by Anne Perry
Published by Fawcett Columbine
416 pages, 1998
Perry’s Special Touch
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Charles Darwin's revolutionary theories on human evolution incited either skepticism or confusion in most folks who first encountered them during the 19th century. But many religious leaders were appalled by Darwin's hypotheses, for they appeared to contradict the Bible's story of creation as well as traditional beliefs that humankind's fate depended on the will of God, not on basic survival skills. In the same manner that clergymen had earlier censured Galileo and Copernicus for insisting that Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice-versa (a suggestion that humans weren't the focus of the universe, after all), they denounced notions that man had descended from inferior species as heretical and unconscionable.
It's at the very center of this debate where Superintendent Thomas Pitt finds himself as he investigates the demise of an emancipated and comely young woman in 1891 London. As in most of British novelist Anne Perry's Pitt stories, this latest case has all the markings of incipient scandal. The late Unity Bellwood was an expert on languages, hired by respected Reverend Ramsay Parmenter to help him translate hoary religious texts. However, this pair were very much at odds when it came to theological issues, Unity being "a great admirer of the work of Mr. Charles Darwin." Arguments between them were frequent and fiery. So when Unity dies in a sudden tumble down the grand staircase at Parmenter's Brunswick Gardens home, her last words being "No, no... Reverend!," suspicion falls inevitably on her employer.
Aware of the political fallout that could ensue, Pitt is reluctant to accuse an Anglican cleric -- especially one like Parmenter, who is on the fast-track to a bishopric -- of murder. Yet what choice has he? Certainly some of the reverend's subsequent actions -- particularly a reported attack on his demure wife Vita -- indicate that he's capable of violence. No halfway decent evidence supports the idea of Unity's accidental death. And, if Parmenter didn't give his assistant the ol' heave-ho (as he claims he did not), then fault must lie with one of two other less likely suspects living under the same roof: the reverend's son, Mallory, a brash young gent who has defied his father's advice by studying to be a Catholic priest; or Dominic Corde, a beguiling curate and quondam wastrel... and Pitt's former brother-in-law, the widower of his wife's sister who had died a decade before (see Perry's first Pitt novel, The Cater Street Hangman). Cuffing any of these men for the crime is guaranteed to reflect poorly on the Parmenters and the Anglican Church, in general.
Pressure on Pitt to clear up this mystery increases after it's learned that Unity was three months pregnant at the time of her misfortune. Could the father really have been the aging reverend, somebody whom Unity, proud of her own brilliance, had dismissed as "too intellectually limited and emotionally crippled to be able to look with honesty at reality"? A more understandable paramour would have been the worldly Dominic. Or perhaps the conniving Unity had deliberately seduced Mallory in order to prove him weak and susceptible to temptations of the flesh, his avowed celibacy notwithstanding. Discovery of apparent love letters exchanged between the deceased and one of these three seems finally to answer the question. But does it? The Church of England, represented by a powerful but oleaginous Bishop Reginald Underhill, hopes so. Underhill would rather see Parmenter bundled off to a madhouse or in some other way silenced than wake up one morning to headlines screaming, "Prospective Bishop Murders His Mistress."
Perry is expert at integrating fictional offenses into factual backgrounds. If not before, she proved that skill with last year's Ashworth Hall, in which Pitt and his congenitally snoopy spouse Charlotte tried to figure out who slew the moderator at a conference called to settle the question of Irish home rule, a problem that had plagued Great Britain since the time of Elizabeth I and came to a head again during the late Victorian era. Both that earlier novel and Brunswick Gardens are filled with lengthy philosophical disputations. Yet the subject of Irish governance remains relevant even today, while religious arguments of the 19th century can set your eyes to rolling backwards in 1998.
Listen, for instance, to Mallory Parmenter (the Catholic) as he frets to Dominic (an Anglican) that they can provide the reverend with little emotional succor:
"What can anyone in his family say to him? He needs spiritual counsel! If he has done something terrible, he must come to some kind of terms with it and then search his soul for repentance. I can't ask him! He's my father!" He looked helpless, but his unhappiness focused on Dominic, so there was nothing Dominic could say that would help.
The barest smattering of such dialogue would have been diverting and perhaps educational. But repeated lapses into religious musings only hobble the momentum of Perry's tale and drain it of suspense.
If there's another weakness in this 18th Pitt adventure, it is that the inspector and Charlotte enjoy less time at centerstage than normal, and some of the usually vivid regulars from this series (notably eccentric Aunt Vespasia and Charlotte's mother, Caroline) are given either cameo roles or (in the case of Charlotte's sister Emily and her politician husband, Jack) are absent entirely. At the same time, Dominic -- whose hesitant searching after religious meaning in life hardly makes great drama -- vies with Pitt for top billing. There's a good deal made of how Charlotte was once infatuated with Dominic and continues to find him appealing, much to Pitt's annoyance. And page upon page is devoted to the inspector's plodding digs into Dominic's often embarrassing past, as he seeks to rule him out as a suspect. It would have been more satisfying had we been offered greater exposure to some of the female characters in this story, particularly the hot-headed Tryphena, Reverend Parmenter's daughter and an aspiring feminist in the pattern of Unity Bellwood herself. Perry's fictional women almost always display more interesting dimensions than her men (the best example being nurse Hester Latterly, co-star of Perry's William Monk detective series), and she cheats us when she doesn't allow them sufficient room to exercise their wits and wiles.
These quibbles aside, Brunswick Gardens still shines with the intelligence, complex plotting, and carefully manicured writing that are hallmarks of Anne Perry's books. It wasn't until the last 50 pages of this one, after a second death in the Parmenter household had supposedly sealed the reverend's guilt, that I realized how seriously Pitt had gone astray from the truth. That the author managed to fool me that long shows that she has by no means lost her touch.
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997).