432 pages $15.00
First of all, to clarify: There are people who devour mystery novels by the bellyful. Some have read dozens, even hundreds, of mysteries. And judging from the space the genre takes up at my local bookstore, that fan base isn’t shrinking.
I have to admit, I can’t live on a steady diet of mysteries. In summer, whether or not I find myself on a beach, I like to read a few. Then my interest fades and I return to literary fiction, fantasy, and even, increasingly, good nonfiction. So I choose my mysteries carefully.
Anne Perry is an author I can always trust. I’ve read a few featuring her amnesiac PI William Monk, who picks his way through the grimy underworld of Victorian London, barely containing his disgust. In Cain His Brother Monk still faces his own unfamiliar identity while he tracks a missing businessman. The missing man’s wife suspects his vicious criminal twin has offed him.
The story is compelling, and includes a few surprises—Monk is always coming up against his old, forgotten self, which he discovers wasn’t always the nicest guy—but it’s the characters that make the story. We would all love to think of Victorian England as bright and merry, full of genteel ladies, parlors and tea, balls and carriages. But while the rich party on, the poor sink ever further into squalor, battling one horror after another. Monk’s prickly friend, Crimean nurse Hester Latterly, nurses a community through an epidemic of typhoid in this book. It seeps even into the upper crust of society, which is revealed to be just as human as its underbelly.
Perry’s unparalleled descriptions, concrete detail, and mastery of human nature make this a pleasure to read. Was I stunned at the conclusion? Not exactly. But I didn’t mind. I was happy enough just to be borne along into another world and time, while still able to sit in my comfortable home and be grateful for clean-running toilets.
If you're experiencing déjà vu, do not adjust your TV. A version of this post appeared in an another blog in 2008.