Top mysteries challenge review: A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Genre: Psychological thriller
Year of publication: 1977
Setting & time: England, contemporary

Eunice Parchman, illiterate and deeply ashamed of it, is hired as a housekeeper by the respectably upper-class Coverdale family, Mrs. Coverdale quickly becoming dependent on her for the housework and thus reluctant to let her go even when repelled by her. A seemingly innocuous event leads Eunice to become friends with Joan Smith, a religious fanatic living in the nearby village, and seals the fate of her employers which is revealed simply and starkly in the beginning paragraph: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

The whole narrative is an elaboration and examination of all the little causal threads that come together and drive Eunice to murder the Coverdales.

If you like a book to surprise you, don’t read the following review, because I got a bit carried away and wrote a short analysis that will best benefit people who have already read the book and need discussion points for, e.g. a book club discussion or a class assignment.

If there is a book with a more chilling opening line or indeed an opening page, I haven’t read it. Here is the second paragraph:

“There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman’s disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished nothing by it but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.”

Here the innocent reader is on the first page of a book and already the ending has been revealed. As a literary device it shouldn’t work: you, the reader, really should become offended and put away the book; but instead it draws you in, because of the same kind of curiosity that has people rubbernecking at the scene of an accident in an attempt to see the twisted metal and bloodied bodies, only here you then actually get to go back in time and watch the whole disaster unfolding in detailed slow motion, the tension mounting by degrees until it is almost unbearable and you begin to understand people who, upon seeing a stage villain sneaking up behind the hero, give a shout to warn the prospective victim of what is about to happen.

From the beginning line onwards the story only becomes more upsetting as the narrative progresses towards the climax: the inevitable murder of the Coverdales. Even Rendell has admitted that she became upset at the fate of the victims, so it’s no wonder that a reader would be.

The story is finely crafted, with seemingly innocuous events and innocent remarks taking on a sinister colour through the remarks of the omniscient narrator and the twisted paths of Eunice’s mind. Humour is injected to relieve the tension and make the story less dreary, and the characters are excellently drawn.

With Eunice, Rendell has managed the same thing Patrick Süskind did with Grenouille in Perfume - to create a protagonist who is utterly unsympathetic but at the same time the reader wants to feel sorry for her, if only for her illiteracy. But of course the illiteracy is a MacGuffin, a mere device to drive the narrative. Eunice would have been a sociopath even if she could read. She could just as easily have been a repressed lesbian (a device Rendell has used in at least one of her other books) or a phobic of some kind, to mention only a couple of possibilities. To lose sight of that would be a fallacy, and once the reader realises this Eunice ceases to be sympathetic.

As to the Coverdales as characters, such is Rendell’s skill that while she lets you know that they are indeed “nice” people she also makes them just as utterly unlikeable as Eunice. They are snobbish and self-centered, their attempts at doing good for Eunice range from patronising to downright contrived to make themselves – rather than her – feel good, and they are, each in their own way, responsible for their own deaths. Not that you ever feel they deserve it. The reason, I think, for us not wanting them to die even though we don’t like them, is that they are insignificant. They are snobs, yes, but to a normal person their snobbery is harmless and their self-centeredness is not consciously cruel to others. It is only a twisted person like Eunice, with her intense fear of being found lacking and being mocked, or Joan Smith with her religious righteousness crossed with psychosis, who can possibly decide they deserve to die. Therein lies the crux of the story: no sane person would do this kind of thing, even if they were illiterate.

Rating: An excellent psychological thriller and whydunnit. 5 stars.

I have given up on the countdown because I keep getting confused and getting different tallies. I have somewhere around like 110-113 books left in the challenge.


Dorte H said…
A really fine review of a fantastic thriller. I read this one many years ago, but contrary to so many other books, this one will never go away :)
Though it is not a Wexford story, I think I will have to take it up again because of the illiteracy aspect.

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