My latest batch of mystery books, by Anne Perry, leave me a little puzzled. I’ve written before about her books (liked the Pitt — Cater Street Hangman — but not the Monk) but I may be changing my mind. To the extent that I may not be able to finish the latter one.
The Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) are a husband and wife team in the Victorian era. He is a police inspector, she “merely” his wife. Perry does a fairly good job of evoking the sense of the period, I suppose. But I’m starting to wonder about a couple of things.
For one thing, her books don’t “feel” like the books and stories I’ve read that actually were written during the Victorian era. There’s a lot more societal detail, and she lays on the atmosphere with a trowel, something the real Victorian authors never did. I suppose a partial explanation for this is that she’s “overcompensating,” she’s trying to emphasize the time period when the story takes place, and cannot (or does not) expect her readership to be aware of what the Victorian detective story actually reads like. So she overemphasizes the feel of the epoch, to be sure we “get it.”
This in itself isn’t disturbing, but there’s an undercurrent I’ve started to notice that is. I’m not at all sure of this, but I’m beginning to feel Ms Perry herself doesn’t really like this period. It started gnawing at the back of my mind during the Monk novel, and now that I’ve done three of her novels (and am working on a fourth) the idea is growing more steady on its legs.
She’s doing a very good job of making me feel oppressed while I’m reading, and I now believe that’s not just an unintentional byproduct of the times. She seems to never miss an excuse to tell me how badly society treated people, especially, but not limited to, women.
As she continues to emphasize the bad, the oppressive, characteristics of the era, I can’t help but wonder why she bothers to write in it. She can’t possibly hope to effect a change, as is the usual reason for a writer to hold up society’s foibles to the light. After all, the time period is dead and buried. And the elements she so subtly (and, too often, not so subtly) decries mainly aren’t present at all, and at the least not prsent to any large extent, in today’s attitudes. So one is left with the choice that she is choosing to spend her time crying “never again.”
This is hardly an occupation worthy of a writer of more than mediocre gifts; the chant, even if deemed necessary, grows tedious. And we are never treated to detailed looks at anything the people of the time were getting right. I can’t help but wonder: if she disapproves so wholeheartedly and unreservedly of that society, why does she choose to spend so much time in it? And if I’m wrong, and there are facets of that period she loves and enjoys, why does she try so hard to hide them from her readers? (She never seems to flinch from the “look how horrid this is” approach, but never says “look how lovely this is” with the same enthusiasm.)
I suspect I’m not all that different from the average reader, in that I read for two reasons: I read for information, and I read to escape, if for only a moment, my drab, wretched life. If you’re like me, I can only recommend one trip to Ms Perry’s world. I doubt it will matter which book you sample, they all seem capably done (though stay away from the Monk series if, like me, you get annoyed when an author preaches at you). After one book, the constant recapitulation of the evils of that time will wear on you. To paraphrase, her books make a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone live there.