Monday, August 31, 2015

Callander Square - Anne Perry

Anne Perry was at one time considered one of the finest novelists specializing in historical mysteries of the Victorian era. Until a few days ago I had never read any of her books.  I thought perhaps that because she has been so prolific in her nearly forty year career that they would be less than satisfying for some reason. But when Rich Westwood announced that 1980 would be the year for August's "Crime of the Century" meme I knew I could put off no longer sampling a book from her varied bibliography.  I was both impressed and disappointed.  Mostly, I came away with a deep respect for her love of the era and its literature. Based on this one book it is clear she is fully deserving of all her past and present accolades.

Callendar Square (1980) is the second novel in her long series featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte. Pitt seems to be more of a supporting player in this second outing while his wife and her sister play at being amateur sleuths. Lady Emily, in fact, does most of the uncovering of shameful secrets (and there are closetfuls of them) and she rushes to Charlotte's home in order to dish the dirt with her sister.  Charlotte then divulges those secrets to her husband who embarrassingly must admit that the two women have a skill at getting people to spill the beans in a way he cannot.

There is no mistaking that Perry intended this as a crime novel with plenty of mystery. In the opening pages she delivers a grisly scene straight out of the page of Edgar Allan Poe when two gardeners accidentally unearth human bones while trying to plant some trees. The police are called in and the bones are soon identified as the remains of two babies. An investigation begins into who could've done such a horrendous thing as burying the bodies of infants in a public square. But almost immediately afterwards the novel takes on the air of a satiric novel of manners.  Social status and the contrast between aristocrats and their servants dominate the proceedings. The reader is constantly reminded that policeman were part of the working class and treated as servants. Pitt, however, does not behave as expected for a member of his class and is often rebuffed by both servants who are appalled that he uses the front door to call and the heads of the household who find his direct manner rude and his cultivated manner of speech as "putting on airs."

Detection is rather weak and limited to protracted interrogation scenes. However, these scenes are lively and fascinating for Perry is a master at Victorian syntax. Many of the dialogue sequences demand to be read aloud in order to fully appreciate the zing and the sting of her verbal dexterity.  Each encounter between Pitt and those he questions becomes a battle of wits with Pitt doing his best to impress the snobs and the hypocrites and show them that the police are not fools to be trifled with.  There are even scenes that call to mind the stratagems of Count Fosco or the desperate scheming of Lady Audley. A early sequence of wicked wordplay and one-upmanship between the imperious Lady Augusta Balantyne and her sinisterly handsome footman Max is one such highlight.

This book is very much fashioned after the mid Victorian era sensation novels.  It most reminded me of the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (best known for Lady Audley's Secret) with nearly every character plotting and scheming to protect or achieve their own interests.  Blackmail turns out to be a favorite pastime of many of the characters, some are exceedingly better at it than others. Detection takes a back seat, however. Perry is much more interested in the machinations of these characters to whom their social standing is of utmost importance.  She takes the plot formula of the old sensation novel and gives it a strangely contemporary twist cleverly inserting some subversive thoughts and modern worldviews into the storyline.  While some of her choices are unabashedly anachronistic (a male sex surrogate, for example) she somehow manages to make these concepts revolutionary 19th century beliefs, far removed from what should be shockingly amoral to anyone of this era.

There are some finely drawn moments of dramatic irony that show off Perry's talent in maintaining suspense and creating tension. The reader is privy to many events and secrets other characters are unaware of and we watch some of the best scenes play out with rigorous attention paid to how one character gains control over another. What this novel lacks in the way of fair play clueing related to Pitt's unravelling of the mystery of the babies' parentage and why they were buried it more than makes up for in a total immersion in Victorian mores, speech, fashion and history.  While the ending is rushed and sloppy with a motive pulled out of thin air and an overly melodramatic confession from the villain the trip getting there is engrossing, diverting and at times unexpectedly philosophical.

14 comments:

  1. Detection is rather weak and limited to protracted interrogation scenes.

    I have to confess that this is the main impression with which I came away from the novel, alas; overall I found it pretty dull. I have another of Perry's novels in this series on my shelves, but have been wondering whether or not to bother reading it. Your review has nudged me in favor of the "yes, bother" inclination!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Once I realized it wasn't really going to be a detective novel I surrendered to its superior pastiche of a sensation novel and I enjoyed it. Emily had a tendency to annoy the hell out of me, but luckily she disappeared well before the halfway mark. Lady Balantyne was my favorite character - a force to be reckoned with What she did to Max the footman/cad was genius! I have to admit I'm still kind of impressed by Perry's brazen use of a sex surrogate in the Victorian era. There were a few radicals living in England at the time so it wasn't that hard to accept a man as advanced in his thinking as Brandy Balantyne. Charlotte clearly is intended to be the voice of the modern woman and Perry has admitted this in recent interviews.

