I don’t expect this review to send you all out galloping for a copy of this book–The St. Zita Society, by the late Ruth Rendell. But like I always say, contemporary fiction often has a lot to teach us about our own time and culture.
Ruth Rendell, one of the most prolific, successful, and critically acclaimed mystery writers ever, died in May of this year. She worked to the end, publishing her last novels in 2014 and 2015.
A Demon in My View came out in 1976 and promptly won a Gold Dagger Award. It was made into a movie in 1992, starring Anthony Hopkins, and I have just re-read the novel after a lapse of several decades. You know you’re getting old when you toss the word “decades” around like that.
I have read some of Ruth Rendell’s most recent works. When I do, I always wind up asking myself, “Why in the world am I reading this? It’s just a story of horrible people doing horrible things, no glimmer of redemption anywhere, just life that is nasty, brutish, and terribly stupid…”
In A Demon in My View, Rendell explored the mind of a psychopathic killer hiding in plain sight among “normal” people. The killer has found a safe way to satisfy his urge to kill women without actually killing or even hurting anybody. But the whole system is innocently and unknowingly upset by a new neighbor, and a catastrophe becomes inevitable.
Ruth Rendell was a great mystery writer with a true gift for piling up suspense. What interested her was not so much the mystery, but the psychology of the characters involved in it. Occasionally she wrote a mystery in which we know from the start “whodunit,” and the story goes on to explore how and why the murder was done.
Throughout her career she wrote about persons who do evil things. But they did them in a certain social context. Much of her focus was on the British working class and under-class, but she sometimes visited the upper crust.
What I get in A Demon in My View, and in the works of Ruth Rendell in general (most of which I have read), is something which my wife calls a kind of photograph of British society and culture, but which I am coming to think of as a map of the British portion of Hell–which is probably not too different from any other nation’s neighborhood.
In some 40 years’ worth of fiction, I find depicted a society in which Christian faith is almost totally extinct; there is no sense of sin, no shame, hardly any awareness that the word “sin” means anything; and there is a code of conduct which boils down to a mere two questions–“Will it make me feel good?” and “Will I get away with it?”
Well, okay, if you’re going to write about murderers, you’ve got to give them a few psychological quirks because there must be something in them that makes them murderers. But in Rendell’s fiction, I find it hard to understand why everybody is not a murderer. There is almost no morality to restrain anyone from doing anything. And nobody feels guilty about lying, cheating, stealing, or committing adultery because they have no sense that any of these behaviors is wrong, and worthy of condemnation. (In the later novels, characters do feel guilty when they let slip a remark that is not Politically Correct. I pray that is not the beginning and end of the role of the personal conscience in the UK today.)
Not that I feel there is any danger of Ruth Rendell leading me into a moral No Man’s Land. I think it fair to say that she is not advocating, but trying to reproduce what she sees. Throughout her career she has been very, very careful not to say anything by way of judgment. If she judged what she saw, she kept it to herself. I am told that she finally revealed something of her true feelings in a 2014 novel which I haven’t read yet. But in everything else I’ve read, Rendell got out of the way and simply let you see the picture.
It’s not a pretty picture.
I don’t think it hurts Christians to know what we’re up against, culturally.
I’ve just read a 2012 novel by the late Ruth Rendell, The St. Zita Society, which reinforces my conviction that the Western world is in serious trouble. Its culture has become toxic.
Rendell for decades wrote about weirdos and their twisted lives, and won every mystery writers’ award you can think of. As if that weren’t recognition enough, she was also promoted to the House of Lords. She was not a person to dismiss lightly.
St. Zita is about life in an upscale London neighborhood, the lives of rich folks and their servants–sort of an Upstairs, Downstairs presentation. As often happens when I read a Rendell novel, I wound up asking myself, “Why am I reading this? These characters are horrible!” To which my wife always replies, “You can’t blame Ruth Rendell for that. She’s just showing you a photograph.”
Okay, the doctor and the Muslim nursemaid are nice people; but aside from them, this Hexam Place is a valley of lost souls. When the Lord demanded of Ezekiel, “Can these bones live,” the same question might have been asked of this bunch of walking dead in London.
Here are the characteristics shared by the servants and their employers, with a few exceptions not enough to matter.
They are interested in other people only to the extent of how they can make use of them.
At all times, their chief concern is how to obtain some sort of gratification, usually sexual, as soon as possible.
The only sin they seem to recognize as sin is to say anything which might violate political correctness. Otherwise, they are devoid of any moral standard. A thief or a murderer will be less despised by them than a person guilty of “homophobia”–a sin which did not exist when Rendell began her career as a writer.
They show no awareness of or interest in anything beyond the immediate here and now.
If this is a photograph of British culture today, it’s a photograph by Diane Arbus.
To make sexual libertinism the centerpiece of life is a modern experiment enthusiastically pursued in all the Western countries. Those who pursue it are spiritually dead.
“Can these bones live?”
To which Ezekiel replied, “Lord, thou knowest.”
I doubt anyone else knows the answer to that question.
But if they do come back to life, it will have to be God’s doing. Not ours.