RogerBW's Blog

The Face of a Stranger, Anne Perry 21 October 2017

1990 mystery; first in Perry's William Monk series (Victorian police work). In 1856 London, Monk wakes up in hospital with no idea of his own name or job, but soon discovers that he's a police detective, and is given a new case to work on, the beating to death of a popular veteran of the Crimea. But as he finds out more about the man he used to be, he doesn't like him very much.

There are mystery readers in communities like Goodreads who do challenges: in January, they say, everyone in the group should read a book with a colour in the title, or with a female detective, or whatever. As I did some research for this review, I found I'd been doing a challenge of my own: this is a book written by a convicted murderess. Anne Perry was born Juliet Hulme, of the Parker-Hulme murder case, as interpreted in film in Heavenly Creatures (Hulme was the one played by Kate Winslet in her film d├ębut). "In later life, Perry has written books that particularly focus on sin, repentance, and the price of redemption."

But that doesn't need to colour one's interpretation of the book, which is mid-century Victorian mud and nastiness. Joscelin Gray was beaten to death by someone who clearly hated him, a lot, since they kept beating long after he was dead (this is repeated several times, presumably in case the reader thinks that beating a corpse is perfectly normal). Pretty much everyone of any status despises the police in general and Monk in particular, and are brutal to anyone they can get away with being brutal to; pretty much everyone else we meet is a criminal of some sort; the few good guys are of course all terribly concerned with the plight of the poor, in a way which doesn't seem entirely historically plausible but is probably necessary so as not to lose the reader's sympathy for them as well as everyone else.

Monk's rediscovery of himself and those around him is intriguingly observed, and certainly not complete here; but more interesting to me is the second narrative voice, that of Hester Latterly, who went out as a volunteer with Florence Nightingale, and has seen things in Scutari and elsewhere that make her unfit for a society that would prefer not to think about the gory implications of a fairly pointless war.

It's quite a slow-paced book, with interior monologue interlarded into most conversations; the actual process of detection relies rather too heavily on coincidence and guesswork rather than evidence and reasoning. All the same it's enjoyable, largely for the characters, and I plan to read more of this series.

Followed by A Dangerous Mourning.

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