Crime mushrooms in Ruth Rendell's 'Portobello'

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REVIEW

PORTOBELLO, by Ruth Rendell. Scribner, 290 pp., $26

Portobello Road cuts a swath through one of London's most fascinating sections. It abuts posh neighborhoods and poor housing. The nouveau hip stroll a pace or two ahead of old money. At the weekend Portobello Market, you can pick up tacky trinkets or precious antiques. It's the great meeting place of the toffs in bright new restaurants and the toughs in their miserably smoke-free pubs.

In short, it's the kind of place that's made for a Ruth Rendell novel, where civilization meets its discontents, and neither comes out a winner. As she writes in "Portobello," her latest, "An indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger. There is nothing safe about the Portobello, nothing suburban."

We wouldn't have it any other way. Now 80, Rendell has long been the queen of the psychological crime novel and has added a pseudonym (Barbara Vine) and a title (baroness) in her long reign. She's also added a few tricks. Many of her recent books have a cinematic, Altmanesque quality to them, intercutting several narratives into an elegant chain of coincidence that threatens the carefully constructed lives of all her characters.

Rendell also adds a little more humor in this one, starting with the Dickensian names of the two main characters, art dealer Eugene Wren and his fiancee, Dr. Ella Cotswold, as well as those of the lowlife protagonists, petty thief Lance Platt and his Fagin-ish relative, the born-again Uncle Gib. When Lance is charged with a murder he didn't commit, he's told by his girlfriend he had better admit he was busy breaking and entering at the time or else, she says, "You could go inside for life and that's 15 years."

Many of Rendell's characters are obsessives, and Eugene has found a new addiction. He prowls the shops of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, looking for a particular forbidden fruit - sugar-free sweets called Chocorange. Nothing harmful in that, you say? Precisely. But Rendell's characters often are prisoners of their environments and imaginations, or lack thereof. Lance invests his beloved Gemma with all the charms of a working-class Paris Hilton. "She, he told her with unusual flights of imagination, looked like a flower on a landfill site."

There's no salt-of-the-Earth virtue to poverty in Rendell's world. Not that the rich come across much better, their Champagne cocktail parties and dull civility masking dangerously pent-up desires.

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Guessing how the intersecting cravings, fears and indignities of the high and low will manifest themselves - will those obsessions turn deadly? - is really the only mystery in a novel that glides along Portobello Road like - well, if Eugene were to describe it - the lime in a gin and tonic.

It's intoxicating.

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