Sunday, January 08, 2006

Books: 13 Steps Down • Ruth Rendell

Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: Sept. 27, 2005, by Crown
Verdict: &&&1/2

From the opening pages of 13 Steps Down, we know that we are about to witness the undoing of the principal characters – Mix Cellini, a man with an unhealthy interest in U.K. serial killer Reginald Christie and an obsession with a model with whom he has had several chance meetings, and his landlord, Gwendolen Chawcer, a grumpy, eccentric old woman (or "sarcastic old bitch," as Cellini pegs her) who spends her time reading the thousands of books lining the walls of her dark, cavernous old home and stores her flashlight in the refrigerator. We know that Cellini will undoubtedly kill and Chawcer is likely doomed to meet an unsavory fate, but it matters not: The pleasures of a Rendell novel lie in getting there. Her ability to convey the human mind's self-debate and rationalizations as, for example, Cellini finds ways – transparent to anyone but himself – to put himself in the path of his model crush is simply stunning. There's also a devastating look at unrequited love as Chawcer pines for the doctor who tended her father when she was a young lady. At this late stage, she takes to writing him letters and obsesses over the possibility that, all those years ago, he saw her accompany a family maid to an abortionist and deemed her classless. The use of a real-world figure, Christie, and the appearance on several occasions of a "ghost" are effective and welcomed deviations from typical Rendell plot elements, but Cellini's world unravels in classic Rendellian fashion. It's worth noting that the British master, after 41 years and more than 60 novels, apparently graced the New York Times bestseller list for the first time with this one thanks to a U.S. publicity blitz, and Entertainment Weekly named 13 Steps Down the number three fiction book of the year.

// Also see // Make Death Love Me • Ruth Rendell

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