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You will needs your wits about you to walk Thirteen Steps Down with Ruth Rendell.
Mix is a fitness equipment maintenance man. Gwendolen is his cantankerous and ancient landlady. His cultural interests are reading up on the murders committed at nearby 10 Rillington Place. The elderly Gwendolen favours Thomas Mann and Ruskin. They inhabit a large, dark rambling early-Victorian villa in Notting Hill, close to the Westway, which hums sighs with incessant traffic.
Mix isn't just obsessed by Christie's infamous, necrophiliac, Rillington Place murders, he's well on the way to emulating his hero. For Mix is very, very taken with Nerissa, a beautiful model who looks like a softer version of Naomi Campbell, a girl too kind and well-mannered to tell him to get lost. In the meantime he messes around with Danila, a girl he has picked up during work hours. Danila doesn't matter and he certainly doesn't waste good wine when they date: any old plonk will do to relax her enough for him to get her into bed. But this undemanding dalliance doesn't stop his stalking of Nerissa and his anguish when she manages to skip out of his way every time he thinks he's getting close to her.
Something nasty is going to happen. Alone in his flat at the top floor of the decaying mansion Mix plots and reads up on Christie murders and methods of body disposal. Gwendolen paces the house and spies on Mix, going into his flat when he's out to examine the contents of his fridge, wishing him gone. But she needs his rent.
In the meantime, a couple of modern day witches cast spells and read cards for the gullible (including Nerissa). Gwendolen's long-suffering friends wonder why they have put up with her for so long: she's rude, grimy and ungrateful. And she really seems to hate that lodger of hers.
Things at the house are never dull. A ghost pads the upstairs floors and Mix is convinced it is that of Christie, come to advise and warn him. Gwendolen's cat isn't getting fed and yet retains his sleek and well-covered beauty. And all the time the traffic along the Westway never stops hurrying people on their way. Modern life is fast and furious but back at the house, in the mouldy rooms and up the dimly lit stairs, (Gwendolen scrimps on lightbulbs) there's a hint that grudges old and new are slowly about to come to a head.
Throw in an urbane and intellectual Sikh neighbour and an observant asylum seeker, the only two seeing clearly, and you have a rich cast of people: humorous, creepy and engaging; Asian, British, Middle-Eastern and African.
I've always loved the mischief in Rendell's books, and this one has it in plenty. There's a Dickensian relish for London itself: the variety of people pounding its streets, the range of their dreams and aspirations, the 24/7 supermarkets and the secondhand bookshops, the modern, sparkling, gyms and the dusty plane trees. Everyone's trying to get somewhere or something. Nerissa the model wants a 'nice' boyfriend who loves her for herself. The asylum seeker wants to stay alive until he can go home. Mix wants to consummate his 'relationship' with Nerissa. And Gwendolen wishes the whole lot of them six foot under. Which is certainly where some of them could end up by the end of the book. The question is, who? You know someone's going to clock it but you can't be sure who.
I actually enjoyed this book so much that when I realized I was about to inadvertently reread it after a three-year break I didn't mind at all. In fact I think I enjoyed it more the second time round as I could relish the information planted early on that might lead you to draw the correct conclusions. If you're reading for the first time you might think you can guess what's going to happen but you'll probably be wrong. And even if you've worked it out you'll be surprised at the way in which the crimes are ultimately uncovered.
My advice: keep your wits about you and watch all the characters carefully.
Ruth Rendell is one of the most well known crime authors in the UK. Whilst she is better know for the inspector Wexford stories. Many of which have been adapted for TV most of her books do not include him. Rendell has won many prizes as a crime writer including silver, gold and diamond 'daggers' in the crime writer's awards.
Whilst this book is not the easiest to read it is not because it is badly written or that it is overly macabre it is mainly due to the fact that Rendell can, at times, be a bit heavy going and using language which perhaps could, at times, have been simplified. She also seams to tie up the lose ends in the story fairly well but uses far too much coincidence for my liking. Whilst at times the story was gripping it probably isn't one I would read again in a hurry. Rendell has written far better books than this one which are not necessarily easier to read but have less coincidence and the stories flow that bit better. One big problem for me is that there are too many minor characters to keep track of meaning you may have to flip back in the book to find out who someone is.
Anyway, I'll try not to give too much away for those who have not read the book.
The main setting for this book is an old some would say dilapidated house which the Landlady, Gwendolyn Chawcer, inherited from her father and now as her income no longer goes as far as she believes it should she has been forced to rent out the upper floor of her house. Her tenant is 'Mix' Cellini (pronounced Chellini). The two have an odd relationship and rarely speak to each other. They are a bit like the original odd couple, he is meticulously tidy and she just ignores the mess dirt and grime around her.
Mix has an unusual, somewhat extreme obsession with the serial killer John Reginald Christie who lived in the area that he now resides in. This obsession is the only reason he moved into the old lady's house. He has a copy of every book written about him and cuttings from papers etc. His other obsession is with a 'super model' He has a large poster of her in his flat and has begun to obsessively stalk her even taking on servicing the running machines at the gym she goes to. He fanaticizes of marrying her and is the type to never take 'no' for an answer. Mix also suffers from trixadecophobia (the fear of the number 13). Unfortunately, this number crops up for him often in the book. e.g. there are 13 steps on the flight of stairs between the second and third floor of the house, with his flat being on the third.
Unbeknown to Mix, Gwendolyn knew Christie, or at least knew of him and his chilling past. She had not thought of that day in many years but an unfortunate event brings the memory back. Gwendolyn is a spinster who as lived her life mainly through the books in her vast library. She was home schooled and has a strong intellect. She is happy in her self imposed hermit like state and appears to be annoyed when two other elderly ladies who regard themselves as Gwendolyn's friends come round for tea, as it means she has to buy cake and make tea for them. She is even more irritated by them when she returns home from hospital after a short illness as they fuss over Gwendolyn and she just wants to be left alone. Gwen seams to be oblivious to the mess her part of the house is in and has lived alone ever since her father died. The only interest in men was a crush she developed on her parent's doctor. Unfortunately for her he did not feel the same way. However, she did by chance see the obituary of the doctor's wife and she now believes that she is next in line for his affections and starts to plan a future for them.
In the first few chapters the scene is set and the characters and their individual traits are introduced. The main scene is the house with its dust, grime encrusted windows cobwebs and the lights on the stairs which are on a timer which is always three seconds to short to make it upstairs. The main part of the house is in stark contrast to Mix's flat. Scrupulously clean and everything in place. He even goes as far as making sure his glass of his favourite cocktail is placed exactly in the middle of the shelf of the fridge. Probably something Gwendolyn should have noticed when she picked the glass up as she was snooping in his flat.
The main plot lines within the story are chilling at times with Mix's obsession with Nariser (the model) is unsettlingly believable and at times quite chilling. This is mainly down to the skill of Rendell as an author. Mix's obsessions appear to push Gwendolyn's daydreaming of her 'future' with the doctor and dread of her past into what really seams to be a secondary plot. However, as I have said in this book it appears to be coincidence after coincidence which I did find disappointing as Rendell is such an accomplished author I would have thought she was above that type of writing style. Having said that the chapters within the book are of a good length and they are not always jumping back and forth to different plot lines hence the story does run quite well. Rendell does use some of the secondary characters very well in order to further some of the plots. However, I feel that the two friends of Gwen were perhaps a bit too much, it would have been better if they had been combined into one as they are fairly similar in their personalities etc.
In all it was a fairly good read but I wouldn't rush to re-read it.
I have a similar but slightly shorter review on ciao under the same user name.