Portobello by Ruth Rendell, with an admittedly subjective meditation on this author’s peculiar genius

November 8, 2010 at 2:16 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

A physician and an art gallery owner fall in love.

A small time hood nurtures big time dreams.

A young man pulled back from the brink of death nurses an increasingly bizarre delusion.

What can these four people possibly have in common? They all live in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill. Also found in Notting Hill: the famous market in Portobello Road.

Eugene Wren, a fastidious aesthete, has fallen in love with Dr. Ella Cotswold. (Lovely name, that.) She returns his affection and impatiently awaits his proposal of marriage. But Eugene has a problem: he is in thrall to an obsession, one might even call it, as he himself does, an addiction. In his own eyes, it is a shameful thing, and one which he desperately wants to be kept secret – especially from his beloved Ella.

Meanwhile Ella is dealing with a uniquely challenging new patient. Joel Roseman’s weak heart required surgery. Although he nearly dies on the operating table, Joel ultimately pulls through. The procedure is a success – at least, from a medical standpoint. But during that brief time in which he hovered between life and death, something “rich and strange” happened to Joel. Up until the time of his hospitalization, he had been leading a solitary existence. But now he is no longer alone. And he is convinced that Ella is the only person who can help him.

At one point, Ella and Eugene both feel the need to get away from their busy London lives. But Eugene does not take sufficient care to secure his elegantly appointed premises. When he and Ella return, they discover that there’s been a break-in. Some valuable objets d’art are missing; even more distressing, a gold necklace set with green stones, a carefully chosen gift to Ella, is also gone. They can’t imagine who could have perpetrated this outrage.

But we can…

His name is Lance Platt. He lives with his Uncle Gib – not really his uncle, as Gib is always at pains to point out, but it’s a convenient designation all the same. Lance was in need of a place to stay after his girlfriend Gemma kicked him out of her flat. They’d had a fight that turned physical; as a result, Gemma was missing one of her front teeth. Despite this, she softens toward Lance and starts sleeping with him again over at Uncle Gib’s. They can’t get together at her place because she’s got another live-in boyfriend on the premises. To add to the confusion, Gemma also has a baby, inexplicably named Abelard, whose care she’s constantly needing to arrange.

Lance lives, as the British say, on the  benefit. He considers himself more or less unemployable and turns to theft and the fencing of stolen goods as a way of making ends meet. But right from the outset, you know this will not work for him. Lance is a bumbler from the get-go. He simply doesn’t have the smarts to make it on the street. In one scene, he spends an inordinate amount of time in an unlawfully entered premises eating a chocolate cake that his victim had placed in the fridge!

These characters’ lives are woven together with a kind of scary randomness. In his review of this novel Stephen King says: “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence….” I particular like that last phrase. I guess the other name you could call it by would be bad luck.

In recent days I’ve been indulging, by means of audiobook, in my own personal Rendell retrospective. I’ve listened to two Wexford novels, End in Tears, read by John Lee, and Not in the Flesh, read by Simon Vance. In the process, I was trying  to get at the crux of why this author’s work attracts me so strongly. To begin with,I like Rendell’s deeply ironic world view, which strikes me as quintessentially English. There’s the grim fatalism as well. The characters at times seem like types – the author’s unique types; at other times, they seem more uniquely themselves. I love the way she sets a scene, her economy of expression, the almost pointillist precision with which she describes a feeling or evokes a mood.

Above all, I am awed by Rendell’s ability to portray the human spirit suffering the most abject torment. Here is Eugene Wren, in thrall to that which he cannot do without:

He thought of them this way now, the classic addict’s reaction, needing but hating, longing but loathing. The bloody things.

Luckily for those of us under her spell, Ruth Rendell is extremely prolific. Click here to see the breakdown of her oeuvre on the Stop, You’re Killing Me! site. Contemporary Writers features an insightful essay, biographical information, and a straightforward listing of her works. Finally, Demons in her View is a helpful and informative site. I particularly appreciate the list of  stories. Rendell is a master of the short form; I believe that anyone seeking a full understanding of her art should read them.

As to specific recommendations, I felt confounded as soon as I began trying to winnow out my favorites. Then I decided to try settling on a favorite in each of four categories: the Wexfords; the psychological suspense novels not featuring Wexford (and not, as those books are, primarily police procedurals); books written as Barbara Vine; and the short stories. It should have helped that there is still so much I haven’t read (thank goodness!), but it wasn’t helping much.

The Wexford novels are superb procedurals. Wexford is a refreshingly normal man, with a wife, Dora, and two daughters, Sheila and Sylvia. He adores them, but not ostentatiously. In the  course of the series, the daughters grow up, marry, and in one case, divorce. Wexford finds that his affections flow more easily toward Sheila, the beautiful free-spirited actress. Sylvia tends to be more strict and judgmental. Wexford feels guilty about this unbidden preference and tends to overcompensate for it. My most vivid memory of The Babes in the Wood is that at the novel’s climax, Wexford gets the chance to show by his actions just how much he really does love Sylvia.  Those  actions constitute an instinctual response to a crisis, so he hasn’t thought them out in those terms, but afterward, there is no question in Sylvia’s mind about his devotion – there probably wasn’t, to begin with – but even more important, no question in her father’s own mind and heart either.

