Nowadays it takes almost everything in me to read fiction, and it takes even more for me to read mystery fiction. This isn’t to say that I dislike or disrespect mysteries. On the contrary, the genre is a special kind of good literature. Perhaps I’m too tangled in my own fictions and the unsolvable mystery of my own life to justify engrossment in clever whodunits. I’ve enjoyed my share of mysteries, however: by Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Edith Pargeter (Brother Cadfael), Patricia Cornwell, John Grant (Lovejoy), Agatha Christie, Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle – and, believe it or not, A.A. Milne (The Red House Mystery is a work of genius).
When I received an advance copy of Anne Perry’s An Echo of Murder in the mail, I braced myself for a struggle. Nowhere near being in a mood for fiction, let alone a mystery, I flipped through the book for a taste test. After dipping into a few passages and noticing that the detective’s wife was quite involved in the case, I felt a strong curiosity. Also, there was something cozy about the subtly attractive text font, which, I learned after the end of the story, is Old Goudy Style, originated in 1914 by Frederic Goudy. This particularity of the author’s seems to exemplify her overall care for her work. Just to make sure, I got a copy of Defend and Betray (1992), which, I must say is a superior work, but, thanks to both books, I’m pleased to have become an Anne Perry fan.
First of all, I tend to admire literary prolificacy, regardless of whether or not I’m a fan of the work. Louis L’Amour wrote close to 100 novels, Agatha Christie wrote at least 80, Isaac Asimov churned out hundreds. Anne Perry’s count is around 80 so far. Here and there over the years her Thomas Pitt and William Monk novels caught my eye, but until recently I hadn’t given her work a try. But, as they say, it’s never too late.
The English language may be vast and variable, but it’s finite, so when an author cranks out book after book after book the fact that there are only so many ways to describe or express certain things becomes more evident. For readers who are used to so-called literary fiction, an abundance of stock phrases and democratic descriptors might spark snobbish dismissal, but I insist that not every text needs to ring like Rushdie or Woolf – and the stories of certain genre novels may indeed benefit from more lubricated narratives. Widely worshipped book-a-minute Isaac Asimov didn’t produce sci-fi prose that was as dense and virtuosic as, say Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany, and he certainly utilized regular clichés in his work. That’s the key: utility. Though Anne Perry doesn’t pen like Margaret Atwood, she’s a gifted writer who seems in full charge of her language choice, disciplining her wording to, above all, serve the plot, which is the central importance of a detective story.
So, at first miffed by the line “Monk blinked,” which is echoed shortly after by “Dobokai blinked,” I acclimated to the somewhat frugal prose, finding that such phraseology pops up throughout the book: “It was warm and the sunlight lay in bright patterns on the floor,” “Dobokai’s challenging face and his clear eyes, blue as the sky,” “Monk’s mind was racing,” “Dobokai’s face was parchment white…” Literary snobs, consider a scoop of prose from hardly a few paragraphs of Asimov’s “Robbie” story in I, Robot: “wrinkling her nose and blinking in the sunlight,” “dark recesses,” “incessant buzzing of insects” and “a severe frown crinkling her forehead.” Even a Melville or Proust fan can appreciate the knack for the utility required to maintain a continuous output of bestselling stories.
Done as a socially- conscious police procedural, An Echo of Murder is a William Monk Novel set in Victorian-era London: among the fog and grit of a city still shivering from the Jack the Ripper murders and forever associated with the essentially real Sherlock Holmes. (I’m not surprised that one of the series’ most attractive characters is named Oliver Rathbone, which I’d bet a horse and carriage is named for the iconic manifestation of Twentieth Century-Fox’s and Universal Pictures’ Sherlock films, actor Basil Rathbone.) Having been part of the Thames River Police since Execution Dock (2010), Commander Monk is married to an astute, perceptive, intrepid woman named Hester (nee Letterly), who has been featured in the previous Monk novels. In fact, Hester, with her inspirational, therapeutic, empathetic and grounding personality, is more compelling than her marquee-topping husband. Perry describes Hester in the following line from Echo: “She was not a traditionally beautiful woman, perhaps a little too thin, and certainly there was far too much courage in her face, and too much intelligence for her demeanor to be comfortable to most men.” (Such an assumption doesn’t apply to me, I must say. The smarter and more courageous, the better.)
