Baroness Ruth Rendell (also known as Barbara Vine) maintains her status as one of the world’s leading writers of mystery, suspense, police procedurals and thriller novels. She also has written other fiction that takes a quirky turn, THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY being the latest example. Here she tells the story of a neighborhood that shines on the outside but under the stairs is very unclean. All kinds of people live, work and visit the houses on Hexam Place. In an “Upstairs, Downstairs” “take” on the goings-on here, we are introduced to and follow the doings of the permanent residents and their staffs.
"Readers will be caught up in the story of THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY from the very first paragraph. As the events unfold, the tension mounts and the twisted relationships are formidable."
The narrative pivots upon the relationships between the upper-class employers and the rather scrabby employees. The close proximity of the two factions leads to gossip and resentments, as well as secrets, such as the role of Henry, Lord Studley’s valet, who is having affairs with the Lord’s daughter, Montserrate and her mother. A television star is having an affair with Mrs. Still and makes secret visits to her home. Everyone involved tries to keep these secret with the help of the au pair, who is shamelessly blackmailing them.
Another member of the upper class homeowners is a princess of “something” or “somewhere” that nobody can identify, and she also stands out because she is a selfish, self-centered curmudgeon. Her housekeeper has decided that it is time to start a sort of union of the employees. She calls it The Saint Zita Society because this particular saint takes care of the working class, especially servants. They meet in a bar where some of them get very drunk, and not much work is accomplished. Not only is this association to bring complaints to their employers, they also want to make sure the neighborhood remains sterling. For example, they write a letter to the powers-that-be about the dog excrement that is picked up in plastic bags but left at the bottom of the trees that decorate the street.
Down the block lives a gay couple who pretty much stays to themselves. One of the most frightening characters is Dex, a gardener who works in the gardens on Hexam Place. He believes his cell phone is the transmitter for Peach, the God who speaks to him. He is probably retarded, which garners sympathy for him despite his craziness.
As the story unwinds, an accident in the Still house might actually be manslaughter or plain murder. Thus the first body appears on the scene. But it must be hidden as far away from Hexam Place as the two people who know about it can find. The dead man is the actor who plays Dr. Fletcher on the most popular soap on British television. Almost everyone on the street watches it and would recognize the corpse as Dr. Fletcher. Later on in the story, another murder is committed and the bodies are lining up.
Readers will be caught up in the story of THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY from the very first paragraph. As the events unfold, the tension mounts and the twisted relationships are formidable. With a series of twists and turns no one can see until it is too late, fans are taken up with the various and varying stories above and below the happenings that take place behind the shiny brass fittings of the houses on Hexam Place.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on August 17, 2012