After a supremely sheltered childhood, a young woman finds herself without her mother for the first time in her life, and tells her new lover the story of the crime that led to her emancipation.
The Crocodile Bird is almost the inverse of Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, which famously begins, “Eunice Parchman killed the family because she could neither read nor write.” (Or something very close to that.) Reading and writing is all that Liza Beck, the 16-year-old Scheherezade of The Crocodile Bird, can do. She’s never been on a train or to a city, never bought anything with money or been to the dentist. She has, however, been keeping a secret from her protective, controlling mother Eva, and when the police come for Eva, Liza runs straight into the arms of her lover, Sean.
Sean has a caravan (a small motor home, stateside), and is more than happy for Liza to live with him. He doesn’t want any of her money, and their days are filled with work and their nights with sex–and stories. Over the course of a few months, Liza spins for Sean the tale of her most unorthodox upbringing, an extreme sort of homeschooling that kept her apart from most of the world. She never once played with another child, losing herself instead in the books of Shrove Hall, the estate where Eva works as a caretaker.
Liza’s easy way with literature, and her proficiency in French and Latin, unnerves Sean, who yearns for a simple life with Liza at his side. He can no more keep her from her books than he can stop listening to Liza’s story, of which a murder is only the beginning. Liza wants news of her mother, knowing only that Eva’s been arrested, but her ignorance of the world leaves her without even knowing the right questions to ask.
The Crocodile Bird is less a traditional crime novel than a portrait of innocence and experience residing side by side in the same woman. After all, as Liza puts it, how many people have read Ovid in the original Latin and witnessed murder all before the age of 16? As always, Rendell is a fine storyteller, but here she proves a keen portrait artist as well, limning the gulf between Liza and Sean with the subtlest of dialogue. This is literature at its finest.
Thanks to the Charlotte-Douglas Airport (and its very dirty airport code), I have free wi-fi! So this blog post is brought to you courtesy of LaGuardia Airport’s computer malfunctions and my three-hour delay.