Anne Perry's _The Face of a Stranger:_ Great premise, strong characters, good mystery

Aug 26, 2011 (Updated Jun 9, 2013)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:First novel in a series, with a strong lead character with a real problem.

Cons:Too much focus on the misery of the Victorian poor and the boss from Hell.

The Bottom Line: Darker and more personal than the Pitt novels, this introduces an amnesiac detective to the genre.

Some time ago, decades in fact, I started to read Anne Perry's Victorian period mysteries with great abandon. Unfortunately, I got burnt out, and stopped reading them. Now I realised that I was ready again to start taking them in, and this time, I decided that I was going to do it properly and start from the beginning.

A man wakes in a hospital bed in London. And in a moment of panic, he comes to the recognition that he knows nothing, not his name, what he did, or what brought him to this point. His arm is broken, his head aches, and he can feel a broken rib or two. Something dreadful has happened to him. It takes a little time and a friendly orderly to put his name together -- William Monk. And even more interesting is that he is a policeman, indeed, a very good detective on London's newly formed Metropolitan. But beyond that, he knows nothing.

His superior, a rather supercilious sort named Runcorn makes a visit and assures Monk that all he has to worry about is to get well again, and not to fret too much about getting back to work, Monk suspects something. And when he returns to his job, that notion proves to be all too true -- Runcorn wants him out, and hands him a case that not only requires a delicate touch, but a considerable amount of tact as well.

In one of London's finer parts, an aristocrat -- the Honourable Major Joscelin Grey -- has been found with his skull beaten in. Nothing has been stolen, but the dead man is the younger brother of an Earl, and the scandal needs to be hushed up as quickly as possible. The last policeman on the case gave up in frustration.

When Monk goes to visit the grieving family, he meets one of their guests, Hester Latterly, a young woman of good family who happens to be the friend of the Greys. Hester has her own troubles, coping not just with the ruin of her family's finances, but also her own memories of the Crimean War, working as a nurse in the hideous hospitals there. It seems that she knew Major Grey, and remembers him as a good man, willing to befriend those in need and in more dire circumstances than himself. To Monk, Hester is a dreadful woman, forthright and lacking all of the charms that are expected of a dutiful Victorian miss -- namely subservient and submissive. Hester's friend, Lady Callandra, is far more quiet, but just as determined, and quietly urges Monk to uncover the real story.

As Monk starts to unravel the truth behind the life and death of Major Grey, he also uncovers the connections that the Major had with the Latterly family, and Monk feels drawn to Hester's sister-in-law, Imogen, who is of the delicate sort that arouses any amount of chivalry in him. But beneath it all lies the truth, and as Monk starts to discover it all, he also becomes aware of something about himself -- that he might be much closer to the Major and his death than anyone could suspect...

Well. Despite the immense tangle of characters, I was able to keep up fairly well with this one, and enjoyed it very much. While there are plenty of suspects in this one, and the secondary plot of Monk discovering who he really is, this one works very well. The story is believable, there's enough of the historical setting to give the tale a good grounding, and plenty of social conscience. In fact, there's a little too much of it; while there's plenty of focus on the dirt and grime and inequality in Victorian London, I found it to be a bit too much -- Perry is clearly channeling Dickens here, and while a little can be effective, too much and the story turns preachy.

Of all of the various characters in the story, the most interesting were of course, Monk, along with Hester Latterly, and Lady Callandra Daviot. While Ms. Perry does have the deplorable habit to make her characters fairly two dimensional, the main strengths of her writing lay in that she can create damn good plots with plenty of twists and turns to them, and make it a real puzzle for the reader to put together. Which is what I really look for in a mystery novel.

All in all, for a first novel in a series, this was more than acceptable, and while some of the characters were fairly one-note, this does get a four star rating. It's better than most historical mysteries, and gave me a good story with plenty of motivation that fit in perfectly with the time and place. While there were some anachronisms to get through, there was enough period detail to make me feel as though I was in the setting, and while most of the suspects were generally nasty, it was still a fairly good read.

Four stars overall, recommended.

The William Monk Series:
The Face of a Stranger -- you are here
A Dangerous Mourning
Defend and Betray
A Sudden, Fearful Death
The Sins of the Wolf
Cain His Brother
Weighed in the Balance
The Silent Cry
A Breach of Promise
The Twisted Root
Slaves of Obsession
Funeral in Blue
Death of a Stranger
The Shifting Tide
Dark Assassin
Execution Dock
Acceptable Loss

The Face of a Stranger

Anne Perry
1990; Ballantine Books, Random House Publishing Group USA
ISBN 978-0-307-76766-0

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