Sunday, October 12, 2014

Here's an intriguing puzzle set in Victorian London

Because I am creating fiction myself, I tend to read novels two ways simultaneously. I read for the story, and I read to see how the author does it. Because I am currently writing a mystery, I was interested in Anne Perry's Blood on the Water, my first exposure to her work.

Blood on the Water is Perry's nineteenth Victorian-era novel to feature William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police. (She has another 27-novel Victorian mystery series featuring a married couple plus five WWI novels and 12 Christmas novels; she's a prolific lady.) Readers of the series have followed Monk, his wife Hester (formerly a nurse during the Crimean War), and Scuff, an orphaned mudlark they took in. While it is not necessary to have read the first eighteen novels in the series to enjoy Blood on the Water, I believe the experience would be richer and more enjoyable.

The novel starts with a bang, literally. On page 2, Monk and one of his officers are on the Thames at twilight watching a pleasure boat filled with party-goers returning from an excursion when "there was a shattering roar and a great gout of flame leaped from the bow. Debris shot high into the air and the column of light seared Monk's eyes. Instinctively he ducked as the shock wave struck, and pieces of wood and metal pelted into the water around him and Orme with deafening splashes...."

So there's your mystery. Who would blow up a pleasure boat killing almost 200 innocent passengers? Why would someone do such a thing? And while this is a case for the River Police, higher authorities immediately give it to the Metropolitan London police who, in fairly short order (the British press is in full cry, demanding results) identify the perpetrator, try him (we see the trial), and condemn him to death. But we're only halfway through the book. I'm not going to say more about the story because I don't want to spoil it for potential readers. I will say that it held my interest to the last page as Monk and friends worked to uphold British justice.

Which is a theme throughout the book: The idea that justice is possible, that the system is not corrupt, that British barristers and solicitors hold themselves to an ideal of equity—because if they don't and the people do not trust the law and its administrators, civilization is not possible.

Perry tells her story from the limited third person point of view, so we are with Monk on the water rescuing survivors of the blast, with Hester doing her own investigations into the event, and with Oliver Rathbone, a disbarred lawyer and apparently a significant character in earlier books. (One of the series writer's problems: How much do you have to repeat for new readers; how much should you refer back to earlier cases? Enough, I guess, to remind faithful readers of the earlier books and to help new readers understand context, not enough to bore faithful or new readers.)

As someone who knows nothing about English courts except what he's seen on television, Perry's descriptions of the—you will excuse the expression—thrust and parry between prosecution and defense barristers seemed convincing. She is also particularly good a using characters' reactions to other people and to events to convey mood and feeling. Here for example is Hester looking at the jurors:

"From her place in the gallery, Hester could see that many of them had now lost all certainty as to who was lying, mistaken, or driven by motives one could only guess at. Looking at them, studying their faces, she could see that this was not a situation that sat well with them. There were unanswered questions regarding the first trial. How could so many mistakes have been made, and then compounded? It was anxiety she saw, and rising fear. They glanced at one another and then away again hastily. They moved minutely as if unable to find a comfortable position...."

If you would like to spend some time watching Monk and his friends work out an intriguing puzzle, try Blood on the Water.

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