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Ruth Rendell is widely considered to be crime fiction’s reigning queen, with a remarkable career spanning more than forty years. Now, in Portobello, she delivers a captivating and intricate tale that weaves together the troubled lives of several people in the gentrified neighborhood of London’s Notting Hill.

Walking to the shops one day, fifty-year-old Eugene Wren discovers an envelope on the street bulging with cash. A man plagued by a shameful addiction—and his own good ...

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Ruth Rendell is widely considered to be crime fiction’s reigning queen, with a remarkable career spanning more than forty years. Now, in Portobello, she delivers a captivating and intricate tale that weaves together the troubled lives of several people in the gentrified neighborhood of London’s Notting Hill.

Walking to the shops one day, fifty-year-old Eugene Wren discovers an envelope on the street bulging with cash. A man plagued by a shameful addiction—and his own good intentions—Wren hatches a plan to find the money’s rightful owner. Instead of going to the police, or taking the cash for himself, he prints a notice and posts it around Portobello Road. This ill-conceived act creates a chain of events that links Wren to other Londoners—people afflicted with their own obsessions and despairs. As these volatile characters come into Wren’s life—and the life of his trusting fiancée—the consequences will change them all.

is a wonderfully complex tour de force featuring a dazzling depiction of one of London’s most intriguing neighborhoods—and the dangers beneath its newly posh veneer.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The characters jump off the page. The page-to-page surprises are so clever that the reader is left agape at each twist and turn. The pieces fit together brilliantly.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“An expert dissection of the hazards of human connections and the search for happiness.”—USA Today

“A novel that glides along Portobello Road like the lime in a gin and tonic. It's intoxicating.”—Newsday

Marilyn Stasio
No matter how quirky their personal foibles or how penetrating her analysis of their bizarre behavior, Rendell never loses affection for her beloved crackpots…Applying her formidable skills as a puppeteer, Rendell encourages the members of this cast to indulge their various obsessions in a plot that unfolds with the bleak gravity of Greek drama while following the insane logic of French farce.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
London's Portobello Road, a street fabled for its shops and outdoor market, provides the backdrop for Edgar-winner Rendell's superlative suspense novel, which features a cast of colorful characters from varied classes and walks of life. Secretive 50-year-old Eugene Wren, who's addicted to cheap candy lozenges, is toying with marrying his longtime girlfriend, physician Ella Cotswold. Rootless Lance Platt cases the neighborhood for costly homes he can break into, and clashes with his great-uncle, Gilbert Gibson, a former burglar who now preaches the gospel. One man's losing 115 pounds triggers a series of coincidences that brings this disparate lot closer together, toward haphazard violence and death. Rendell (The Water's Lovely) is particularly adept at portraying young people just a dole check away from homelessness as well as the carelessness and callousness of the book's upper-middle-class characters. Her style has become ever more spare while retaining its subtle psychology and vivid sense of place. (Sept.)
Library Journal
British crime-writing phenom Rendell's (aka Barbara Vine) 2008 stand-alone novel is a dark, complex study set in Portobello, a neighborhood in London's Notting Hill.Well written and engaging, it features a web of lost money, mental illness, career criminals, addiction, and one-sided affection and contains exacting details about the numerous characters and their settings. British actor Tim Curry does a wonderful job with the wide cast of characters, translating the dense text into a brilliant audio experience. Sure to please Rendell's many fans as well those liking the work of Elizabeth George and Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series. [The Scribner hc also received a starred review, LJ 7/10.—Ed.]—Nicole A. Cooke, Montclair State Univ. Lib., NJ
Kirkus Reviews

What ought to be welcome news—the chance discovery of £115 dropped by a stricken passerby—is the catalyst that brings together another memorably ill-assorted crowd of neurotics, misfits and criminals bent on mischief.

Minutes after making a withdrawal from a Portobello Road ATM, unloved, unlovable Joel Roseman is felled by a heart attack. Sent to the hospital, he makes a prompt physical comeback but forms an unhealthy attachment, though one that isn't sexual ("I don't do sex," he says reassuringly), to his physician, Ella Cotswold. As the first of many coincidences would have it, Ella's boyfriend, silver-haired gallery owner Eugene Wren, finds an envelope containing most of the money Joel lost in his collapse. His decision to advertise his discovery attracts the notice of Lance Platt, a petty crook eager to graduate to the big time. Seething under the thumb of his grand-uncle Gilbert Gibson, a reformed burglar who seems an even greater menace to society as a fundamentalist Christian, Lance is determined to break into a flat or two, eat some of the food he finds, maybe pinch some jewelry or cash. The characters are endangered by more than each other. Lance's aspirations are threatened by his inability to see around the next curve, his propensity to get blamed for things he didn't do, and the enmity of Dwayne Wilson, the protective brother of the girlfriend who tossed Lance out after he beat her up. Joel's recovery is threatened by Mithras, a figure who first appeared to him in his near-death reverie and now won't go away. And Eugene, who seems to have everything going for him, is shaken to his core by his unlikely addiction to—wait for it—a sugar-free sweet.

