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.

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.

Rendell's characters often are prisoners of their environments and imaginations, or lack thereof.

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.


By Ruth Rendell; Scribner

290 pages,