Rendell’s 62nd novel is a highly characteristic anatomy of the many varieties of servitude—some stifling, some nurturing, some murderous—along posh Hexam Place, Knightsbridge.
The members of the St. Zita Society, named after the patron saint of domestic servants, serve functions as wide-ranging as their personalities. June Caldwell has done for Her Serene Highness, Princess Susan Hapsburg, for nearly 60 years. Dex Flitch, who worships Peach, the god who speaks to him over the telephone, is the gardener for Dr. Simon Jefferson and his neighbor Ivor Neville-Smith. Jimmy, the St. Zita’s chair, is Neville-Smith’s driver. Thea, whom Jimmy loves, doesn’t think of herself as a servant at all, since Roland Albert and Damian Philemon, the gay couple who depend on her to manage every detail of their lives, don’t pay her a penny. Henry Copley, Lord Clifford Studley’s driver, is having it on with both his employer’s wife and daughter. Rabia Siddiqui is nanny to Preston and Lucy Still’s baby, but Montserrat Tresser, as it turns out, is much more than the Stills’ au pair. Inevitably violence breaks out among the members of the society, leaving Montserrat and insurance magnate Preston Still in uneasy thrall to one another. But although DC Colin Rickards makes the usual inquiries, the sardonic focus of the sequel is on the plodding round of life cycle events, promises of new romantic relationships and monthly meetings in which the St. Zita’s members ponder the problem of canine waste disposal and inquire who’s been invited to Roland and Damian’s wedding.
Over her last several outings (Tigerlily’s Orchids, 2011, etc.), Rendell has been returning to the stripped-down dyspepsia of her earliest work, adding freak-show sociology to her velvet nightmares. Instead of exhausting the possibilities of her collection of plausible misfits, this group portrait leaves you longing for more.