the book: A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell
[Student Melinda is coming for a weekend visit to her family home in Norfolk]
On the Friday afternoon Melinda Coverdale came home. The train brought her from Galwich to Stantwich, and the bus to a place called Gallows Corner two miles from Lowfield Hall. There she alighted and waited for a lift. At this hour there was always someone passing on his or her way home to Greeving, so Melinda hoisted herself up on to Mrs Cotleigh’s garden wall and sat in the sun.
She was wearing over-long jeans rolled up to the knees, very scuffed red cowboy boots, a cotton shirt and a yellow hat, vintage 1920. But for all that there was no prettier sight to be seen on a sunny garden wall between Stantwich and King’s Lynn. Melinda was the child who had inherited George’s looks…
An energy that never seemed to flag, except where Middle English verse was concerned, kept her constantly on the move. She lugged her horse’s nosebag holdall up on to the wall beside her, pulled out a string of beads, tried it on, made a face at her textbooks… jumped down and [started] to pick poppies.
Five minutes later a van came along, and Geoff Baalham called ‘Hi Melinda! Can I drop you?’
She jumped in, hat bag and poppies. ‘I must have been there half an hour,’ said Melinda, who had been there ten minutes.
‘I like your hat.’
‘Do you really, Geoff? You are sweet. I got it at the Oxfam shop.’
observations: Ruth Rendell, grande dame of UK crime literature died at the weekend, and will be much missed. She was a prolific and very clever author, and quite the character. She seems to have been eccentric and kind, and she wrote a lot of attention-grabbing books. She had her police series featuring Inspector Wexford, her standalone suspense books, and then the novels written under the (not-secret) pseudonym Barbara Vine, strange deep thrillers.
One of her early novels, the 1967 A New Lease of Death, featured on the blog recently, and I was quite rude about it, so I dug out this one – far and away my favourite of her books – for a more respectful and enthusiastic memorial.
It has a famous first line:
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.-- and there are no surprises or twists, it is clear throughout that this is exactly what happens. There is plenty of foreshadowing and an authorial voice saying ‘Why not phone back Jacqueline?’ – and discover the truth, save your life. Melinda, above, comes to a parting of the ways – ‘She hesitated. She chose’ and is doomed.
But these portentous notes are not typical of the book, which is very very clever and entertaining. I don’t normally like this kind of crime novel, where there is no mystery, where the ending is clear from the off – I would expect to prefer an Inspector Wexford procedural – but there is something about this one that draws the reader in. I have read it several times over the years and it has always been just as good, every time. I have tried to analyse how Rendell makes it work, and the simple truth is that I haven’t the faintest idea. But I own a shelf-full of her books, and this is the only one I would save in a fire, and I’m sure I will read it every couple of years for the rest of my life.
I think the character-drawing is terrific – she sums up Melinda so neatly in the passage above – and for such a tragic book (she even quotes from Dickens' Bleak House on the first page and on the last sad page) it is very funny, which I don’t usually find in Rendell. I like Eva the cleaning woman checking (with the lady of the house, Jacqueline) on the arrangements for Eunice Parchman, the new housekeeper:
‘Have her bed in here will she?’ said Eva, ambling into the [better] bedroom.
‘No she won’t.’ Jacqueline could see that Eva was preparing to line herself up as the secretary, as it were, of the downtrodden domestic servants’ union.
It IS really sad, and you do wish Melinda could choose life and a future, but there is a completeness and rightness about the book. The French director Claude Chabrol made a haunting and eerie film of the book, called La Ceremonie – the action is moved to France and there are other changes, but it certainly does justice to the spirit of the book.
Ruth Rendell was admirable for many reasons. One is that she wrote so much – perhaps there is something in her work to appeal to everyone, at least one book each crime fan will like. This is my one.
The picture is from a 1977 fashion magazine.