      Delete
  2. I was thinking this one sounded quite interesting until I got to "cleverly inserting some subversive thoughts and modern worldviews into the storyline." I'm afraid that's a real deal-breaker for me. If authors want to insert modern worldviews into their stories they should be honest enough to set them in the modern world. Re-writing the past really riles me up. Sorry for the rant!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not read anythign by her - and you know what? Just might stay that way for a bit, actually ... I have always been curious, not least because of the author's personal history, though that may be what has kept me away actually.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I remember reading this novel after her identity was exposed. Not being a fan of historical fiction, it was my only foray into her work.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I haven't read anything by her either, just because of her past. It's really off-putting to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. IMO the opportunistic journalist who exposed her closely guarded secret deserves a wretched fate worse than Perry will ever have to live with.

      Delete
  6. I read the heck out of Perry when these first became popular in the 80s (one of the few series I was reading during my science fiction fixation). I've still got a few of her Pitt series to read--but every time I start to go back to them, they just don't seem quite the thing. There might be a reason for that....as dfordoom mentions, nowadays I'm not much for historical writers who insert modern sensibilities into earlier ages.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've read every single Anne Perry book in the Thomas Pitt and wife Charlotte series as well as the William Monk series so I consider myself a kind of devotee. John if you'd asked me which Anne Perry book to read (and you should have) I'd have recommended DARK ASSASSIN, a William Monk book which is so damned good, it can practically stand alone. I love that the Monk series introduced us to a damanged hero (he had amnesia for the majority of the first books in the series) and then little by little over a span of time, we get to know and like Monk and begin to understand his character.

    The Pitts are 'cozier' books since the series involves a married couple and to keep things interesting, Charlotte must, necessarily, be somehow involved. In fact, I think Perry does that very well. Since Charlotte's sister is married into high society, of course Charlotte would be privy to social gossip, niceties and non-niceties, that would elude Pitt himself as a policeman of no social standing. Nothing stands very still in these books as we watch Pitt rise through the different levels of the Victorian police, collecting enemies along the way until...Well,.as I said, I've read every book in the series and CALLENDER SQUARE was not one I'd have recommended. On the whole I consider Perry a very fine historical writer and one of the things I most admire about her work is her way of making Victorian anachronisms understandable. These people came alive for me as I read about them which, on the whole, is a very good thing.

    I know about Perry's background (though I didn't at the time I began reading the books) and I must say I'm able to separate the work. Not every writer we read will have an unexceptional past or be as pleasant a person as we would wish.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Yvette. I'm interested in reading more of her work. This is a flawed book and only her second novel. But I really was taken in by her obvious love of the period. Clearly she has read widely from Victorian history and fiction. Prior to writing her first books she was a flight attendant! In reading about her life and work I read about the Monk books and they do sound very intriguing. I think I'll investigate him next.

      Her past is hers to deal with no matter how horrible most people think it is. I choose not to comment or judge. My own past is pretty damn nightmarish. We all have demons. Some of us, unfortunately, have them exposed by vile tabloid writers for the world to see.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, and they even made a movie out of the whole thing which was, to my mind, very unfortunate. Everyone has secrets (and Perry certainly paid for hers), some of them more horrible than others and you know, John, it's not necessary for everyone to know everything about everybody. And that's where we're all headed I'm afraid.

      Delete
    3. It's pretty amazing that she managed to keep her past history hidden for as long as she did. As a side issue, I thought the movie, HEAVENLY CREATURES, was really impressive - probably still my favourite by Peter Jackson in fact.

      Delete
  8. IMO the opportunistic journalist who exposed her closely guarded secret deserves a wretched fate worse than Perry will ever have to live with.

    I am absolutely with you on this, John, and am horrified by the various holier-than-thou comments that have appeared here in relation to her past. Decades ago, as a child, she did something exceptionally stupid. That really has no bearing on who she is now. So far as I'm concerned, she deserves some admiration for having picked herself up out of the gutter and building a new life. That's what rehabilitation and redemption are supposed to be all about, isn't it?

    The funny thing is that, because of all the snidery, I pulled the other book of hers that I own off the shelf and put it onto the (towering) TBR pile on the nightstand.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. '...she deserves some admiration for having picked herself up out of the gutter and building a new life.' Yes, I completely agree.

      Delete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.