A Dangerous Mourning, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, March 07, 2007

After reading and being wowed by Anne Perry's The Face of a Stranger, I immediately started the book that comes next in the Monk series, A Dangerous Mourning.

No breath of scandal has ever touched the aristocratic Moidore family. Almost every day, London's wealthiest and most influential can be found taking tea or dining in the opulent family mansion of Sir Basil Moidore in Queen Anne Street.

Now Sir Basil’s beautiful widowed daughter has been stabbed to death in her own bed, a shocking, incomprehensible tragedy. Inspector William Monk is ordered to find her killer without delay and in a manner that will give the lease possible pain to the family.

But Monk, brilliant and ambitious, is handicapped, both by lingering traces of amnesia caused by an accident and by the craven ineptitude of his supervisor, who would like nothing better than to see Monk fail.

With the intelligent help of Hester Latterly, an independent young woman who has served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Monk gropes warily through the silence and shadows that obscure the case. Step by dangerous step, he approaches the astonishing, appalling solution.
As much as I like the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, I'm enjoying the Monk books even more. Maybe because the Pitts tend to be more traditional "detective-investigates-a-crime" stories, maybe because I'm starting at the beginning with the Monks, maybe even because Perry started this series later in her career, when she'd already developed quite a lot as a writer... whatever the reason, I'm loving these books. A B+.

Fresh from the Joscelin Grey case, Inspector William Monk is assigned by his supervisor to investigate a murder at the household of Sir Basil Moidore, a rich and influential aristocrat. After the perils involved in investigating the nobility, as he had to do in his previous case, the last thing Monk wants is to involve himself in another upper class case, but his luck isn't running too good.

The victim is Sir Basil's widowed daughter, Octavia, who appeared stabbed to death in her bedroom. Furthermore, far from it being a simple case of Octavia having surprised a burglar, it soon becomes apparent to Monk that the murderer had to have been someone in the household, and he has a horrible suspicion that it won't be one of the servants, either.

To find the truth, Monk won't just have to overcome the family's determination not to allow their secrets to come out, he'll also have to face his boss' determination that the case be closed soon, whether Monk is convinced of the guilt of the most obvious suspect or not.

What's most amazing about Perry's books is the way she incorporates her setting to her plots and characters. Victorian England isn't simply a backdrop against which a detective story takes place. The mindset and outloooks of the time and the circumstances prevailing, they all shape and determine who Perry's characters are and how they can act. This is not a story that could simply be switched to a contemporary setting. It probably couldn't even be automatically moved to the Georgian period or the Regency. That's how much the setting comes alive.

It's not an easy thing to read, sometimes. In this particular book, it wasn't just the more obvious and flagrant injustices that got to me (though these did make me upset and angry). Perry pays special attention to the situation of the women in the Moidore family, and it's often heartrending. I was horrified by the way they were forced to be utterly dependent on their husbands and male family members and how they'd had it instiled into them from childhood that their only role was to flatter and adulate men and make it easy for them to be selfish. The result was women who, for all their materially comfortable lifestyles, lived in constant imprisonment, constantly suppressing their senses of self, until they hardly knew who they were. It's hard to describe just how oppressive Perry managed to portray it as, but I'll just say that when we finally discover exactly what happened, I completely understood the sentiments behind a person's actions, which might have otherwise seemed melodramatic and stupid.

The secrets of these fascinating people are investigated by two persons who are just as interesting. Monk is still slowly recovering his memories, after the accident that caused his almost complete amnesia before the first book started, and just as the focus of TFOAS was on him discovering who he was, the emphasis here is on Monk starting to come to terms with the discoveries he's making.

He's not happy with most of what he's found out about the person he used to be, and sometimes his first impulses make him fear that he is, indeed, the cold, cruel, ambitious man he fears he was, but he's also discovering his more admirable traits, like his determination to find justice for those who can't fight for it themselves and his refusal to take the easier path when he thinks it's wrong, even if this might cost him his job.

Also participating in the investigation is Hester Latterly, one of the gently bred young women who followed Florence Nightingale to nurse in the Crimea. Returning to England, Hester is determined to work for the reformation of the way the country's hospitals are run, but her strong opinions and refusal to bow to men just because they're men put her at loggerheads with most of the medical establishment.

Oh, and these characteristics of her put her out of a job, too, so when Monk finds himself with no more clues to follow in the Moidore murder, Hester is the obvious candidate to infiltrate the household by getting herself hired to nurse Lady Moidore, whose health has taken a turn for the worse after the shock of the murder.

ADM also introduces a character who, if I'm recalling some of the later books in the series correctly, will become very important with time: lawyer Oliver Rathbone. We don't see all that much of his personality here, only his interest in Hester, however unconventional she is, and how in his own way, he seems to be as interested as Monk is in the pursuit of justice for its own sake, but what we do see is intriguing.

Speaking of Oliver, a warning for those of you who haven't read TFOAS and are planning to read it: don't start with this one. A good part of the beginning is devoted to the trial of the culprit of the murder Monk investigated in the first book, and so the whole thing would be spoilt for you. Plus, you probably wouldn't be able to make heads of tails of things here.

I wonder if Perry does the same thing in the next book, Defend and Betray? I certainly hope so, because there are some things here that I can hardly wait to see how they turn out. Unfortunately, D&B is the only one I don't have out of the first 9 books in the series (I've read it, actually, but that was a copy I borrowed from my high school library, over 10 years ago), but I've ordered a used copy from ebay and it should get here in a couple of weeks.

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