The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though this is the first Charlotte and Inspector Pitt novel, it's the actual the second I read, because I couldn't get ahold of this one initially. It took a bit of secondhand bookstore trawling to find, but turned out to be well worth the hunt. If you are interested in reading and enjoying this book, I highly recommend you don't read later in the series first: I had some of the twists and turns spoiled for me because I had read "Callander Square" not too long ago. Especially because this is the first book, the lives of the characters are highly defined by its events.
At first, the specter of murder - the death of a maid - that hovers over Cater Street is more of a nuisance to its wealthy inhabitants ... doubly so the policeman who comes to investigate. Sharp-tongued Charlotte, the middle daughter, in particular clashes with the inspector ... but when a maid in their own household falls victim, the entire family is drawn into rampant suspicion and the dissolution of family trusts and truths.
Because the reader and the central family are on the inside of the crime, the emotional and psychological elements are far more engaging in this book than in "Callander Square." The way a little suspicion can shatter trust forever is powerfully examined here. If the book starts a bit shaky - I had to reread more than a few sections to tell the family members apart, until I got used to them - it develops in full and intriguing fashion.
Another worthy component of this book is the segments where the Cater Street characters (primarily Charlotte) learn about the bizarre and foreign world of the criminal and the poor. Because it is equally stranger to the reader, we get to share in their shock and confusion. Even though it's almost unabashed infodump, it's eminently readable.
The mystery itself is almost secondary to all this. As mysteries go, it's not even particularly mysterious, though Perry attempts to heighten the drama by indicating by positing that the murderer might not even know he is committing the crimes. I found this a rather transparent ploy to make point-of-view characters into suspects, and not too convincing. Also a mis-step is George Ashwood's behavior. I never did get a satisfactory explanation of the difference between his reputation and his decision in regards to Emily.
I thought the central love story in the book was a little forced ... a few steps missing, though perhaps forgiveable with the restrictions on love in the Victorian era. Rather than having long, drawn-out romances, people ... got married. But in its own way, this book is a long, drawn-out romance, a frenetic connection with human nature bound up in the ritual of appearances. For that, it is a worthwhile read indeed.
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