Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Hyde Park Headsman - Anne Perry

1994; 343 pages.  Genre : Murder Mystery.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #14 (out of 27) in the "Charlotte & Thomas Pitt" series.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    With the unsolved Jack-the-Ripper murders still fresh in their minds, Londoners now face a new terror.  Someone keeps dumping decapitated bodies in Hyde Park at night.  The public and the elected officials want newly-promoted Police Superintendent Thomas Pitt to catch the murderer, and pronto.  Pitt has one thing going for him - at least the perpetrator has the decency to deposit the severed heads beside their torsos.

What's To Like...
   The action gets going immediately; by page 2 we have a victim (in two parts), and a hysterical populace.  The backstory was confusing for a while, especially trying to keep the women straight.  There's Charlotte and Caroline, Vespasia and Gracie, Emily and Grandmomma.  But once you get the cast squared away, things chug along nicely.

    The series takes place in Victorian (1890's) London, and I'm partial to murder/mysteries set in historical times.  The setting is for the most part handled well.  There are lots of bodies, lots of heads, lots of suspects, and lots of secrets.  Not all the pleasant characters are innocent, and not all of the unpleasant ones are guilty.  Pitt's assistant, Tellman, is a particularly interesting study - he's initially jealous and surly, but gradually he and Pitt learn to work together.

Kewlest New Word...
Consanguinity : related by blood.  (I guess I cooda figured that one out)

    "What else do you know about it?" Pitt asked, looking up at Grover and leaning back in his chair...
    "Sir?"  Grover raised his eyebrows.
    "What did the medical officer say?" Pitt prompted.
    "Died of 'avin' 'is 'ead cut orf," Grover replied, lifting his chin a little.  (page 3)

    "Good God, man!  What is the world coming to when such an act can be perpetrated in a public place in London, and men see it and do nothing!  What is happening to us?"  His face was growing darker as the blood suffused his cheeks.  "One expects barbarity in heathen countries, outposts of the Empire, but not here in the heart and soul of a civilized land!"  (pg. 45)

"With a twisted cue and a cloth untrue, and elliptical billiard balls,
My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time..."  (pg. 246)
     The Hyde Park Headsman has the curious distinction at Amazon of having all the reviewers giving it one to three stars.  No 4* and no 5* ratings.  Wow.

    I'll grant this isn't a masterpiece.  Pitt questions lots of people, the bodies pile up, but you don't get the feeling that the story is progressing.  The key break is what I call a "Cold Case Moment" (*).  The ending has a nice twist or two, but still feels arbitrary.  Worst of all, it never is answered why the killer keeps transporting the bodies to Hyde Park; they aren't killed there.

    Still, it was captivating enough to keep me turning the pages.  Thomas Pitt won't supplant Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes as my favorite Victorian sleuth, but who will?  I'll probably buy a couple more of Anne Perry's novels the next time I'm at the used-book store.  7½ Stars.

(*) : Cold Case Moment.  Named because it got to where every Cold Case episode had one.  The detectives would be questioning someone, and it would go like this :
Detective :  "Yadda yadda.  Blah blah.  Hey, why are you wearing that odd pin on your jacket?"
Suspect (staring wistfully at the sky) : "It brings back memories, man."
Detective : "Oh. Yadda yadda.  Blah blah."

    See, the problem is - that would never be part of the dialogue unless it was the key break.  So even though Cold Case could go on another 40 minutes, you always knew they'd get back to this eventually, and use it to solve the murder.  Good murder-mysteries use this device to introduce red herrings.  Not-as-good murder mysteries use it to point straight to the perp.

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