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A Review of: Thirteen Steps Down
by Angela Narth

This novel should come with a warning label for all would-be mystery writers: "Performed by an expert: do not attempt this at home."
Who, but Ruth Rendell, would be able to conceive of a murderous yet compelling main character such as Mix Cellini? Readers will be wishing him harsh and speedy retribution, while at the same time eagerly turning the pages to see what diabolical act he will think of next.
Under her own name, Rendell has published over thirty murder mysteries and several short story collections. In addition, she has written another dozen mysteries under her nom de plume, Barbara Vine. In this, her latest novel, she brings together three main characters who might have seemed either bland or totally over the top in the hands of someone less skilled.
With Mix, his ancient and curmudgeonly landlady Gwendolen, and the strikingly beautiful model Nerissa, Rendell weaves a tangled tale of steadily building tensions, as the thread that draws them together increasingly makes obvious how different the three really are.
All three are in love, and for all three, the love is unrequited. How they proceed to win the affections of the object of their dreams is what makes it clear who among them deserves to be rewarded-and how.
It is apparent that Rendell has made a thorough study of the intense emotions that render a human being capable of murder. In her 1996 non-fiction work, Anthology of the Murderous Mind, Rendell drew superb examples, from both fact and fiction, about various combinations of human traits which can make the crucial difference between an oddball and a murderer. In Thirteen Steps Down, she creates characters with fascinating blends of some of these traits: the landlady is delusional and self-absorbed, and the model is self-deprecating and obsessed with her body. But in Mix Cellini, Rendell has created a character who is as distasteful as he is intriguing. Mix, an exercise equipment serviceman, is an obsessive-compulsive with regard to cleanliness. He is egotistical, and deceives himself about what he thinks as Nerissa's feelings for him. He has a morbid fear of the number thirteen and blames the number for most of his woes. Most importantly, he is obsessed with a local mass murderer who, fifty years earlier, terrorized women in the very neighbourhood where Mix now lives.
Thirteen Steps Down does not give us a tale as raw as if it had been written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. It does give us the unrelenting tension sustained by a main character whose mind becomes increasingly unhinged as deeds begin to affect him, reminding us of the terror evoked in Poe's The Telltale Heart.
Rendell has dedicated this novel to P.D. James, her friend and fellow murder-mystery author, and a fitting tribute it is. This is likely Ruth Rendell's finest offering to date and one with which she just may have surpassed James as the new "Queen of Mystery".

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