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by Anne Perry
Ballantine Books, October 2002
337 pages
ISBN: 0345440056

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Rarely is the thirteenth volume of an established mystery series awaited with any special anticipation. By this point, most authors seem to have run out of steam, getting lost in soap opera dysfunction or simply winding up their characters to march through a predictable script to an uninteresting resolution.

Anne Perry's latest William and Hester Monk novel, Death of a Stranger, provides a happy exception to the rule. Perry's storytelling is so clear, her setting in Victorian England so vivid, and her characters so engaging that readers new to the series will be able to enjoy the book without any prior knowledge. However, longtime fans of this superb series may pick up the latest volume with a particular thrill, because Death of a Stranger promises to clear up some of the mysteries that have long clouded the elusive hero's past.

Readers first met William Monk in 1990's The Face of a Stranger, when he woke up in a hospital with no recollection of his identity or former life. In the course of that book, Monk discovered that he had been a very capable police inspector (later in the series, he becomes a private investigator), but an isolated, lonely, and unhappy person. Because he had no close family ties or friends, Monk was unable to form a complete picture of his own past. Subsequent volumes have followed Monk's emotional awakening, particularly through his rivalry, love, and eventual marriage to the formidable Hester.

While each Monk/Hester novel has been a well-crafted procedural mystery in its own right, the series has also followed a trail of clues to Monk's identity and past actions. The detective faces a constant dilemma of wanting to know about his history but fearing that he will learn unhappy truths about the person that he once was.

Neither the amnesia nor the gradual recovery seems strictly realistic from a psychological perspective, but Perry is not really a psychological novelist. Unlike, say, Ruth Rendell, Perry is not particularly interested in the inner workings of the human mind or the root causes of her villains' behavior. Her concerns are primarily moral: hypocrisy, sin and redemption, and the healing power of love. However, she writes about her characters with such compassion that the reader never feels preached at or bullied into accepting the author's point of view. Perry is the rare author who can write moral fiction without moralizing.

In Death of a Stranger, Monk must finally confront the deepest mysteries of his past head-on. A young woman hires him to discover whether her fianc», a prominent railway executive, is involved in a potentially dangerous fraud. Monk is jolted to discover documents indicating that he was himself formerly involved in some potentially shady deals. In order to learn the truth, he must investigate his own past and the fate of his beloved benefactor. The ghostly memory of this man has haunted Monk for years, even while the details of his ruin and death have remained hidden by amnesia.

Meanwhile, Hester, a former military nurse in the Crimean War, is now working in a hospital for sick and injured prostitutes. When a prominent citizen is killed in a London brothel, the police investigation disrupts the livelihood and well-being of the women who are forced to earn their living in the streets. Although the idealist in Hester despises prostitution, the realist knows that solving the murder will work to the immediate welfare of her patients. She launches an investigation of her own, which soon appears to be related to Monk's.

As the twin plots unfold, Perry once again displays her ability to move a complex story along at an engaging pace. Unlike the many historical novelists who dump in long chunks of information in order to prove that they did their research, Perry incorporates her wealth of knowledge seamlessly. The financial state of the nineteenth century railroad industry and the economic arrangements of London brothels are critical to the plot, but the book never slows down to lecture the reader.

Many of Perry's regular characters appear in the book, although the irrepressible lady Callandra Daviot is regrettably absent. I do wonder if it might be time to retire the dashing barrister Oliver Rathbone, once a rival for Hester's hand and usually a handy assistant in legal matters. In Death, Rathbone participates in an unlikely charade, apparently with the sole purpose of giving his character something to do. In a lengthy trial scene late in the book, Rathbone reminds us less of the great Victorian barristers that he is supposed to represent than of a TV lawyer like Ben Matlock. Perry has written some terrific courtroom scenes for Rathbone over the years, but in this case the trial seems to exist only so that Monk can learn key information in time for the final chase scene. The one hopeful development is that Rathbone seems to be getting over his futile crush on Hester in favor of her appealing friend and colleague, Margaret. A character as likable as Rathbone deserves a love life of his own just as much as he deserves some real role to play in the story.

The resolution of the main investigation is not really convincing, because it depends on a lot of people ignoring the social conventions that Perry is always reminding us about. This is only a side issue, though, because the real mystery lies in what we learn about Monk's past. These revelations, while not earth-shattering, should satisfy readers who have been waiting for twelve years to tie up the loose ends. The action culminates in a thrilling scene on a runaway train, during which Monk apparently regains the last of his memory.

The only thing to regret about this fine book is that the ending seems to proide a logical conclusion to the series. Such a development will leave readers with their hands out, like some waif who might haunt Perry's gaslit alleys, asking, "May I please have some more?"

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Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, October 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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