She’s a 75-year-old Englishwoman who writes mysteries, and loads of them: Since 1964, she’s published 62 titles. At that alarmingly brisk clip, how could they possibly be any good?
But as her legions of fans know, Ruth Rendell’s cool, dark, intricately plotted novels are very good indeed. And the best of them, like her superb new 13 Steps Down, are peerless. From the most shopworn suspense motifs — a dilapidated Victorian mansion, a malevolent cat, a Miss Havisham-like octogenarian, and a homicidal narcissist straight out of Patricia Highsmith — Rendell knits a sharply contemporary gothic that is at once creepy, incredibly funny, and oddly moving.
Mix Cellini is a rootless, not-so-bright London technician for a company that repairs home fitness equipment. Aside from drinking, Mix has two hobbies: stalking supermodel Nerissa Nash, whom he intends to marry, and studying the career of the legendary 1940s serial killer and necrophiliac Reggie Christie. In fact, Mix chose his flat in the spectacularly shabby old St. Blaise House because of its proximity to Reggie’s old Notting Hill haunts. He did not bargain for his crotchety landlady, Gwendolen Chawcer, a miserly spinster in her 80s who is openly nostalgic for chamber pots and does not hesitate to snoop in his rooms whenever he steps out. And he did not bargain for the ghost he encounters in her decrepit house, nor for Otto, Gwendolen’s feral, all-seeing cat.
Mix and Gwendolen loathe each other, but they are in fact twinned in their self-absorption and futile romantic fixations. To get closer to Nerissa, Mix seduces Danila, the young receptionist at Nerissa’s gym, and then, in a petulant rage, kills her. Gwendolen spends her days plowing through yellowing volumes of George Eliot and Henry James, but is increasingly preoccupied by memories of her chaste friendship with a courtly doctor, a relationship that ended 50 years ago. Upon reading in the newspaper that the doctor’s wife has died, Gwendolen begins scheming to renew their connection. Where Mix’s amorous delusions are sinister, Gwendolen’s are embarrassing and, as the novel progresses, increasingly sad.
But Rendell’s niftiest achievement is her cultivation of the pitch-black comedy in the back-and-forth between an inept and frantic killer — a featherbrain who leaves clues strewn throughout the house — and his landlady, who can’t find Danila’s reeking corpse when it is literally under her nose. Gwendolen fishes the dead woman’s thong out of a tub in her garden but has no idea what it is, or what it might imply: ”A kind of truss? It looked hardly strong enough to contain a hernia. Perhaps it was a body belt….”
Rendell makes a single misstep: Late in the game, she tries to account for Mix’s ghostly visitations with a clunky rational explanation. Readers need no such accounting: Mix is a crackpot — of course he sees dead people. But by the end, Rendell has moved past this gaffe, and the dazzling final words of her almost-perfect novel hit all its many high notes, embodying the virtuoso author’s hard-earned command of her craft.