The title story, The Copper Peacock, may not be the best in the volume, but it lingers strongest in memory. It is a sad tale about a working class cleaning lady who comes to tidy the flat of a snobby rich society type, and though the kind-hearted, rough-spoken cleaning lady tries to be friendly, the snob only looks down on her and belittles her. We notice, as the employer does not, how hard the woman's life clearly is and catch signs that go missed by her self-important boss that the maid is in an abusive relationship. When one day the cleaning woman brings her employer a gift she thought might be appreciated--a small copper neo-modern peacock for a desk ornament--the employer does not try to conceal the contempt felt over the piece, which is clearly inferior to the refined tastes and artistic pretensions that have been cultivated over a lifetime. The unfeeling boss is heedless to the fact the item no doubt cost a lot in comparison to what the maid earned, and does not care how the rejection of the gift hurts the well-meaning woman. Shortly after this the maid is beaten to death by her violent boyfriend and the employer at last realizes regret over the reaction to the gift the maid got her.
A sad, sad, sad, story!
Fortunately the remainder of the tales in this collection are not quite so dreary. In one, a likable young professional woman is reading in a public place when some items of her clothing are stolen by a tall woman whom she sees hurrying away into a crowd. She is angered by this intrusion, and it leads on down the story to her involvement with an odd, charming man who connects back to her because of the incident of theft, which he claimed to witness. Eventually the woman is at the man's flat and as she begins looking around, she finds her missing possessions and realizes in a chilling "it's too late now" moment that the MAN was the thief, that he dresses as a woman to go out in public and commit his thefts--brilliant disguise!--and now she's, as it might be said, "in his clutches"...
Another short story is about a woman in love with a married man. The man drags the reluctant young woman into a plot to murder his wife, so that they might be married. The woman neither agrees nor exactly recoils from the plot and after the woman is dead, she accepts her place as wife and stepmother but things are rather ruined and she never thinks of the man the same way again. Years pass, she gets older and is increasingly unhappy. She begins to grow paranoid that her husband is having an affair with a woman of roughly the same age she was when she and the man first met. She has some minor "accidents" come to pass around her and is terrified that she is marked for death. Though the husband tells her it's madness, of course he loves her, she is left a screaming wreck, utterly regretting the life her complicity has gotten for her.
Probably the best mystery among these nine stories is about the apparent suicide of an elderly woman with a history of depression and past attempts on her own life. Shortly before her death, the old woman had taken to "interfering" as it is seen, between a controlling woman and the woman's rebellious teenaged daughter, whom the old woman had befriended and with whom she sympathized. Though there is a suicide note definitely written by the old woman, a police inspector is not certain she was not murdered. His colleagues question how it could be murder when there is a note left behind and the signs of suicide are so clear. The case is investigated and the facts eventually comes to light as to whether the death was in fact suicide, or murder.
Ruth Rendell's best work of all are the stories in The Copper Peacock.