No Graves As Yet
by Anne Perry
Published by Ballantine Books
352 pages, 2003
Buy it online
A Family Conflict
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Popular and prolific, British author Anne Perry is best known for not one but two mystery series, both set in 19th-century England: a post-Crimean War series starring police detective-turned-private eye William Monk and nurse Hester Latterly, and a late-Victorian series featuring Inspector (later Superintendent) Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte. In her spare time, the indefatigable Perry has also begun a suspense series set in Revolutionary France, churned out an epic Mormon fantasy (Talthea, 1999) with a sci-fi sequel set 500 years in the future, and penned more than a dozen short stories. It's from two such compact yarns that Perry has commenced spinning yet another series of historical mystery novels.
The Edgar Award-winning "Heroes" and its complement, "The End of Innocence," followed Joseph Reavley, a British army chaplain during World War I. The character was inspired by a real Captain Joseph Reavley, Perry's maternal grandfather, who did indeed serve in the European trenches during the late 1910s. But the Reavley of fact simply provides this fictionist with the jumping-off point for a projected five-book series following Joseph and his three siblings through the turmoil of the war years.
The first of these novels, No Graves As Yet, introduces all of the Reavleys (the siblings include a brother, Matthew, who works for the Secret Intelligence Service, and two sisters, the married Hannah and the restless Judith) but focuses on Joseph. He's your classic mild-mannered, overly thoughtful college professor, in this case a tutor in Bible languages at Cambridge. He's also an ordained minister who has had trouble sustaining his faith since the recent death of his wife. However, Joseph can claim a beloved family and a fulfilling job, and there's nothing more troublesome on his mind at the start of No Graves than watching a cricket match and enjoying the long, hot summer of 1914.
Events both personal and historical quickly start to turn sour. The adored Reavley parents are killed in a car crash on the same day that a mad Serb assassinates an archduke and his wife in Sarajevo. Stricken by personal grief, but as yet unconcerned about international politics, Joseph is bewildered when his brother confesses that their father, a retired politician, claimed to have acquired a secret document that could threaten the future of Europe. Was the elder Reavley starting to lose his judgment in his dotage? Or was the car crash staged, and their parents' deaths planned? As a disgusted Matthew says to Joseph:
"Doesn't it sound wild enough to you, unlikely enough? A piece of paper that proves a conspiracy to ruin all we love and believe in -- and that goes right up to the royal family, but when we look for it, it vanishes into the air!"
In need of direction, Joseph heads back to work at Cambridge -- only to have his favorite student there discovered one morning with a bullet through his head. His world collapsing about him, the professor seizes anxiously on the deaths of people he knew and loved as a tangible, soluble problem. But, of course, the deeper he delves into these cases, the messier the problems become. By the time Joseph finally uncovers the truth, the body count in this book has mushroomed (to a total of six) and war on the Continent has become inevitable. Goodbye to innocent Edwardian bliss.
As mysteries go, No Graves As Yet can be slow and frustrating. It takes days for Joseph and Matthew to realize that their parents' deaths were the result of murder, and nearly as long for Joseph to decide that there's more to his student's demise than meets the eye. Clues are laid out for the reader in clumsy, inattentive fashion, and solutions are based more on circumstantial evidence than on hard fact; the signed confession, that old fallback of the author who has written herself into a corner, provides the final, weak link in this story's chain.
As historical novels go, the book falls into the classic trap of knowing more than it should. Its characters are supposed to be relatively naïve, yet they demonstrate remarkably accurate intuitions about what lies ahead: how neatly the balances of power in Europe in 1914 would trip each other up, how devastating modern war would turn out to be, and how effectively it would destroy the culture of the Old World. Perry tries hard to make her characters sound intelligent, but when they alternate between old-fashioned, melodramatic discussions of honor and empire, and cynical, modern discussions of horror and destruction, they merely sound like split personalities, trapped in different epochs. And sometimes the reader is left to wonder which voice is talking -- the earnest, unintentionally smug voice of 1914, or the wry, deprecating voice of 2003. Typical of these confusing moments is this popular sentiment, expressed repeatedly throughout the book:
"For God's sake, Europe is the highest civilization the world has ever seen. It's all saber rattling, nothing more."
Perry may not know in which era she wishes to plant her characters' minds, but in atmosphere at least, she's clearly on the side of nostalgia. Great care is lavished here on descriptions -- warm, lazy days ending with burnished sunlight on rural ponds; dinners held in the ornately carved halls of college. This is a summer-reading book, in which the cares of plot and world war don't stop characters from finding ample time to go boating, motoring and strolling in the humid heat, cool off in occasional refreshing thundershowers, and consume vast quantities of beer and pickles in local pubs, or tea and scones in village homes. This, apparently, is the civilization everyone is so passionate about protecting. And in truth -- for those with the leisure time to play cricket or go punting -- the idyllic life isn't bad at all.
Word is that subsequent installments of Perry's latest series will shift focus and follow each of the Reavley siblings separately: Matthew in the spy business, Hannah on the home front, and Judith as she drives ambulances around France. Joseph, presumably, will do the detecting throughout. But perhaps each of the Reavleys in turn will discover unexpected talents in the crime-solving sphere.
With No Graves As Yet, Perry has kicked off an unusual series, for readers patient enough to sit through a mild dose of historical confusion. Perhaps the eventual whole will be even greater than the sum of its parts. | September 2003
Caroline Cummins is a frequent contributor to January Magazine.