The Face of a Stranger, by Anne Perry

>> Thursday, February 15, 2007

I've been reading Anne Perry for years and years... since I was in high school, actually, since I remember borrowing some of her books from the library there. And because I started reading her long before the Internet came along, I didn't pay much attention to the order of her books. I'd read whichever title I came accross, whether it was part of the Pitt series or the Monk series, and whether it was an early or a late entry in whichever series it belonged to.

The book I've just finished, The Face of a Stranger, is actually the first in one of those series, the one featuring policeman William Monk and Hester Latterly. I've read the 8 books that come after it (though not in order), but I'd never had the chance to read the first one, the one which started it all.

book coverHis name, they tell him, is William Monk, and he is a London police detective. But the accident that felled him has left him with only half a life; his memory and his entire past have vanished.

Trying as best he can to hide that fact, Monk returns to work and finds himself assigned to the brutal murder of the Honorable Joscelin Grey, Crimean war hero and popular man about town, in his rooms in fashionable Mecklenburg Square. The exalted status of the victim puts any representative of the police in the precarious position of having to pry into a noble family's secrets—which in itself will be difficult for Monk, as he's forgotten his professional skills along with everything else.

But slowly the darkness begins to lighten as each new revelation leads Monk step by terrifying step to the answers he seeks but dreads to find....

The mystery plot featured here would be interesting and well-plotted enough for a B+ on its own, even if the book had an indistinct setting and anonymous detective. When you add the fascinating and vivid setting, plus the intriguing issues facing Monk, this bumps my grade up to an A-.

When police detective William Monk wakes up in a London hospital, he has no memory. He doesn't remember even his name, much less that he's a detective. Quickly realizing that admitting anything might place him in a vulnerable position and lose him his job, his only way of earning a living, Monk tries to conceal his amnesia.

But it's not easy, because as soon as he's physically healed, his boss sets him to investigate the murder of a man named Joscelin Grey, a Crimean War veteran. It's a complicated case, and not just because Monk has no memory of investigative techniques and wouldn't recognize one of his contacts if he bumped into him on the streets. Grey has been dead for weeks now, so the trail is cold, and he's part of the aristocracy, brother of an Earl, which means any questioning of his peers has to be done veeeery delicately. And when it starts looking as if the murderer must have been someone very close to Grey, Monk starts suspecting that his boss is setting him up for a fall.

As I mentioned above, the mystery of who killed Joscelin Grey is solid enough to make the book work on its own. Reading so much romance I've more or less got used to suspense or mystery subplots that are either shoddily plotted or so insubstatial that they are simply an excuse to get the hero and heroine together, and so reading a mystery like this one is a treat. The case is interesting (when I put the book down, I found myself wondering what might have happened and thinking up theories) and the pacing is superb, with the clues revealed slowly and carefully. And best of all, when the truth is finally revealed, it's one that feels right. When you look back at the book, there are plenty of indications of what might have happened, and everything clicks perfectly.

In addition to this, there's Monk's amnesia, which (strangely enough, considering how I usually feel about amnesia plots), really makes the book amazing. It meant that, in effect, Monk was conducting two investigations at the same time. One, the traditional one in a mystery, on the murder of Major Grey, and a second one to discover who he himself is. Not his identity, because he's told from the first that he's a police detective and called William Monk; what he needs to know is what kind of man he is. Is he a cruel man or a kind one? A generous man or a miserly one? He has no idea, and is half scared to find out, because his first impressions of himself, based on how other people treat him, are of an ambitious, cold man.

I liked the way Perry questions, through this, what makes who we are. If we lose our memory, do we lose our personality, or is personality somehow ingrained? How much value should we give to what others think of us? They are interesting questions, and Perry handles them in a thoughtful way. We don't really get much conclusion in this area, but from what I remember, there are more answers in the following books in the series.

In addition to Monk, TFOAS introduces another character who will be important in the series, and a wonderful character it is, too. Hester Latterly is a well-born woman who's spent the past years nursing in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Even before she left she was a strong, intelligent woman with no patience for fools or the silly constraints of society, and her experiences in the Crimea have only exacerbated these qualities. On her return to England, Hester is unsure of what to do with her life, and she first gets mixed up in the Grey case through her friendship with Joscelin's Aunt Callandra, who will become a kind of mentor and benefactor for her. I had some memories of the powerful chemistry and somewhat adversarial relationship that develops between Hester and Monk later in the series, and it was very interesting to see the start of it here.

Another thing that's wonderful about this book is its portrayal of England in the late 1850s (I can't remember if we're given an actual date, but the action happens right after the end of the Crimean War, and that was in 1856). Perry's setting is so vivid and strong that you can practically see and smell and touch it, and the characters she creates are very definitely people of their time. I was especially interested to see the problems Monk had when dealing with the aristocracy, because as a policeman, he was regarded as almost slightly above servants, and so his "impertinent" questions weren't at all well received. And the glimpse of a very different world, the London rookeries, was just as fascinating. Perry doesn't shy away from the unpleasant sides of her setting, but at the same time, she somehow manages to keep her book from getting bogged down in an atmosphere that's too depressing.

Now that I've read TFOAS, I can hardly wait to reread the rest of the series, in order this time, and see how things evolve. The next one is A Dangerous Mourning, and fortunately, it's already in my shelves.


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