Half Moon Street & Defend and Betray, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Anne Perry's my new obsession. I've been reading her forever, but I'm suddenly rediscovering just how good her books are. Here are two of them, one from the Pitt series, one from the Monks.

The Pitt is Half Moon Street, book 20 in the series.

Superintendent Thomas Pitt cannot immediately ascertain exactly what segment of society the dead man riding the morning tide of the Thames came from, but the sight of him is unforgettable. He lies in a battered punt drifting through the morning mist, his arms and legs chained to the boat's sides. He is clad in a torn green gown, and flowers bestrew his battered body.

Is he, as Pitt fears, a French diplomat who has gone missing? Or merely someone who greatly resembles him? Pitt's determined search for answers leads him deep into London's bohemia to the theatre where the beautiful Cecily Antrim is outraging society with her bold portrayal of a modern woman - and into studios where masters of light and shadow are experimenting with the fascinating new art of photography.

But only Pitt's most relentless pursuit enables him to identify the wildfire passions raging through this tragedy of good and evil, to hunt down the guilty and protect the innocent.
I liked this one not so much for the mystery itself, but for the issues Perry examines. A B+.

I guess you can tell this is a very late entry in the series from the way the focus has moved away from Thomas and his wife Charlotte. In earlier books, their relationship is central to the story, and seeing them both adapt to their seeming mismatch is even more fascinating than the mysteries Thomas has to investigate.

But they seem to have adapted just fine already. Here, Charlotte isn't even present. She's gone to Paris with her sister Emily, and Thomas isn't particularly bothered by it. Oh, he misses his wife and not having her there really brings home how much he loves her, but he doesn't seem at all conflicted about Charlotte enjoying some of the luxury her birth would have afforded her, but which he can't provide with his job. In earlier books, this would have been such a drama!

So while Charlotte is away with Emily, Thomas gets called into a case. A man has been found dead in a punt on the Thames, posed in a most scandalous way. The body in chains and wearing a green dress looks to be pretty upper class, so Thomas is immediately brought to him, as delicate cases often are.

Meanwhile, Charlotte's mother Caroline isn't having a very good time. Longtime readers of the series will remember that the widowed Caroline married a Jewish actor some 20 years her junior (it's been a while, but it all came back to me as I was reading). Her mother in law, a real harridan who up until then lived with her, took offense and went to live with Emily. But with Emily in Paris, Mrs. Ellison is spending some time with Caroline and Joshua, and making Caroline's life hell.

Caroline is also feeling a bit of an inferiority complex, next to Joshua's theatre friends. They're all so daring and rebellious, defying the censor to put up plays that reveal scandalous things like the dissatisfaction that can lurk inside placid-seeming housewives. Caroline feels like a total stick-in-the-mud next to them, and fears Joshua is regretting marrying someone like her. Even worse: she's not even sure if she really believes that what these people are doing is right.

Thomas and his investigation into the case aren't particularly scintillating in this particular book, but Caroline and the issues she's facing are. What I enjoyed the most about HMS was the questions Perry asks about things like censorship and pornography. The interesting thing was that a priori, I would have thought I'd be squarely on the side of Joshua's friend Cecily Antrim and her colleagues, convinced that shocking people is the only way of making them question the statu quo and the first step into changing the many injustices rampant in Victorian society. But damned if I didn't think some of the objections Caroline and some other people had weren't valid. There are no easy answers here, just questions, and some of those were questions I hadn't thought to ask.

I also liked what Perry did with the character of Mrs. Ellison. This was a character who was completely repugnant to me at the beginning, but who I understood much better at the end of the book. She's not "redeemed" or anything like that; but at least I knew where she was coming from and understood why she'd be so unpleasant.

This is one I'd recommend for people who've read a bunch of the previous books (even if not all of them), but I don't think it would be the best place to start. I think a new reader would have that feeling of arriving at a party where she doesn't know anyone and they all know each other.

The Monk book is a much earlier entry in its series. Defend and Betray is only book 3.

After a brilliant military career, bravely serving crown and country in India, esteemed General Thaddeus Carlyon finally meets death, not in the frenzy of battle, but at an elegant London dinner party.

