Originally published in 1977
On Valentine’s Day, four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda, and Giles – were murdered in the space of 15 minutes. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, shot them one by one in the blue light of a televised performance of Don Giovanni.
When Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch arrests Miss Parchman two weeks later, he discovers a second tragedy: the key to the Valentine’s Day massacre, a private humiliation Eunice Parchman has guarded all her life.
A brilliant rendering of character, motive, and the heady discovery of truth, A Judgement in Stone is among Ruth Rendell’s finest psychological thrillers.
This fascinating whydunnit is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.
A Judgement in Stone opens with a statement, quoted above, that names the person who will commit murder, their victims and also provides a motive for the killings. There is no trickery in that opening statement and yet, in spite of possessing this knowledge, I think that this book can still be described as a whydunnit. The truth that Rendell exposes in this novel is that events are complex and that while you may know what triggered an action, to truly understand them requires exploration of some underlying conditions.
There are no shocks or surprise twists. The author carefully foreshadows almost every development and the reader will likely guess at many of the connections that will be made. And yet A Judgement in Stone is utterly compelling.
After briefly explaining where this story will end – with the murder of an upper middle-class family in their home by their servant while watching a televised recording of an opera – Rendell then takes us back to the point where the Coverdales first encounter Eunice. She explains the circumstances that led them to hire her, overlooking some deficiencies and reservations, and their initial feelings about her. We also learn more about Eunice herself, her past and how she came to find herself in service despite having no background.
There are multiple points in the story where we can see how things might have gone very differently had a character made a marginally different decision, acted with a little more caution or with a greater understanding of a situation. This lends the narrative some of the tension-building effects of the Had I But Known style of storytelling as we are told that something is significant and then try to imagine how these elements will eventually tie together.
To give one of the earliest and simplest examples highlighted in the narration, had a character known London postcodes a little better they would have seen through Eunice’s reference and never employed her in the first place. Rendell does not just explain that this mistake was made, she gives us background to the conditions that caused it in the first place. In doing so it reveals that becoming a murderer was far from a certain outcome for Eunice and that it was not caused by just one event or circumstance but a number of contributory factors.
Rendell writes this story in the third person but her narrator, while writing with an extensive knowledge of the crime, is not omniscient. There are small moments of imprecision and speculation within the narration, typically about details that are presumably irrelevant to the case. Nor are they entirely impartial as the narrator occasionally offers subtle judgements concerning the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. The result is quite intriguing as we have a narrator with hints of a personality and yet no identity, almost suggesting that we are reading a journalistic account of a crime by someone who has reconstructed it after the fact.
Rendell does not encourage sympathy towards her killer, nor necessarily towards the victims. They are not presented as deserving their fates and yet it is clear that the narrator feels they have some culpability in the outcome because of their inability to understand a character from a radically different background to their own.
While Eunice may not be presented in a sympathetic light, Rendell does not paint her in an overtly villainous light either. That may seem remarkable given some of the information we learn about her early in the book but I think it also reflects that there is another character who is more mindfully malicious in the narrative. That character is a really striking study in the contrast between how someone may see themselves and their actual role and much of the book’s sharpest moments concern this character. She is a superb creation and one of the most disturbing credible monsters I have encountered to date in Rendell’s fiction.
It is fascinating to follow these characters interactions and to watch Rendell slowly push each piece into place before delivering the sequence of terrible events we have been anticipating since that first line. What adds to the tension is that from the start we are aware of a date on which it will all happen – Valentine’s Day – and so as we track through the various events we become increasingly aware of how close that date is.
It doesn’t last long and Rendell doesn’t draw out the descriptions of the violence. The focus is not so much on what happens as on the way characters respond to it. If these pages are difficult reading that reflects that the atmosphere and sense of anticipation leading into that moment is so strong that the murder feels like a sharp release of tension. It is quick and devastating but done very well.
Overall then I have little hesitation in suggesting that this is an example of a novel that actually lives up to its reputation. For years people have been telling me I should seek it out and now that I have I can only say they were right. This is one of the best examples of a whydunnit that I have read to date and I commend it to anyone with an interest in crime stories.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praises this novel in an interesting review in which she draws particular attention to its discussion of ‘the servant problem’.
Moira @ ClothesinBooks wrote this post about the novel when Rendell passed away several years ago in which she describes why this novel is her favorite by the author.
Rich @ Past Offences describes the book as a ‘study in inevitability’ which is a lovely way to put it.
Jose @ A Crime Is Afoot also noted the book’s similarities to the true crime style and praises the book’s psychological approach to exploring its characters.