Another new to me British writer: Ruth Rendell. She’s highly regarded by many for her nail biting psychological suspense type of crime fiction. She writes the Inspector Wexford series (1964 to now) as well as writes dark thrillers under the name of Barbara Vine. A Judgement in Stone (1977) is regarded as one of her best works and I’d have to agree. This book has one of the most memorable opening lines ever: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
The Coverdale’s were an upper middle class family. They owned a manor house that resided on the outskirts of town. They hired Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. In what’s described as the St. Valentine’s Massacre, she killed all four family members in less than 15 minutes. Since we have motive and we know who the killer is, the story goes back ten months to show what led up to this event. The middle-aged Eunice Parchman worst enemy was not the Coverdale’s but the printed word.
In her view, her disability was equal to a deformity. Her greatest fear was the town knowing her secret. She went through great lengths to keep her disability a secret, too. Any threat of it being revealed would make her defensive. It’s interesting to note that she was an excellent housekeeper. The Coverdale’s valued her work over their misgivings and her cold personality. Yes, they noticed how closed off she was emotionally and over time some grew afraid of her. She didn’t have any friends and she would never leave the house. What kept Eunice occupied were the serials on television. She was fond of police procedurals and crime shows.
The narrative voice and the well drawn character arcs are what made this story’s 186 pages fly by. It’s told in omnipresent third person where voice/thoughts of the Coverdale’s are told alongside the voice/thoughts of Eunice herself. Eunice does befriend someone in town. A religious zealot who works at the village shop as a postal clerk beside her husband. Her name was Joan Smith. She would regularly open people’s mail and gossip about them in town. She had become an expert on steam opening the envelopes. The Joan Smith character was well drawn as well as hysterical and used in contrast with Eunice. Joan Smith was reborn and a member of a religious sect. She eventually goes mad. The difference between the two women it’s said is that Joan Smith didn’t know right from wrong.
This story was immersive. It held a tension filled pace through to the end. Despite that the crime revealed at the beginning, the story still held suspense. The successful writing of this story are accountable to several things: the narrative voice, the atmosphere, the character arcs, the close scrutiny of the social class of small town life and community. It is that last part that ultimately led to the Coverdale’s downfall. There’s the influence of Dickens. In the author’s description of Lowfield Hall, she describes it as a “bleak house” after Eunice left. In happier times it was a home of warmth and safety.
This was an interesting character study of madness. Eunice held archaic beliefs about herself and her disability. She didn’t care for people to interfere in her life which also led to the Coverdale’s downfall. The violence is low-key. The reports of a gun firing with a few grizzly details will be all you will read. Most of the crime itself happens off page. There is also slightly more narration than dialogue but that worked out very well.
Final Evaluation: This was an intelligently written novel. A true example of crime fiction at its very best. The author’s messages are many but most telling was: some people are most acutely sensitive to their disability to the point of murder. There’s different types of madness but that doesn’t always exempt them knowing the difference between right and wrong. Lastly, such things in life happen by chance.