by Michael SimsApril, 2000
Anne Perry's new Victorian murder mystery, Half Moon Street, begins in classic style, with the finding of a body. But this one isn't in the drawing room of a country mansion; it's in a small boat drifting against a London dock. It is the body of a man. His hands are manacled, and he is shockingly attired in a woman's dress. The constable who finds the body warns our hero, Superintendent Thomas Pitt, the head of the Bow Street Police Station, that scandal is waiting in the wings. He fears the body is that of a missing French diplomat. Soon Pitt is caught up in a tour of the dark underside of Victorian London, trying to find out where the worlds of diplomacy and the theater have crossed paths and why the encounter ended in murder. The tour is far-ranging and allows the author to paint a mural of the times.
Although Anne Perry is not the only contemporary author to set mystery novels in the foggy, charming days of Sherlock Holmes, nonetheless, she has made the era her own. Because of her chosen milieu, Perry is predictably compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. Actually, although she shares their taste for the grotesque, she lacks their easy humor and writerly sensitivity to language. Her style is plain and straightforward, her emphasis on the social interactions of a busy period.
What amuses Perry is to populate her novels with prominent figures, and give us glimpses inside the lives of the people that made the era so significant in history. In the case of Half Moon Street, they include Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and some of their illustrious colleagues. The surprising element in these mysteries is that the secondary characters are deeply engaged in social issues and the arts, thereby pulling Pitt into controversies outside the world of crime. For example, when Pitt attends a play, he finds himself immersed in the feminist issues of the day.
These are topics usually overlooked or ignored in period mysteries, and they lend Perry's books a lively cultural tone. Readers get to experience the pace of a changing world through the eyes of intelligent observers such as Thomas and his wife Charlotte, all while piecing together clues and moving closer to the author's famously satisfying denouements. It's a powerful combination and, after two decades, explains Perry's still-growing reputation.