Friday, March 21, 2008

it was a nice night for a decapitation

I read the first two in Anne Perry’s Inspector Pitt mysteries, The Cater Street Hangman and Callander Square, in reverse order. I particularly liked Cater Street Hangman because among all the murder and sleuthing, there was a romantic and affecting love story, between Charlotte Ellison (whose older sister Sarah was murdered) and Thomas Pitt, a clever, awkward lower-class policeman with an inferiority complex—I keep thinking Trevor Eve should play him on TV. Charlotte and Thomas get married and become a sleuthing “team” throughout the rest of the books, including The Hyde Park Headsman, which my mom got for Christmas and passed on to me. I have to confess it was a page-turner, and while I enjoy many of the characters, some of them are sensationalized caricatures, the Victorian chit-chat can be most tedious (the kettle calling the pot black!), the POV was in some sections plain lazy, and the ending was a real disappointment.

A bit in the fashion of Sarah Waters and perhaps our own RTD, Perry loves to draw the homosexual subtext in—both Cater Street and Hyde Park involve such “sordid” liaisons. Interestingly, while Pitt is quite sympathetic to two men lovers and calls them that, “lovers,” his superior calls them sodomites. This linguistic gray area brings to mind some of what Matthew Sweet had to say in Inventing the Victorians. Pitt’s colleague Tellman reminds me of Sergeant Havers in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries: He despised those he considered passengers in society. Privilege stirred in him a raw, bitter anger that stretched far back into his childhood memories of hunger, cold, and endless weariness and anxiety, a father beaten by circumstances till he had no pride left, a mother who worked till she was too tired to talk to her children or laugh with them. Pitt’s superior Farnsworth reminds me a bit of those Stahlmanns of Doctor Who, there just to exacerbate the situation. One has to give Perry credit, however, as she does take us (convincingly, I find) from drawing room to the lives of pimps, prostitutes, and servants. There’s a requisite scene in a madhouse, serving no purpose other than for the reader to think How Bad the Victorians Were.

Charlotte’s sister Emily, who has married well (twice) where Charlotte has not, is often plain annoying but occasionally has bursts of wit and guts, particularly when she bounds into an acquaintance by baldly pretending to confuse a stranger with a well-known friend—the equivalent of: “Oh, hello, Mrs. Waters!” “Sorry, I’m not Mrs. Waters.” “Oh dear. Well, she is shorter and much older than you are . . . It is just that she also has that wonderful coloring.” Gilbert and Sullivan make a brief and rather useless appearance at a memorial service, but like the constant references to Jack the Ripper, they help to date the story.
The crimes themselves bring to mind Tim Burton. Without giving too much away, Perry made something of a mess of it by rushing her ending and making part of the discovery too ridiculous to be believable. Plus, by monkeying with the notion of “serial” killer, the reader feels like she’s had the carpet pulled out from under her. I’m not very good at detecting culprits in these kinds of things, but I still felt the final results coming a bit out of the blue. Entertaining fluff, I find, but not nearly a memorable as the first book in the series. That doesn’t mean I won’t backtrack and read the eleven intervening books.

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