This is a story of how a woman's inability to read or write actually destroys her humanity and causes her to murder her father and the family for whom she then works. The first sentence of the book tells it all, "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. Eunice is the sad product of a poor upbringing in Tooting, London. She has spend her life blackmailing people, such as her friend Annie. Annie continued to claim her mother's pension after she had died and so Eunice received money from her each week. Eunice's father was finally bedridden and one day Eunice had had enough of caring for him and smothered him with a pillow. Annie, seeing a way to get rid of Eunice, suggested that she applied for a job that she had seen in the newspaper, it was as a housekeeper in the country. Suspecting that Eunice was illiterate, she offered to write the letter for her.
Eunice was interviewed in London by Jacqueline Coverdale, who was the second wife of George Coverdale. She had a son, Giles from her first marriage and George had three children from his first marriage - his first wife had died. Melinda was at college and came home for holidays, Paula lived in London and was pregnant with her second child and Peter also lived in London. Jacqueline was tired of cleaning and cooking in her large manor house, even though she did have a lady, Eva, who came in three days a week to help.
It was decided to interview Eunice at Paula's house. Paula took an instant dislike to Eunice the minute she opened the door to her but Jacqueline did not seem to notice the coldness which Eunice exuded and put it down to 'knowing her place'. It was agreed that Eunice Parchman would work for the Coverdale family. Her room was made ready and Eunice arrived and started work. George took an immediate dislike to her, but tolerated her because he knew his wife needed a housekeeper and they had been battling with a string of useless au pairs.
Giles, who was still at school, had his head in the clouds most of the time and couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to become a Catholic priest or a Buddhist monk, or whether he should just run away with his stepsister, Melinda. Melinda was the only member of the family that he actually had a conversation with. His mother and stepfather usually got one word answers from him. They assumed Giles was going through a phase and would come out the other side one day. He was academically brilliant.
Melinda was always happy and chatty and was definitely George's favorite. Jacqueline and George were deeply in love and, altogether, life was extremely good - that is, until Eunice Parchman arrived. Initially, Eunice was exceptionally polite and definitely knew her place, but as time went on she began doing what she pleased. She was always aware of her inability to read and terrified that someone would discover her disability.
Eunice was exceptionally excited to have a television in her room and spent all her spare time watching it or knitting. She finally plucked up the courage to wander into the village and met Joan and Norman Smith who ran the local shop and post office. Joan Smith was a prostitute, turned religious fanatic and tried to convert everyone she met. she persuaded Eunice to go to her church with her, which Eunice did only after checking that their no reading involved. They became firm friends. Joan has episodes where she rants and raves like something possessed. Her husband, Norman, is at a loss as to what to do with her. He does not approve of her friendship with Eunice.
Joan often visits Eunice at the house, when she knows that the family are out. They sit and have tea and Eunice gives Joan a guided tour of the house. George does not approve of Joan coming to the house as he knows that she has told everyone that he is an adulterer, as in her eyes, even though George's first wife is dead, marrying Jacqueline has made George an adulterer. George also knows that their mail is frequently opened and resealed and he believes that Joan is responsible for this invasion of privacy.
Giles ignores Eunice (but then, he ignores everyone), George tries to be civil to her, Jacqueline is still civil to her but is now finding it more difficult and Melinda feels exceptionally sorry for Eunice and tries to make her feel at home. Eunice overhears a telephone conversation which Melinda has with her boyfriend, Jonathan, telling him that she is pregnant. Even though it is a false alarm, they decide they will marry as soon as they have finished college. Eunice doesn't know that it is a false alarm. Melinda arrives home unexpectedly the weekend before Valentine's Day and sits in the kitchen with Eunice having tea. Melinda is flicking through magazines and suggests they do a quiz together and asks Eunice to read the questions to her. Eunice says that she doesn't have her glasses but Melinda spots them in her top pocket. Melinda then notices that these glasses and just plain glass and asks Eunice if she can read? Eunice is absolutely mortified and says that if she ever tells anyone that she can't read or write, she will tell the family that she is pregnant and called her a tart.
Melinda is totally distraught and is sobbing when her father and Jacqueline come home. Melinda tells him what has happened and George immediately goes upstairs and tells Eunice that she must leave. He would like her to leave now but will give her a week's notice to enable her to find another job, however, if she is in the house, she must only go to her room or the kitchen. Eunice now thought that everyone in the village would know that she was unable to read, as it happens George and Jacqueline did not share this information and told everyone that they had dismissed Eunice for insolence.
