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by Anne Perry
Ballantine, August 2012
384 pages
ISBN: 034551064X

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When Anne Perry is at her historical fiction best--as she is in her latest novel, A SUNLESS SEA--she is able to create a scenario that both intrigues with its mystery and illuminates with its details of actual events. Here, the author gives us another installment in the adventures of William Monk, his wife Hester, and Sir Oliver Rathbone, their barrister friend. Following hard on two previous novels that dealt with the distasteful subject of child abuse and pornography, this book moves away from that topic, although relationships and artifacts from those tales inform the action of this book. A SUNLESS SEA has as its background the widespread and often fatal use of opium as a painkiller in unregulated patent medicines at this time, the middle of the 19th Century. Along the way, we learn about England's involvement in the Opium Wars and its less than stellar actions in China.

As the book opens, Monk, commander of the River Police, answers the distressed cries of a woman on the waterfront as he and a fellow policeman row near shore. She has stumbled across the mutilated body of a woman with the torso gutted and the entrails cut out. When Monk discovers the identity of the victim, Zenia Gadney, he also learns that she was the mistress of a man who had visited her regularly until two months ago. Further investigation turns up the puzzling fact that this man, Joel Lambourne, a well-respected doctor, had committed suicide. His opium-ridden body was found with wrists slit, leaning against a park tree. When Monk visits his widow Dinah, she lies about her whereabouts on the day of Zenia's murder. Eyewitnesses describe a woman who resembled her in the neighborhood at the time, leading Monk to arrest her for the crime.

Lambourne had been researching the unregulated use of opium in many pain-relieving medicines widely available at this time. Children were dying because no one knew what the right dose might be for something as common as a toothache, and no information on how much opium the remedy contained appeared on labels. Despite his care in gathering information, the government had rejected his work and all traces of the report seem to have been destroyed. The police were told that they should not investigate further, as Lambourne clearly committed suicide because of despair at the rejection. Dinah does not believe this and tells Monk that her husband was murdered.

The trial that follows and Monk's concurrent investigation make for a suspenseful and complicated plot. Hester finds a way to aid in the search for the truth, and Rathbone, whose personal life is falling apart, must make a difficult moral decision before the case is over. For old and new fans of this series, Anne Perry will not disappoint this time around.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, October 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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