Hester’s prototype is a character named Charlotte, who appeared in Perry’s earlier Thomas Pitt novels. Charlotte’s ingenuity and gumption contributed to her husband Pitt’s sleuthing, and she was so integral to the stories that Perry referred to the third Inspector Pitt book, Paragon Walk, as “Charlotte III.” Likewise, Hester is so remarkable and important, the Monk series could very well be called Hester Monk Novels. It’s no wonder that Ballantine Books’ Leona Nevler said of Defend and Betray: “It turns out to be more Hester’s case than Monk’s.” My exploration of other Monk books will be because of my love of Hester over my respect for her husband. This love is partly due to Perry’s characterization and partly due to my basic preference for female characters/heroes, as well as the more interesting dynamic of feminine agency. Hence the following passage pleased me greatly: “Monk remembered Hester telling him that when women speak to each other of trivial things, that is merely a vehicle. What they are saying beneath the surface is about interest, trust, understanding.”
Monk was introduced in The Face of a Stranger (1990), in which he was disturbed by amnesia caused by severe injury in a carriage accident, and suffered under the question of whether or not he was responsible for a murder he’d been assigned to investigate. The murder victim fought with valor in the Crimean War, during which Hester Letterly, the woman who would eventually become Monk’s wife, nursed the wounded. The themes of amnesia and the Crimean War are also factors in An Echo of Murder, twenty-two Monk novels later. The occasional exposition of the former throughout the book struck me as obligatory, for the sake of first-time readers such as myself, and I don’t think it affected me in the way Perry intends.
The book begins with Monk and his partner, Hooper, embarking on a new case involving the savaged corpse of a Hungarian man named Imrus Fodor, found in a warehouse on the shore of the Thames River. The body has been bayoneted, the fingers have been broken, some teeth have been smashed out and the lips have been removed. Blood is splattered everywhere, and seventeen blood-tipped candles have been left nearby, giving the horrific scene a ritualistic vibe. Mr. Antal Dobokai, a Hungarian pharmacist who is present at the scene, shows serious concern and offers assistance, helping to raise the question of whether or not the crime was inspired by bigotry against the Hungarian community in London.
The bigotry theme continues for much of the novel, serving as a platform from which Perry proselytizes modern-day social sensibilities and parallels current controversies with prejudicial conflicts back in Victorian days. For instance, a tobacconist questioned by Monk and Hooper says “Don’t want that kind of thing ‘ere” in regard to violence perceived as a foreigners’ import, to which Monk replies, “We don’t need any more. We’ve got enough of our own violence without help.” Also, Hooper expresses a notion that seems somewhat anachronistic: “Some people find change threatening.” Later in the book, a hostile character named Roger Haldane expresses bias against Hungarians, though his own wife, Adel, is of Hungarian heritage: “People forget, often, that, at least to some, they don’t belong here.” Monk thinks, in a quite modern way: “Don’t belong here. Half the people in London did not ‘belong’ here. They had begun somewhere else. That was one of the good things about London.” Such passages are typical of Perry’s sense of tolerance, inclusion and justice, and how she incorporates current themes into her work should, for the most part, be appreciated.
The presence of the bloody candles, as well as their colors and number, makes Monk wonder if some kind of secret society is at work and why such a society might want to prey upon immigrants. Curiously, uncooperative Roger Haldane is indignant until the “seventeen” society is mentioned by Monk, as if he’s relieved that such an angle is being pursued. Haldane is not the only suspicious character, of course, and the plot’s tortuousness that maintains fresh suspense. Though Dobokai has an alibi for the time of the Fodor murder, Monk isn’t sure if the unease he feels at the sight and thought of him can be blamed on personal dislike or warranted distrust.
To thicken the mystery, Perry brings in Herbert Fitzherbert, otherwise known as Dr. Fitz or just Fitz. In the true spirit of Victorian-novel coincidence, it’s revealed that Fitz once knew and cared for the wounded and diseased with Hester back in wartime Crimea. Right away it’s evident how important Hester was to him, and vice versa. When Hester learns of Fitz’s presence in London, she is nothing short of dismayed, since for years she has assumed him dead from severe injuries. Her concern intensifies when Fitz becomes a suspect in the sadistic murders Monk is trying to solve, and her affection for him compels her to prove his innocence somehow. Through a series of flashbacks the special professional and emotional bonds that developed “a friendship that defied words” is revealed. Past horror and regret disrupt Hester’s new life, and the memories create conflict in her:
They were tied to a past she did not ever willingly recall. Living now meant burying that and locking the door on it, like a cellar one would never enter again. Place a piece of furniture across to hide it.
Was that a betrayal? Or was going back to it a betrayal of the life and the gifts of the present?
