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August 22, 2011

Acceptable Loss

      Quietly, with simple words, Oliver told him all he knew, including his conversation with Hester that morning. His quarrel with Margaret was still too painful, and he brushed over it, more by implication than detail.
      'I see,' Henry said at last. 'I'm afraid you are in for a great deal of distress. I wish I could remove it for you, but I can't. There is no honorable way except forward, and eventually anything else would hurt even more. I'm sorry.' The pain in his face, the sharp note of helplessness in his voice, made further expression redundant.
      It was growing late, and outside the light was failing. At this time of the year, sunset came early, and the long twilight slowly drained the color from the land. The wind was gusty and warm, sending the yellow leaves flying.
    Henry stood up. 'Let's walk a little,' he suggested. 'There are still some good apples left on the trees. I really should have picked them by now.'
     Oliver followed him, and they went out of the French doors onto the grass and down the garden. The hedge was full of bright berries, scarlet hips from the dog roses, darker bloodred haws from the may blossom. There was a rich, sweet smell of rotting leaves and damp earth, and the sharper tingling aroma of wood smoke. A few purple asters were in bloom, shaggy and vivid, and the tawny bronze and gold chrysanthemums.
      Beyond the poplars and in the distance, a cloud of starlings swirled up into the darkening sky, making for home.
      The scene was all so familiar, so deep in his heart and mind, that it was woven through every memory and dream he could imagine. It would be absurd -- embarrassing, even -- to say so, but his love for his father was so intense he could not bear to think of life without his friendship. Would he place his father's safety, his happiness, before Margaret's? He did not really have to ask himself; he knew the answer before the question formed. Yes, he would. To betray him would be unbearable.
      But at the same moment he also knew that Henry Rathbone would never do the things that Arthur Ballinger had.  He made mistakes, had flaws in his character; of course he did, everyone did. Oliver did not wish to think of them, but he knew they were there. He could have named them, if forced to.
      But he also knew that Henry would never have asked someone  else to pay the price, or take the blame for him.
      Perhaps Margaret believed the same of Ballinger? Were her memories just as deep, as woven into her own life, her beliefs? Was he being unfair to her?
      But his withdrawal from her had nothing to do with ambition, or even with love. It had to do with Rathbone's own identity.  She was asking him to destroy himself, but if he did that, there would be nothing left for either of them. What she was asking of him was not a case of personal sacrifice; that might have been a more difficult decision. It was an issue of doing something he believed -- no, something he knew -- to be wrong.
      He looked up at the sky as the starlings wheeled back again into the wind, still flying as to some understood pattern, all going home to roost for the night.
      Henry seemed to know that he had reached a conclusion. He did not raise the subject again. They turned and walked together back through the apples trees toward the house.

After a long wait, Anne Perry brought out new Thomas and Charlotte Pitt and William and Hester Monk mysteries this year, and both of them have reminded me how much I enjoy reading her series. In a way, they're very similar:  both set in 19th century London, both involving an unconventional policeman married to (and partnering with) a strong, unconventional woman, and both with the series detectives set against wealthier, more socially-connected characters {Charlotte's family and Monk's friend and opponent, Sir Oliver Rathbone). The William Monk novels are a little darker and seamier, but both series are very well written and compelling.

Acceptable Loss opens with William and Hester caring for Scuff, the 9-year-old 'mudlark' they rescued in the last book. In that book (Execution Dock), the Monks were caught up in a case of child abuse and pornography, blackmail and the prosecution and horrible death of Jericho Phillips, and in this one, Monk, a  commander in the River Police, is called to the Thames when a local constable reports finding the body of Mickey Parfitt, a notorious local criminal who seems to have become Phillips' successor.

On the surface, Parfitt is the 'acceptable loss;' no one is concerned by his death or finding his murderer. But Monk and Hester feel the need to eradicate the child pornography trade, to prove to Scuff that he will be safe, and the case is made more complicated by the lingering accusation, made by a disgraced aristocrat who commits suicide in the last book, that Rathbone's father-in-law, Arthur Ballinger, is the man secretly financing the pornography trade and informing the blackmail.

Anne Perry's characters are all strongly moral, self-doubting, always questioning, and driven to do what's right, and so the acceptable losses -- or the potential for unacceptable ones -- involve loss of safety, family, integrity, professional and social position, loyalty, self-respect, and love.  There is strong suspense {not necessarily who did it, but whether the guilty one will be convicted}, and the resolution comes early enough {with 25 pages or so to go} that you could expect a twist.  And it (or part of it) is a very good one!

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