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Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries are a surefire staple for historical entertainment. It’s light fare, but the research and setting make it all very worthwhile. I had tried several Thomas and Charlotte Pitt’s books, but this is the first time I tried a mystery with Inspector William Monk.
The twist of the story is that the narrator, William Monk, wakes up on page 1 in a hospital, with no memory at all of who he is and how he came there. The only information he gathers is that he is a policeman. For fear of being left without a job by his calculating and supercilious superior , he has to hide his condition and go back early to his investigations, leading to a parallel plot between the murder of a young gentleman back from the Crimean war and a research of who Monk is and how he got injured.
I don’t quite know how believable this amnesia is, but I found it a quite effective and rather innovative way to introduce us to a new character who isn’t quite friendly and straightforward. As Monk gets back to his apartment early in the book (on the basis of a note in his pocket), he looks for clues about his past life and character from his belongings discovers himself as an ambitious, driven but uncaring man. I liked that part very much.
On the whole, as in most Anne Perry’s mysteries, the fun lies more in the plot than in the secondary characters who are a bit two-dimensional. But being the first book in a series, there’s a lot of ground information handed out to us about the duo of recurring characters: Monk of course and a young woman, Hester Latterly, who has joined Nightingale’s nursing teams in the Crimean war. Both characters are difficult and conflicted, which bear promises for future adventures (although it is a bit too obvious that these two will eventually fall for each other).
As in the Pitt series, research is impeccable and veers towards Dickens world. It certainly gives a darker feeling, but sometimes the amount of awareness for Victorian inequalities and injustice by the main characters borders on anachronism. I’ll return to the series though!
I wasn’t overly enthusiastic with the first Perry I tried, but the more I persevere the better I like them. This is another Charlotte and Thomas Pitt investigation, this one much darker than Resurrection Row (which was written earlier). This time, it deals with the Victorian taboo of homosexuality, male prostitution and child abuse. And to make the picture complete, the stigma of syphilis. Not completely what you first imagine about Victorian London, but that’s what the series is about, uncovering the seediest aspects of this very proper, class-dominated society.
The only part that doesn’t convince me is Charlotte’s character. She is an aristocrat married to a policeman (a lower class), and thanks to this strange position, whenever her husband gets stuck in his investigations, especially as the police is unwilling to meddle into any upper-class scandal, she steps in and saves the day. This part seems utterly unrealistic, as far as my readings on Victorian society have informed me. Her marrying below her position would have made her a pariah and it’s very doubtful anyone from the upper-class would have agreed to receive her, much less to talk to her about private secrets. On a more personal note, I can’t help but find her a bit self-righteous. But of course, without her, the novel would be completely stuck, so I guess I’ll have to suspend my disbelief a little deeper…
The mistake, I guess, was to consider this novel as a standalone, like all the other Victorian mysteries Anne Perry got us used to, while this is nothing but the first part of a 5-part series that can’t be read independently. Last winter, I tried a mystery with detective Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte, and I didn’t become a fan, although I must recognize that the Victorian setting was quite convincing. I was eager to try another historical mystery by this author. This one is set in England at the eve of WWI, during a glorious summer where everything will turn wrong in Europe.
We are introduced to the Reavleys, a well-to-do family with the elder brother a professor and theologian at Cambridge University, the younger brother working for the secret services, and two daughters, one married and rather conventional, the other still single and rebellious. As the book opens, their private peace is shattered by a car crash in which her parents get killed. Matthew, the younger brother, reveals to his elder brother that their parents had been on their way to meet him after discovering a dangerous conspiracy that would dishonor Great Britain and have an international impact. The brothers don’t know anything more and they first think of the Irish separatists, but that very day, at the other end of Europe, an Austrian archduke gets killed in Sarajevo by a Serbian extremist, an obscure incident that triggers an escalation throughout Europa, degenerating into what will be a 4-years world conflict.
The action was quite slow, and hesitated between the spy novel and the traditional mystery (in addition to the Reavleys’ accident, a student is discovered shot in his room at Cambridge University). All along this book, people wonder about the upcoming conflict and wonder how it will change their world. Some might find it downright boring, but I rather liked it, because 1914 truly marks the end of a century and the beginning of another, and people had no idea how events would turn out. Some were idealists, some socialists, others were pacifists or nationalists, but their view of the world was that of late Victorians, the events they most referred to were the Boers war (1899-1902) that they imagine could get no worse (yes, I’d heard somewhere that concentration camps were settled for civilians during the second Boer war) – yet what was to come would be of another dimension altogether.
It’s not really an entertaining book like the Pitt mystery had been. There are far too many dark forebodings to have a light-hearted resolution like in a traditional mystery. Yes, the murderer is found, yet others in the conspiracy are already at work and the last paragraph sees the official declaration of war. I am quite interested to read more novels set in this troubled time. Of course, one could drive me back to Proust’ Search of Lost time, which is precisely an attempt to recreate this pre-1914 world, but I’d rather read something less difficult, perhaps more historical. Any suggestion out there?