Monday, 13 August 2012

Ruth Rendell's Thriteen Steps Down - ITV review

Thirteen Steps Down, by Ruth Rendell, is one of her more striking books of the last ten years, and so I looked forward to tonight’s first part (of two) of an ITV adaptation with much relish. At one time, Rendell mysteries were impossible to avoid, even in the unlikely event that you wanted to avoid them. They were a staple of the television schedules (apparently ITV produced more than 80 Rendell stories, many based on her short stories, and there were BBC adaptations as well). Many of the old episodes keep cropping up on the repeat channels, but this is the first new Rendell on ITV for twelve years. The press pack spoke of Rendell being “rediscovered for television” – blimey, how soon they forget!

Mix Cellini (played by Luke Treadaway) is a mechanic who lives in a London flat and is fascinated by the John Reginald Christie murder case – and also by a glamorous model. Geraldine James, superb in a challenging role as a crotchety octogenariian with an equally strange obsession about a past romance, plays his landlady, Gwendolen, while Elarica Gallagher is the model. 

Mix is a good example of a typical Rendell protagonist – a superficially attractive, but deeply troubled youngish man whose obsessions and warped moral values lead to calamitous consequences. Treadaway veered more towards unpleasant than appealing in his portrayal of Mix, and I felt this was a mistake; it's the apparent charm of Rendell's sociopaths that makes them so memorable.

When I started planning The Arsenic Labyrinth, I decided to experiment by introducing a key character, Guy, who was in the mould of a Rendellesque sociopath, and I enjoyed enormously writing those scenes in which Guy appeared. That was my small tribute to a genius of the genre, even though the book itself was rather different from anything Rendell has produced (not least because it is very rare for her to venture north of the London that she knows, and conveys, so well!)

I’ve often said in interviews that Rendell is the living crime writer whom I most admire; her work has given me enormous pleasure ever since I first read the brilliant The Lake of Darkness. That is still the case, although I do worry that there has been (by her exceptional standards) a bit of a falling-off in her work over the past fifteen years. Themes, and plot elements, have tended to recur, but not with quite the flair of the past, and since she was elevated to the House of Lords, she has made some attempts at political and social comment  in her novels, which have seldom worked well. Perhaps some decline is inevitable, especially with a writer who has been so prolific. But this creepy, if at times unsubtle, TV adaptation is a reminder of what a gripping story-teller she is. It's not as good as the book, but I shall certainly be tuning into part two.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - It's good to hear that this adaptation worked well for you. I'll be looking forward to seeing if it becomes available in the States too.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Strangely as she has tried to make her books more relevant to societal ills, they have lost something. Still I can think of no writer who has given me more hours of pleasure.