Oh, Ruth Rendell, how do you do it? Your industry is a reproach to all of us who write fewer than two books a year. Your dark imagination is disturbingly inventive, and the consistently high quality of your story telling inspires awe. Maybe slightly chilling awe.
I’ve strayed, over the last few years, from Rendell’s output, partly because she can be really disturbing and sometimes I’m a real coward in my reading. The St. Zita Society is not exactly benign. There are murders and natural deaths, but Rendell chose to write this book from a distance. There’s little suspense and no lamentation. Some characters are likeable, some are not, and their fates seem almost random. But of course the novel is meticulously crafted to keep us reading while still reminding us of the accidental quality of life.
The title refers to an ad hoc gathering of the servants who work in the houses on an exclusive, expensive cul de sac in London. (St. Zita, apparently, is the patron saint of servants.) Of course these are not the traditionally-ranked servants we know from “Downton Abbey,” with their uniforms and their clearly defined jobs. The boundaries between the classes in Hexam Place are more fluid, as are the duties of those who carry them out. An ersatz princess shares a house with her maid of 60 years; a gay couple rents a basement flat to Thea, who prides herself on her university degree but nevertheless serves as a resentful unpaid personal assistant to her landlords. In another house, a Muslim nanny is more of a mother to the toddler than his flesh and blood parent, a shallow fashion plate.
The pacing is… temperate. Maybe surprisingly so, given that there’s been a murder and our expectation is that it will be the centerpiece in this novel. But The St. Zita Society belongs to the body of Rendell’s work that simply investigates the disturbing behavior that could — possibly — be going on all around us. Discomfiting, but satisfying.