Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries are always a big hit and her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series is probably her most popular and endearing. Seven Dials is, after all, her twenty-third book featuring the Victorian couple and their large cast of family and friends from all levels of Victorian society. That it manages to hold attention and maintain suspense is a tribute to her good writing and clever plotting.
Ostensibly this is the story of a murder in the middle of the night in the garden of a posh London address. An exotic Egyptian woman is found by police standing over the body of a low-level diplomat, her gun nearby and his corpse deposited in a wheel barrow. She is reputed to be the mistress of very high level cabinet minister who happens also to be in the garden when the police arrive. In reality things are much more complicated. By the time events unfold and secrets are revealed the fate of the British Empire hangs in the balance and many other lives are thrown into danger and disarray.
What makes this and the series and Perry’s work in general most interesting is her take on Victorian society. Thomas Pitt is low-born but in a profession (the police are seen as necessary but not far beyond that). His kick upstairs to Special Branch (read CIA or M5) gives him more cachet but not much more societal rank. His wife Charlotte married down. Her sister and brother-in-law are in society and her aunt-by-marriage is aristocracy. Throw in a few lowlifes and the earnest maids, butlers, valets and you have a good cross-section of Victorian England.
It’s fascinating to learn the rules of how to dress, talk, speak to subordinates, act morally (or not) and keep your place in this hierarchical drama. Perry’s writing is keen in this regard. While developing an intricate plot that involves the above cast of characters she shows us how and why they behave as they do. She is also critical of this era and walks a wonderfully careful line between explaining behavior and condoning it. It could be tedious to read Victorian mores, hypocrisies and injustices from a 21st century viewpoint were she not able to convince us that there are good and bad people in every era.
The plot itself is extraordinarily complex. The murder in the garden is yellow-journalism sexy, a police procedural slam-dunk, and only the tip of the iceberg of the intrigue that involves international relations, the Egyptian cotton trade, colonialism’s worst aspects and several more deaths. Watching it all play out takes time: this is not rapid fire stuff. But the more we learn about the characters and subplots and the background and the subtleties of life in another era, the more we’re drawn into the story, the mystery and the suspense that really never lets up until the final paragraphs.
Anne Perry tells a good tale with style, elegance, and a real desire to let us into another world. She makes it believable and entertaining and that is no mean feat.
Perry, Anne. Seven dials. New York : Ballantine Books, 2003.