- - Friday, August 17, 2012

By Ruth Rendell
Scribner, $26272 pages

The St. Zita Society is named after the patron saint of domestic servants and one of its members, as might be expected from the author of this book, is a psychopath called Dex.

Since this is Ruth Rendell’s latest psychological mystery, there has to be a killer like Dex, “a little fellow with bushy hair” who sees evil spirits and feels called upon to slay them. He gets his instructions from Peach, a voice on his cellphone. As far as Dex is concerned, Peach is the voice of God, although he hears there are other divine voices on cellphones with names like Apple and Blackberry.

Departing from the commonsense crime world of Inspector Wexford, who is probably the favorite Rendell character of her faithful readers, the author has again assembled a motley crew of characters, each more eccentric than the last. Her scene is Hexam Place, an upscale block in London in which the inhabitants are reminiscent of characters from “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

There is Lord and Lady Studley and their staff (including Henry the chauffeur who is sleeping with both Lady Studley and her daughter) and an assortment of neighbors who include a bogus princess, a Muslim nanny and a mercenary gay couple. There is also June, the princess’s housekeeper with socialist ambitions, who sets up the St. Zita Society, which meets in the Dugong, the local pub, to discuss local problems like noise and dog walking and the hours of servants. This is also where Dex the gardener fends off evil spirits by drinking Guinness and waiting for messages from Peach about whom to kill next.

The plot moves at a leisurely pace. It probes the religious problems of Rabia, the nanny whose life centers on the baby Thomas and her obedience to the rules by which she lives, which apparently would extend to honor killing of rebellious women. But until Dex gets going on orders from Peach, crimes are reduced to a broken bannister on a steep stair down which Rad Sothern, a television actor, is pushed by Preston Still, the father of Thomas and the husband of Lucy, who has been bedding Sothern.

Ms. Rendell is wise in providing a map of Hexam Place and identifying the various houses and residents as well as the Dugong, the pub, because it provides a reference point for readers confused as to who is sleeping with whom and where and, occasionally, why.

Montserrat, the au pair for the Still couple, finds herself involved in covering up the actor’s death by helping her employer hide the body in a World War II shelter dug in the garden of the Stills’ lavish country home. She also develops hopes of marrying Still when his wife threatens divorce. However, Dex is on the track of an evil spirit in the neighborhood, who in fact is an amiable young woman called Thea, who is helpful to her neighbors and about to marry handsome Jimmy. Dex sees her as the “psychopomp,” the spirit who, according to the god Peach, leads victims to hell. He chooses the shopping center of Oxford Street at Christmas to kill Thea, using a sharp pruning knife and not his favorite garden trowel which he fears might not be sharp enough.

Finding Dex is not easy for the police, since he has disappeared back into his grubby room after disposing of his weapon by thrusting it into the large red handbag of a woman in the crowd around Thea’s body. Dex feels he has done his duty, until the next evil spirit comes along and he is again unleashed by Peach. Nobody suspects him of anything worse than eating potato chips at the Dugong with dirty hands.

At least temporarily Hexam Place resumes its tranquil existence with Dex still doing the gardening and Rabia the nanny mourning that she may have to lose her job of caring for her beloved Thomas if she obeys her father and remarries. The reconciliation of Lucy and Preston Still has ended Rabia’s career because of their plan to hire another nursemaid. She reflects sadly that only the disappearance of the husband could mean she would keep the job she loves, because Rabia’s only aim in life is to care for a child. Her interest in marriage is minimal and she has already obeyed all the rules of her world by marrying a man who died and twice giving birth to children who also died.

Ms. Rendell’s tongue seems to have been firmly in her cheek during the writing of this book, which is less of a mystery than a social satire about rather ordinary people. There is a nice touch when Henry the chauffeur marries Lord Studley’s daughter when she finds she is three months pregnant and her father takes the philosophical position that his prospective son-in-law is a handsome young man and a good driver, and provides them with financial support.

All the doings of these busy characters are wrapped up in the book’s startling but satisfying ending. I won’t reveal the details here, but suffice it to say, Ms. Rendell, an expert craftsman, has delivered the goods again.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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