Sunday, January 25, 2004


British crime novelist Ruth Rendell is probably best known for her long-running police procedural series starring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. But Rendell also writes under the nom de plume Barbara Vine, creating non-series books that are rich in psychological portraits of unstable people who are unwilling or unable to combat the ever-encroaching criminal chaos entering their lives. Hailed by both critics and fans as one of her best novels, A Judgement in Stone, although written under the Rendell name, arguably foreshadows what she would accomplish writing as Vine more than what she would do in the Inspector Wexford series.

Ostensibly about the killing of the Coverdale family by their surly maid because she couldn’t read or write, Rendell brilliantly examines the mindset of someone who would so willingly commit such a senseless crime. There is no mystery in A Judgement in Stone. The first sentence matter-of-factly informs us that the Coverdale clan has been murdered by their maid, Eunice Parchman. But there are numerous puzzling questions concerning Parchman’s descent into violence and how her illiteracy shaped her simmering rage.

Rendell’s straightforward yet elegant prose unflinchingly casts a strange spell over the proceedings, offering the reader no escape from the horrifying yet inevitable conclusion. Although Parchman is thoroughly unlikable, pathetic, and in many respects the personification of a tangible Evil, Rendell nevertheless manages to make us feel empathy toward her. Much of the novel painfully deals with Parchman’s inability to interact with people due to her illiteracy and how the fear of her disability being discovered overruled everything in her life. But we also grow increasingly frustrated with Parchman when help is offered to her and she refuses to accept it because ultimately she doesn’t care. She’s too far-gone, too content with the deadening comfort that is her dull, uneventful life.

For those of you who believe that British crime fiction is always good humored and cozily sordid, read this savage misanthropic masterpiece and feel the cold dread sink in. You’ll be scrambling for a Miss Marple novel in no time flat.

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