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.