I very much enjoyed revisiting End in Tears and Not in the Flesh. John Lee and Simon Vance are  both excellent readers; particularly Lee, who could read the phone book and have me entranced! Of the two, I think Not in the Flesh is the stronger work. The mystery involves trying to match several reported missing persons with two sets of unidentified remains. This was a fascinating case. There is a subplot in which Rendell addresses a subject that most of us would rather not know about: female circumcision. There is a growing population of Somali immigrants in Kingsmarkham, some of whom are known to favor this practice, which is against the law in Britain.

In both End in Tears and Not in the Flesh, we get to know DI Hannah Goldsmith. I find Hannah an intriguing character study. She ‘s a very modern young woman, with firm feminist convictions. She thinks of herself as being in complete control of her emotions, so her powerful attraction to a fellow squad member Baljinder Bhattacharya is most inconvenient. But another of her cherished principles involves being honest with herself, so finally she’s forced to acknowledge her longing for Bal – at least, in her own thoughts:

Oh I do like a thin man with a concave belly and a profile like a hawk winging its way across the plains of the Punjab….

Lovely flight of fancy, that. By this time, I too was ready to fall in love (vicariously, of course) with Bal Bhattacharya!

Hannah’s judgmental tendencies reminded me of Mike Burden, Wexford’s longtime right hand man.  The two have been working together for so long that despite a fairly wide disparity in temperament,  they’ve become close personal friends. In his youth, Mike suffered the loss of his wife. As a result, his life is thrown into a chaotic state. Among other considerations, he’s had to arrange care for his small children, but the chaos extends beyond domestic difficulties. In No More Dying Then, Mike behaves in a manner completely out of character and rife with risk.  Wexford’s unstinting empathy and loyalty during this period is instrumental in cementing their friendship. 

Of  the twenty-two novels in this series, I’ve read eleven and enjoyed all of them. Special mention should be made of Simisola, with its unflinching look at racial prejudice and social dysfunction in the England of the mid 1990’s. ( The book also has the distinction of depicting what is surely one of the most egregious, shocking errors ever perpetrated by a fictional police force.) Kudos too to Harm Done, with its subtle and graceful homage to Josephine Tey.

Washington Post writer Michael Sims began his review of last year’s Wexford, The Monster in the Box, with this statement: “One of the best-written detective series in the genre’s history is ending.” While I am saddened by this revelation, readers have no choice but to accept and respect such decisions. (Colin Dexter’s conclusion of the Morse opus is another case in point.) It’s the old adage: Quit while you’re still at the top of your game. In my view, The Monster in the Box was as good as any novel in the series.  And now perhaps I’ll have a chance to read the earlier entries, and of course, to revisit my favorites via audiobook.

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I read my first Rendell work shortly after coming to work in the library in 1982. It was Make Death Love Me, a non-Wexford that came out in 1979. Sadly, the library no longer owns this title; moreover, it is currently out of print. (You can get it on the Amazon Kindle, though. Oh dear…I may be weakening…)

Other standouts in this group:

But the masterpiece – an almost perfect novel from its famously confounding first sentence  to its shattering conclusion – is Judgement in Stone. No one is better than Ruth Rendell at showing the corrosive effects of  a secret shame (a theme she revisits once again with great success in Portobello). In my opinion, Judgement in Stone is destined to join the ranks of the great classics of psychological suspense.

Ruth Rendell

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More on the short stories and the Barbara Vine novels in a subsequent post.

3 Comments

  1. kathy d. said,

    Wow! This is the most compelling piece I’ve read about why one should read Ruth Rendell’s works. I’ve never been that swayed before. I don’t think I’m one for psychological suspense as I don’t want to be in the mind of a sociopath.

    But I certainly could read some of the Inspector Wexford books and Hannah Goldsmith sounds like someone I could read about and like.

    But I must read some of the books you’ve discussed above, the two about the woman police officer and a few others.

    Donna Leon, whom we both admire, thinks Ruth Rendell is a stunning writer, one of her top favorites.

    I think there’s something inherited in my not liking to read psychological suspense but liking the “whodunnits” in detective stories and police procedurals. My 90-year-old uncle who’s read mysteries for decades, always tells me that he “likes Ruth Rendell’s books, but not the ones with suspense, only the inspector ones.” He likes the puzzle, as do I, and so did my father, his brother, who got me into the mystery addiction anyway.

    My sister, on the other hand, would probably like the psychological suspense. I’ll have to mention this post to her.

  2. Martin Edwards said,

    I share your admiration for this wonderful writer. My favourites are A Judgment in Stone, A Fatal Inversion, The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in my View

  3. Philip Swan said,

    My favorite author, bar none. Just started reading THE CROCODILE BIRD for probably the 4th time. And when she writes as Barbara Vine, that’s something else altogether – and something even better. I recently completed my leisurely annual reading of ASTA’S BOOK (ANNA’S BOOK in the US and, like many of the others, sadly out-of-print) – it may have been the 14th time.

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