Ruth Rendell clearly loves the environs of Portobello Road, a "centipede" stretch of street filled with market kiosks and shops and leggy side streets encompassing rich and poor neighbourhoods. But since Rendell is one of Britain's most experienced and talented purveyors of crime fiction, it's the area's unpredictable dark side that really grips her.
"An indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger. There is nothing safe about the Portobello, nothing suburban," she writes in her latest thriller, a paean to the colourful area of London and the diversity of its inhabitants.
One of the wealthier denizens of Rendell's fictional Portobello is Eugene Wren, who inherited a prosperous art gallery from his father and now lives in comfortable middle-aged bachelorhood in a beautifully decorated flat. Eugene is contemplating ending his single status by marrying his longtime girlfriend Ella, a general practitioner.
One day Eugene finds a packet of money outside his flat and rather than turn it in to the police, he chooses to put up a notice on a lamp-post asking the owner of the cash to contact him. The notice links Eugene and Ella with an odd assortment of eccentric, mad and criminal neighbours.
Chronically unemployed Lance Gilbert tries unsuccessfully to claim the money and uses the ploy to case Eugene's flat for a future burglary. The actual owner of the money is Joel Roseman, a deeply disturbed young man who has apparently suffered a heart attack in the street. When Ella returns the money to Joel at a private hospital, she winds up as his new doctor.
Rendell specializes in psychologically bent characters with dark secrets, and Portobello's cast of oddballs is no different. Even the fortunate Eugene has a deep, dark secret -- a compelling addiction to sugarless candies that is driving him to increasingly bizarre behaviour and threatening to derail his wedding to Ella.
Joel Roseman's father blames him for a childhood accident that took the life of his sister. He is now a "remittance man," isolated and exiled from his family and sinking into insanity in his dark, posh apartment. A near-death experience after his heart attack tips Joel into full-blown delusions that terrorize his hired nurses and the increasingly nervous Ella.
Lance, meanwhile, is barely getting by on the charity of his uncle Gib, a religious fanatic with a sketchy past as a thief. He sees some potential for escape from his circumstances in a new career as a burglar, starting with Eugene's flat.
Rendell infuses all these characters with the potential to be criminal or victim, building the suspense to a high pitch as conflicting obsessions play themselves out. She is one of the best creators of dread in the business. However, in Portobello Rendell pulls her punches. Perhaps after more than 40 books, this Queen of Crime is mellowing. There is a touch of mayhem and an incidental murder or two, but the reader's worst expectations aren't borne out.
Rendell's clear affection for her setting as a character in the book takes some of the intensity out of her other portrayals. But Rendell in a sentimental mood outstrips most of her rivals for sheer readability. Portobello is as literate and well-crafted as Rendell's best, even if her signature explicit depiction of criminal psychosis is toned down.
By Ruth Rendell