12 Feb 2018 No Comments
All novels deal with contemporary issues, even the historical novels. The costumes change, the manners and mores are archaic, sometimes unfathomable, but the emotions are universal, and the important stuff — to hit the reader effectively — has parallel something familiar to us.
In “An Echo of Murder,” Anne Perry’s 23rd novel featuring, London police detective William Monk, that role is filled by fears of Muslim immigration and a nation’s forgotten obligation to its damaged war veterans. On that score Perry batted .500.
The body of a Hungarian immigrant is found in his factory office. He had been stabbed with a bayonet and his body brutalized after death. As an added, fearful touch, 17 bloody candles had been lit around the corpse. Obviously a ritualized murder, but what did it all mean?
Monk is the investigating detective, but the case also draws in his wife, Hester. She has been supplying medicine and other necessary goods to a poor doctor working in the immigrant neighborhood, while he teaches Scruff, a foundling Hester rescued years before. Her past also haunts her as well as a Crimean War doctor believed dead turns up very much alive. Fitzwilliam had worked with Hester under terrible conditions, and had unwittingly been left for dead by her on the battlefield.
These subplots keep the story from sinking into the Thames marshes. Hester is moved by the reappearance of Fitz to attempt a reconciliation with her brother. She had abandoned the family to nurse in the Crimea, and while she was away, they fell apart in a fashion familiar to readers of Dickens: her father swindled and a suicide, her mother dying from despair, and her brother blaming her for not being around to help. Then there’s Scuff’s apprenticeship to be a surgeon; Perry’s descriptions of an amputation and subsequent treatment will require a moderately strong stomach. Most of us are not tough enough to match the Victorians in handling the constant blood and filth.
It’s a complicated backstory, and Perry shifts among them gracefully. After 40-plus books, her mastery of the Victorian period is so accomplished that the reader can read a page and be transported into a world where human contact was everything and survival a battle against everything, including the elements.
All of this distracts from Monk’s case, thank God, because the best use for his brain would be as a paperweight. Most of his time is spent running around asking questions and getting nowhere fast. Other people are calming the community and digging up motives and the means to find them. His ineptitude runs the length of the book, so much that when Hester thanks him at the end for ferreting out the solution, it’s hard for the reader not to ask, “For what?”
So “Echo” falls down in the murder story and also in Perry’s feel-good approach to unrestricted immigration, as if problems can be solved with a “Coexist” sticker and a chorus of “kumbaya” around the camp fire. Yes, the Hungarians act from the English. They brought with them an odd language, Roman Catholicism, and paprika. But they also do not practice female genital mutilation, advocate jihad against unbelievers, molest children and young women, demand that Sharia law be imposed, and join the Labour Party and preach anti-Semitism. Oh, and call everyone racists for bringing any of this up, even for discussion.
Recently, a teacher of college-level creative writing lamented, as she put it, “students who write to teach other people a lesson.” Anne Perry demonstrates why.