I was at the public library and decided I’d find a Ruth Rendell novel or two to read — did a quick scan of Amazon reviews and grabbed two that had strong reviews and looked interesting. The first one I read was her 1977 A Judgment in Stone which, I just learned, was adapted by the French director Claude Chabrol as La Ceremonie — a movie I remember liking very much and which I’d vaguely thought of as I read, but had not realized was an actual adaptation of the book. (There was also an American adaptation of the novel, The Housekeeper.)
Here is the book’s arresting first sentence: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” The book is pretty daring for several reasons, one that it gives everything away immediately. Early on I did feel, “gee, can I really wade through all this, waiting for the final bloody end that has already been described to me” (although we have to wait for the end to learn most of the details of what went down). But it works very well and you get caught up in the psychology of the murderer and your curiosity about how exactly things will go terribly wrong.
The premise is also daring because so apparently prejudicial. Here we have an ignorant, illiterate working-class woman who, we are told, commits motiveless mass murder because of her ignorance and illiteracy. On the one hand, the novel is so well-done that one can defend it by pointing out simply that this is a very particular story about particular circumstances — a knot of events and actions that can’t be reduced to sociology or generalizations about types of people. On the other, this is a nasty piece of work, in some ways, and I wouldn’t be prepared to defend it absolutely against class bias in its depiction of a psychologically stunted, uneducated woman whose unreasoned hatred and resentment of her, yes, slightly smugly rich and liberal (but far from cruel or unkind) employers leads her to a senseless act of violence. (They are educated, cultured people and Eunice’s phobia about writing, and her defensiveness about her concealed illiteracy, plays a strong role in the events.)
Rendell reminds me a little bit of Patricia Highsmith, partly in her willingness to ignore liberal or right-thinking pieties in her cool, sometimes slightly amused from-the-inside depiction of murderers and other criminals.
The novel also made me think of the brutal and random 2007 Connecticut home invasion murders committed by Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.
Here’s a transcript of a BBC interview with Rendell about the novel in which Rendell defends herself against a charge of cruelty or prejudice in her depiction of Eunice by saying,
I’ve had quite a lot of protest from people saying that this is cruel, including various societies who are proponents of illiterate people and who champion them, but I don’t think it’s cruel because I particularly feel that it’s unjust to say that I am stating that every illiterate person is likely to commit murder, which was alleged against me. It’s no more really than saying that every woman in my books where there is a female murderer is capable of murder, or every man is in that case. I don’t think it’s cruel but I do think, and I hope this isn’t harsh, that any illiterate person who feels burdened by his or her illiteracy can go to classes to learn to read. There are ample opportunities, even more these days than whenever I wrote that book, which I think was 1975.
Not too sympathetic…
The illiteracy angle is important enough to the book that it crossed my mind that perhaps this could be a text in our Introduction to Criticism and Theory course in a cluster on literacy — including Levi-Strauss’s famous passage from Tristes Tropiques in which he describes literacy and writing as a malign invading force in the lives of the Amazonian tribespeople he studies, bringing with it new priestly hierarchies, deceptions, and forms of oppression. (This Levi-Strauss passage is one of many Jacques Derrida analyzes and criticizes in Of Grammatology).
The book made me think about the novelistic history of depictions of the illiterate. Dickens’ Jo from Bleak House is one that comes to mind:
It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language—to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!
Hmm, that line “stone blind and dumb” makes me think that Rendell may have thought of Jo too. Although whereas for Dickens, Jo is “stone blind and dumb” to the meaning of writing but is otherwise deeply feeling, Eunice is herself stone-like.