I have been reading Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries for so long that there is little mystery left to her stories for me. In this latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery, I had surmised by about a hundred pages in who the villain(s) of the piece were going to be. I read the rest of the book in light of my theory, which did, in fact, turn out to be right.
Figuring out the puzzle early on did not necessarily lessen the pleasure of the read. Actually, there is a certain satisfaction in feeling smarter than the "detectives" and I probably smirked all the way through the last third of the book as Pitt finally caught up to me and began to figure things out.
This book features most of the characters readers have come to know so well in the previous 26 books in the series. We have the elegant Aunt Vespasia whose society connections always play a role in the solution of the Pitt mysteries. We have the sister Emily and her husband Jack Radley, now a minor official in the Foreign Office. And we have Victor Narraway, former head of the Special Branch which Pitt now heads. Narraway is an ally and former mentor of Pitt and an admirer of Pitt's wife Charlotte.
The story, briefly, is this. Pitt receives information that anarchists may be planning to assassinate an Austrian duke who is soon to travel to England. He must evaluate the information and formulate plans to ensure that the assassination does not take place. Inexplicably, his superior, Lord Tregarron, does not seem to take the threat to the duke seriously, and Pitt finds he must go around Tregarron and find other resources in the effort to protect the duke. Fortunately, he has Narraway and Vespasia. And Charlotte, of course.
Meanwhile, an old woman lies dying in her house at Dorchester Terrace. Serafina Montserrat was once a formidable force in the revolutions of 1848. She had cast her lot with the Croatians who were attempting to extricate themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her lover, a leader of that struggle, was betrayed by someone close to him and was executed after being tortured by government forces. His execution was witnessed by his eight-year-old daughter Adriana who was subsequently rescued by Serafina and handed over safely to the care of her grandparents. Now, as she is dying, Serafina is terrified that, as her mind wanders, she may reveal secrets which could prove detrimental to relations between England and the Balkan states.
Serafina dies, but her former colleague Vespasia suspects it is not a natural death. An autopsy reveals her suspicions are accurate. The old woman was murdered with an overdose of laudanum. Then a second woman, that same Adriana, now wife of a Foreign Office official and a Croatian immigrant, also dies of a laudanum overdose. Suicide or murder? And do the two deaths have any connection to the supposed plot against the duke? William Pitt must sort it all out and save the day - with a little help from his friends.
I don't really read Perry for plot or for mystery any more. I read her mostly because of long-time familiarity with and affection for her characters and for her descriptions. Her descriptions of the fashionable dress of the day, the interior decorations of the period, and the social mores of the time are worth the price of the books to me. Her books are always well-researched and do an excellent job of making one feel that one is "there," observing the action.
In this entry, one of the characters goes on a long rant about the importance of Austria and the Balkans as the linchpin that holds Europe together. He speaks with remarkable prescience about what will happen if governments fall and Germany and Russia are pulled into the vortex of the resulting conflicts. Of course, Perry is writing these "prescient" words with a hundred years' hindsight of a century of war. It doesn't make them any less chilling or less interesting.