Wednesday, May 22, 2013

MIDNIGHT AT MARBLE ARCH by Anne Perry

Some 20 years ago a friend lent me a stack of Anne Perry novels--all in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, as I recall--which I eagerly devoured.

At the time I had no idea that Perry at age 15 conspired with a friend to murder the friend's mother, or that she at age 30 became a Mormon because of her commitment to morality. Until today I didn't know that since 1979 she has published more than 60 novels and novellas--almost two a year. No wonder, as her biographer points out, Perry's books deal with the themes of "miscarriages of justice, family secrets exposed, punishment, redemption and forgiveness."

Her newest book, Midnight at Marble Arch (number 28 in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series), is especially strong in the first two themes. The year is 1896. Thomas Pitt is now in charge of Special Branch, similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. No longer a policeman, he does not normally get involved in assault cases, even when he learns that a prominent businessman's wife has died after being brutally raped.

But when it appears that the 16-year-old daughter of the Portuguese ambassador has been raped by a sociopathic but exceedingly rich young man, Pitt decides to act. His reason may be to satisfy his wife's sense of justice, but his excuse is that Britain's international relations will be endangered if foreign diplomats fear to bring their families to London--and whoever the rapist is, he is likely to strike again.

Meanwhile, the widowed businessman has asked Pitt's former superior, Lord Victor Narraway, to help him find the man who raped his wife. Narraway eagerly takes the case, partly to make himself feel useful in retirement, and partly because he is very fond of Charlotte Pitt's formidable great-aunt-by-marriage, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould.

And then a couple more women are raped, and Pitt and Narraway find themselves working together once again.

Perry adeptly portrays late 19th-century society with its fancy dress, incessant parties, and suffocating superficiality. She chillingly shows how most Victorians regarded rape, how it ruined women, and why it was rarely prosecuted. Somehow, however, the four sleuths at the center of the story--Thomas and Charlotte, Narramore and Vespasia--have escaped the attitudes of most of their contemporaries, which somewhat strains the story's credibility. But as long as you can handle 21st-century consciences in a few 19th-century people, you will likely enjoy this addition to the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt collection.

In fact, I think Midnight at Marble Arch might make a good movie.

Perry's plotting is full of surprises, and yet not too complex to follow easily. In a film, action and conversation would replace the book's incessant and sometimes tiresome inner questioning ("How many men feared for their sons?... What would Pitt do if Daniel ... should be wrongly accused of such a violent and repulsive crime?... How would Pitt know what Daniel thought of women who perhaps teased him, provoked him, with little or no idea of what tigers they were awakening?... How would he prevent Daniel from becoming a young man who treated women as something he had the right to use, to hurt, even to destroy? Where did such beliefs begin?... How would he ever make certain his son could lose an competition with the same grace as when he won?... Would it be Pitt's fault if Daniel grew up arrogant, brutal?"--and all of these questions come from just one page). With its faster pace and--minus the internal monologues--reduced opportunity for anachronism, the film might be even better than the book.

I haven't figured out who should play three of the four good guys, but Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, with her elegance, steel-trap mind, and late-life sexual allure, is Helen Mirren.

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