THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY
By Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell is, along with P.D. James, the jewel in the crown of British crime fiction after the first Golden Age. Her Inspector Wexford novels, stand-alones and deliciously creepy tales written as Barbara Vine have garnered fans and favorable critical attention for decades.
In recent years, she has enlarged her range to include stand-alone novels taking place on various London streets. The St. Zita Society takes place among the posh and would-be posh. Set on Hexam Place, it's an "Upstairs, Downstairs"-style novel in which those in service, and those roped into doing for others, gather at the local.
June has been lady's maid for more than 60 years to Princess Susan, who came by the title from a long-abandoned Italian prince. June forms the St. Zita Society, which she says is named after the patron saint of domestic servants, as a way for the downstairs group to congregate, discuss issues and perhaps go to a show.
Although most of the others don't mind congregating at the local, they're not that interested in any type of society or causing trouble. It's not that they're cowardly. It's that most of them are too wrapped up in themselves or the onus their employers place upon them.
Take Henry, for example. Lord Studley's valet is sleeping with both Lord Studley's wife and his daughter.
June has to walk the dog but her employer, the princess, is taken with June's nephew, Rad, who acts on a TV soap. Preston Still's wife also is taken with Rad. But it's the Stills' au pair, Montserrat, who has to let him in and out off the house across from where June and the princess live. At least Preston and Lucy Still's children are diligently cared for by Rabia, whose traditional Muslim father wants the young widow to get married again. But Rabia also lost her children and Thomas is such a lovely baby who adores her. Thea isn't in service but her landlords seem to think she works for them without pay.
Then there's Dr. Jefferson. His driver, Jimmy, doesn't work too hard but he does put up with Dex the gardener. Dex killed someone once because a voice commanded him to get rid of that evil spirit. Most people don't have faces to Dex, but there is the voice of Peach, sometimes found by dialing random numbers on his mobile, to guide him.
Rendell sets up these dominoes and, with one push, sets them all into inevitable motion. The rest of the novel is a delightfully devilish discourse on how some people get away with things, how some people only seem to get away with things and how some people are doomed.
Along the way, Rendell is as great as ever with her wicked ability to skewer those who need it, add just the right touches of pathos and the occasional moment of genuine sweetness.
If the set-up seems to take a bit, hang on. It's worth it when those dominoes begin to fall.
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