Thirteen Steps Down

For me, Ruth Rendell understood obsession better than most. On the surface, obsession appears other-directed in that the pursuer focuses exclusively on the chosen object of his–or her–affection. In this novel, Rendell deftly illustrates that at its heart, obsession is utterly selfish.

Trouble brews when deranged spinster Gwendolyn Chawcer, who makes Miss Havisham a model of mental stability, rents a room of her dilapidated house to Mix Cellini, an equally deranged young man who maintains exercise equipment for a living.

Although it’s hard to imagine two more disparate characters, the two are matching bookends, both ruled by obsession. Poor Miss Chawcer reconstructs the past so that a casual relationship with a doctor decades earlier becomes a great love affair in her fertile imagination. When she learns the doctor is a recent widower, she schemes to revive the “affair.”

For his part, Mix is no slouch. In addition to feeding his deep-seated fixation with a famous serial killer named Christie, he also finds time to stalk a supermodel, who, he is certain, is secretly in love with him.

None of this bodes well, and the situation is made worse by the clueless main characters: Miss Chawcer is more than a few fries short of a Happy Meal and Mix is no Moriarty. In fact, I was tempted to read this novel as a black comedy, with Chawcer and Mix as stand-ins for Abbott and Costello, though without the latter’s quick wit.

Rendell doesn’t disappoint and provides the usual psychological twists and turns, and both the old spinster and Mix come to an end, though hardly a good one.


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