The Coverdales are a wealthy family living in Lowfield Hall, a country house in Suffolk. George is MD of Tin Box Coverdale, the family business, and fancies himself the local squire. His second wife Jacqueline is an unenthusiastic housewife who, desperate for domestic help, recruits the lumpen Eunice Parchman at the beginning of the book. Also living at the Hall are George’s sparky and attractive daughter Melinda and Jacqueline’s bookish and remote son Giles.
The new housekeeper Eunice starts out well, but within just a few months things have gone very wrong and she, with her accomplice Joan Smith, kills the Coverdales with George’s shotgun. The book ends with her arrest for murder.
Now, I do try my best not to give away too much of a book’s plot, but in this case I can do so without fear of spoiling anything. Rendell herself opens the novel with its ending:
‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
By the end of chapter 2, the reader knows what’s going to happen, to whom, by whom, when and even why. In writing A Judgement in Stone, Rendell seemed to have set herself a challenge: Is it possible to create an effective suspense novel in which there is no mystery?
The structure is probably more like a true crime book than a work of fiction. Since the ‘facts’ are known, the author’s job is to relate the events in their order rather than surprise the reader by revealing them one by one. There are frequent excursions into back-story. The tone is analytical, even clinical.
As is heralded in the first line, illiteracy is a major theme in Judgement.
‘To be illiterate is to be deformed. And the derision that was once directed at the physical freak may, perhaps more justly, descend upon the illiterate.’
Eunice is driven to hide her illiteracy from society as if it were a visible deformity. Until meeting the Coverdales she led a restricted (sheltered isn’t the right word) existence and managed to get by without being able to read and write. In an educated and literate household her discovery is inevitable and this fuels a growing resentment and, ultimately, hatred of her employers.
Is Eunice a victim? Certainly she is given few chances in life. But equally she stubbornly refuses to take advantage of those chances she is offered. Rendell repeatedly points out that illiteracy effectively excludes someone from society and therefore from its norms. Eunice seems to embrace this and is in fact entirely self-centred. And there is a broad streak of malice in her.
‘She had few opportunities to do bad things, but she found them or made them.’
So no sympathy for Eunice.
The Coverdales are equally self-centred in their way, but are at least benign. It is probably their inability to conceive of a social ‘inferior’ as a threat to their comfortable existence that most contributes to their demise.
A stand-out creation for me are the Smiths, Joan and Norman. Joan is an outstandingly evil character who revels in her murky past and, rather than hiding it, announces it to the world in the guise of religious confession. Norman meanwhile hates her with a passion but is seemingly unable to control her. Joan is treated with a sardonic wit:
‘One wonders what Joan Smith would have done with children if she had had them. Eaten them, perhaps.’
The book is a study in inevitability. The characters are unable to change their fates. Time and again, Rendell sets up situations where they could choose a different path but then denies it to them. An early example: Eunice Parchman gives the Coverdales a false reference from an invented employer, Mrs Chichester, and blackmails her ‘friend’ Annie Cole into playing the role of Mrs Chichester when Jacqueline Coverdale phones to speak with her. Both parties believe the call has gone satisfactorily…
‘”Did you confirm it with Miss Parchman?” said George.
“Oh, darling, I forgot. I’ll have to write to her.”
“Or phone back.”
Why not phone back, Jacqueline? Dial that number again now. A young man, returning to his room next to Annie Cole’s, setting his foot now on the last step of that flight of stairs, will lift the receiver. And when you ask for Miss Parchman he will tell you he has never heard of her. Mrs Chichester then? There is no Mrs Chichester, only a Mr Chichester who is the landlord, in whose name the phone number is but who lives in Croydon. Pick up the phone now Jacqueline…
“I think it’s better to confirm it in writing.”
“Just as you like, darling.”‘
A Judgement in Stone is a remarkable achievement. The tension rises, and rises, and rises so effectively and so gradually that by the time I got to the murders I could barely read them.
Final destination: Back to the library, but I’m getting myself a copy.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.