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THE SAINT ZITA SOCIETY
by Ruth Rendell
Doubleday Canada, August 2012
288 pages
$22.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385671652


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Crime fiction readers who have come to expect the corpse to show up promptly, or at least by chapter three, may be disconcerted to discover that the first murder does not occur in THE SAINT ZITA SOCIETY until page 214 of this less than 300 page book. And there's no mystery whatever about who's done it or why. All the same, SAINT ZITA is a thoroughly engrossing, frequently suspenseful examination of the relationship between crime and the modern city, this time in one of its most delightful neighbourhoods.

Hexam Place is situated in "one of the finest residential districts in the United Kingdom, if not the world." Hexam Place is fictional, but the London district, Pimlico, is not. The white facades of the houses may present the appearance of serene uniformity, but the residents are a varied lot. There are the owners, some of whom inherited these highly desirable residences. Others are tenants of the flats that have been quarried out the former solid family homes, and then there are the hired help, who clean, drive, cook and take care of children for the better off.

If this sounds like the set-up for a latter-day Upstairs, Downstairs, it isn't. What divides the employers from the employees is less class than cash. Both groups are for the most part motivated by an identical and singular self-centredness. Times have changed since the days of the Bellamys. As June, the elderly paid companion to an even more elderly imitation princess reflects, "the young ones...might be pals with their employers, but when you were eighty-two and seventy-eight things were different." For the rest, some call their bosses by their first names, while Jimmy, who drives for the nice Dr Jefferson, sees himself as more of a housemate than a servant. Even Rabia, the Muslim nanny, has confused her role by falling madly in love with her toddler charge, who is not quite sure which is his mother, Rabia or Lucy Still. When the servants get together to form an employees' association, they have no luck in coming up with an agenda of grievances - they have in fact little sense of having anything in common with each other at all.

Certainly, they have nothing in common with Dex, the doctor's gardener. Dex is only interested in the messages he receives on his mobile phone from Peach, his phone service provider. Peach is Dex's god, and he is untroubled by the various voice messages he gets in response to the numbers he randomly dials, as long as, every now and then, Peach speaks directly to him. When Peach does speak, it is generally to grant Dex a favour - ten free calls, for example - for no reason that Dex can understand. Peach is a sort of 21st century version of the angry deity of Puritan predestination, dispensing arbitrary grace. Dex has only recently been released from a secure facility where he did some time following his unsuccessful attempt to kill his mother. Dr Jefferson is convinced that he is fine now.

Unlike Rendell's Wexford novels, which presume that the orderly pursuit of evidence will result in the return (at least briefly) of order to the community, there is no community in her London novels, only random association based on proximity. Of all the contemporary crime novelists with a noir sensibility, Rendell seems the most uncompromising. No mean streets here, no testosterone, but no sentimentality, either. This is a universe in which no good deed will go unpunished. There are very few crime writers that I find genuinely terrifying (Ken Bruen is one) but Rendell's standalone novels set in London do it for me every time. The final paragraph of this one made me hoot out loud in surprise and shock. And I've been thinking about it ever since.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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