ANNE PERRY – Funeral in Blue

Fawcett; paperback reprint, 1st printing, September 2002. Hardcover edition: Ballantine, 2001.

   All that Victorian private enquiry agent James Monk can remember of his life are the last six years, his memory lost in a coach crash, but his abilities as a detective are still intact. This is the 12th of his cases to appear in book form, and the first that I’ve read. (Perry has also written at least 22 mysteries in which Thomas and Charlotte Pitt are the detectives. She is one prolific lady.)

ANNE PERRY Funeral in Blue

   Besides having a solid, almost palpable sense of time and place — London in September (always foggy) plus glorious, free-spirited Vienna — the story Perry tells is as complicated as any detection aficionado could possibly wish.

   The wife of the doctor with whom Monk’s wife Hester works as a nurse for has been murdered. Her portrait was being painted, and her body is found in the artist’s studio, along with the artist’s live-in model. Once the artist has been eliminated from suspicion, Dr. Beck, as the husband, is the most obvious other suspect.

   There is more to the story. Both Dr. Beck and his wife were young revolutionaries together in Vienna, fighting tyranny in the 1848 uprising, and failing, but after they also became lovers, they seem to have found their infatuation with each other fading, after 13 years of humdrum life in England. To track down clues about their hidden past, Monk is required to make a memorable trip to Austria, where he learns a great deal, but only a small hint of anything tangible to help in Beck’s defense.

   Perry is a meticulous writer, with a great care to physical detail. It is therefore all the more puzzling when small glitches in the mystery itself appear. Small matters unknown to the reader are referred to before the facts are revealed by Monk in his investigation. And when what one witness says ignores what another has stated, it seems to go without notice — nor it is a clue that fits in place later, as an overly observant reader might suspect.

   Worse, especially if you’re a fan of courtroom drama, Perry will have you turning the pages as fast you can, only to have Monk take the stand — but for the prosecution, which makes no sense at all, except for dramatic effect. The effect is powerful, but it wouldn’t, couldn’t have happened that way. (Could it?)

   Net result: Funeral in Blue is an engrossing period novel, a small triumph of historical fiction, but it’s marred by a seemingly indifferent approach to mystery telling. This could easily have been a five star detective novel, with an ending as good as one of Agatha Christie’s, but it hits on only five cylinders, not six.

   The book is still very much worth reading, but if you were to gather from my comments above that I was disappointed, you’d be right.

— December 2002 (slightly revised).