By Jonathan Shapiro
October 7, 2012
The St. Zita Society
Scribner: 272 pp., $26
If you're unfamiliar with Ruth Rendell, if you've somehow managed to miss her 60 or so books, if you've never experienced the frisson produced by her unique blend of elegant prose and brutal plotting or laughed out loud at her acidic humor or social observations, then congratulations: Your reading life is about to get infinitely richer.
Reviewing mysteries is a bit like dissecting a butterfly to explain the wonder of its flight. It risks ruining the surprises. Fortunately, Rendell's stories are so solidly structured, so endlessly surprising, that they are only slightly diminished by any preview.
At the center of "The St. Zita Society" is June, the well-meaning instigator of what follows, an elderly employee of the even older Princess Susan Hapsburg, a doddering shut-in whose title was "incorrect in every respect except her Christian name."
Bitten once too often by the princess' yelping little purebred dog, June resolves to unite the diverse workforce of Hexam Place, "a street of white-painted stucco or golden brickwork houses known to estate agents as Georgian, though none had been built before 1860."
June envisions a mutual benefit society, named after the patron saint of domestic workers, a place where the gardeners, cleaners, nannies and drivers for the princess' wealthy and titled neighbors can band together to help one another.
But "worker solidarity" proves as oxymoronic as "honest government" or "responsible business practice." The society's meetings instantly devolve into gripe and gossip sessions that produce unintended and deadly consequences.
Miscommunication leading to murder is something of a Rendell specialty, and it drives the narrative here. Distracted by drink and mobile phones, tabloid headlines and Oxford Street sales, the workers do not unite. As so often happens in Rendell's work, hell turns out to be paved not so much with good intentions but misunderstandings. "Downton Abbey" was never so cynical, bloody or entertaining.
Rendell brings a unique perspective to her subject. A peer in the House of Lords and a lifelong Labor Party supporter, she lives among the elite but cares something about the little people. As with Patricia Highsmith, twisted mother of the talented Mr. Ripley, Rendell is a brilliant if detached observer of all levels of society.
If, as with Highsmith's writings, Rendell's new book often crosses rather than borders on cruelty, at least she never plays favorites. Neither the bosses nor the servants have a monopoly on bad behavior or outright stupidity.
Indeed, ignorance is the great unifier at Hexam Place.
Neither the princess nor Dex, the mentally unstable gardener, knows anything except what they see on television. When a worker first sees her employer's country estate, it brings back "recollections of period dramas on television, women in bonnets setting from…Regency bucks on horseback doffing hats to the ladies." When that same worker proves helpful in disposing of a body, it is only because of "her wide experience of reading and watching thrillers." Although one employer "was undoubtedly a financial genius, he was a weak man," impotent and incapable of changing a tire, fixing a meal or having an animal's instinct for survival.
"It was possible to know practically everything these days," Rendell writes of one young servant. "She was vaguely aware that it hadn't always been like that but it was now." And yet this particular servant's stupidity leads her into a sort of mindless criminality.
Perhaps the most fascinating character in the book, however, is London itself. Here is The City in which the worst of English traits — class obsession, xenophobia, sexual dysfunction, self-serving adherence to custom — thrive amid globalization, with its attendant greed, rank consumerism and inequality.
Lord Studley and the others living upstairs at Hexam Place may wear Prada and jog, may maintain their country homes through banking, may serve in the chinless coalition government, but they still dominate everyone, including the downstairs maids and manservants — and not just economically.
The maids and manservants may be Muslims now, or even the directionless daughters of the lord's college chum, but they still accept it all with the pathetic docility of sheep, or worse, with the vague hope that something good might come their way.
Like Charles Dickens, Rendell writes about contemporary London crime, but no one would call Dickens just a mystery writer. Rendell's work is too great, too thought-provoking and too important to be pigeonholed. The only mystery is why everyone doesn't know it.
Shapiro is a former federal prosecutor who writes and produces for television.
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