I’ve already written about my love of a good mystery series, and one of my favorites is the William Monk series written by Anne Perry. While the author is prolific and has three adult series she’s been writing over the years (with an annual Christmas book and some young adult novels as well), I have a particular fondness for William Monk, the police detective in Victorian London who’s married to a former Crimean War nurse (trained by Florence Nightingale). The latest William Monk book is Revenge in a Cold River, and while it’s not the best book to start the series with (that would be the first book, The Face of a Stranger), it’s a great fun read and crystallizes a lot of the issues that make the series work so well.
One thing you need to know about William Monk is that there’s a part of his personal history that’s completely lost to him. In the first book, he wakes up after a carriage accident with amnesia, and over the course of 22 books (so you know there’s plenty to read if you’re taken with these characters and this historical period), he has never been able to remember that missing part of his life. He’s been able to piece together something of his past: he’s seen how people reacted to him based on his past reputation, and he has, over the years, confided in (very) few people about his missing memories. In some respects, Monk has been given a great opportunity to change his life, to turn away from the arrogance and nastiness he realizes he was guilty of in the lost years; in other respects, though, that missing past contains threats to his current life and reputation, which brings us to the plot of this book.
At the outset, Monk is the head of the Thames River Police, still grieving the loss of his assistant in a battle not long before. He suspects Officer McNab of the Customs Service set him up on that raid, though he can’t prove it, and he knows (it’s brutally clear) that for some reason McNab has a serious grudge against him. What’s worse, McNab seems to have figured out that there’s a period in Monk’s life that Monk can’t remember, and he seems prepared to use that knowledge against Monk in some way.
The death of an escaped Customs prisoner brings Monk and McNab together. The man’s body was found in the river, apparently drowned, but also shot. Another prisoner apparently escapes, and Monk, attempting to capture the prisoner, accidentally ends up drowning the Customs officer pursuing the man instead. Monk is sure McNab is attempting to snare him in some kind of trap, but since the secrets of the case are tangled in events that happened in the California Gold Rush of 1849, part of Monk’s forgotten past, he’s at a major disadvantage, meeting with people who knew him then but who don’t know he doesn’t remember them. When Monk is charged with murder of the customs officer, he must rely on his wife, Hester, and his friend, the barrister Oliver Rathbone, to save him from a danger he can’t entirely understand.
Perry is excellent at atmosphere: the constraints of Victorian society (one character, the widow of a prominent judge, exemplifies the attitudes toward women and sex in the period), the physical world the characters move through (you can practically smell the Thames), the living, breathing sense of the past. But she’s even better at characters: not only the main characters we’ve seen growing and developing over the course of 22 books (though it’s always a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with Hester, Rathbone and Scuff, among other vivid characters), but the characters who appear in only one or two books and then fleetingly, who are also given their stories and pasts and quirks, good and bad. Perry’s female characters are especially good: they are invariably as complex and unpredictable and interesting as the male characters, major and minor, with whom they interact.
Revenge in a Cold River is a good read, with a fast-moving plot, believable characters and fascinating insights not only into the world of Victorian London but also of 1840’s Gold Rush California as well. If you’ve been following the series, you’ll be delighted to see how issues from past books are resolved, and even if you haven’t read the series before, there’s enough background here to keep you from being confused, and then there are all those previous books to dive into when you’re finished.