Southampton Row

by Anne Perry

Published by Ballantine Books

336 pages, 2002







Man of the People

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Thomas Pitt just doesn't seem able to hold onto a job anymore. After achieving the post of superintendent at London's Bow Street Station, this Victorian police inspector's enemies had him removed from his command and reassigned to undercover duty in the indigent quarter of Spitalfields, where he wound up foiling a plot to end the British monarchy and connecting that conspiracy to the devilish doings of Jack the Ripper (see The Whitechapel Conspiracy, one of January Magazine's gift book picks for 2001). Now, in Anne Perry's Southampton Row, he's yanked away from Bow Street again, this time to prevent dirty tricks by a ruthless republican determined to win a place in Parliament.

Pitt had been bound out of town for a two-and-a-half-week holiday in Dartmoor with his family. But his help is too desperately needed by Victor Narraway, the shady head of Special Branch, that infant British service designed to rein in anarchists and revolutionaries. It seems that Sir Charles Voisey, former leader of the autocratic and secretive Inner Circle, and the man whom Pitt thought he'd routed in The Whitechapel Conspiracy, is making another grab for power. Not, this time, with the protection of the Circle; Pitt already made Voisey a pariah among his fellow cabalists, having maneuvered him into appearing to preserve Queen Victoria's place on the throne, rather than driving her from it. Instead, Voisey has decided to run as a Tory for what seems a vulnerable Liberal Party seat. Speaking to Pitt, Narraway insists this is merely the latest twist in Voisey's drive to capture control of Britain:

"He is standing for Parliament, and if he wins he will use the Inner Circle to rise very quickly to high office.... The next government will be Conservative, and it will not be long in coming. [Prime Minister William] Gladstone won't last. Apart from the fact that he is eighty-three, [Irish] Home Rule will finish him." His eyes did not move from Pitt's face. "Then we will see Voisey as Lord Chancellor, head of the Empire's judiciary! He will have the power to corrupt any court in the land, which means in the end, all of them."

Pitt, who has ever been the picture of probity in Perry's 22-book series, rankles at suggestions that he actively manipulate the coming parliamentary elections. But the Special Branch chief assures him, in his habitually supercilious manner, that "if I wanted something like that done I have more skilled men for it than you." Narraway simply needs Pitt to exercise his detecting talents, to "watch and listen" and learn whether Voisey has any "unguarded vulnerabilities" that might derail the man's expectations of political success -- if not immediately, then in the future.

This is more easily proposed than accomplished, for while Voisey may in truth be "shallow, self-important [and] condescending," voters -- especially common laborers -- seem to find him more charismatic and less controversial than his anti-imperialistic opponent, Aubrey Serracold. Furthermore, Serracold's Liberal candidacy is under attack in the press, but it may be even more endangered by his wife's Socialist beliefs and her connection to the recent slaying of a popular spiritualist, Maude Lamont, who'd been blackmailing her clients with information obtained during séances. If Pitt is to have any hope of aborting Voisey's governmental career, he must first solve the medium's murder -- an effort that includes his exposing some of the ghostly trickery behind séances. (Perry, however, never gets into this subject as thoroughly as Daniel Stashower did last year in his third Harry Houdini mystery, The Houdini Specter.)

Fortunately, Pitt will have some seasoned assistance with his inquiries. Although his intrepid wife, Charlotte, spends almost this entire book in Dartmoor with their children and their resourceful maid, Gracie, Charlotte's politically astute sister, Emily Radley -- married to an up-and-coming Liberal MP -- remains in London to lend Pitt valuable counsel. Equally helpful is Charlotte's great-aunt Vespasia, as plucky a privileged British matron as one is likely to discover in modern literature. (Author Perry is especially good at crafting independent Victorian women characters.) And then, of course, there's Samuel Tellman. Formerly Pitt's subordinate, but now an inspector himself, Tellman is not pleased to hear that his investigation of Lamont's death is to be superseded by Pitt's own probe, conducted under the aegis of Special Branch:

Tellman stared at Pitt. He tried hard to mask his feelings, and the fact that he was taken by surprise, but his chagrin was clear in the rigidity of his body, his hands held tightly at his sides, the hesitation before he was able to master himself sufficiently to think what to say. There was no enmity in his eyes -- at least Pitt thought not -- but there was anger and disappointment. He had worked hard for his promotion, several years of that work in Pitt's shadow. And now, faced with the very first murder of which he was in charge, with no explanation, Pitt was brought back and given command of it.

It isn't long, though, before these two coppers are acting in respectful concert once again, trying to track down the mysterious attendees at Maude Lamont's last séance, one of whom was likely her killer. Meanwhile, Perry rolls out a subplot involving Isadora Underhill, the bright and manifestly unhappy wife of a spiritually troubled local bishop, who has developed what may be a life-changing interest in Pitt's superior officer, Assistant Police Commissioner John Cornwallis. (With any luck, this relationship will ultimately result in a fuller fleshing out of Cornwallis, a former naval officer who has always shown the prospect of becoming integral to this series but has never achieved sufficient dimension.) Taken together, these storylines offer a complex perspective on how people lived, loved and lusted after power in the early 1890s.

Readers familiar with Perry's previous works (especially her 1997 novel, Ashworth Hall, which turned on questions surrounding Irish Home Rule) won't be surprised by her careful weaving of politics into Southampton Row. She manages to acquaint us with the volatile issues that were important in those last years of Gladstone's fourth term as prime minister without either boring or lecturing the reader. Less satisfying is the impression this novel exudes of being an intermediate chapter in a longer story arc. While the Lamont case, at least, is firmly tied up in these pages (with a unexpectedly fiery conclusion), the clash between Pitt and Charles Voisey, begun in The Whitechapel Conspiracy, is still unfinished here, forcing the reader who had expected a turning-point confrontation between these two to wait another year and plunk down $25 more for this series' next installment. | February 2002


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.