ANNE PERRY ~ THE REIGNING QUEEN OF LITERARY OF MYSTERIES
I often use this column to expound on books in the pulp or hardboiled genres, however, my reading tastes are actually wide, varied, and eclectic. When I want a literary mystery with both depth and strong characterization, I never hesitate to pull an Anne Perry novel off the shelf.
There are plenty to choose from as Perry’s output is prodigious. Her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series started with 1979’s The Cater Street Hangman and now runs to thirty titles. Her William and Hester (Latterly) Monk series began in 1990 with The Face of a Stranger, and saw its twentieth title, Blood on the Water, recently published. Her shorter Christmas novels started being published in 2003 with A Christmas Journey and have continued yearly through the most recent, A New York Christmas. In between all of these words, she has also produced five novels in a separate series – Reavley – set during WWI, two complex and lengthy fantasy novels, four novels in her young adult Timepiece series, a number of standalone novels, and has contributed award winning short stories to numerous anthologies. Whew!
What is even more astonishing than her output is the consistent quality and the amount of research involved in each effort. Perry is a true master of the mystery genre, yet this is not what sets her apart from other writers who also wear that mantle. Perry has no equal when it comes to an understanding of the many sides of social issues and the complexities of human nature and interaction. Often, her historical situations mirror modern counterparts, showing how little true social progress has been made – what affected society in the Victorian era, WWI, and today are too frequently little different.
Perry’s novels do not shy away from the harshest of subject matters, exploring them without prurient focus, yet still laying them bare in an emotionally gripping manner. Perry’s gift goes beyond the concoction of a Gordian knot of mystery to a much more important dissection of humanity. Actions have consequences in Perry’s novels, often far reaching and disastrous for her characters, yet redemption is also possible.
While I’m partial to her William and Hester Monk novels, I also always enjoy her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, and her Christmas tales – which often put secondary or minor characters from those other two series front and center.
The Monk mysteries are set early in the Victorian era (1850s – 1860s) and the Pitt books twenty to thirty years later (1880s – 1890s), but the true difference between the series is Perry’s consummate skill in creating two similar sets of sleuths, yet imbuing them with completely different voices. If they ever crossed paths, Pitt and Monk would recognize each other as kindred spirits – as would Hester and Charlotte – yet the reader would never confuse the individual voices of the four characters.
We first meet Thomas Pitt as a detective with the London Metropolitan police. Through thirty books, we follow his career through the police and on to the creation of Special Branch, responsible for the investigation of treason and anarchy and threats to the Crown. In the first book in the series, The Cater Street Hangman, Pitt investigates the murders of several young women in the streets near the wealthy Ellison family home. His investigation leads him into the sphere of Charlotte, the Ellison’s progressive, strong-willed daughter, who longs to break free of stifling convention.
While educated, Pitt is the son of a gamekeeper and a cook – hardly a likely match for a high society daughter of a wealthy family. However, Pitt’s ability to engage Charlotte in useful and interesting discussions binds her to him. Despite the convention of the times, the duo go on in the series to marry, have children (who grow and progress with the series), and find themselves bringing their individual gifts and circumstances into the solving of the mysteries. Somehow, Perry manages to keep Charlotte’s involvement in the stories pivotal while also believable, a feat few mystery writers can accomplish.
In William Monk, Perry has created an enigma. Monk is a man without a past, or at least one he can remember. A coach accident in 1856, causes Monk to lose his memory - a fact he keeps secret to save his job as a policeman. The issue, however, is more than memory. Monk has also lost his original ruthless personality. He is a man who has made many enemies on his way up the promotional ladder, and now he no longer knows friend from foe.
In coming to terms with the, hopefully better, man he has now become, and dealing with the harsh realities of a past haunting his every step, Monk meets Hester Latterly, a Crimean War nurse returned to London. Despite their initial irritation with each other, they became close, with her being the only one who knows about Monk's memory issues. Hester is an amazing character, her background on the battlefield giving her quite a different world view than that of Charlotte Pitt. Her work with Monk comes into even greater play when Monk is fired from the police and is forced to become a private investigator. The series, however, comes into its own when Monk takes advantage of an opportunity to return to police work as head of the (Thames) River Police.
Monk, Pitt, Hester, and Charlotte are fully realized characters, who I would recognize in an instant were I to meet them on the street. However, the added charm and complexity of the worlds Perry has created in these series are the many secondary characters – the lawyer Sir Oliver Rathbone, Monk’s second in command Orme, Pitt’s second in command Stoker, the river orphan Scuff, and the wonderful Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould to name but a few.
To spend time with these characters is to be taken on a thinking readers’ journey. While driven by intense dialogue, the novels are dense with atmosphere and challenge, drawing willing readers to get lost in the pages. I have also found the audio versions of Perry’s books to be among the best available, brilliantly performed by talented and engaging readers who bring Perry’s words and characters to fully realized life.
To butcher a cliché, I admit to wearing my admiration for Anne Perry on my sleeve. Her difficult early life experiences appear to have produced a writer who has thought long and hard about the world and humanities’ place in it. For me, she is a joy to read and a writer with qualities to which I aspire.