Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry
Sometimes, it takes a book as good as this to remind you how enjoyable a novel set in Victorian times can be. For my sins as a reviewer, I’ve been reading quite a lot of steampunk lately and, set against Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 2014), the majority of such books are shown to be shallow and rather pedestrian. This has all the best features of proper historical fiction with a little real science thrown in and a lot of genuinely thoughtful detection work in pursuit of a murderer or (if such a thing is possible) someone worse. In terms of quality, this matches my other favourite historical drama from a different medium. Foyle’s War is a television detective series set during World War II with each murder or other crime growing organically out of the culture and events of the time. What makes this series so enjoyable is its willingness to see all the shades of moral gray with a police officer prepared to bend the rules to both catch “criminals” and let them go as circumstances dictate. It’s also fascinating to see television prepared to deal with corruption both in the police force itself, the armed services, and among some of the supposedly higher reaches of society.
This novel sees us in the world of Special Branch with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt joining up with the cast of regulars to keep the British Empire safe. We start off with the body of a young woman discovered in a gravel pit almost on the doorstep of the home of a leading British scientist. This makes it a Special Branch case because anything that may affect a key member of the scientific establishment has to be investigated by those able to “see the big picture”. In this case, the investigation is made difficult because, although a maid has gone missing from the house, the identity of the woman in the pit is not at all clear. Her face has been completely disfigured although her hair is just about the right colour. However, she does have in her possession two objects which apparently link her to the house. The first is a handkerchief which is marked with the same initial letter as the lady of the house. The second is a pocket watch which belongs to the scientist. When he sees it, the scientist asserts that it was stolen from him some weeks earlier in Oxford Street. The theft was not reported to the police and there are some possible lies when he’s asked to account for his movements during the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body.
I’ve seen the basic idea of this plot used before, but this particular application is one of the most extreme examples of the trope. This makes the underlying mystery challenging for the armchair detective to solve and, in a way, it’s also slightly contrived. Indeed, in the real world, I seriously doubt people would actually behave in this way, but I forgive the author because it does make for a rather pleasing problem for the team to solve. I also note a slightly pleasing modern parallel as we approach the end. This juxtaposition between the historical and the modern does point the difference in the way honour worked back in Victorian times. When people felt indebted to each other, they were more prepared to bend or even ignore rules in order to discharge that debt.
Put all this together and you have a good mystery with some impeccable social commentary both on the class system as it then applied and on the role of women. Although one of the elements of romance proves to be a little predictable, there’s a generally plausible feel to the relationships that underpin the working of the plot. The characters generally feel right for the time. For those who enjoy intelligent writing in service to a good plot, Death on Blackheath is excellent value for money.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.