The Keys to the Street (Ruth Rendell)

  • By Ruth Rendell
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1996; US: Crown, 1996

Christopher Nolan wanted to film The Keys in the Street in the late Nineties. It would have made a quintessential Nolan film of the period: slow-moving, unengaging, ending with a clever twist.

I was given The Keys to the Street as a birthday present when I was 14; I’ve tried a couple of times over the last 20-odd years to get beyond Chapter Two. I was tempted to leave it unfinished, but persevered; you, dear reader, might prefer not to try.

The book focuses on Regent’s Park, and the miserable people who live nearby: Mary Jago, a bone marrow recipient who has just walked out on her abusive boyfriend; Roman Ashton, who became homeless after his wife and children were killed in a car crash; Bean, a sadistic dog-walker who spat and pissed in his employer’s food for 15 years, then became a pimp to a masochist; and ‘Hob’, a junkie hitman. Plus hot tramp sex in graveyards!

After five months of banishing sexual thoughts, his flesh responded to this tramp woman’s touch and it was a full erection she held in her warm, surprisingly feminine hand. Even then he had not shaken off his old, ingrained sense of superiority, of belonging to an elite, and as he moved with her on to her blanket spread on the grass, into the well of darkness between tombstones, it was a favour he felt he was doing her. He was being kind. He was enduring the earthy smell of her, the fishy smell, the burrowing of her hands, out of generosity. The unknown, dark and glutinous place into which he slid was honoured by him; God knew what he risked, by this grace of his.

Chapter VII

From the woman who gave you the protagonist screwing a dead sheep in Live Flesh and the aborted masturbation scene in Talking to Strange Men.

Rendell was extremely uneven; she could be compelling and humane, or contrived and bleak. For a great writer, she is one of the least consistent. The Key to the Street was her next crime novel after The Crocodile Bird, a quasi-fairytale about a troubled young woman’s journey towards independence and individuation. While Crocodile Bird is one of Rendell’s warmest works, Keys is one of her most off-putting. The pace is turgid; there are long stretches of nothing happening, punctuated by the occasional railing puncturing a homeless person. The murders are almost an afterthought; the killer is a very minor character who appears perhaps in half a page in the whole 370-odd pages. Still, the deception played on Mary Jago is clever.


1996 Hutchinson

Mary Jago had donated her own bone marrow to save the life of someone she didn’t know.  And this generous act led directly to the bitter break-up of her affair with Alistair.  For him, it was as though her beauty had been plundered.

But the man whose life she had saved would change Mary’s life in a way she could never have imagined.

Located in the area around Regent’s Park, Ruth Rendell creates an atmospherically charged universe, where a young woman’s life is in danger both from the middle-class world she knows and another world of the dispossessed and deranged. Mysterious, complex, dangerously inventive, Ruth Rendell’s new novel may well be her finest achievement.

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