A Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $11.00.
Among the hard core "noir" fans who love the Black Lizard line of reprints of novels by Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the horror of Ruth Rendell joining their ranks was deeply felt. That's probably because those hard core fans - mainly male - haven't read this book, which is a classic on a par with Patricia Highsmith's masterpiece, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Like Highsmith, Rendell is the most unsentimental of writers, and perhaps that's the only way for her to tell the horrible story she relates in A Judgement in Stone. As in many other Rendell books (often her standalones, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym) this novel begins with what happened; it's the why it happened that actually keeps the reader guessing until the very last page. And what happens is pretty awful. A housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, has murdered her employers and two of their children, apparently in cold blood. The reason? Illiteracy. If you think that a compelling and even brilliant novel can't be written with that as its topic, you are dead wrong.
The book then works backwards in time to Eunice's childhood and upbringing and to the meeting of the Coverdales - a happy couple married the second time around whose house, Eunice discovers to her horror, is absolutely filled to the brim with books. This is the book that Rendell's famous line, "Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading" comes from. As Eunice begins her stint with the Coverdales Rendell makes clear that the collision of two such different cultures, beliefs and backgrounds can only lead to horror. Eunice is cold, tidy, and enjoys nothing more than pulling the curtains against the beautiful grounds of the Coverdale's house (Mrs. Coverdale loves to garden) and watching the TV given to her by her generous employers. The Coverdales, on the other hand, embrace the life of the mind and the richness of family relationships. Eunice is merely puzzled by their behavior. At first, though she gives Mr. Coverdale the creeps, she does such a good job and is so unobtrusive that all the family is willing to overlook her frequently odd behavior. But as Rendell spins her web of circumstance and deviant behavior the story begins to tighten. I knew when I was about halfway through that nothing that happened from that point on could be good. I wasn't wrong.
Like all good novels, this one has a great story but also has insight into social class and what the differences in having an education and valuing it, and not having one, can do. Eunice and the Coverdales have lived lives so different from one another they may as well have been on different planets. George Coverdale's frequent attempts to help Eunice - to teach her to drive, to get her eyeglasses "so she can read" - are met by Eunice with puzzlement and mounting anger. She see it as interfering, and as a judgement on her illiteracy, which the Coverdales aren't even aware of. It's the one thing they perhaps could not conceive of as being at the heart of Eunice's problems.
Eunice is also, of course, a psychopath who views other people mainly of no interest and very much as an inconvenience
to herself. Mrs. Coverdale describes with horror the way the fanatically clean Eunice picks up a letter she was writing - as
she was writing it - and calmly dusts underneath it. Eunice's observation when visiting a friend in the hospital isn't about
her friend - it's about the admirable lack of dust bunnies under the bed. Even the Coverdale's good natured, well meaning
daughter Melinda tries to reach out to Eunice, and she is met with the same lack of success. She initially blames it on her
parent's "fascist" attitude (Melinda is a college student) towards a servant, but as the book progresses even kind hearted
Melinda is made aware of Eunice's actual limitations. Unfortunately, it's too late for her or anyone else in their family,
who are, in a way, killed by their own well meaning but misplaced kindness. If there is a better writer at "showing, not
telling" a story that is actually laced with meaning I'm not sure who it might be. This novel, while it might be offered as
a master class for aspiring writers, is also one of the more memorable and powerful books I think I have ever read. It's a
brisk 188 pages you won't be able to forget - or put down. It's almost like watching a car wreck - it's impossible to turn away.
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