A Sudden, Fearful Death, by Anne Perry

>> Monday, May 21, 2007

TITLE: A Sudden, Fearful Death
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

PAGES: 439
PUBLISHER: Ivy (Random House)

SETTING: Late 1850s London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: # 4 in the William Monk series

REASON FOR READING: I'm rereading the whole series, in order this time. I first read them over 10 years ago, and back then I just read whichever installment I'd just bought. Didn't worry much about series order.

In a London hospital, Prudence Barrymore, a talented nurse who had once been one or Florence Nightingale's angels of mercy in the Crimean War, meets sudden death by strangulation. Private inquiry agent William Monk is engaged to investigate this horrific crime- which intuition tells him was no random stroke of violence by a madman.

Greatly helped by his unconventional friend Hester Latterly, another of Miss Nightingale's nurses, and barrister Oliver Rathbone, Monk assembles the portrait or a remarkable woman. Yet he also discerns the shadow of a tragic evil that darkens every level ot society, and a frightening glimmer ot his own eclipsed past....
THE PLOT: Remember Lady Callandra Daviot, Hester's mentor and the benefactor who helped Monk set up his private investigator business? Well, she's the one who initially involves them in this particular case. When a nurse is found strangled in the hospital of which she's one of the Governors, Callandra fears the police will focus one on of the doctors (on whom she had a bit of a crush), just because he's a foreigner.

So to the rescue come Monk and Hester, he doing his thing as a "private agent of enquiry", she getting hired as a nurse herself, trying to investigate from the inside. For Hester, it's more than about clearing Callandra's doctor friend: Prudence Barrymore, the murdered nurse, served with her in the Crimea, as one of Florence Nightingale's nurses. Both Hester and, once he finds out more about Prudence, Monk as well, are determined to find her murderer.

MY THOUGHTS: It's hard to articulate my thoughts about this one. On the whole, it was a book I enjoyed. The hospital setting was excellent, and so were the court scenes. As for the mystery, it was very interesting, especially because of the victim's personality, which really made her come alive, both to the reader and to the people investigating the case. I liked that, because it gave them an important stake in resolving the case... it wasn't just about the intellectual puzzle, but a need to see Prudence avenged. Unfortunately, the way Perry develops the mystery is unquestionably weaker than that of the earlier books.

The first puzzling choice was to start with 50 pages that don't seem to have anything to do with the main case, as Monk investigates the case of a young woman who was raped in her sister's back garden... a case Monk quickly solves. You do realize why it's relevant to the rest of the book after a while, and while I understood what Perry was trying to do by structuring the book in this way, I don't think it was the best choice. This whole first section is much too long and much too isolated.

The plot about Prudence's murder was interesting and well done, except that for hundreds of pages, everyone kept debating about the content of certain letters, about what what it could have been that Prudence wrote that she wanted and debating whether it was believable that she wanted what to them is the obvious choice. The problem is that what she actually meant really is obvious to anyone who reads these letters, and no one in the book sees it. I suppose you could argue it would be inconceivable to people of her time, so it would be logical that they would think what they thought (sorry for being so cryptic, but I don't want to spoil it), but it made for some very frustrating reading, because I kept wanting to shake them all so that they would see.

I also had a problem with the resolution of the case. This time, the person who actually did it didn't seem right, didn't fit in as perfectly as in other books. Maybe it was because Perry has brought us to believe that Rathbone and Monk have an almost unfailing insight into people, and if they think something like "he couldn't have been lying, couldn't have been that good an actor", they will indefectibly be right in his assessment. But here, they're completely misled by the culprit.

Outside of this, though, the book is immensely enjoyable. The relationships between the characters continue to develop and we keep learning more about them. The setting and characterization as wonderfully done as in the other books in the series. I don't want to repeat what I've said so many times before, so I'll just say that the way Perry makes her setting come to life, exploring important issues and social mores, and the way she makes her characters fully realized and very much children of their time, is unparalleled.

MY GRADE: A B, though I admit I maybe I'm being a bit too stringent, and comparing this one too much against Perry's other books.


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