Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone

With the approach of February 14th, novels with a Valentine’s Day theme such as Carolyn G. Hart’s Deadly Valentine (a murder mystery), Janet Evanovich’s Plum Lovin’ (a light-hearted novella), Lee Harris’s The Valentine’s Day Murder (a murder mystery), and Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (a psychological mystery) will appeal to many readers. A Judgement in Stone is a particularly thought-provoking mystery by one of the genre’s most skilled writers. Rendell, the British Queen of Crime, and four-time Dagger Award winner, began her career as a journalist (see my post on The Rottweiler for a list of her many other awards). Baroness Rendell is a liberal with a strong social conscious, a member of the House of Lords who campaigns actively on behalf of social justice issues (Rowland 2001, 5; DuBose 2000, 369).

A Judgement in Stone begins with the intriguing sentence, “Eunice Parchment killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” (1). Since we know the killer’s identity and even her motive for the crime right from the start, we might expect that the novel would not be suspenseful. Only a writer of Rendell’s stature could, as DuBose observes, keep us enthralled to the final sentence of the book (2000, 366).

The story moves backwards in time to the events that lead up to the “Valentine’s massacre” of four family members. The plot begins with the Coverdales’ search for a servant. Eunice Parchment applies for the job and moves into Lowfield Hall with the family. From these fateful first steps
unravels a tightly woven tale of unexceptional decisions (the Coverdales simply want to hire a competent maid to clean their book-littered house), chance encounters (Eunice simply wants a chocolate bar when she walks into the village store), misunderstandings, and missed opportunities that lead to the horrific murders of four innocent people. (DuBose 2000, 366)
Cooper points out that Rendell’s stand-alone novels “deal not with detection but with the progress of a crime in the making, tracking the first tiny mischance that grows through coincidence, resentment and misunderstanding into violence.” The circularity of the narrative – ending where it began – lends an air of relentless inevitability to the story.

Rendell sprinkles the narrative with had-I-but-known references that increase the drama and the tension. When the family first meets Eunice, Rendell writes:
She was the strangest person they were ever likely to meet. And had they known what her past contained, they would have fled from her or barred their doors against her as against the plague – not to mention her future, now inextricably bound up with theirs. (29)
In her article for The Times, Cooper describes Rendell’s work as “psychologically acute and extremely disturbing.” Her forte is the psyche of deviant individuals. And as DuBose observes, her novels are not for the “squeamish: Rendell has no qualms about exploring the motivations behind unspeakable crimes and exposing the inner workings of the most obsessive and abnormal minds.” You will never forget Eunice Parchment or her friend – the religious fanatic, Joan Smith.

Like many Rendell novels, A Judgment in Stone investigates the inequalities of the British class system. At times its social/political argument becomes a polemic. But its achievement, according to Rowland, “is to portray a tragedy of social class without relinquishing individual portrayals of a complacent middle-class family totally unaware of the socially conditioned limitations of their perceptions” (2001, 154).

A Judgement in Stone is a psychologically convincing mystery story. A thwarted character loses all control on Valentine’s Day, a holiday that stands in stark contrast to the realities of the vicious massacre (Feder 1999, 222). Ruth Rendell, as DuBose observes, “excels at presenting the seemingly ordinary person who becomes violent because chance presents the opportunity” (2000, 363). The ease with which the mundane turns into the horrific in A Judgment in Stone will haunt you long after finishing the novel.

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Feder, Sue. “Holiday Mysteries.” In The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, 222-23. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rendell, Ruth. A Judgement in Stone. 1977. London: Arrow, 1978.

Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.