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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

‘Murder On The Serpentine’ by Anne Perry

Published by Headline,
22 September 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-4722-3405-6 (HB)

The 19th Century is drawing to a close and British people fear that they will soon be facing life with a new monarch as well as dealing with a new century. Queen Victoria is old and frail and it seems inevitable that her long reign will soon be over. Many people doubt the ability of her son to rule wisely. The Prince of Wales is a man who has always been easily led astray by his passions and by his friends, not all of whom are honourable or wise, and there have been many disreputable incidents in the Prince’s past.

Commander Thomas Pitt is now the Head of Special Branch, a role he often finds difficult and distasteful. As a police officer Pitt had learned the skills of detection and witnessed many brutal crimes but to be charged with maintaining the safety of the realm requires a different set of skills and a very different mind-set. Not having been born into the higher ranks of society, Pitt sometimes feels out of his depth when he has to investigate treasonable activities amongst the social elite.

Queen Victoria sends for Pitt and asks him to investigate the death of her friend and advisor Sir John Halberd, who has died recently in what seems to be a tragic accident. Apparently he had taken out a rowing boat on the Serpentine, at night, and was found dead the next morning by a man walking his dog. Halberd had a head injury but the cause of death was by drowning. The official verdict is that he stood up in the boat and then fell, hitting his head and knocking himself unconscious, so that he drowned in the shallow water. The gossip surrounding his death assumes that Halberd must have been at the Serpentine for a clandestine meeting, either with a prostitute or with a married woman, with whom he was having an affair.

Queen Victoria had not been made aware of the salacious gossip but she finds it impossible to believe that Halberd had died in such a foolish accident. She informs Pitt that she had asked Halberd to find out some information for her about the Prince of Wales’ friends, specifically about Alan Kendrick, a man that she distrusts. The Queen is weighed down by the fear that Halberd discovered something discreditable about Kendrick that could bring the Prince into disrepute and that he had been silenced before he could report back to her. She charges Pitt with the double task of following up Halberd’s investigation into Kendrick and discovering the truth about Halberd’s death.

For Pitt this is one of the most daunting assignments he has ever undertaken. He has to ask searching questions of people who regard him with contempt and he is painfully aware that he could offend the Prince of Wales, who will soon become King and who could destroy Pitt’s career, his family’s livelihood and his children’s futures. Pitt’s mentor, Lord Narraway is travelling abroad and cannot be consulted. He feels unable to confide in his wife, Charlotte, both because this is a matter of state and because he fears for her safety. The only power Pitt has is the Queen’s command and the notes left to him by Narraway – notes that list many influential people’s weaknesses and guilty secrets – information that Pitt hopes he never has to use.

Charlotte Pitt is feeling left out and rather useless. When Pitt was a policeman he could confide in her and often she could help him with his cases, taking advantage of the access to Society that her birth and upbringing gave her. Although Pitt does not wish to tell her about his new task, Charlotte soon realises how vital this case is to Pitt, and that his career and the future security of their family depend on his success. She determines to help him and enlists the aid of her sister, Emily, to help her to return to the social gatherings she has drifted away from. With Charlotte’s assistance, Pitt discovers that there is indeed a dark secret behind Halberd’s death and it is one which endangers the safety of the Empire and the integrity of the monarchy.

Murder on the Serpentine is the 24th novel featuring Thomas Pitt but it works well as a stand-alone novel, as well as being a pleasure for readers who have been following Pitt’s career since he was a young police inspector. Anne Perry writes with great authority and is skilled at weaving in the back-story behind the series and also describing just the right amount of the historical background. Murder on the Serpentine is a cleverly plotted novel with engaging protagonists. The fiction is cleverly interwoven with its authentic historical background and events. An excellent read and one which I recommend.
Reviewer: Carol Westron

Anne Perry was born in Blackheath, England on 28 October 1938 as Juliet Marion Hulme. She is an English author of historical detective fiction, best known for her Thomas Pitt and William Monk series. Her publishing career began with The Cater Street Hangman. Published in 1979, this was the first book in the series to feature the Victorian policeman Thomas Pitt and his well-born wife Charlotte. It was filmed and broadcast on ITV featuring a young Keely Hawes. Anne started a second series of detective novels with The Face of a Stranger. These are set about 35 years before and feature the private detective William Monk and volatile nurse Hester Latterly. Anne won an Edgar award in 2000 with her short story Heroes. The main character in the story features in an ambitious five-book series set during the First World War. The last of these was recently published, in Autumn 2007. Anne’s most recent stand-alone is The Sheen on the Silk, set in the exotic and dangerous world of the Byzantine Empire, and is a critical success.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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