The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry, or murder investigation in the Victorian era


Imagine waking up with complete amnesia, but not being able to admit you can remember nothing about your previous life.

Well, as a plot device it can be either very good or (kindly) mediocre.

William Monk awakes in a London Hospital, having no memory of who he is, who his friends and family are, nor even his job. Even his face is unfamiliar to him. Desperate to conceal that he remembers nothing, he frantically pieces his life and livelihood together, though not surprisingly this is rather like assembling a nightmarishly complex jigsaw puzzle without the picture to guide you. The hospital sends him home as soon as he is able to care for himself in a minimally rudimentary fashion, as there’s little the medicine of the era can give him in terms of therapy.

His boss, Runcorn, sends Monk out immediately to finish up with a murder case he’d been working on before the accident that hospitalized him. Ordinarily, this haste would be no more than routine–the Peelers, being a newish resource for the city, are under a great deal of pressure to prove their worth by solving crimes quickly and efficiently–but the murder victim is the youngest son of an Earl, and additionally social pressures are being brought to bear. However, Runcorn is acting in a manner peculiar enough for even the still befuddled Monk to notice; he suspects that Runcorn is setting him up to fail for reasons which lie on the other side of the gulf created by his memory loss. Nevertheless, he does his best to investigate. The Honorable Joscelin Gray has been found dead, as the result of a brutal beating that can only be delivered by a madman or someone who loathes Joscelin beyond reason; nothing has been stolen from the flat, despite there being a number of valuable items small enough to snatch up and conceal about one’s person.

Upon interrogating the family at their estate, he meets only disdain and stonewalling; the police are regarded as being mere tradesmen and therefore to be dismissed as quickly as possible as they are not worthy of social notice or niceties. The family denies everything. Hester Latterly is a guest of the family as Monk investigates, and the two clash, as Hester does not fit the ideal of Victorian feminine behavior: she is too outspoken, too determined, not at all flirtatious or inclined to ruffly pastels1. Her father’s untimely death (almost but not quite declared a suicide) after disastrous business issues proves to be intimately connected to Joscelin’s death, however, and she proves invaluable to Monk as she wishes to uncover the truth about her father’s death. As the mystery unravels, Monk suspects that he is himself a suspect in the case…

While I did enjoy the book overall, not least because it falls into the same cozy police procedural as Death of a Butterfly, I don’t believe that a man who’s lost his memory in its entirety would be able to pull off so quick a return to his job, nor would others around him be so quick to assume (to any degree) that he was capable of doing so much less not notice that he’d forgotten all he knew. (In fairness, one crucial character does figure out early on, but keeps the information to zirself for zir own reasons.) Also, there’s another problem–the same one I had when reading What Alice Forgot: while the protagonist may have lost his (her) memory, no one else has…and chances are good, some significant proportion of the others are going to stick with their original opinion of Our Protagonist, despite protestations (and behavior changes) to the contrary. It strikes me here that a police investigator who cannot remember how to conduct a police investigation, much less what he himself has done in this specific investigation prior to the accident which cost him his memory, will quite frankly stick out like a sore thumb. Thankfully for my irritation at twee plot devices, Monk does finally ‘fess up to the character who proves to be his sidekick in later mysteries what has happened, and she helps him piece things together; she is related to someone whose death is connected to the murder Monk is investigating, and thus might ask questions without arousing too much suspicion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this strikes me as being very similar to Perry’s other series, about Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, both in style, plotting (mildly complex) and characters/characterization (bordering on cardboard/stereotypes). I’ll wait until reading book two in the series before deciding how better to judge this series, but in terms of readers’ advisory, the two series strike me as similar enough that readers who like one might consider the other. If it’s the style of police investigation, the Sigrid Harald series might work. If it’s the setting, but not the mystery style, I’d suggest Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery; it’s somewhat less shrill, but discusses at greater length the social stratification in London at approximately the same time period, including considerable detail about criminal slang of the time.

1while normally I laud strong female characters and the men who come to appreciate them, oddly this seemed a bit jarring until the two started to become friends

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