A Breach Of Promise
by Anne Perry
Published by Fawcett Columbine
384 pages, 1998
Among the myriad delights to be found in reading historical crime fiction is seeing a plot turn on some arcane or archaic practice or principle. That's precisely what occurs in Anne Perry's ninth William Monk novel, A Breach of Promise. Set in 1860, this complex tale builds around a legal suit leveled against gifted young architect Killian Melville, who supposedly led an heiress, Zillah Lambert, to believe that he would marry her -- but then backed out in the midst of wedding preparations. This was apparently an actionable offense in London high society during the 19th century. Unless it could be proved in court that the jilted woman bore no fault for breaking off the engagement, her reputation and her chances of landing a suitable mate in the future might well be jeopardized.
Insisting that the Lamberts had tragically misunderstood his manifest friendship with Zillah as a declaration of love, Melville asks renowned barrister Sir Oliver Rathbone to represent him in court against breach of promise charges. Rathbone agrees, though reluctantly, because he cannot imagine a sound defense for the designer. Zillah Lambert appears to be a woman perfectly fit for matrimony -- quite lovely of figure, even tempered, "sufficiently intelligent to be interesting and not enough to be daunting," and the daughter of a prosperous businessman who had recently become Melville's enthusiastic patron. Even Melville acknowledges that Zillah was "a most pleasant acquaintance," the two of them having "a mutual interest in art and music and other pleasures of the mind, discussion, appreciation of the beauties of nature and of thought... I -- I found her a most delightful friend... gentle, modest, intelligent..."
So why is the architect willing to entertain financial, social, and career ruin rather than say I do? Rathbone is convinced there must be some ghastly secret in either Melville or Zillah's past that prevents this union from taking place, but his client won't reveal it, no matter how much the evidence weighs against him in court or how much Rathbone presses. Finally fearing for his own integrity, the lawyer turns for help to Monk, the arrogant but dogged detective who lost most of his memories to an accident during his first adventure, The Face of a Stranger (1990). If knowing Melville's secrets might tip the scales of justice, then Rathbone and Monk will find them out -- despite the architect's wishes.
Assisting them in this enterprise, though this time only as someone to whom they can both turn for a woman's perspective, is the other regular protagonist in this series, Hester Latterly. An outspoken nurse who saw the tragedies of battle beside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Hester already has her hands full looking after a British soldier, Gabriel Sheldon, just returned -- broken in spirit and disfigured in body -- from the bloody siege of Cawnpore, India. A difficult assignment on the face of it, Hester's task is all the more trying because of Sheldon's wife, Perdita, whose sheltered background has not prepared her to spend her life with an invalid husband any more than Sheldon's background has readied him to be a burden on their marriage. At one point, Hester offers Monk her frustrated thoughts regarding the awkward position in which sexual traditions have placed Sheldon and Perdita:
"He's been taught to be brave, never to explain, never to ask for help. He's been given a hero's image to live up to, and he's riddled with guilt because he thinks he can't. And she's been taught to be helpless and stupid because that's what men want, and all she should do is be a sweet-natured, obedient ornament." Her face was puckered, all her muscles tight. "And she has to sit by and watch him hurt, because he thinks he should be looking after her, and he can't even look after himself."
Perry's stories frequently explore the secondary role of women in Victorian England. (Brunswick Gardens, the latest title in her older series featuring police Superintendent Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte, provides another example of this.) But in A Breach of Promise traditional sexual roles -- and how women either submit to their constrictions or endeavor to subvert them -- become central to the plot, especially as Monk searches for indiscretions in Zillah Lambert's past which might convince a jury that Melville was right to refuse her hand in marriage. Oliver Rathbone could certainly use such ammunition, for he is jousting with a plaintiff's counsel who (goaded on by Zillah's loving father Barton and her social-climbing mother Delphine) won't hesitate to use any malicious bit of innuendo or trumped up charge to prove that the most brilliant British architect of that age was unfit for husbandhood -- perhaps even a homosexual. Only Melville's unexpected death brings the formalities of this suit to a halt. Yet it also opens up a whole new avenue of investigation as Monk seeks to determine whether Melville perished by his own hand... or was poisoned in order to conclude this case before it unearthed any more damaging skeletons.
Other critics have suggested that A Breach of Promise (originally titled White Sepulchres in Great Britain) contains Perry's finest example of courtroom drama. I disagree, remembering fondly the extraordinary tension and tactics of legal play in Defend and Betray (1992), the earliest Monk novel in which Oliver Rathbone had a part. In fact, I found the first 100 pages of Breach rather tedious, since so many of them were taken up by Rathbone trying to defend his client against numerous witnesses called simply to establish Zillah Lambert's admirableness or to wonder -- without conclusion -- why Melville should have rejected her as a partner. Not until Monk (a far deeper, darker, and more intriguing character than the privileged Rathbone) is brought into this affair does the book's pace pick up. And then it takes another 50 pages before there are any engaging fireworks in court, with the Lamberts' oleaginous attorney, Wystan Sacheverall, telling Rathbone that he will expose Melville's alleged homosexuality (behavior that might then have landed one in jail) if it could help him win this trial:
"If you think I won't drag it up, you are mistaken!" Sacheverall said angrily. "I will! Every sordid detail necessary to prove my client's case and claim the damages she is due. Melville will end up in prison... which is where he belongs."
Save for the fact that Rathbone continues to defend Melville's decisions in life (providing some of the most telling confrontations in this novel), after the architect's demise Breach seems to take a wild detour. Monk is persuaded by Hester Latterly to help a housemaid working for the injured Gabriel Sheldon to locate her two nieces. These girls were born deformed and deaf, and they were abandoned by their mother -- who has also since disappeared -- two decades before. Monk doesn't hold out much hope of finding the girls, but he tries anyway, only to discover (in a coincidence that will try the patience of some readers, but works nonetheless) that this second mystery and that of Killian Melville are linked -- again by the difficult choices made by a woman negotiating her place in male-dominated society.
As is common with Monk yarns, this one is full of verisimilitude -- the creaking of women's whalebone stays in court, the crackle of coals in fireplaces, the jingling of harnesses on passing horse-drawn coaches. Author Perry might have endured a previous life among Victorian Londoners, so sharp is her understanding of their environment, fears, and mores.
But A Breach of Promise is also plump with surprises -- a welcome change after Cain His Brother (1995) and last year's The Silent Cry, in both of which the solutions were obvious well before the closing chapters. Though it depends too heavily on Rathbone's attractions and too little on Hester's, and it does nothing to further fill in the blank spaces of Monk's life, Breach is still a powerful and poignant opus. It's also one that may remind you just how fortunate you are to be living at the end of the liberal 20th century, rather than in the middle of the comparatively close-minded 19th. | October, 1998
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.