Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Sunless Sea by Anne Perry: A review

I have been a fan of Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries for at least twenty years and I've been reading the William Monk series for almost that long. So, by now, Monk and his wife Hester and their friend, the barrister Oliver Rathbone, as well as the coterie of people around them are well-known to me, old friends I might say. This is the 18th entry in the Monk series and I have faithfully read them all.

Familiarity breeds...familiarity, in this case. I know very well the way Perry's plots work, and before I was halfway through this book, I had solved the mystery of who the murderer was, although I wasn't completely clear on the motive. But I read these books not so much for the mystery anymore, as for the depictions of the social milieu and Perry's exploration of the dark underbelly lying just beneath the surface of the strictly ordered world of Victorian society.

This story takes place in the 1860s and at the heart of it is opium. In the mid-nineteenth century, opium had proved to be a godsend for relief of pain and yet it wielded a two-edged sword. That sword might cut the pain, but at the same time, if the drug was not properly used, it could open a wound of addiction that might never be healed.

The path to addiction has been made easier, by this time, by the invention of the hollow needle attached to a syringe that can deliver the pure opium directly to the bloodstream. Addiction has become a profit-making enterprise for certain entrepreneurs without morals, some of them in high government positions. 

A medical researcher has been gathering information about opium and its distribution. Victorian England has no laws restricting that distribution and this has caused uncounted misery as the drug can be easily purchased almost anywhere and then given to relieve pain, even in children. The problem - one of the problems - is that there is no guidance as to how much to give, and many children, in particular, have died as a result of being overdosed. There is a move afoot to pass a law in Parliament that will regulate the distribution of opium and this is opposed by powerful forces. 

As the researcher gathers his data, he stumbles upon a discovery regarding the use of needles to inject opium and to intentionally cause addiction. He submits his report and the government official who receives it rejects it as flawed. Then the researcher is found in a park with his wrists slit, having bled to death. The verdict is suicide, but his wife doesn't believe it.

Two months later, on the river Thames, William Monk, commander of the River Police, and his assistant discover a dead body on Limehouse Pier. It is a woman who has been horribly mutilated. The investigation turns up a link between the dead woman and the dead researcher. Are their deaths also connected? Was the "suicide" of the researcher also a murder? And is the wife responsible? 

It begins to appear that she is responsible at least for the death of the woman and Monk arrests her. On the way to jail, she asks him to contact Oliver Rathbone for her to direct her defense. Of course, the diligent Monk does so. Rathbone takes the case and we're off to the races! 

I didn't find this to be one of Perry's stronger efforts, although all the information about the rise of the use of opium in the society was fascinating, and Monk, Hester, and Rathbone, as always are very sympathetic characters. Even at less than her best, Perry is still a satisfying read.

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