St. Zita, who lived and labored in Tuscany in the 13th century, is the patron saint of domestic servants. It is in her honor that the servants of Hexam Place -- a wealthy London enclave that is the setting for Ruth Rendell's latest novel -- name the society that they have just formed as a kind of pseudo-labor union to collectively stand up against their inconsiderate, ostensibly immoral employers. Ms. Rendell delves into the exterior and interior lives of this peculiar gaggle of residents who have little in common except for physical proximity. She even provides maps to allow us to follow the events.
Immorality is not limited to the rich, here. There's a lot of deception going on among the working class, and even more illicit mingling between the upstairs and the downstairs personnel.
Handsome young Henry, for example, driver and handyman to the prominent Lord Studley, is juggling simultaneous affairs with his master's wife and their daughter. Montserrat, au pair to the Still family, is abetting her mistress's affair with a well-known TV actor. Thea, although technically a teacher and not a servant, allows herself to be used for menial tasks by the same-sex couple whose upstairs apartment she rents and whose upcoming civil union party she has put herself in charge of. June, companion to an elderly "princess" of dubious authenticity, has high hopes of inheriting the entire estate when the old lady dies. Dex, a mentally challenged gardener for a kindly doctor who may be the novel's only sympathetic character (although he never actually appears), has visions of a god who speaks through his mobile phone and orders him to carry out acts of vengeance and retribution.
The downstairs types have dreams of marrying their rich predators. The upstairs folk think that liaisons (sexual and otherwise) with their underlings are nothing more than their rightful privilege. One of the funniest elements is the outrage of the St. Zita group when they learn they will not be invited to the celebration of the gay couple they continually ridicule and despise.
When a fatal accident and later a genuine murder occur among the Hexam Place residents, relationships are turned on their heads and nothing will ever be the same again. Part of Ms. Rendell's genius is her ability to set up a seemingly simple situation and then take it in a totally unexpected direction.
"The St. Zita Society" is hilariously funny throughout, with a chilling twist at the end that pays homage to Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now." Every character is sharply drawn and three-dimensional, every situation credible no matter how unlikely or coincidental.
Ruth Rendell's prose, as always, is brilliant, terse and compelling. Allow yourself enough time to read this book in a single sitting because once you're into it, it will be all but impossible to put down.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.