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.
Yes, she could be very, very good. I admire Fatal Inversion. That's mine, I think (though I did enjoy the Wexford books). So clever, so well written, so evocative in its period details. The Face of Trepass has stuck in my mind, too.ReplyDelete
Yes, Fatal Inversion, that would be my 2nd choice. (Though the title always throws me, it doesn't seem to describe the book) - someone once told me that it is considered one of the best thrillers of its type ever written. Now I will go and look up Face of Trespass (actually it's all her titles - they never seem to define the contents sufficiently for my literal mind, and I can never remember which is which...)Delete
Fatal Inversion is a rotten title! Face of Trepass isn't very good either. Some though were very good, such as A Dark-Adapted Eye. Titles do matter, don't they? And they are not always chosen by the author!ReplyDelete
It's a subject of never-ending fascination to me - I really don't get why publishers or writers would choose something obscure, especially something that isn't either intriguing or descriptive...Delete
Sadly, I never read Ruth Rendell during her lifetime. Fortunately, an author can be read any time and now would be the right time to read a book or two by Rendell.ReplyDelete
Now's the time Prashant - you'll be able to get plenty of recommendations round the blogosphere.Delete
A perfect choice of book, Moira. And you're right; it does have a way of drawing you in and building the tension even though you know what's going to happen. What a bold (and successful) strike on Rendell's part to structure the story that way. That's one of those things about her as an author: she was willing to take risks.ReplyDelete
As to titles... please, please don't get me started...
Yes Margot, completely agree with you. A great book. And yes, titles....Delete
I ought to read her soon, I think I have this one and a couple of others, but nothing logged yet.ReplyDelete
There must be some in there somewhere. I think you might enjoy her darker, more thriller-ish ones.Delete
What I, as an American, love about Rendell is her vivid evocation of a certain kind of British life. An early mystery of hers called One Across, Two Down perfectly captures something of the austerity of the mid 1960s, and her final novel (how sad to think of it that way), The Girl Next Door, does a wonderful job portraying children in a vanished suburb more than 50 years ago. In fact, I think she is particularly good at reminding us what life was like. Asta's Book is my favorite because I find it utterly convincing about the people, place, and time. But I also love the creepiness of The Tree of Hands, for instance.ReplyDelete
Reviewers often note with surprise that Rendell can be funny. Her wit is very dry, especially when it is directed at social ills. She never preached, but she got her message across. I will miss her.
Sappho, that's a great description of her writing - she did those details so well. I think sometimes it is too close to home for me, having lived through the austere 60s and 70s. I certainly recognize much of what she describes.Delete
I'd forgotten 'One Across, Two Down' - it's a grimly brilliant little gemDelete
I'm going to have to get One Across... out and re-read.Delete
I'm not into creepy so I steer clear of them, although I may try one of the stand-alones that are recommended at some point.ReplyDelete
However, I read one of the Inspector Wexford books and liked it and enjoyed Simosola in the TV series.
An uncle of mine who liked non-eerie, non-psychological suspense books, loved Inspector Wexford. He told me every time I talked to him how much he enjoyed that series.
I admire Ruth Rendell for publishing 60 books and pushing the envelope in crime fiction. Donna Leon often priased her Barbara Vine books and read passages from them out loud at lectures.
I am a more conservative reader so I'll look at more Wexford books.
One of Rendell's important writing traits is that she raised consciousness on important social issues on which she was quite progressive.
It sounds as though you would enjoy the Wexford books, as your uncle says - although this particular standalone isn't particularly creepy (the film is). She wasn't my favourite writer but there was a lot to admire about her writing, and about her life, and, as you say, her interest in social issues.Delete
I don't remember ever reading this one but you've made a compelling case. I must do a similar post regarding my favourite of her novels - Road Rage. Having been quite scathing about Wexford/Rendell (and even a couple of the Vine books that I've read) I should acknowledge that I do have a soft spot for that one - one of the first crime novels I came across that tackled an environmental theme and I love books that do thatReplyDelete
Her books vary so much don't they? One of the silver linings of her death is that everyone is sharing their recommendations for her best books (and they are all different!) so we can all look at her further...Delete
A fine tribute - and thank for this choice because I have not read this one (or seen the film either, and I really like Chabrol most fo the time) - will remedy this!ReplyDelete
Sergio - if you like Chabrol you will love the film, it's a really good one. And the book is great in a very different way....Delete
A book I'm looking forward to reading, Moira!ReplyDelete
Yes indeed, Jose Ignacio, I saw that you have it to hand...Delete
'A Judgement in Stone' is absolutely my favourite as well - I must have read it at least three times - and I think your phrase 'completeness and rightness' is perfect; it's immensely satisfying, despite the tragedy at its heart. My favourite Wexford was the first one I ever read - 'A Sleeping Life' - mainly because I completely failed to guess the brilliant central twist, and it led me to read practically everything Ruth Rendell wrote.ReplyDelete
There was, sadly, a fairly steep decline in the quality of the later books ( I often found the more youthful characters in them embarrassing, as they were so hopelessly unbelievable) but overall, I think her achievement was astonishing.
Yes, I agree, there came a point where I stopped looking out for a new book by her, and would rather read an old one. But as you say, her achievement was astonishing, and I do like authors with a large output.Delete
I will have to get a copy of this one and reread it. It has been years and years. I have not read many of the standalone books but I have a few to try. I do have all the Wexford novels except the last one, and have read most of them, although I now think I missed some from the 90s. I liked the Wexford novels a lot, was never much interested in the others.ReplyDelete
In a league table, I would put this one book, then one or two of the Barbara Vines, and then Wexford, and finally the other standalones. I thought the Wexfords varied more than you might expect, but could enjoy them on the whole.Delete
Which Wexfords do you recommend?ReplyDelete
Above people recommend One Across Two Down, and I think I also liked A Sleeping LIfe, and Murder Being Once Done.Delete