The tectonic shifts that bring the characters together and tear them apart lack the inevitability of Rendell's most compelling exercises in the sociology of doom (The Water's Lovely, 2007, etc.). No wonder she relents and allows her characters something like a happy ending.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439150405
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 7/26/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 318,181
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.49 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell has won three Edgar Awards, the highest accolade from Mystery Writers of America, as well as four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre from England’s prestigious Crime Writers’ Association. Her remarkable career has spanned more than fifty years, with more than sixty books published. A member of the House of Lords, she lives in London.


From the start of her illustrious career, Ruth Rendell's novels have blurred the distinction between literature and commercial fiction. Although Rendell is classified as a writer of mysteries and crime thrillers, her elegant prose and superb literary skills elevate her far above the conventions of those genres.

Born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in London in 1930, she attended the Loughton County High School for Girls in Essex, then went to work as a features writer for the Essex newspapers. In 1950, she married her boss at the newspaper, journalist Donald Rendell. (They divorced in 1975, remarried two years later, and remained together until his death in 1999.) For the next decade, she juggled marriage, motherhood, and part-time writing. She produced at least two unpublished novels before hitting pay dirt in 1964 with From Doon with Death, the first mystery to feature Chief Inspector Reginald 'Reg' Wexford of the Kingsmarkham Police Force. An immediate bestseller, the book launched Rendell's career and marked the beginning of one of the most successful and enduring series in detective fiction.

In 1965, Rendell published her second novel, a deft crime thriller (with no police presence) entitled To Fear a Painted Devil. For 20 years, she was content to alternate installments in the Wexford series with a steady stream of bestselling standalones that explored darker themes like envy, sexual obsession, and the tragic repercussions of miscommunication. Then, in 1986, she began a third strand of fiction under the name Barbara Vine. The very first of these books, A Dark-Adapted Eye, earned a prestigious Edgar Award.

From the get-go, the pseudonymous Vine novels had a separate DNA, although Rendell has always had difficulty pinpointing the distinction. In an interview with NPR, she tried to explain: "I don't think the Barbara Vines are mysteries in any sense. I must say that. They are different, and that is partly how I decide. The idea would come to me and I would know at once whether it was to be a Barbara Vine or a Ruth Rendell ... The Barbara Vine is much more slowly paced. It is a much more in-depth, searching sort of book; it doesn't necessarily have a murder in it. It's almost always set partly in the past, sometimes quite a long way in the past. And I think all these things come together and make them very different from the Ruth Rendells."

Under both names, Rendell has garnered numerous awards, including three American Edgars and multiple Gold and Silver Daggers from England's distinguished Crime Writers' Association. In 1996, she was made a Commander of the British Empire; and in 1997, a Life Peerage was conferred on her as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. Although, in her own words, she was "slightly stunned" by the peerage, she takes her responsibilities quite seriously, writing in the mornings and attending the House of Lords several afternoons a week.

Praise for Rendell is lavish and seemingly unqualified. John Mortimer once proclaimed that she would surely have won the Booker if she had not been pigeonholed as a "crime writer." Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has identified Rendell as one of her favorite authors. And Joyce Carol Oates has called her "one of the finest practitioners of the craft in the English-speaking world."

Good To Know

While working as a journalist, Rendell once reported on a local club's annual dinner without actually attending. Her story omitted the crucial fact that the after-dinner speaker had dropped dead at the podium in the middle of his speech! She resigned before being fired.

The pseudonym Barbara Vine derives from the combination of Rendell's middle name and her great-grandmother's maiden name.

"I wouldn't keep my age a secret even if I had the chance," Rendell has said. "But I don't have the chance. Regularly, on February 17, the newspapers tell their readers my age."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Barbara Vine
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 17, 1930
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      Loughton County High School for Girls, Essex

Read an Excerpt


IT IS CALLED the Portobello Road because a long time ago a sea captain called Robert Jenkins stood in front of a committee of the House of Commons and held up his amputated ear. Spanish coast guards, he said, had boarded his ship in the Caribbean, cut off his ear, pillaged the vessel, then set it adrift. Public opinion had already been aroused by other Spanish outrages, and the Jenkins episode was the last straw to those elements in Parliament which opposed Walpole’s government. They demanded British vengeance and so began the War of Jenkins’s Ear.

