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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry

Had I just finished reading the last Monk book? I asked myself. There were so many distant loose threads tied up in this novel that this could easily have been the final book in the series. Beware of all the spoilers ahead in this post!

Note: I have been reading Anne Perry novels since 1982 and have been an avid fan ever since. I have read everything she’s published and love her writing. She’s one of the top writers of historical mysteries. I have met her at a number of book signings and events; I have visited with her when I was exploring Scotland for my own family history, which happens to lie in the very area where she lived. My criticism of her novel is to be understood in the light of my very great admiration for her plotting ability, for her character development, for her writing style, and for her ability to transport the reader effortlessly into the past.

Hester and William Monk are at a good place in their lives. Hester’s clinic on Portpool Lane is mentioned, but she doesn’t go there every day anymore; she has enough help that she doesn’t have to. It is managed well, and it is apparently well staffed.

William Monk has a murder case to solve that crosses the lines between his old life in the police, his interim days as a private detective, and his present position as Commander of the River Police. There are four murders in the case, all copied to the last detail. The obvious suspects have alibis for one or another of the crimes and therefore couldn’t have committed them all. Monk has to have help from the regular police, as well as from his adoptive son, his wife, and the poor doctor who is training the Monks’ son to be a doctor.

Speaking of tying up loose threads again, Scuff, whom the Monks took in when he was around 11, is now about 18 or older, starting in his chosen profession learning to be a doctor by helping “Crow,” the poor people’s doctor who has finally received his official qualification. Scuff tells key people that he is to be known formally now as Mr. Will Monk, which makes Hester and William very proud.

Tying up loose ends again, Hester meets a doctor with whom she worked in the Crimea, and he provides the key to the unraveling of the mystery by becoming the chief murder suspect, even being arrested by Monk, although that’s only because the victims’ community resorts to mob violence and is about to kill both the suspect and Monk, except that Monk thinks fast enough and convinces them to let him arrest the man instead. This man, Dr. Herbert Fitzherbert, suffers intensely from PTSD, then an unrecognized condition, but Hester has it to some degree from her experiences in the Crimea, as does Scuff from his experiences having been kidnapped and kept in the hold of the boat of the notorious child molester several books back. So they talk about this issue amongst themselves and in the final trial scene, which creates a sort of anachronism, but handled in a delicate enough way that you can’t really point to it as being out of place, as people could have had such conversations and descriptions of the condition without leading to its public identification.

The problem leads Hester to tying up one final loose end: she seeks out her brother Charles Latterly to apologise for not keeping in touch and not even knowing that his wife had died two years before. She meets his ward, Candace Finbar, whom we know about if we have been diligently reading all the Christmas novelettes, which we have, of course. You remember that in 2015’s A Christmas Escape Charles goes to Italy, and when the volcano on Stromboli erupts, he saves this niece of an old friend, and the old friend, dying, makes him promise to take her in as his ward. Here they are, living in Primrose Hill north of Regent’s Park, and Hester observes that Charles seems very happy with his life now. Candace and Charles are very happy to discuss the murder case with Hester and to provide several suggestions.

Monk does not cover himself with glory in his detective abilities in this case. The answer is actually pretty obvious from pure logical deduction: only one suspect aside from the killer could have known every last detail of the first murder, and as soon as they figure out the first murder was the work of someone who did not commit the rest, they should have been on the right suspect immediately. Yet they stall and stall, looking for motives and connections that they would have been looking for anyway if they had named the killer amongst themselves at once. I couldn’t help but imagine that Peter Wimsey would have taken one look at the evidence and said, as he might have done to Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night, “You aren’t giving it your undivided attention.”

I wasn’t wholly convinced that the trial was conducted particularly brilliantly either. Rathbone goes in declaring that he’s going to make the prosecution prove every step of its case, but then he allows his opposing counsel to commit all kinds of illogical conclusions and claims during the first two days of the trial, and he seems to be caving in to them without a fight! Where did “make them prove each step” go? It’s back only slightly when Monk takes the witness stand and the trial rushes to its conclusion. I couldn’t believe that the testimony described took three days to draw out. There just must be a lot of boring things between these exciting scenes that are not described, nor even mentioned. I liked picturing Hester and Charles and Candace sitting together, even if the author doesn’t explicitly say they do. Of course they would, though! Why would they not?

What wasn’t tied up was Monk’s ties to his former friends and family. His former police partner, John Evan, has been crying out for a mention ever since Monk left the police to go into private detection. I think he did get one mention in one later book, when he was taking care of his elderly father. But isn’t there more to his association with Monk? Did he ever marry? If he did, wouldn’t he have asked Monk, or at least told him? What about Runcorn? Monk has had a few dealings with him, and he does get a mention in this book, but surely there could be a scene. Meanwhile, there’s a very young policeman in this book named Stillman. Why is that ringing a bell for me with an association to the Pitt series? I’m going to have to go hunting to see if I can find a Stillman. Lastly, Monk’s sister, Beth, has never been satisfactorily dealt with. Why doesn’t she visit, or the Monks go visit her ever? Why don’t they even write to one another? Maybe they do, and maybe this is a thread that has to be tied up in another, “last Monk book.”

I see that the next Monk book, Dark Tide Rising, is coming in about six months. I can hope for more loose ends to be tied up and am assured that the Monks are not done yet!

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