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British writer takes on America

Ruth Rendell's new book centres around a baroness out to make a killing in America.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2005 17:45 IST

Ruth Rendell, the creator of gruff English sleuth Chief Inspector Wexford, is an elegant 75-year-old baroness who hopes a serial murderer can help her make a killing in America.

The veteran British mystery writer whose books are published in some 30 countries has a loyal following in the United States, but sales of her books have typically been only a tenth of the 500,000 copies she sells of each book in Britain.

Random House imprint Crown is billing 13 Steps Down as the book to change that, hoping it will put Rendell on The New York Times best seller list for the first time in 20 years.

The book is told from the point of view of Mix Cellini, a gym equipment repairman with an unhealthy interest in real-life killer John Reginald Christie who was hanged 50 years ago.

"I really do literally put myself into a character's shoes," said Rendell, a spry and elegant 75-year-old who could not look more different from the sordid characters she creates in the book, which is set in Notting Hill in London.

"I think about what kind of a background he had, what sort of childhood he had, how he grew up, what he does for a living, the way he wants to live," Rendell said in an interview in New York before theUS publication of the book this week.

"I think what would I do next if, as in his case, he goes to look at the place where a serial killer lived and indeed buried his victims and instead of finding this very squalid and sinister street he finds it's all gone and the whole place has been turned into a very pretty little enclave of small, pretty houses and gardens and trees and flowers and cobbled streets."

"Whereas most of us would think that's a very good thing, he doesn't. He thinks this is sacrilege, this is desecration."

Mix lives as a lodger in a ramshackle mansion with the elderly spinster Gwendolen Chawcer, who lives a misanthropic existence pining for a doctor she last saw in 1953.

In a ploy to find out more about a model he is stalking, Mix gets involved with a receptionist whom he ends up killing and hiding beneath the floorboards.

Publishers Weekly said 13 Steps Down was the best novel Rendell had written in years, exhibiting "all her trademark virtues: vivid characters, a plot addictive as crack and a sense of place unequalled in crime fiction."

Rendell said her picture of British life was more true than the romantic idylls portrayed in Hugh Grant movies.

Fascination with serial killers, she said, was common to readers around the world. "I think that people want excitement," she said. "It's not that I think they approve of this sort of thing or feel any kind of awful bloodlust.

"It's just that it seems to them to be a kind of gritty reality. They want to know about it and they would like to think people who perpetrate this sort of thing are being caught, so they can't do it again," she said.

In 41 years, Rendell has written more than 60 books, including psychological thrillers under the pen name Barbara Vine. Her characters are known for their cerebral approach to the crimes they solve, and Rendell said she was simply not interested in forensics and gruesome details of crimes.

"I don't like that sort of thing," she said. "I actually find them very boring, real crimes."

Ever since she was made a baroness in 1997, she has conducted most of her research in the library of the House of Lords in the grand surroundings of parliament in London.

"I never talk to the police but you don't need to," she said. "I've been told the police work is very accurate. I haven't checked any of it, I haven't researched it, it's just guesswork."

Instead she delves into the psychology of her characters, which in the case of Mix can be unsettling for the reader.

"I don't want to create monsters who have nothing about them that people can sympathize with or understand," she said.

"I really want to create people who are bad, who are completely amoral, or have no sense of right from wrong, no principles, and yet they have something about them that is pathetic or a cause for pity.

"And then of course they may do something so terrible that there's no room for sympathy and understanding any more."

The latest Wexford novel "End in Tears" is coming out in Britain this month at the same time as Crown is bringing out 13 Steps Down in the United States with an initial print run of 100,000 and a big publicity campaign.

The Wexford series was made into a long-running television series in Britain and several of her books have been made into movies in France and Spain, but so far Rendell said there had been no really successful movies in English.

She said she has no plans to retire. "People always say 'Are you going to retire?' They've been saying it to me for 15 years now. I would like to go on writing until I die."

First Published: Oct 11, 2005 17:45 IST