In the following year, 1739, Admiral Vernon captured the city of Puerto Bello in the Caribbean. It was one of those successes that are popular with patriotic Englishmen, though many hardly knew what the point of it was. In the words of a poet writing about another battle and another war: “That I cannot tell, said he, but ’twas a famous victory.” Vernon’s triumph put Puerto Bello on the map and gave rise to a number of commemorative names. Notting Hill and Kensal were open country then where sheep and cattle grazed, and one landowner called his fields Portobello Farm. In time the lane that led to it became the Portobello Road. But for Jenkins’s ear it would have been called something else.

Street markets abounded in the area, in Kenley Street, Sirdar Road, Norland Road, Crescent Street, and Golborne Road. The one to survive was the Portobello, and from 1927 onwards a daily market was held there from eight in the morning to eight in the evening and 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. on Saturdays. It still is, and in a much reduced state on Sundays too. The street is long, like a centipede snaking up from Pembridge Road in the south to Kensal Town in the north, its legs splaying out all the way and almost reaching the Great Western main line and the Grand Union Canal. Shops line it and spill into the legs, which are its side streets. Stalls fill most of the centre, for though traffic crosses it and some cars crawl patiently along it among the people, few use it as a thoroughfare. The Portobello has a rich personality, vibrant, brilliant in colour, noisy, with graffiti that approach art, bizarre and splendid. An indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger. There is nothing safe about the Portobello, nothing suburban. It is as far from an average shopping street as can be imagined. Those who love and those who barely know it have called it the world’s finest street market.

You can buy anything there. Everything on earth is on sale: furniture, antiques, clothes, bedding, hardware, music, food and food and more food. Vegetables and fruit, meat and fish, and cheese and chocolate. The stalls sell jewellery, hats, masks, prints, postcards old and new, shawls and scarves, shoes and boots, pots and pans, flowers real and artificial, furs and fake furs, lamps and musical instruments. You can buy a harp there or a birdcage, a stuffed bear or a wedding dress, or the latest bestseller. If you want to eat your lunch in the street, you can buy paella or pancakes, piping hot from a stall. But no live animals or birds are for sale.

Cheap books in excellent condition are on sale in the Oxfam shop. A little way up the road is the Spanish deli which sells, mysteriously, along with all its groceries, fine earthenware pots and bowls and dishes. There is a minimarket in most of the centipede’s legs and at Portobello Green a covered market under a peaked tent like a poor man’s Sydney Opera House. In Tavistock Road the house fronts are painted red and green and yellow and gray.

The moment you turn out of Pembridge Road or Westbourne Grove or Chepstow Villas and set foot in the market, you feel a touch of excitement, an indrawing of breath, a pinch in the heart. And once you have been, you have to go again. Thousands of visitors wander up and down it on Saturdays. It has caught them in the way a beauty spot can catch you and it pulls you back. Its thread attaches itself to you and a twitch on it summons you to return.

QUITE A LONG way up the Portobello Road, a glossy arcade now leads visitors into the hinterland. There is a children’s clothes shop, for the children of the wealthy who go to select private schools, a shop that sells handmade soaps, pink and green and brown and highly scented, another where you can buy jerseys and T-shirts but exclusively cashmere, and a place that calls itself a studio, which offers for sale small watercolours and even smaller marble obelisks. It was here, long before the arcade came into being, that Arnold Wren had his gallery. He never called it that but preferred the humbler designation shop.

Stalls filled the pavement outside. Mostly fruit and vegetables up here. When Arnold’s son, Eugene, was a little boy, the vegetables and fruit were of a kind that had been sold in English markets for generations. Eugene’s grandmother could remember when the first tomato appeared, and he, now a man of fifty, saw the first avocado appear on old Mr. Gibson’s stall. The boy’s mother didn’t like the taste, she said she might as well be eating green soap.

Arnold sold paintings and prints, and small pieces of sculpture. In rooms at the back of the shop stacks of paintings occupied most of the available space. He made enough money to keep himself, his wife, and his only son in comfort in their unprepossessing but quite comfortable house in Chesterton Road. Then, one day when the boy was in his teens, his father took his family on holiday to Vienna. There, in an exhibition, Arnold saw paintings by the Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin on loan from various European galleries. The Christian name struck him because it was the same as his own. Arnold Wren never forgot the paintings; they haunted his dreams and later on he could have described some of Böcklin’s works in the greatest detail entirely from memory, The Isle of the Dead, the frightening self-portrait with the skeleton’s hand on Böcklin’s shoulder, the Centaurs Fighting.

