Portobello, By Ruth Rendell

The fine art of mystery in Notting Hill

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Friday 21 November 2008 01:00

Away from her fictitious small town of Kingsmarkham and its Inspector Wexford, Ruth Rendell has become one of the leading chroniclers of contemporary London. One of the fascinations of the city is the village character which some areas retain, bringing together strange specimens of humanity. Nowhere are there odder people or greater contrasts than in Notting Hill, which has attracted Rendell's beady eye in other novels.

At the heart of the area, drawing in rich and poor alike, is the feverishly bustling Portobello market. For this social phenomenon, Rendell has a Dickensian empathy, informed by a prodigious love of London life. Her account, bursting with colour and vitality, is a treat to read. Full of promise, yet tinged with danger, the market attracts Joel Roseman, weird wearer of dark glasses with a secret anguish in his past. He loses a sum of money which is found by an art dealer, Eugene Wren.

Living in a handsome villa and surrounded by beautiful antiques, Wren himself has something to hide: a peculiar addiction which causes him fearful shame. Eugene does what someone living in a village might do, and attaches a note to a lamp-post advertising that some money has been found. Only the rightful claimant will know the exact amount.

This trusting gesture sets in train a complex mesh of events. Lance, a petty criminal living with a mephitic uncle in unadulterated squalor, has no higher ambition than kidnapping someone's cat when he peers at the note, but this message raises his hopes. He comes forward, is rejected as claimant, but sees the richness of Eugene's home – and a way into that treasure-trove. Meantime, poor half-crazy Joel, the rightful claimant, is put in touch with Eugene's GP fiancée, Ella, who soon sees that she has a very sick patient. Referred to a psychiatrist, he is revealed as the son of a brutal and stinking rich father and a scared but loving mother. Will he be persuaded out of his semi-darkness to reach light and safety?

Ella is now undergoing real torment. Eugene will not reveal his addiction, but its existence is driving a wedge between them and he breaks off their engagement. Will he ever have the strength to face the truth and confide in her? These events among the wealthy are counter-balanced by the machinations of Lance and his evil uncle, who can see endless possibilities in Lance's entrée into the Notting Hill smart set. A roundabout of characters is set whirling along in an irresistibly readable, tragi-comic carnival. Dr Johnson's dictum could be amended here: the reader who is tired of Ruth Rendell's novels of London is tired of life.

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