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Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: 'The St. Zita Society'

THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY
By Ruth Rendell
Crime fiction
August 2012
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1-4516-6668-7
                                                                                                                                                      
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.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Progress: 'The St. Zita Society'

Ruth Rendell has been writing novels set on various London blocks in addition to her stand-alones, Inspector Wexford novels and Barbara Vine books.

The latest, The St. Zita Society, has the usual combination of various households but is the first written in "Upstairs, Downstairs" mode. Hexam Place is one of those posh London squares where people still have servants. One of them insists on forming a society of the downstairs folk while they meet at the local pub.

Not much happens at these meetings. There are so many characters that it's best to read as much of the book at once as possible (which you know I can't seem to do these days).

I was about to put this one down as a rare misstep for Rendell, whose work has been creepy good for decades, but an unexpected event midway through has really picked things up. If only Hitchcock was still around to film a version of this.

Now to see if it continues through to the end as well as it's going now.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

AS THE CROW FLIES: A Walt Longmire mystery
By Craig Johnson
Crime fiction
May 2012
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670023516
                                                                                                                                                                     
Walt Longmire has survived desperate situations before, but this could be the most dire. His daughter is getting married, and he and Henry Standing Bear have been assigned some of the preparations. When the pair witness a murder while looking for a wedding site in Montana, Longmire doesn't exactly complain about being drawn into the investigation.

The victim is a young Cheyenne woman. She was shielding her baby when she went over a cliff. The child improbably survives with only a few bruises, and the father is the presumed suspect. But in the entangled family relationships, long-held grudges and dealings with drugs, government bureaucracy and war wounds, easy presumptions may well not be enough.

Longmire also comes up against the young tribal chief of police, an Iraq war vet named Lolo. Her attempts to run down every miscreant have her placing Longmire under arrest in their initial meeting.

The revealing of Lolo's character, which shows more depth than small-town, hot-headed rookie cop, is one of the highlights of the novel. So are the appearances of Longmire's daughter, Cady, and her mother-in-law to be, and, of course, the Cheyenne Nation. For those who still haven't warmed up to Vic, she doesn't play a significant role. A certain FBI agent also shows up, for better or for worse.

Johnson also is master of pacing. As with all Longmire novels, they are fast reads but contain a fully realized plot with characters to wonder and care about.

But as with all other Longmire novels, there are parts that still don't feel right. There is the obligatory woo-woo. This time, a milky-eyed older Cheyenne medicine woman invites Longmire to a peyote ceremony. The disbelief has a hard time staying suspended for that, since there are opposing philosophies about allowing whites into these ceremonies. Johnson does a good job showing awareness of what modern life is like on reservations with his characters, what they go through, what they face and how they respond to myriad obstacles. He doesn't have to go the route of Native American mysticism through a white man's perspective for a solid series with a grand cast of continuing characters.

This is especially true when the plot itself is so solid and the action-filled resolution is high adventure without being too much to believe.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission