“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
I have to say, I found it weird that Ruth Rendell would start a murder mystery by eliminating the mystery in the very first sentence. It’s been a while since I read any Rendell, but I have always found her murder mysteries to be absorbing and unsettling, which is where the fun is. One would never describe her mysteries as “cozy.” The fact that we readers know the who and the why of the impending murders while the victims don’t really adds to the creep factor in this novel. That big giveaway in the first sentence in no way diminishes the thrill and intrigue for the reader, and as murder mysteries go, this is a decent one.
The reader knows immediately that the Coverdales — patriarch George (mid-50s), wife Jacqueline (40s), daughter Melinda (20) and stepson Giles (17) — will be gunned down in their own home on February 14 while listening to an opera and that their housekeeper Eunice Parchman will have done it. Rendell starts the action 10 months prior, when the Coverdales hire Eunice, a single woman in her late 40s, to clean their home. Lowfield Hall in the village of Greeving, East Anglia, is a large place and beyond Jacqueline’s ability to manage, what with her gardening, social engagements, and fussing over the children and grandchildren. Greeving is a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business and it is hard to find good help. Thus, Jacqueline takes out a notice in a London paper, which Eunice answers. Jacqueline is prepared to be disappointed when interviewing Eunice but is delighted to find herself satisfied with the only candidate for the job. Eunice is reserved, polite and a diligent, meticulous housekeeper. What’s not to love?
Of course, the reader knows exactly what’s not to love about Eunice, and even a few members of Jacqueline’s family have a bad feeling about her from the start. In Eunice, Rendell has created a character who seems very bland and dull, but appearances are deceiving. Eunice grew up during the war and managed not to learn much of anything at school. In particular, she never learned to read even though her parents were literate. Her illiteracy has circumscribed her world and her interests, turning her into a person with little curiosity, empathy or compassion. In fact, she seems to compensate for her lack of letters by developing a strong visual memory, some odd compulsions, and a proclivity for blackmail. Eunice feels great shame and embarrassment over her inability to read and write, and so keeping it a secret is paramount to her. When she took the job with the Coverdales, it provided her with relief from having to manage a home, bills and other documents that were beyond her abilities as a single woman in the city.
At first, the situation at Lowfield Hall seemed to be going well for Jacqueline and Eunice. Sure, Eunice was a bit quirky but the house had never been in better shape. Eunice is pleased to have a TV of her own in her quarters, and she spends every evening watching violent cop shows, which enthrall her. Yet there is unease on both sides from the beginning. George Coverdale finds Eunice’s lack of interest in or sympathy for a family tragedy to be offensive and kind of disturbing. George’s older children who live away from Lowfield Hall think Eunice is cold and creepy. Giles prefers to stick to his room, constantly reading and not getting involved, but when pressed, he calls Eunice “repellent.” Melinda, however, feels sorry for Eunice; she sees that the woman has a very limited life and no friends. It is Melinda’s interest in Eunice, as well as Giles’ books and cork boards full of famous quotes, that set Eunice on edge.
As the months progress, a series of small incidents occur that will act as kindling to the later conflagration. Rendell does a fabulous job of slowing building up the tension. Eunice’s fear of being outed as illiterate feeds into some of her old compulsions and eventually leads to her introduction to Joan Smith, proprietor of the village store. These two women would seem to have little in common, but they form a bond that will have disastrous consequences.
In most murder mysteries, detectives serve as main characters, and it is their unraveling of the crime that feeds the plot. In A Judgement in Stone, the detecting business occupies only a few short chapters at the end, but they are gripping as we wait to see whether Eunice will pay for her crimes. Overall I would say this was a pretty good mystery. Rendell’s use of literary references and her understanding of how an illiterate person would hide their disability are woven seamlessly into her story of a Valentine’s Day massacre in the English countryside.