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?