He had forgotten where most of the paintings in the rooms behind the shop came from. Some had been inherited from his father. Others were sold to him for shillings rather than pounds by people clearing out their attics. There were thousands of attics in old Notting Hill. But looking through the paintings one day, wondering if this one or that one was worth keeping at all, he came upon a picture that reminded him of Vienna. It wasn’t at all like The Isle of the Dead or The Centaur at the Forge, but it had the scent of Böcklin about it, which made him catch his breath.

It was a painting of a mermaid swimming inside a glass vase with a narrow neck, trying perhaps—from the expression on her face of fear and desperation—to climb out of the water and the vase. All was glaucous green but for her rosy flesh and her long golden hair. Arnold Wren called the picture Undine in a Goldfish Bowl and showed it to an expert without telling him what he suspected. The expert said, “Well, Mr. Wren, I am ninety-nine percent certain this is by Arnold Böcklin.”

Arnold was an honest man and he said to the potential purchaser of the painting, “I’m ninety-nine percent sure this is a Böcklin,” but Morris Stemmer, rich and arrogant, fancied himself an expert and was a hundred percent sure. He paid Arnold the sort of sum usually said to be “beyond one’s wildest dreams.” This enabled Arnold to buy a house in Chepstow Villas, a Jaguar, and to go farther afield than Vienna on his holidays. His was a Portobello Road success story while old Mr. Gibson was a failure. Or so it appeared on the surface.

When his father died, Eugene Wren moved the business to premises in upmarket Kensington Church Street and referred to it as “the gallery.” The name in gilded letters on a dark green background was EUGENE WREN, FINE ART and, partly through luck and partly due to Eugene’s flair for spotting new young artists and what from times past was about to become fashionable, made him a great deal of money.

Without being a thief himself, Albert Gibson the stallholder married into a family of thieves. His only son, Gilbert, had been in and out of prison more times than his wife, Ivy, cared to count. That, she told her relatives, was why they had no children. Gib was never home for long enough. She was living in Blagrove Road when they built the Westway, which cut the street in two and turned 2 Blagrove Villas into a detached house. The Aclam Road minimarket separated it from the overhead road and the train line, and the Portobello Road was a stone’s throw away if you were a marksman with a strong arm and a steady eye.

© 2010 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Limited

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2010

    Rendell Does It Again...

    I'm still amazed that this author can keep writing such great stories after so many years. Well, she does it again with Portobello. In classic Rendell style, she manages to create great characters with their usual psychological quirks and flaws and then once again link them together for a great ending.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Possibly Rendell's funniest book

    There's only one normal person in this book, Dr. Ella Cotswold. Her fiance, Eugene, has a truly ridiculous obsession that takes over his life. Her patient, Joel, becomes more and more delusional and finally completely loses contact with reality. And a character who is peripheral to Ella, Lance, is an amoral dumb_ss. His uncle Gib is a particularly amusing religious fanatic. I'm not just being snarky about religion, either; read the book and you'll see what I mean, and you'll LOL yourself. Another interesting character is Lance's erstwhile girlfriend, Gemma. I'm not sure how I feel about Gemma. She has terrible taste in men, and by the end of the book, it looks like she's not putting up with any more nonsense; but I'm not optimistic about that lasting. Then again, I see women in bad relationships in my work, and I have yet to see a happy ending - abusers almost never change. I'd say "never", but you know, never say never. I suppose it's possible. I would like Gemma if I didn't have to worry about her. Then I remember she's a fictional character, and laugh at myself. The whole book is deliciously funny and everything falls neatly into place in the end. A masterpiece.

    By the way, "Portobello" is a street in London where supposedly you can buy just about anything. When I was in London, I liked Oxford Street for that reason; if I get a chance to go back, I'll have to check out the Portobello road. "Portobello Belle" is also the title of a Dire Straits song, if anybody cares.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2011

    Portobello is a Dickensian charmer.

    Did Rendell consciously channel Charles Dickens in this serpentine walk through Notting Hill? "Portobello" has it all: strange characters, evocative names, a turbulent London setting, coincidences, madness, crime, the rich, the poor, obsession, secrets, and even the scene at the end wherein the author tells of the ultimate fate of the principals. A very entertaining novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 25, 2012

    A gift

    I purchased this as a gift and I'm sure it will be enjoyed.

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