I’m not the biggest of Rendell fans, then again, I have only read 5 or so books by her. Inspector Wexford always seemed a bit of a dull fish to me though. However, today’s read, a non-series novel, is a favourite of mine and well-worth the re-read.
A Judgement in Stone (1977), is an inverted mystery in my opinion. After all the very first sentence of the book is this: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ The brief first chapter then goes on to clearly tell us who in the family dies and the name of Eunice’s accomplice, as well as the when and the where and the why. Nevertheless, the chapter closes on this remark: ‘But there was more to it than that.’
Now your normal mystery reading fan may be wondering what more there could be, given how much information we are furnished with in the story’s exposition. Yet Rendell does indeed show us how much more there is to know about Eunice’s story. The book traces the events leading up to the crime with its unusual choice of motive. How can someone’s illiteracy lead to them murdering four people?
From the first page there is a note of the if onlys, in particular the charge is made that if her employers had been less literate none of them would have died. So whilst, yes, we do get to see how Eunice’s previous life led to her crime, the book invests a lot of time in examining the Coverdale family under the microscope, seeing how their own behaviour and attitudes, piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, ultimately trigger Eunice’s violent actions. Each move this family makes, moves them closer to death, despite some of these moves arguably coming from good intentions. The issue of blame in this book is a complex and intricate one and I think the text is open enough to invite reader response, rather than prescribe a set judgement. The writer certainly doesn’t whitewash Eunice or exonerate her behaviour, past or present. The tone of the opening page could even be considered as quite harsh summing up Eunice in this way: ‘She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.’ The first page is also keen to stress how she didn’t have to kill her employers, pointing out how it accomplished nothing for her and actually spread her secret to far more people. Yet at the same time the Coverdale’s middleclass mindset with its fixed notions of how people ought to want to live their lives, is also unpicked. Never has being a well-meaning interferer been so dangerous for one’s health! They may treat Eunice kindly, but the narrative reveals the self-interest behind this, as they want her to stay, yet ‘they never considered her as a person at all’ and to them she ‘was little more than a machine.’
But then Rendell never seems drawn to over-simplifications or easy answers. For instance, she mentions the moment when Eunice first gets a TV of her own, given to her by her employers. She is drawn to violent cop dramas, yet Rendell very astutely notes that such TV preferences cannot be automatically presumed to be the reason she shoots her employers. After all she has killed before, in a time when she had only watched the Queen’s coronation on TV. Furthermore, with other characters the notion that a good upbringing is a guaranteed safeguard against a child going off the rails later in life is also overturned. In addition, when it comes to the theme of literacy and illiteracy, I think Rendell is really good at demonstrating the mindset of someone who cannot read and how something most people see as good and as empowering, is deemed as malevolent and frightening by others. Again, on the first page, she writes that ‘to be illiterate is to be deformed.’ I may be wrong but I don’t think this is Rendell imposing an ugliness or value judgement onto those who cannot read, but instead it seems as though she is using language to evoke the feelings someone might feel if they cannot read and fear the shame and pity of others finding out. Not being able to read is a serious handicap in the modern world, so it is easy to see how misshaped your life can become, if you don’t want this known about you and yet don’t have others who can hide your weakness.
The servant problem is understandably a fundamental theme of the book, as it is the difficulty in getting competent domestic help, which paves the way for Eunice getting the job with the Coverdales in the first place and later on it fuels her employers’ determination to keep her, despite early warning signs over her temperament. It interests me that this issue is one which has been included in crime fiction for a very long time. It may be more commonly associated with earlier detective fiction, especially post-war, yet it seems to live on in much later works, such as this one and Celia Fremlin’s Appointment with Yesterday (1972). In particular within this issue we get to see the transitions that were being made in society at the time, where middle class housewives were feeling as though their employees had the upper hand. For me, I wouldn’t regard the inclusion of such a problem as mere class snobbery on the writer’s part. It does genuinely seem to be regarded an issue for women at the time, trying to navigate their role as an employer as class norms and rules were changing. Equally with Rendell I don’t think it would be wise to assume she approves of the Coverdale attitude towards hired help. After all she does intimate multiple times how it contributes to their own untimely deaths…
All in all this is a very rich novel thematically and even though you know certain cards are on the table, there is still a sense of tension and edge of your seat reading. In some ways it’s like looking at an impending disaster. You know what’s going to happen, yet you can’t look away either.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver): Inverted Mystery
Calendar of Crime: February (4) Valentine’s Day