In a bizarre incident that shocks aristocratic London, General Carlyon is killed in what first appears to be a freak accident. But the General’s beautiful wife, Alexandra, readily confesses that she murdered him – a story she clings to even under the shadow of the gallows.

Investigator William Monk, nurse Hester Latterly, and brilliant Oliver Rathbone, counsel for the defence, work feverishly to break down the wall of silence raised by the accused and her husband’s proud family; and with the trial only days away they search desperately for an answer to the dark and appalling mystery, in order to save a woman’s life.
After reading the books in this series in whichever order I could find them, and having missed the first one, I decided last summer to read the whole thing as it was written. This is the first one I had some memories of, which really gives you an idea of how memorable it is, because I borrowed it from my high school library, and that has to have been at least 11 years ago, probably more. In this case, remembering wasn't really an advantage, but the book was great anyway. A B+ .

At first, everyone thought it was a ridiculous accident. General Thaddeus Carlyon somehow managed to fall over a first floor banister and impale himself on the halberd held by an ornamental suit of armour. But when it became clear it couldn't have been an accident, his wife Alexandra confessed to his murder, insisting she'd done it out of jealousy, an excuse no one who knows her believes.

One of those who doesn't believe it is General Carlyon's sister, Edith, who asks her friend Hester Latterly for help in finding her a lawyer. Hester suggests her acquaintance, Oliver Rathbone, who has a reputation for being one of the most promising barristers in the country.

It looks like a thankless, unwinnable case, what with Alexandra's confession, her refusal to help her lawyers out by revealing why she really did it and the heavy public condemnation, but Oliver is persuaded to try for the impossible and hires the now private detective William Monk to help him investigate. And as they find out more and more clues to what must have happened, it becomes increasingly urgent to save the accused woman's life.

As I mentioned above, I remembered D&D perfectly, even after all these years. That is, I knew the exact reasons for what had happened, even if I didn't quite remember if Alexandra had done it or not (I was actually convinced a certain, very ingenious thing had happened, but the truth was nothing like that. I wonder where I took that from?). This sometimes made for frustrating reading, because I realized the significance of every single little clue, and I wanted to shake Hester and Monk and Oliver because they weren't seeing it.

But for someone reading this for the first time, I suspect the book will be nail-bitingly suspenseful, and when the truth emerges, it will feel right, and they'll look back and remember all those clues and go "oooh, that makes sense!".

The investigation scenes are excellent. It's not a whodunnit, because that's known from the very first, so what Monk et al need to discover is the reason why, and that requires somewhat of a different approach. And as always with Perry, we get some fascinating insight into the Victorian mindset and what secrets lurk behind those seemingly very respectable families.

And at the end, a courtroom scene that is really outstanding, with dramatic revelations and high drama. I ate it all up! *g*

For all that I really loved the book, I've got a couple of quibbles. Maybe because I wasn't that absorbed in trying to figure out what had happened, I was slightly bothered by some details I might have glossed over otherwise. Something that struck me this time is how improbably self-aware characters like the general's mother, Felicia Carlyon, were. This is an extremely conservative woman, and her reasoning about Alexandra's blame felt too insightful. If women start killing men for having a roving eye, the very fabric of society would be destroyed, blah, blah. I'd have believed it more if this justification had simply been beneath her absolute assurance that what Alexandra did was evil and unforgivable.

Also, Monk felt strangely unnecessary here. Did he make any important discoveries himself, any great deductions? Not really. It was Hester who seemed to do it all. Monk seemed absorbed in discovering the identity of a woman from one of his past cases, who he remembers had been in the same situation as Alexandra Carlyon. It's quite simply a matter of the current case bringing the past to mind, but finding out the truth brings no clarity or insights to bear back to the present investigation. I really think this last step would have made this entire subplot much more relevant.

But did I really care? No, the book was excellent anyway. This whole series is really excellent. I'm trying to hold off from reading book 4 too soon, so I don't get burnt out, but it's beckoning from my bedside table (big mistake on my part, putting it there), so I don't think I'll be able to resist much longer.


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