If I’d read Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down (2004) (which, by the way, has a great cover design and is dedicated, "With affection and admiration," to P. D. James) without knowing anything about its author, I’d never have guessed that she has more than fifty novels under her belt. At a point when a lot of writers would be coasting on their success, she’s produced yet another well-crafted novel that is clearly the product of someone still completely engaged with and interested in her craft, and in the human relationships that underlie it.
Thirteen Steps Down is a crime novel about the self-delusion and its consequences. The half-dozen or so characters at the center of the story spend most of their time utterly misapprehending the actions and intentions of all the others—they remind me of less-educated versions of Iris Murdoch’s characters. Rendell makes each character’s solipsism plausible—in the case of the murderer at the book’s center, creepily so. Nearly everyone in the novel is in love with some false image they’ve created of another character, an image born from a toxic combination of their own needs and mistaken self-understanding.
Most of the book takes place in a Victorian house where the murderer rents a room from an unpleasant spinster, and Rendell so painstakingly portrays the squalor and eerie agedness of the place (another Murdoch touch) that it becomes a character in itself. The landlady has for a half-century spent all her time reading, unaware of the ruin her house has become (Note to self: clean the kitchen Saturday), as she herself becomes more eccentric and grotesque. She keeps the flashlight in the refrigerator, important keys in the dryer, and bags of stale bread on the floor. The curtains are never opened. The house abounds in dark corners and inexplicable noises. The carpet was once white, but now it’s a uniform gray, covered with the fur of the woman’s semi-feral cat, who seems always to be eating some recently killed animal of uncertain species. When the ghost of a long-dead serial killer—with whom the murderous tenant is obsessed—appears it’s not really that surprising, though frightening, regardless.
Thirteen Steps Down isn’t a mystery, per se; there’s never a question about who the murderer is. But there are other questions, and Rendell keeps them nicely uncertain until she’s done with her intricate plotting. Maybe rather than a mystery, Thirteen Steps Down should be viewed as a sort of warning, almost a tract—but the best kind, one whose creator, while delineating the dangers to be avoided, demonstrates by her very actions the good that can result from following her advice. Avoid illusion, be clear-eyed about yourself and those around you, pay attention and be thoughtful, and perhaps you, rather than falling into murder, can remain engaged, productive, and successful. Like Ruth Rendell.