and let you know what I think, but I expect the best!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 59 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Inspector Wexford Mysteries: Standalone Mysteries & Psychological Thrillers: Collections: Movies from books:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Ruth RendellRuth Rendell was born in 1930 of parents who were both school teachers. After graduating fro Loughton County High School, Ruth worked as a reporter and sub-editor on several local newspapers. She married journalist Don Rendell when she was twenty and gave birth to her only son, in 1953, three years later. For a decade she attempted numerous genres, but remained unpublished until 1964, when From Doon to Death introduced dectective Inspector Reginald Wexford. In four decades, she had published nearly 50 crime novels and short story collections, including the novels she started publishing in the 1980s under the name Barbara Vine.

She has won many awards, including the Crime Writer's Association Gold Dagger for A Demon in my View (1976), an Edgar in 1984 for the best short story, The New Girl Friend, and a Gold Dagger award for Live Flesh in 1986.  In 1990, she won the Times Literary award and the Crime Writer's Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to genre.  In 1996 she was awarded the CBE and in 1997 became a Life Peer in the House of Lords.

Ruth lives in London.

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