Monday, June 22, 2009

Updated: Our Heroine Likes Her Murder Mysteries the Old-Fashioned Way: Mysterious

No, really, I'm only sort of kidding about the title of this post. It's just that I finished Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone the other day (sorry I didn't write about it more quickly, I had a case of the lazies) and it was very good, but also very uncomfortable for me, which says more about me and my taste than it is a criticism of the story.

Perhaps I should pipe down and explain what the deuce I am talking about. The story is this: Eunice Parchman is illiterate, and (rather) conscienceless. Very little offends her, but her one source of shame is her illiteracy, which she has spent her whole life hiding.

She gets a job as a housekeeper at the home of a posh British family, all of them rather bookish, and (of course) they discover that she can't read, and the end result is murder. She murders them. All of them.

Now, I'm not giving anything away to tell you that she murders them all, and why, because here's the first sentence of the book: Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. So the book is not really a mystery in the way one normally expects. What drives the novel is the narrator describing the myriad trivial decisions, coincidences, remarks, etc., that had to happen over a span of time, in just the right way, in order for these people to come together on a particular day, in a particular frame of mind, for murder to be the end result.

The Coverdales had hundreds of chances, we learn, to escape their fate. If only they had done X instead of Y on one day, or if they had said A instead of B on this other day. But they don't have our perfect hindsight, so they don't make those alternate choices, and so they die.

Here's an example from the very beginning of the story: Eunice enlists the help her friend Annie to fake a reference for Jaqueline Coverdale, her potential employer. For the reference, Eunice gives Mrs. Coverdale the phone number of a "Mrs. Chichester," with whom she says she lives as housekeeper. The number, however, is really that of a public phone at Annie's boarding house. They wait by that same phone for Mrs. Coverdale to call, and Annie picks up and pretends to be Mrs. Chichester. A few minutes after she hangs-up, Mrs. Coverdale remembers that she ought to confirm with Eunice that she now has the job. Here is what the narrator rhetorically asks her doomed heroine:

Why not call back Jaqueline? Dial that number again now. A young man returning to his room next to [Annie's], setting his foot now on the last step of that flight of stairs, will lift the receiver. And when you ask for Miss Parchman he will tell you he has never heard of her. Mrs. Chichester, then? There is no Mrs. Chichester, only a Mr. Chichester, who is the landlord, in whose name the phone number is but who himself lives in Croydon. Pick up the phone now, Jaqueline...

"I think I had better confirm in writing."
Aaaauuugghh. So frustrating! That is the whole book. The narrator describing scenes such as this, wherein a different choice would have resulted in a much happier outcome for the Coverdale family.

Now, as a literature person, I find it fascinating how she has deconstructed the mystery novel and stood it on it's ear. But as a regular person, it made me ill. It just made me feel so very ill every time one of these critical moments was described. I kept thinking, "if only I could just warn the Coverdales..." And of course, to recognize that every tragedy is made of just such missteps, that are only seen as missteps when one is looking backwards, after the tragedy has already occurred. Perhaps I myself am now in the middle of just such a series of events, that are drawing me inexorably forward to some sort of dreadful end, but I just can't see it because the intermediary steps seem trivial and harmless...

Right ho, then. Moving on to something much more cheerful. D'you see what I mean about the book now?

I obviously need a palate cleanser, so I am both watching the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy via Netflix, and reading The Sparrow, a science fiction novel about Jesuits. I don't know which I will discuss here first.

Update: A French director has turned this into a movie called La cérémonie. Netflix has it. Am I crazy for being curious to see it? I'm going to add it to my queue, but I'm not sure if it's a good idea...

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