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Book Review: A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell


Drew Payne

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Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

This isn’t a plot-spoiler but the opening line to one of Ruth Rendell’s finest novels. Though she sums up the plot of her novel in one line, there is much more to this book.

It is the mid 1970s and the upper middle class Coverdale family have moved to a manor house in the English countryside, but the housework is “too much” for Mrs Coverdale, so Eunice Parchman is hired as housekeeper-come-general-dog’s-body. This will lead to Eunice Parchman killing the whole family, on St Valentine’s Day. As much as Eunice Parchman killed them, the Coverdale family, through their own insensitivity to and patronising of her, pushed Eunice Parchman into her actions.

Rendell’s novel capture’s the attitudes and values of the Coverdale family, their believes that their actions are all for the good. But the chilling achievement here is Rendell’s characterisation of Eunice Parchman. Her illiteracy is her deep and shameful secret, that she will do anything to hide. Rendell captures, chillingly realistically, how isolating it is being unable to read, for how much of our modern life reading is essential, how much of our society is closed off to someone who cannot read. This is her secret but it isn’t why she kills, because Eunice Parchman has a disassociated personality disorder. She cannot relate to other people, has no empathy, no understanding or even liking of the people around her, they are as unreadable to her as a book, her sole pleasures in life are television and chocolate. This is why she kills, when she feels she is pushed into a corner, and this is what Rendell captures so well. She understands and gets under the skin of Eunice Parchman, and does it so chillingly well.

This novel is set in the classic setting for a British murder mystery, the English country village, but this isn’t a cosy crime story, where the murder is bloodless and order is restored. This is a dark and doom ladened story, Rendell’s prose almost counting down to the murders, of what drove a sociopathic person to murder, and how unthinking people drove them to it.

This isn’t a crime novel, but a novel about a crime and, if you are new to Ruth Rendell, it is a great introduction to her writing.

Find it here on Amazon

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