Besides history, some of my favorite reading materials are mysteries. I just read the latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel by Anne Perry. Perry is noted for her mysteries set in Victorian London. That city in the late nineteenth century was the largest metropolis in world. The gap between the richest and poorest was vast and, as a result, London had a problem with crime. Charles Dickens’ books tended to reflect life in the poorer sections of the city, while Anne Perry’s mysteries are mostly set in the wealthiest neighborhoods.
Viewers of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find themselves in familiar territory in the world of the Pitts. Thomas and Charlotte meet in the first volume, “The Cater Street Hangman,”* while he investigates her older sister’s murder. By the second book in the series Thomas and Charlotte are married and set up housekeeping in their own place. Perry makes it clear that Charlotte has married beneath her station and can no longer take part in society events. You see, Thomas, as a policeman, is considered on the same level as a tradesman. When he goes to investigate a crime at an upper class mansion, the servants expect him to go to the tradesman’s entrance, not the front door, which is what Pitt is prone to do.
The Pitts haven’t been married long when Charlotte begins to help her husband with solving crimes. She is familiar with the mores of British high society and besides her younger sister, Emily, is married to a nobleman. Charlotte, in the company of Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling, attends balls and society events, where she will observe the persons involved Pitt’s cases, in the company of Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling.
One my favorite recurring characters in this series is Emily’s great aunt by marriage Vespasia Cumming-Gould. Aunt Vespasia is an elderly woman who has aged gracefully and has friends and acquaintances in the upper levels of society and even in the nobility. These connections, on occasion, help Thomas as he solves murders.
Another character who takes part in Thomas’ detecting is Gracie, the Pitts’ diminutive maid. Barely a teenager when she comes to work for the Pitts, Charlotte teaches her to read so she can keep up with current events in the paper. Gracie eventually gets married and leaves service, but she helps pick her successor.
In one of the later books, Pitt is forced out of the Metropolitan Police, where he was Commander of the Bow Street Street Station. Instead he moves to the Special Branch, an unit that sees to the security of the country as a whole. Instead of solving murders in the homes of the powerful and wealthy, Pitt has to deal with anarchists who want to disrupt British society. In this job, he often has to be away from home for extended periods; one time, for example, he find himself in France, while Charlotte is helping a friend in Ireland. However, when a friend of the Prince of Wales is murdered in Buckingham Palace, Pitt is summoned to solve the crime. Later, when the head of the Special Branch resigns, Pitt is appointed in his place.
In the background of these novels looms the continent of Africa. Britain was competing with other European nations for control the “Dark Continent.” Cecil Rhodes in South Africa was making plans for a Cairo to Cape Town railway. Leander Starr Jameson was leading a ineffective raid into the Transvaal Republic that led to the Boer War. In the latest book in the series, “Midnight at Marble Arch,” the trial of Jameson plays a vital part.
In her personal life, Anne Perry (nee Juliet Hulme) has had a close association with murder herself. At age 15, she and a friend were convicted of murdering the friend’s mother in New Zealand. Being too young for the death penalty, they were detained for five years and released.
Her first novel was published in 1979. Since then she has published 27 books in the Pitt series (28th is due in 2014), 18 in the William Monk series, 5 books in the World War I series, 12 Christmas novellas, 2 fantasy novels aimed at young adults, and 4 stand alone volumes.
For reader who are interested in the society portrayed in Perry’s books, there are two non-fiction works that provide background information. Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, describes how crimes were portrayed in the press of the period and how the crime novel industry evolved. Shooting Victoria, by Paul Thomas Murphy, recounts assassination attempts on the queen, but also gives some insight to nineteenth century English police work.
*If possible, it is better to read these books in order. See AnnePerry.com.uk for a complete list.