In a sense, Hester desires a deliberate “amnesia” to wall off the traumatic past, paralleling her husband’s continual struggle with memory, horrific blips of recognition and the puzzle of past/preset identities. These are repetitive themes in An Echo of Murder – and, indeed, in much of Anne Perry’s work in general. Though I decided to avoid dwelling on Perry’s past life in this review, her original identity as Juliet Hulme, one of the two teen perpetrators of New Zealand’s notorious Parker-Hulme murder case in 1954 (embellished and refreshed in the public by Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures movie in the mid-1990s) must at least be mentioned. The distant atoned-for and forgiven crime is quite important in understanding recurring key themes in Perry’s novels. Juliet (before changing her name to Anne Perry) wrote in her diary after serving her sentence: “I must leave the past completely behind & remake myself without its surroundings.” However, those haunting themes surface again and again, indicating how far from distant 1954 June day is and apparently always will be for Perry. Below is a particularly revelatory passage from Echo that can double as both Monk’s and his creator’s unrest:
Everybody was a stranger to him, even himself, and that was the worst of all, because of the demons that lurked in flashes of violence, and in the eyes of those who did know him, and remembered very clearly the man he had been. He knew what it was to wake in the night covered with a sweat of fear as to what might lie within himself, what horror might have given rise to the memories of violence.
And in the eighth chapter of Defend and Betray, Oliver Rathbone sums up society’s basic intolerance to anything falling short of previously perceived respectability:
We have a tendency to see people as good or evil; it is so much easier on the brain and on the emotions, but especially the emotions, to place people into one or the other category. Black or white. It is a painful adjustment to have to recognize and accommodate into our thinking the fact that people with great qualities which we have admired may also have ugly and profoundly repellent flaws.
I recommend that readers who are curious about Parker-Hulme read Joanne Dayton’s Looking for Anne Perry, since I’d rather focus on Perry’s apparent salvation and laudable art here. But I will share my favorite passage from the Dayton book, which also happens to be its closing words:
Anne Perry explains herself in her writing, in the stories of flawed protagonists who fail the world and themselves but can transcend their past to find forgiveness…And until the world finally ‘gets it’, and she can forgive herself, it is a story she will tell over and over again.
Back to Hester and Fitz. Their past medical compatibility is called upon again in order to save a man with deadly tetanus from a mutilating accident. After enduring a harrowing cauterization process together, Hester decides to confess that back in the Crimea she had gone back for Fitz after he was left for dead, but she couldn’t find him. As if the voice of the book’s author speaks to herself, Fitz says, “Fight your demons, too, Hester. ‘Physician, heal thyself!’” When one considers it, detective/police work is a kind of warfare against demons, a kind of public-/personal-health practice, and in, really, all of us humans find ourselves in a capricious world of crime and atrocity – a world in which we are driven by a single survivalist goal, to use the words of a trauma-entranced Fitz during a breakdown: “Stop the bleeding. Always! Just stop the blood…”
Perhaps the most affecting iteration of Perry’s analogies of redemptive metamorphosis is in the sentimental character of Scuff, an orphan who Monk and Hester had taken in and reared since he was eleven years old – and another quintessentially Victorian-literature motif. I assume that in previous books he has striven to overcome his obscure, plebeian/urchin origin and achieve a new identity with a worthy purpose. By now he has matured quite a bit, and he’s blossoming under the tutelage of kind, patient Dr. Crow, who seems to be the local-clinician counterpart to the official surgeon of the Thames River Police, Dr. Hyde (a humorous play on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?). Literally and symbolically grown up, Scuff now visits the Monks on occasion instead of residing in their home, and, to flex his independence further, he wants to be referred to as Will instead of Scuff. (The Monks and Dr. Crow try their best to remember the changed name in their subsequent addresses, but the narration’s odd Will/Scuff alternation has the potential to confuse at least or annoy at most.)
Perry’s work also has a cinematic quality to it, making it quite adaptable as TV or movie scripts. In Echo there’s a particularly harrowing, breathless scene featuring Monk rescuing Fitz from would-be vigilantes, and I was rapt by the seven-page chase. After a narrative of noisy desperation, the following line has masterful effect: “There was a silence so intense [Monk] could hear the water lapping against the piles below, and the bump of the ferry against the steps.”
More similar murders occur in the book, complicating the mystery and community tension, and more bombshell secrets are exposed while more of the past seeps into the present: all musts in a Victorian tale. Anne Perry’s sense of such plot-centric drama springs from much experience and remarkable balance. She also excels at satisfying another Victorian fixation: the courtroom trial. Every whodunit needs a “You done it!” Through the expert lawyering An Echo of Murder certainly delivers the goods – and then some. On the twisty, secret-unearthing, truth-illuminating thrill ride of trial lines such as “There was a gasp of breath around the room,” “The judge was frozen for a moment” and “A woman screamed” are absolutely apt and, frankly, quite welcome.
– David Herrle