Published by Arrow on April 21, 1994 (first published May 2, 1977)
Genres: Classic, Crime Fiction
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Four members of the Coverdale family - George, Jacqueline, Melinda and Giles - died in the space of fifteen minutes on the 14th of February, St Valentine's Day. Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper, and the prosaically named Joan Smith shot them down on a Sunday evening while they were watching opera on television. Two weeks later Eunice was arrested for the crime.
But the tragedy neither began nor ended there. . .
A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell shows up on several “best mysteries” lists, which is why I added it to my to-read list. I had read several of her Inspector Wexford series, but none of her stand-alone novels. And then it was my Classic Club Spin book for the month, which pushed it to the top of my stack.
From the opening sentences, the book had my attention. “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security.” We know from the first chapter, which is only two pages long, who was killed, when they were killed, and who the murderers were. The rest of the book relates what led up to the crime and the aftermath.
Eunice Parchman is illiterate, a fact that she is desperate to keep secret. The Coverdales are a decent enough family, intelligent, a little snobby, but overall well-meaning. All of the characters are well-drawn, none wholly good or bad. The tension comes from the interactions between their two worlds. Eunice may be illiterate, and yes that definitely affects how she sees and deals with people, but she’s also a psychopath. A Judgement in Stone is a gripping study of how this particular character came to be a murderer. It’s not one thing that pushed her over the edge, and she wouldn’t have done it without her friend, a religious fanatic. Or maybe she would have, she’d killed before.
The story is told in the third-person by an upper class narrator. The voice is cold and witty, giving us a clear account of the events, but not really sympathizing with any of the characters. It’s a dark story and the whole time you know what’s coming, the pressure is building. Even the laugh out loud moments are grim.
“I can tell you, she really knows her job.”
“So do boa constrictors,” said Audrey.”
“I don’t know where I’d be without you, Eu-nicey, mother of Timothy.”
Alive today, probably, and living in Tooting.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend A Judgement in Stone to every mystery reader. I loved it, but it’s a slow building book. It’s about the people and their interactions, their misunderstandings and missteps, not about clues and tracking down the killer. It can be funny, but not in a way everyone will appreciate. I definitely enjoyed it, if enjoyed is the right word.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: