Author: Ruth Rendell

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Crime

I picked up Portobello because, on the back cover, TIME Magazine calls Ruth Rendell “The best mystery writer in the English-speaking world.” As it turns out, that’s not a good reason to read this book.

Portobello is not a mystery, for one thing. It’s a “crime” story, and loosely that, because it features only a couple of very minor crimes, none of which is strictly essential to the plot. More accurately it’s one of those serendipity stories, in which a series of near-random coinkydinks interweave a collection of unlike characters.

Let me say this: I’m a big believer in dramatic intent. I like drama that comes from choices and consequences, not chance and dumb luck. However, even without any true drama Portobello reads quickly and entertains on the way. Get this book from the library for a plane ride, but don’t go expecting a mystery, or a genuinely quality novel.

Perhaps the biggest handicap for Portobello is the fact that Rendell’s characters simply don’t have a whole lot of substance. There’s Eugene Wren, a dignified art dealer whose struggles with an addiction to sugar-free candies called Chocoranges, an addiction that he struggles with and obsesses over ad nauseam. Even though he’s basically addicted to Tic Tacs (and who, honestly, would ever care?) and shows no signs of other obsessive behavior, both Eugene and and his fiancée treat the candy addiction as if it’s a dark, terrible secret. So that’s pretty dumb.

Then there’s Joel Roseman, a wealthy man who sees an imaginary creature called Mithras. Joel’s thread has potential it never quite realizes; mostly, Mithras just murmurs to Joel in a language Joel can’t even understand. It’s more weirdness than drama, and it finally ends on a silly, if unexpected, note.

The third main character, Lance Platt, comes from a family of thieves, but his reformed Christian uncle doesn’t want him stealing anymore, while his girlfriend desperately needs money. Lance’s problems are the most dramatic (which isn’t saying much) but his storyline is still a bit too contrived to be truly good.

So, the action begins when Joel drops £115 on the street (on the Portobello Road, which plays an unnecessarily large role in the story). Eugene finds the money and puts up an ad. Lance responds to the ad but doesn’t get the money, and then later he comes back to rob Eugene’s neighbor. From here Rendell braids the three together in a long series of cutesy happenstancery, bouncing between characters as they have improbably continued effects on each other’s lives.

On the plus side, while Rendell’s prose never dazzles, it certainly moves. Once you get used to its stodgy rhythms (I only realized the book wasn’t set in the 19th century when Joel stopped at ATM), the pages turn. Here’s a sample of the prose:

Some of the stallholders kept up a running commentary on what they had for sale, kept it up for hours, the street cries of the twenty-first century, and their voices never grew hoarse.

Not terribly good, but not actively bad either. It’s often just good enough to pass without comment, which lets through the medium-grade entertainment of watching its plot twists. This is a subpar John Cusack movie with a dust jacket. Its saving grace is that it doesn’t drag.

And I realize that saying that a book’s pace is its best feature is at least half an insult, but it’s true here. Portobello reads extremely quickly—if you need to kill some time, it will do that. I can’t say you’ll remember it, though, and I can’t say you’ll ever want to read it again.

Similar reads: Other mysteries that are not mysteries: The Missing, by Tim Gautreaux; The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst. For a genuinely good mystery, try the Edgar award-winning The Last Child, by John Hart.