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by Ruth Rendell
Hutchinson, October 2004
324 pages
ISBN: 0091799759

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Ruth Rendell has come a long way since her first Inspector Wexford novel FROM DOON WITH DEATH in 1964. Now a multi-award winner and a life peer of the realm, Rendell has lost nothing of her capacity to enthral and mystify her readers. THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN might equal in creepiness any of her previous work, including those books she wrote as Barbara Vine.

Michael (Mix) Cellini (anglicised pronunciation) sees himself as a criminologist. He is fascinated by the exploits of John Reginald Christie (whom he thinks of, fondly, as 'Reggie') and devotes his spare time to reading books about the murderer. He even rents a room in St Blaise House in Notting Hill just so he can be near the scene of Reggie's crimes, for all that the house in which they were committed no longer exists. For that matter, even Rillington Place no longer exists.

Mix's character verges on the obsessive compulsive. Everything in his flat, in contrast to the remainder of the house where his landlady's filth and squalor reign supreme, is clean and tidy. From his salary as a repairman for a company providing service on exercise machines, Mix has spent a considerable amount of money in renovating and painting his flat. His landlady, Gwendolen Chawcer, in stark contrast, has permitted the house in which she was born to degenerate while she indulges herself full time with reading and re-reading her collection of what could be called classics.

Mix has fallen is love with beautiful Nerissa, a model who, coincidentally and unbeknownst to him, is related to a friend of Gwendolen. Gwendolen, in turn, is in love, despite being in her eighties, with the doctor who, half a century previously, had attended her dying mother. On seeing an item in the paper, Gwendolen feels she has a chance to renew what she perceives as the relationship she had with that doctor, so attempts to change her fortune.

Mix is determined to get to know Nerissa and courts a receptionist at the gym where he thinks Nerissa is a client. The combined fitness centre and sauna is run by a fortune-teller, Madam Shoshana. It is not for fitness that Nerissa patronises the centre but to have her fortune told. Not knowing this, Mix permits his relationship with the receptionist to ascend to a dangerous level.

Mix is superstitious. He is terrified of anything involving the number 13. His flat has 13 steps to the next landing but he attempts to fool himself when ascending and descending these steps. He doesn't manage to delude the forces he fears, as he sees what he takes to be the house's resident ghost on occasions.

Rendell has always proved herself a dab hand at dealing with the psychologically-disturbed and this work is unlikely to destroy her well-deserved reputation. Readers seeking what our parents might, perhaps, have called good clean fun should certainly turn aside from this work. Anyone wanting a thoroughly involving mystery with overtones of the supernatural should seek no further. Rendell has equalled her previous creations with the characterisations of both Mix and Gwendolen. Her talent for suspense is given full rein and, as usual, she leaves the reader eagerly awaiting her next novel.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, September 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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