Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone (1977)

Four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda and Giles – died in the space of fifteen minutes on the 14th February, St Valentine’s Day. Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper, shot them down on a Sunday evening while they were watching opera on television. Two weeks later she was arrested for the crime. But the tragedy neither began nor ended there.

I discovered this novel  thanks to a suggestion from Danielle from A Work in Progress. I have read a few books of Ruth Rendell before and liked them and  I also read one she wrote under the pen name Barbara Vine but didn’t know which to read next. It is always good with prolific writers if someone can make a suggestion. I really liked A Judgement in Stone and can see why it is considered to be one of her best. It takes a very good writer to be able to captivate a reader even though the victims and the murderer are known from the very beginning. The psychological insights are absolutely convincing. Each character is so different from the other and they are all quite fascinating. Rendell adds a lot about the British class system and her description of two completely deranged women is amazing.

Because we know from the start that the main characters will be killed the book has an eery quality. It reminded me of a Greek tragedy. There is nothing to stop the course of the action.

Eunice Parchman, a middle-aged, illiterate and not very intelligent woman starts her employment with the Coverdales in summer. On Valentine’s Day she kills them. The changing of the seasons that Rendell describes with great detail adds to the feeling of the inevitable. The narrator is very present in this story, he misses no occasion to remind us, that the people he describes will meet a certain death. This reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Eunice is not only illiterate she also lacks feelings for others. There is not the tiniest bit of empathy in this woman. Since she can’t read and sees this as a great flaw she abhors the written word and those who like to read. The Coverdales, a typical British upper class family, love to read. There are books all over their house. Eunice tries to cover up her disability as best she can and gets herself in a lot of impossible situations. One day, when running errands, she meets Joan Smith, a former prostitute who has joined some obscure Christian sect. One woman is as deranged as the other. Eunice is a cold-hearted selfish sociopath and the other a fanatic psychopath. Their alliance can only bring misfortunes.

Rendell’s  book is gripping, psychologically convincing and utterly fascinating. I’m really in the mood to read more of her books.

A Judgement in Stone has twice been made into a movie. One of them is by Claude Chabrol, La Cérémonie, starring Sandrine Bonnaire as Eunice and Isabelle Huppert as Joan.