Review

13 Steps Down

by Ruth Rendell



Ruth Rendell is one of those writers who always gets it right. Her
new novel titled 13 STEPS DOWN is a chilling story of obsession,
superstition, hatred, guilt, fantasy lives and murder. Mix Cellini
is a disenfranchised young man who makes his living repairing and
maintaining exercise equipment. He is superstitious and shudders
when he is forced to confront the number 13, which happens to be
the number of steps that lead to his flat in a neglected and
crumbling old Victorian house. His fears and his belief in ghosts
and the occult haunt him. He is single and rents the attic space
from Gwendolen Chawcer, an elderly spinster who has lived alone for
many years amid the dust, dirt, mess, her cat Otto, and the
fabulous collections of books that sustain her life. Mix hates her.
And the feeling is mutual.


As the story unfolds we learn that Gwendolen was one of those
females whose life was determined and controlled by her overbearing
father. After her mother died, she was expected to take care of Mr.
Chawcer and never to strike out on her own. Unfortunately, he lived
to the ripe-old age of 94, thus never giving his daughter a chance
to meet people, especially men. He had made up his mind that she
was not "marriage material" and would be better off reading and
learning how to take care of him. Despite her isolation and
naiveté she fell in love with the young doctor who cared for
her father. But once the old man died, she never heard from him
again. Nevertheless, she carried a torch for him for 50 years and
over time it became a heavy burden for her.


And since her father died, she has lived alone in a few of the many
rooms in the house she had grown up in. For her, the structure is
familiar and she really doesn't see the crumbling wallpaper,
peeling paint, or very out-of-date appliances (which she never uses
anyway), nor does she feel the cold. Mix is her first border and he
is not happy with his situation. He thinks he can hear "drippings
and droppings, moths chewing, flakes falling, splinters, rust
mildew turning to dust." He bemoans his fate at ever having stepped
over the threshold of this place. But once he allows his fantasies
to purge any hold on reality he ever had, he has only one purpose
and that becomes his whole focus.

 

Mix, who takes his women where and when he can get them, meets a
gorgeous model, Nerissa Nash. As soon as he sets eyes on her, he
knows that she must be his and he begins to stalk her. Nerissa is
clueless for a good portion of the story, though readers can guess
what is going to happen and it is not good. Mix is also obsessed
with a notorious doctor who not only performed abortions 50 years
ago, but also killed the women he butchered and indulged in the act
of necrophilia before he buried them. He is Mix's idol, and Mix
takes strength and inspiration from the collection of books he owns
that are all about the infamous doctor.


Readers get to meet a number of supporting players, including
Madame Shoshanna, the phony and sadistic "psychic" who meddles with
an eye toward trouble; Danila, the young woman Mix meets at a spa
and begins to date; and the customers Mix calls on to fix their
exercise equipment --- mostly women --- and with whom he indulges
in a little extracurricular recreation. But none of this is really
important to him. He is fixated on Nerissa to the point where his
obsession pushes him over the line from a very neurotic young man
to a dangerous psychopath.


Ruth Rendell is a master craftsperson at creating the creepy
atmosphere required to write a riveting and compelling
psychological thriller. She doesn't need to use an extra word or
gesture, or any gratuitous baggage, to draw her readers in and keep
them turning pages and biting their nails. Her plots are complex
and have enough gravitas to keep the most ardent reader
entertained. Because her characters are fully fleshed out and
believable, they are also recognizable as people, and that can be
very scary.


In an essay for Kings and Queens of Crime, Val McDermid
highlights Rendell's art: "Perhaps one of the key reasons for the
sustained quality of [her] novels is Ruth Rendell's habit of
variety. From the very beginning of her career, she made it plain
that she would not be pigeonholed into writing one kind of novel
only … Patricia Highsmith is often cited as the mother of the
psychological suspense novel. But for my money, Rendell's influence
has been far greater. Highsmith's novels are quintessentially
European, whereas Ruth Rendell has created a sub-genre that speaks
more resonantly to Brits and Americans."


The tone of Rendell's books is always highly suspenseful and
tightly constructed. Her greatest talent is her ability to create
characters and plots that are multilayered, interesting and a
challenge to readers. She is one of the small coterie of novelists
who can manage to produce work that is always new and no two books
are the same Her body of work is legion and readers can always
count on getting a fresh, well-crafted book. In an interview for
Financial Literary Newsletter she says, "There's a lot of
satisfaction also, in knowing that people feel that once they've
got hold of a book of yours, they can't put it down. It distracts
them from everything else, it takes them from all their duties, and
they just have to finish the book. And that's a very satisfying
thing."


13 STEPS DOWN is more confirmation of how much Rendell deserves the
fine reputation she has earned among readers and other writers.
Those new to Rendell's more than 70 books will find her latest
novel unique, meeting the high standards that Rendell has always
imposed upon herself and that has become expected from her by an
adoring public. This book is a keeper, definitely to be read more
than once.


   


















Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 22, 2010

13 Steps Down
by Ruth Rendell

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction, Psychological Suspense
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 1400098424
  • ISBN-13: 9781400098422