by Ruth Rendell
I'm a book snob. I admit that up front. And the main reason that I had until this point never picked up a Ruth Rendell is that I am inherently distrustful of the prolific. And can you really blame me? Maybe it's just jealousy (ok, it's definitely part jealousy), but a novelist who apparently publishes every three months does not scream quality. Sure, it can be done. I devour Stephen King and Ed McBain like handfuls of Werther's Originals, but for every King and McBain, there's a Lori Wick, or Danielle Steel, or god help us all, James Patterson, an author so utterly overflowing with contempt for his audience he is now writing books under his name by committee. For pity's sake, Barbara Cartland wrote 664 books, sometimes at the rate of twenty a year. I don't care who you are, you can't create quality work on that scale.*
Sadly, Rendell found her way onto my snobbish little list, this despite her winning pretty much every major mystery award available. So it was with unfathomable tentativeness that I picked up Portobello. This was a stand-alone novel, not a part of her ongoing Inspector Wexford mystery series, so I figured I might not be too lost in references to past events.
Once again, my snobbishness has proved unfounded. Portobello is not a perfect novel by any means, but it displays an assurity of craft and ambition at vast odds with my assumption that Rendell was another, well, Patterson, or Nora Roberts, or Nicholas Sparks. My bad.
Rather than a mystery per se, Portobello is a character study surrounding the repercussions following the most insignificant of events; a man has a heart attack near Portobello Road in the Notting Hill section of London, and drops an envelope of money (Already my brain is yelling, "The plot's afoot!" expecting a chase thriller, or possibly a literary discussion of the perils of greed). Eugene, a wealthy art gallery owner, discovers the envelope, and rather than contact the police, he decides to place up a flyer announcing his find in the hope of returning it to its rightful owner. Rendell then throws in Eugene's girlfriend Ella, a doctor who returns the money to its owner in the hospital. The money's owner, Joel, is a disturbed and lonely man who is now seeing visions after his near-death expierience; he decides that Ella should be his doctor, and Ella is too kind-hearted to refuse.
And there is also Lance, the young louse who tries to claim the money, and then decides that Eugene represents point zero for his imagined life as a top-flight burglar. Lance also has problems; he lives with his religious zealot uncle, and he's under the gun (literally) to pay for his ex-girlfriend's dental work after he drunkenly assaulted her.
There's a lot of possibilities for mystery here, although that expectation is largely based on Rendell's reputation. Part of the initial thrill of reading Portobello is wondering when the mystery will actually start. Again, my bad, as Portobello is a psychological character study first and foremost.
This is a novel of secrets, of psychoses small and large that haunt both the best and worst of humanity. Eugene has a shameful (to him) addiction to low-calorie sweets. Joel has been blamed by his father for a family tragedy that his ripped his life in two. Lance finds in his illegal sojourns to homes of the wealthy a world that he cannot understand but craves all the more. These people, all damaged, wander throughout the pages of Portobello as Rendell delicately reveals the creepy delusions and urges that make up the psyches of the lonely and desperate.
Rendell has an astounding talent at place and setting, manifesting a section of London in all its vibrant and seedy glory. Her Portobello Road is menacing yet comfortable, a neighbourhood where the classes mix with familiarity and surface friendliness, yet where there exists a simmering undercurrent of unease.
It may be unfair to complain that very little occurs in Portobello. Plenty does, but it is only in retrospect that the reader comprehends the novel's many facets. Rendell's presentation, so subtle and understated, drives home the novel's tension and its themes of unspoken desires and the quiet madness that grips us all. It is no small accomplishement to write small; Portobello is a novel about the space between action and reaction, and Rendell fills the space with desperate longing.
But Portobello, as fine as it can be at points, cannot completely sustain itself through inaction. Eugene, arguably the central character, is sadly the least believable and therefore Portobello's weakest link; his inner dilemma of sweets vs. romance is too inherently silly to fit comfortably next to the bleakness of the other characters' lives. It's an interesting situation, but the story comes crashing to a halt whenever Eugene reappears.
But Portobello has once again proven to me that my snobbishness can lead to devestating loss. Rendell is clearly a fine, fine writer, and I will gladly delve into her other works. And I will definitely peruse the works of Georges Simenon, another crazily prolific author. But not Roberts, Patterson, Sparks, or Wick; never again.*NOTE: For an entertaining look at the perils and pitfalls of the prolific, please read British novelist Geoff Nicholson's piece "Can't. Stop. Writing." at the New York Times Book Review.