by Sharon Tucker
While Bouchercon 2020 will now be virtual, with more information to come soon on their website, KRL is going to be featuring some of the planned special guest speakers, including this week Anne Perry.
“Authors do not choose a story to write, the story chooses us.” — Richard P. Denney
Some years ago, I was in the mood to read a Victorian mystery and suddenly Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt were in my life with The Cater Street Hangman (1979). I soon discovered she had another series set in roughly the same era, after the Crimean War, about an amnesiac police office, William Monk, relying on his detective skills under the radar to find out who he is in The Face of a Stranger (1990). Then among other series set during a variety of Christmases or in WWI, a new series started this past fall, Death in Focus (2019) involving a young photographer in the aftermath of WWI as Hitler rose to power.
Speaking of power, Queen Victoria is an almost palpable presence in The Cater Street Hangman. Once the reader gets past the modestly covered piano legs and periodic moralistic declamations to which even the most likable characters are sometimes prone, settle into the mystery of the garrotings taking place on the street where Charlotte Ellison and her family have always lived a genteel, upper class life. Tension between characters who embrace the morays of the times and those who can’t fit in is evident as soon as we meet Charlotte whose worst sin is that she reads the newspaper against her father and grandmother’s wishes—too stimulating, no doubt—and has a frightening penchant for honest observation and forthright speech. With the discovery of the murders come the police, so imagine the outraged dignity of the Ellison elders when the police start making house calls. The detective inspector in charge of the case is Thomas Pitt. It’s through his eyes, a gamekeeper’s son brought up on an estate as the companion and fellow student of the heir presumptive, that Charlotte begins to see more clearly the hypocrisies of society she has taken for granted for the artificial impositions they are. It’s delightful and often infuriating to see their bumping into and otherwise sorting out the distinctions between classes that those of the upper class impose just because they can. That Thomas and Charlotte team up to solve these murders while fighting a mutual attraction is most entertaining. (BTW the movie version of this novel is showing on the Hallmark Channel.)
In The Face of a Stranger, Detective William Monk wakes up in a hospital in London gravely injured from a nearly fatal cab accident which had killed his cabbie. Monk may be unaware of who he is but seems instinctively familiar with how to conduct a criminal investigation no matter what class distinctions clutter his path—yes, plenty of them here, too. Since his amnesia extends only to who he is and to his past, he utilizes all his cleverness to assume the identity of the man everyone knows him to be, to conceal his amnesia from everyone who knows him and to discover the identity of the murderer of a Crimean War veteran, the youngest son of a titled family, Joscelin Grey. As Monk pieces together his own past, surprisingly, he is not pleased with the kind of man he sees himself to have been, too blindly ambitious, less than kind to his subordinates and more concerned with the fabric and cut of his clothes than his fellow man. He finds he had no friends, close or otherwise. Like Thomas Pitt, he continually butts up against the bastions of the privileged in society who bitterly resent questioning into their habits and their right as gentleman or ladies to do absolutely anything they please. It makes discovering the facts of any case maddeningly difficult. What Monk does begin to see as he investigates the murder of Jocelyn Grey is that Grey was not who he was reputed to be and that horribly enough he, as that earlier Monk, has inside knowledge about the murder.
Scant knowledge of ourselves and of those we love echoes as a major theme of Death in Focus. The time is between WWI and WWII in the company of two sisters semi-vacationing on the Amalfi Coast. Elena Standish is a photographer, bent on photographing dignitaries at an economic conference held there. Too, she is working through a failed relationship, the circumstances of which are more unfortunate than the usual broken heart. The daughter of a diplomat who had much more to do in the past war than anyone in his family knows, Elena has gained a ready knowledge of international politics in the aftermath of WWI and, like many, felt that the reparations forced on Germany after the war were too harsh. She is also wary of the spirit of appeasement espoused by some in the government. Understandable perhaps, considering the devastation of the recent war but dangerous—preventing another war at all costs was not the answer. (Remember “The Remains of the Day”?) Elena impulsively leaves her sister in Amalfi and decides to return to Paris on her way back home in the company of a new acquaintance. Circumstances change and she must get vital information to the British ambassador in Berlin to prevent an international incident. Cross currents and yet another killing too close to her for comfort finds her rush to Berlin. Will she fulfill her mission, and what will be the result is she does?
All three of these first novels in a series are enticing in their own way and make the reader want more of the characters and what happens in their lives. In the first two series particularly, the author has a point to make about the layers of hypocrisy that shored up Victorian society, but she also weaves quite a love story in her Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series. The William Monk novels keep the heart of Monk’s mystery for some time into the series as he learns more about his past and tries to become a better man than before his amnesia. Elena Standish promises to be a character whose coming adventures we will enjoy reading. She’s intelligent and principled. Her father will probably have some place in the stories to come and I’m glad since he is my favorite character of those I read in the novel. I’m a stickler for reading books in a series in order since I’m convinced seeing the characters develop from novel to novel is valuable and this is particularly true as Charlotte and Thomas Pitt as Pitt polices Victorian London and Charlotte assists much to his frequent dismay. I feel the same regarding William Monk as he reconstructs his life. As for Elena Standish, it’s too soon to tell where we will go with her, but she’s made a good start. I want to see what happens and how she becomes involved in the war effort as well as how her father helps her.
Perry has told many intriguing stories, and I think she has many more to tell. I want to be there to read them.
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