The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 16, 2012

A Sunless Sea

      The water was loud on the shingle as the wash of a boat reached the shore on the low tide. A string of barges passed in midstream, laden with coal, timber and bales stacked high. The men guiding them balanced with a rough, powerful grace, wielding their long poles. The wind was rising and smelled of salt and rain. Gulls screamed overhead, a long, mournful cry.
      Hester felt she had exhausted the subject of Zenia Gadney. She wondered if there was any point in trying to find out more of Dr. Lambourn's search for information about opium. Probably not. The light was fading and it was getting colder as the tide turned. It was time to go home where it was warm, not just away from the wind off the water, but away from the impressions of death, from rage and despair, and the hunger that in the end had destroyed everything that was precious for these people.
      She would make Scuff something he really liked for supper, and listen to him laugh about something trivial, say good night to him when he was scrubbed and clean, smelling of soap and ready for bed.
      Later she would lie with Monk, and thank God for all the things that were good in her world.

Sometimes a book surprises and delights you, and sometimes you know what to expect, and that's enough. And sometimes (maybe this is best of all?) you find a little of both.

Anne Perry is one of my favorite mystery writers.  I started by reading (and sometimes listening to) the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels, and later the William and Hester Monk series (A Sunless Sea is the new one, just out).   They're both set in Victorian London, both so well written, both with interesting 'supporting' characters (Lady Vespasia, Sir Oliver Rathbone) both focusing on an unconventional detective and a strong marriage.  I guess I would say that for me they fall on the 'expected, but that's OK' side of the fence -- very even, always good, always atmospheric and intelligent, always a book to just sink into. {Speaking of atmospheric and intelligent, and being good to sink into, even if you're walking around, the book on my Ipod right now is A Presumption of Death, one of Jill Paton Walsh's three (?) continuations of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.  Also excellent.}

In A Sunless Sea, Monk and his sergeant are rowing on the Thames {he is the Commander of London's River Police}when they hear a distraught woman screaming on one of London's wooden piers. When they investigate, they find the body of a middle-aged woman, dead, and brutally mutilated.  They discover that she is Zenia Gadney, a quiet, reclusive woman who seems to earn her living as a prostitute, but one who has only one customer, a respected doctor who has been supporting her for 15 years.  The case becomes complicated when they discover that Dr Lambourn committed suicide two months earlier, taking opium and then sitting down against a tree in a London park and slitting his wrists.  Opium becomes important because it is widely available as pain-killing, put into patent medicines and sold in shops in 'penny twists,' and the research that Dr. Lambourn has done in an effort to have it regulated has been discredited. But his wife, Dinah, believes that he was murdered. 

Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Rathbone, the eminent barrister who is a friend of Monk's and in longtime love with Hester, has separated from his wife, who holds him responsible for the death in prison of her father, convicted  (in the last book) of supporting unspeakable crimes against young children. That case has another, more terrible hold over Rathbone. When Monk reluctantly makes an arrest in  Zenia's murder, and the two deaths are connected, Sir Oliver agrees to defend the suspect. Hester and Monk's longtime friend and rival Superintendent Runcorn also agrees to help with her defense.

The availability of opium, and the hold that it has on the people who use it, even as medicine, are central to the case. That part of the story was very compelling. Still,  It was a little disappointing to realize that I knew who had committed the murders -- that it even seemed obvious. {I'm usually not very good at sussing that out!}

And maybe they've always been there, and I hadn't noticed, but there are a lot of details about Monk's lean face, and graceful walk, and strong shoulders, and well-fitted clothes, and his eyes, and his voice ... the man is sexy!

{The painting -- perfect! -- is 'Reflections on the Thames, Westminster,' by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880), found here.}

1 comment:

lyn said...

Love the grimshaw picture, he's one of my favourite Victorian artists. No one could paint moonlight like him. I'm afraid I stopped reading AP some years ago. I loved the Monk series but too many of the crimes were based on horrible crimes against children & I just didn't want to read about it anymore, even though I was desperate to keep up with the Monk-Hester-Rathbone relationship.

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