Anne Perry - "The Hyde Park Headsman" &"Traitors Gate"
pbk £5.99 & Hdbk £15.99 both HarperCollins
In the general surge of popularity of the historicalnovel Anne Perrys 19th Century mysteries are fine examples of qualitywriting in this genre. Her early books are apparently sought after by collectorsand are difficult to come by.
The above two books feature the detective Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte.In the first book Pitt has been newly promoted to Superintendent on theretirement of his superior, Micah Drummond. Pitt does not fit the usualrequirements of a man in his position in Victorian England. He is not agentleman by birth and does not have the appearance and manner of one. He has gained his promotionbecause of his skill in police work and his ability to work with criminalsand the lower classes. He faces resentment and lack of respect from theBow Street Men, in particular from one Mr Tellman who agitates among theothers to make Pitts job difficult There is a constant tension in theirrelationship and Pitt faces an uphill task of gaining real co-operationfrom the rest of the constabulary.
The first victim of the murderer known as "The Hyde Park Headsman"is a gentleman and without his wife Charlotte who, in marrying a policemanhas married beneath her, Pitt would have problems gaining access to societycircles for the kind of informal investigations which can be so effective.Charlotte is still welcome in such circles because of her connections withher sister Emily and amazing Aunt Vespasia who is a person of wealth andbreeding and who usefully lends Charlotte eye catching hats to attend socialfunctions in her company where they can do some unobtrusive spying amongthe upper class on Thomass behalf. However, Thomas and Charlotte Pitthave, following Pitts promotion, acquired a larger and more impressivehouse and Charlotte is preoccupied with the furnishing and other arrangementsthat this entails. Consequently she has less time to work as her husbandsunpaid assistant sleuth. When the first headless corpse is found in a boaton the Serpentine and is followed by other gruesome crimes of the samenature, all but one against gentlemen of high birth, there is a huge outcryof protest at the inability of the police, namely Superintendent Pitt,to solve the crimes and find the culprit instantly. Prominent people ofthis class are baying for Pitts blood and we feel for our hero and theinjustice of it all.
As you can see , there is, built in to the choice of character of the protagonistand his wife as well as the crime itself, the opportunity for the authorto underwrite the plot with observations and comments on the class systemand the general milieu of Victorian England. She does this very well andin a way which is both informative and enjoyable for the reader.
In "Traitors Gate" Matthew Desmond, Pitts childhood companion,comes to seek his help following the death of his father, Thomass benefactor,Sir Arthur Desmond. Accounts of his death which are being put about implyeither suicide or a lapse into senility which has resulted in an accidentaloverdose of laudanum and brandy. Matthew and Pitt both believe an entirelydifferent version of events leading to his death, in which Sir Arthur hasmade powerful enemies and whose death has been a case of murder. Investigationslead to the discovery of a traitor in the Colonial Office and to the involvementof some of the most prominent men in the land in plans for the developmentand colonisation of Africa. A body is found in the Thames , right besideTraitors Gate and Pitt must find the connection . Pitts investigationslead both him and Charlotte into danger. Charlotte uncovers a vital cluewhich leads to the solving of the mystery.
One issue which forms part of the back-cloth to this novel is the roleof women in Victorian society and the many restrictions placed upon them.In spite of this her women characters are shown to be active and oftenhave the power to influence events. The situation in Africa at that timeis also a main theme. The activities of Cecil Rhodes and others greedyfor the spoils of the new - found continent come under scrutiny duringthe course of this murder mystery. And for anyone interested in the minutiaeof the Victorian Era there are many fascinating details about the mannersof polite society, furnishings and fashions of that time.
History and mystery appear effortlessly combined in Anne Perrys work.Both "The Hyde Park Headsman" and "Traitors Gate" providea satisfying read for the story itself , the authentic historical backgroundis an important bonus.
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