Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about Victorian London as a setting and context for a murder mystery. The atmosphere, the physical setting, and so on, have been popular with crime writers for generations. It’s little wonder, then, that Anne Perry chose that setting for her William Monk mysteries. Let’s take a closer look at that series and turn the spotlight on The Face of a Stranger, the first of the Monk mysteries.
Oh, and before I go further, I won’t be discussing Anne Perry’s own history. With your indulgence, I’ll be keeping the focus on the novel itself. Perhaps another time a discussion of authors’ own pasts might be an interesting topic for a blog post, but not this one.
As The Face of a Stranger begins, William Monk wakes up ion a hospital. It’s the early 1850’s so this hospital is not like today’s hospitals, with up-to-date care, antiseptic hygiene, and more. A hospital is a place where even sick people don’t want to go unless there is no choice, because of all of the cross-contamination, contagion, and lack of training.
Monk’s been in a terrible accident, and as a result, has lost his memory. He has no idea who he is, nor (at first) how he was hurt. What he does know is that he wants to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. When he gets a police visitor named Runcorn, he gets the first hint that he, too, is a police officer. And, as the days go by and he’s physically able to return to work, he begins to take up his duties again.
He’s put on a murder case that’s a few months old – the murder of a ‘blueblood’ called Joscelin Grey, who was bludgeoned to death in his own home. There’ve been few clues, and the going police theory is that it was a burglary gone wrong. But the family, the public, and the press want the killer brought to justice. After all, if not even a gentleman is safe, then no-one is.
Monk and his assistant, John Evan, get to work on the case. That means investigating the victim’s relationships, business dealings, and more. And it’s not long before Monk and Evan run into all sorts of obstacles. For one thing, the Grey family is of extremely high social standing. So, investigating any of them will be fraught with difficulty. Certainly, it would be as much as Monk’s career is worth to suggest that any of them might be involved.
There are other possibilities, though, and the two detectives look into them as well. It turns out that Grey seemed to have more money than his allowance from the family estate would suggest. What’s more, he’d been involved in some business dealings that had turned out disastrously. So, it could be that he’d borrowed money from some dangerous people and then couldn’t repay. Monk and Evans turn up some other leads, too.
In the meantime, Monk is trying desperately to remember anything he can about his own past, his involvement in this case before the accident, and his relationships with others. He does his best to keep others from knowing how little he remembers, but it’s getting more and more difficult. In time, though, and despite the frightening loss of memory, Monk and Evans get to the truth about Grey’s murder.
This novel takes place during the Crimean War (which, by the way, plays a role in the solution to the mystery). The Victorian Era is firmly in place, with its social conventions, rigid class barriers, and equally rigid gender roles. Monk and Evans visit some of the highest social circles (where they are treated as little better than tradespeople), and some very dangerous slums, where revealing themselves as police will mean being murdered instantly. Customs, language patterns, and more reflect Victorian London. So do place descriptions.
In several ways, this is a police procedural, although of course without today’s technology. So, readers follow along as Monk and Evans talk to witnesses, find and learn of clues, and so on. And we get to see how the police did their work in the days before there were telephones, let alone other modern communications. But, like today’s police, they face a great deal of pressure from the public and the press, who want proof that the police are doing their jobs.
Another element in the novel is Monk’s character. The story is told mostly from his point of view (third person, past tense). So, readers get a sense of what it’s like to have absolutely no memory of who one is, or even what one looks like. Monk wants desperately not to let anyone else know that he remembers nothing, and that, plus the amnesia itself, adds to the suspense of the story. In more than one place, he muses about the sort of person he must be, and he doesn’t like what he thinks he is.
The solution to the mystery – who killed Joscelin Grey and why – is sad, and knowing the truth doesn’t really make anyone happy. And this isn’t a case of a purely ‘bad’ person who committed a murder from what you might call an evil motive. It’s a more complex solution than that. Readers who are comfortable with moral ambiguity will appreciate that.
The Face of a Stranger is the story of the murder of a Victorian gentleman, and the context in which he lived. It’s distinctly set in London, and features a detective who’s trying to solve the mystery of his own identity even as he’s trying to solve a murder. But what’s your view? Have you read The Face of a Stranger? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 23 April/ Tuesday, 24 April – The Rules of Backyard Cricket – Jock Serong
Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf – Zoë Ferraris
Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith