July 25, 2017
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Murder on the Serpentine

By: Berniece Owen
June 16, 2017
A Book Review

Anne Perry wrote the first novel about police inspector Thomas Pitt in 1979.  His wife-to-be, Charlotte, was part of a well-to-do family from the upper level of London society during the later years of the Victorian era (1880-1910.)  Thomas was not, but they shared a capacity for solving puzzles and a deeply felt sense of morality which leads them to pursue the truth of criminal acts no matter who the perpetrators are and no matter how unlikely the crimes may be. 

Now 38 years later, in her 33rd Pitt novel, Perry continues her expert examination of the historical setting in which the story takes place.  Thomas and Charlotte have been married for many years.  They have an 18-year old daughter.  Thomas has risen through the police ranks and has just made the jump to Director of “Special Branch,” which is the unit for investigating foreign tangles.  Charlotte has continued to assist him, especially when it comes to understanding and dealing with the upper levels of society.

In this case Queen Victoria herself directs Thomas to investigate the death of Sir John Halberd who was examining the activities of a friend of the Prince of Wales. Victoria was expecting a report from Sir John when he drowned in an apparent accident in the Serpentine River, which is London’s “other” river.  The connection to the Prince is significant because the Queen wants to assure herself that the Prince will be able to begin his reign without scandal after her death.  Thomas learns early-on that Sir John did not drown accidently.

So begins Thomas’ effort to find out what really happened.  He is handicapped by his lack of instinctive understanding of relationships and communication patterns among society’s higher classes.  And this is where Charlotte’s acquaintance with the upper echelon comes to the fore, in spite of Thomas’ reluctance to tap her resources.

Together they learn that some (perhaps many) of Special Branch successes revolve around who knows who and what secrets they may know about each other – blackmail material. The Prince of Wales is related to many members of the ruling class of Germany, and he has visited Germany several times recently.  Is this significant?  Ominous?  The Prince owns fine race horses. Is he susceptible to manipulation because of this?  South Africa is a wealthy prize, and a Member of Parliament advocates taking it away from the Boer government, but Britain just fought a bloody war with the Boers; is another war imminent?  Did Sir John’s death have anything to do with any war?  How about personal relationships, current and past?

Do Thomas and Charlotte have a moral obligation to reveal secrets for the better good of England?  Do the examples of past Special Branch operations help Thomas decide what is right in the present?  Author Perry pulls the threads together expertly, blending the fictional story with historical facts.  And Queen Victoria gives Thomas a suitable reward for settling the case to her satisfaction.  

Altogether Perry has written over 72 books, including the Pitt series. She maintains a high standard of excellent historical fiction throughout.

Berniece Owen, retired academic librarian.  Rohnert Park.