Half Moon Street: A Charlotte & Thomas Pitt Novel
Superintendent Thomas Pitt cannot immediately ascertain exactly what segment of society the dead man riding the morning tide of the Thames came from, but the sight of him is unforgettable. He lies in a battered punt drifting through the morning mist, his arms and legs chained to the boat’s sides. He is clad in a torn green gown and flowers bestrew his battered body.
Is he, as Pitt fears, a French diplomat who has gone missing? Or merely someone who greatly resembles him? Pitt’s determined search for answers leads him deep into London’s bohemia to the theatre where beautiful Cecily Antrim is outraging society with her bold portrayal of a modern woman—and into studios where masters of light and shadow are experimenting with the fascinating new art of photography.
But only Pitt’s most relentless pursuit enables him to identify the wildfire passions raging through this tragedy of good and evil, to hunt down the guilty and protect the innocent.
Once again, Anne Perry asks us to look deeply into the crimes of heart—and rewards us a fresh and brilliant portrait of the engrossing world that she has long since made her own.
Secrets and lies, calumnies and evasions: in Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries, these elements, rather than a hat or gloves, a bustle or a watch fob, are the usual accoutrements of refined ladies and gentlemen. Half Moon Street marks the return of Inspector Thomas Pitt (20 novels now, beginning with The Cater Street Hangman and still going strong) to the cobblestoned streets and elegant drawing rooms of 19th-century London.
The inhabitants of those drawing rooms aren’t usually thrilled to see him, because he always comes bearing bad news. This time, a body has turned up in a boat on the Thames: Delbert Cathcart, a talented portrait photographer with a taste for blackmail. Clad in a velvet dress, wrists manacled, legs spread grotesquely, skull crushed, Cathcart reminds Pitt of a perverse echo of the Lady of Shalott, or perhaps a debased Ophelia. Which of Cathcart’s clients could have been pushed so far as to retaliate in such hideous fashion?
Pitt’s official investigation is usually combined with another more idiosyncratic approach to the crime; this secondary analysis gives Perry free rein to dissect the manners and morals of Victorian society. In Half Moon Street, the genteel inquisition falls to Caroline Fielding, Charlotte’s mother (Charlotte, who must need a bit of rest after so many outings, has been packed off to Paris for a vacation; her presence in the book is restricted to letters marveling, rather tediously, at the scandalous iniquities of the Moulin Rouge dance hall). Perry’s readers will no doubt remember that Caroline scandalized society by marrying a much younger actor, Joshua. Half Moon Street introduces Caroline to his theatrical world, and to Cecily Antrim, a beautiful actress with liberal politics. Cecily poses both a personal and philosophical threat to Caroline, who is disturbed by her willingness to expose the realities of female sexuality on stage: “Should such things be said? Was there something indecent in the exposure of feelings so intimate? To know it herself was one thing, to realize that others also knew was quite different. It was being publicly naked rather than privately.” This fear of exposure resonates through the worlds of theatrical and photographic art, as actors, diplomats, and genteel citizens race to hide their secrets from Pitt and Caroline.
While Perry evokes the London atmosphere with her usual skill, her narrative lacks its usual finesse. Rather than balancing Pitt’s and Caroline’s investigation, the novel lurches between them so that it seems all too often that Perry, in pursuit of one story, has forgotten the other. Additionally, Caroline’s reaction to feminist politics and sexuality is inexplicably repetitive; her turgid expressions of horror seem the result of an overly eager copy-and-paste procedure. One hopes that this is a momentary lapse in an otherwise solid series. —Kelly Flynn
Barnes and Noble
I was going to start this off by saying that either Anne Perry is getting faster or I’m getting slower. I believe this is the third Perry I’ve reviewed in the past year or so. I can’t keep up. Not that I’m complaining—she’s one of my favorite mystery writers. With the emphasis on mystery.
In Half Moon Street, Perry proves once again that she’s able to bridge past and present in mystery fiction techniques. Set in Victorian England, the story begins with Police Superintendent Thomas Pitt finding a murdered man chained to the side of a boat. There are a number of suspects, and each lends something to the plot as well as to the great air of foggy London menace that Perry’s novels thrive on. There are also the usual side trips Perry is famous for. She really does give us wonderful and eccentric looks at life in the Victorian age. This time, she delves more heavily than ever (at least as far as I recall) into the sociology of the time, in particular the society’s attitude toward women.
This is the central setup. Superb as it is, however, it is only half of what Perry gives us. The old-fashioned half. Twenty years ago, mystery writers (and readers) would have been happy with just this half of the book, especially given the dazzling and unexpected ending. But today, we demand more depth from our writers, and Perry is eager to supply it.The dead man is wearing a dress. He is an artistic photographer of great renown. His violent death is rife with sexual implication. These elements allow Perry to look at her story and theme in great depth. She isn’t satisfied with surfaces, and neither is the modern reader of serious mysteries. This is the modern half, the penetrating look at then-prevalent social mores.
And so, in addition to the clothes, the architecture, and the politics of the time, she also gives us the street wisdom, too, if you will. How would Victorian London react to such a strange murder? Would the average man be amused or disgusted by a dead man in a tart’s dress? The Lord in his castle, what would he have to say? The artiste in a dungeonlike pub? As a couple of recent historical books set out to prove, Victorian England was not as inhibited as popular fiction (i.e, Conan Doyle) first led us to believe. Perry takes this into account, as we see when Pitt begins to move through the various levels of his society. There are several excellent cameos in the book.
Perry is at her best with Half Moon Street, a dark, sleek, and twisty read of sly secrets and deadly scandal.