It is George's birthday on 13th February and George, Jacqueline, Giles and Melinda go out for dinner in the local town to celebrate. They had a very enjoyable evening. There is a televised version of Don Giovanni on Sunday 14th February and George persuades Melinda to stay on Sunday night and go back to college on Monday morning. The television was brought into the morning room and Melinda brought her tape recorder to record the opera. George had given her this for Christmas. Don Giovanni began at 7.00 p.m. and all four family members were there, mesmerized by the performance. Jacqueline, who had been at the Royal School of Music many years before, made notes in the Radio Times on things which were not quite as she thought they should be.
Eunice left the house in the afternoon to go the Joan's church, as it was her last day in the area. Joan began one of her rants in the church about how she had seen the light and given up prostitution to devote her life to the Lord. She started screeching and spitting but she stopped, almost as soon as she had begun and calmly walked out of the door, with Eunice in tow. Joan drove Eunice back to the house and Eunice invited her in for a cup of tea, saying she was leaving tomorrow anyway, so they could hardly fire her again. Joan was fascinated with the two shotguns and placed one on the kitchen table. The two then made a pot of tea and took it upstairs, creeping past the morning room, where the family for immerse in their opera. Joan walked straight into George and Jacqueline's bedroom and started to wreak havoc - smashing photographs, pouring tea on the bed, shredding clothes. Eunice was caught up in the frenzy and happily joined in.
Jacqueline went into the kitchen to make coffee and noticed that the kettle was still warm, so she knew that Eunice was back. As soon as Eunice and Joan knew that Jacqueline was back in the morning room, they went downstairs as Joan now planned to cut the telephone line and the wire cutters were in the gun room. Between acts Jacqueline poured more coffee and asked if George had heard sounds from upstairs earlier. He said he hadn't. At that point, they hear a little shriek and realize that Joan is in the house. George says he will go and sort it out. Meanwhile, Eunice has loaded both shotguns and when George arrives in the kitchen and asks them to give him the guns, they both shoot him dead.
Jacqueline hears the shots but Melinda says it's Joan's van backfiring. All this time, the tape recorder is running. Eunice tells Joan that they will have to kill the whole family now. Giles was just opening the door to go into the kitchen, when he saw Joan and the blood on her hands, face and clothing. Joan and Eunice proceed to shoot the three remaining family members and it almost becomes a competition, as Eunice is determined not to be left out of this killing spree.
Joan calmly leaves knowing that she has done right in God's eyes. She slowly drives away in her van and is distracted by an owl and crashes into a wall and is seriously injured. Eunice's immediately reaction was to clean up the mess. She didn't like seeing the blood on that lovely carpet but realizes that she must leave it. She puts the TV back into the room it came from and puts the Radio Times and newspaper away.
She than decides to make a cup of tea instead, walking back and forth past George's body as if he literally was part of the furniture. Eunice then thought the best plan of action would be to go into the village and phone the police from the public telephone box.
Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch from Scotland Yard, arrived in village to investigate the matter. Eunice was exceptionally helpful and, even though she was meant to leave that day, it was decided she should stay for a while at least to help with the investigation. It was first thought that two men who had come into the local pub on Sunday 14th February were responsible for the killing. They were cleared and then Vetch discovered the Radio Times, which not only had blood stains on it but referred a recording.
Joan was in a coma. Her husband, Norman, had found a tape recorder in the back of the van that Joan had written off and he sold it to a freelance journalist. While Vetch was having a meeting in the morning room at the house, the journalist arrived, accompanied by another policeman and they joined the meeting. Eunice then heard her voice and Joan's voice coming from the room. She knew that she had been discovered. Eunice was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but it wasn't the prison sentence which Eunice found hard to take, it was the fact that it was announced in court that she was illiterate. Joan was in a coma in a mental hospital
The remaining family members were in a legal wrangle as it was not known if George or Jacqueline had died first. If George had died first, then Jacqueline would have inherited the house which would mean it would gone to Giles. Giles' father now wanted his share. However, if Jacqueline had died first, then the house would have gone to Peter.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story is a fascinating insight into how life's circumstances can mold a character. Even though you know the outcome of the story from the first sentence, you are impelled to discover how on earth this could have happened.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Joan and Eunice murder the family is written in such a way that you can envisage every movement and shot. This scene is described in a few, very well chosen words.
Opinion about the main character:
Eunice Parchman is one of the world's most cold, calculating creatures but you cannot help but feel empathy for her.