The Sunless Sea by Anne Perry

A few weeks ago I posted a review of a John Connolly book I said disappointed me. Now I’m following that with a review of an Anne Perry book that disappointed me. Maybe I’m the problem.

Anne Perry has several series going; two set in during the reign of Queen Victorian (different decades); one during World War One and a short unsuccessful fantasy series that I have never read. (I read Chapter One of Book One, and that was quite enough). Generally, I enjoy both her Victorian stories. The Sunless Sea follows William Monk and his wife Hester as Monk, a member of the Thames River Police, investigates a brutal slaying and mutilation of a woman on the docks.

The most interesting thing here is the idea of the Thames River Police; a separate force from the London Police. Monk began the series as an amnesiac who becomes a private investigator, and falls in love with Hester, a defiant gentlewoman recently back from the Crimea where she worked as a nurse with Florence Nightingale. Hester is probably better trained medically than most London surgeons, but no one will listen to her because she is a woman. The early books crackle with energy; and between then, Monk and Hester face various social policies and social ills of mid-nineteenth-century England.

They do in this book too, but for some reason, it never held my interest. The policy is the registration and use of opium, which was fully legal and unregulated at the time. It seems that the dead woman was the mistress of a prominent physician who was doing a study of the over the counter use of opium for the government. When his report was disgraced, the physician killed himself… or so it seems. His passionate wife does not believe he killed himself, but very soon Monk is arresting her for the murder of the mistress.

The Monk books are always courtroom dramas, involving the third main character, Oliver Rathbone. This story moves into the courtroom very quickly; too quickly for me, because the courtroom scenes were not compelling. As is always the case with a Perry novel, there is yet another secret or twist that will have to come out. When it came out, it was not very interesting. The resolution depends on the characters hiding information from the reader in a way that was annoying. (“Do you think he’ll come out?” “If he doesn’t we’ll have to do… that other thing. You know, the one we discussed off the page so the reader won’t know.”) That felt clunky.

The obvious clues at the scene of the doctor’s purported suicide are too blatant for the ruling to be anything other than a cover-up, but this was not addressed well at all.

For the first time every I found myself skimming — doing more than skimming, actually, skipping three of four pages at a time, searching the page for a character name I wanted to read about. When I got to the end I was not surprised, and the loyal wife’s life is still in bleeding ruins, and no one comments on that. It’s just, “Case Closed,” while we (the main three) obsess over whether we did the right thing. The reason that matters is because this story is primarily about Rathbone and a moral choice he has to make about the wielding of power. It’s an interesting dilemma but Rathbone isn’t my favorite character and I got tired of watching him sit in his perfect house eating perfectly cooked food and stewing over what he should do. Dude, go for a walk or something! Geez.

I think some of this is me, and probably indicates a high degree of fatigue on my part — or maybe I just need to take a short break from Perry. If I had a wish for a Monk book, though, it would be this; less Rathbone, more Hester and Monk; more Thames and less hanging about in drawing rooms while historical figures lecture us about British history; less courtroom, more street.

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