Friday, July 22, 2011

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry, 1990

He realized with a shock he did not know how old he was. He still had not looked at himself in the glass. Why not? Was he afraid of it? What did it matter how a man looked? And yet he was trembling.

He swallowed hard and picked up the oil lamp from the desk. He walked slowly into te bedroom and put the lamp on the dresser. There must be a glass here, at least big enough to shave himself.

It was on a swivel; that was why he had not noticed it before, his eye had been on the silver brush. He set the lamp down and slowly tipped the glass.

The face he saw was dark and very strong, broad, slightly aquiline nose, wide mouth, rather thin upper lip, lower lip fuller, with an old scar just below it, eyes intense luminous gray in the flickering light. It was a powerful face, but not an easy one. If there was humor it would be harsh, of wit rather than laughter. He could have been anything between thirty-five and forty-five.

He picked up the lamp and walked back to the main room, finding the way blindly, his inner eye still seeing the face that had stared back at him from the dim glass. It was not that it displeased him especially, but it was the face of a stranger, and not one easy to know.
--- (pages 16-17)

I am an avowed Anglophile. I especially love the Victorian period, with its carriages, hoopskirts gasogene lamps and social regimentation. There's just something appealing about the period, and something that seems to breed good stories.

The fact that The Face of a Stranger is set in richly detailed Victorian England was one of the main reasons I was interested in it in the first place, and Anne Perry doesn't disappoint in her depiction. She has the Diana Gabaldon-esque gift that gives her descriptions that sense of tactile sensation. She manages to both communicate information about period technology, dress and behavior to the modern reader, while also keeping her characters matter-of-fact about it.

Overall, it's an enjoyable murder mystery, too. Face is the first installment in a series revolving around amnesiac William Monk and his adventures as a police detective in London (yes, I know, I read a lot of series fiction). Perry is the reigning queen of the historical mystery genre and has quite an impressive number of ardent fans. She was also famously tried and convicted of manslaughter as a teenager, a fact that I find utterly fascinating considering the fact that she now writes about murders for a living.

When William Monk wakes up in a London hospital after a carriage crash, he is a blank slate. Like a nineteenth-century Jason Bourne, he has no memory of his former life and no identity, except from what he can glean for the reactions of others.

Concealing his condition from everyone, he resumes work as a detective (even though he doesn't remember any of his old contacts or skills) and is assigned to the well-publicized murder of a well-to-do Crimean War hero who was beaten to death in his lodgings. Monk attempts to track down the killer, while also trying to put together the pieces of his past. Since this is a mystery novel, we know from the start that the two investigations will intertwine, and sure enough, they do.

Perry is a pretty good writer, a tendency towards overwrought emotional description aside, but she does make some notable mistakes from the get-go. For instance, the amnesiac angle is really not that compelling, especially at the beginning of the novel. Monk's decision to tell no one the truth feels like a plot device and not a very skillfully deployed one at that. Furthermore, introducing a main character with no real characteristics except his lack of characteristics is not a great way to kick off a multi-book series.

Admittedly, the memory-loss story does enable a great twist near the end of the novel, and it becomes a more intriguing element as it goes on; it just seems like an odd device to base your main character around. Crimean War nurse Hester Latterly, who has several chapters to herself, seems like a more charismatic and interesting character than Monk. She seems like a more logical choice for a protagonist, but I digress.

The main question of who killed Joscelin Grey is nicely dealt with, with Perry employing a classic whodunit structure with lots of clues and misdirection. The pace is not exactly fast, but the upper-class comedy-of-manners segments are surprisingly effective. Monk's forays into the lower classes of society are a little less impressive, marked as they are with pages of galumphing Cockney slang. There's no innovative reivention of the detective-fiction wheel here, but Perry navigates the conventions of the genre with relative ease.

I also enjoyed Perry's use of an important, but little-known, historical event (the Crimean War) to support the plot. Historical information is unobtrusively laced throughout the narrative, adding extra emotional depth to a story that lacks it.

Did I like Face enough to continue on with the series? While I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to find out what happens next to William Monk, I definitely enjoyed the book enough to try the next one (the fact that I own the next two novels in the series doesnt hurt either). Perry definitely writes a good mystery with an arresting setting and a satisfying resolution. What she needs to work on is her protagonist, who needs to grow into something more than just a blank slate.

NEXT UP: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin.

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