” And you are at a disadvantage that you can never observe them except under the most artificial of circumstances. How can you possibly ask them the questions you really wish, when they are so forewarned by your mere presence that all their answers are guarded and designed to protect? You can only hope their lies become so convoluted as to trap some truth. ” (Ch.5, p.129)
In this second William Monk crime mystery, murder in an aristocratic London household pits the inspector against the Victorian sense of propriety, a bootlicking superior who just wants to close the case, and a family’s fierce determination to protect its reputation. Sir Basil Moidore’s widowed daughter, Octavia Haslett, was found stabbed in her bedroom. At first it was presumed an intruder had disturbed her during the night and murdered her. Monk is able to prove that there was no outside intruder. Suspicion now descends on the numerous servants and the resident family, who all harbor different opinions and gripe but are tied inextricably to Sir Basil and the family’s status.
She was convinced Lady Beatrice knew something, and every day that passed in silence was adding to the danger that it might never be discovered but that the whole household would close in on itself in corroding suspicion and concealed accusations. And would her silence be enough to protect her indefinitely from the murderer? (Ch.6, p.151)
In the event of a closed-door mystery, knowing no one would speak the whole truth, and nobody would override the wishes of Sir Basil who is the sole provider, Monk covertly arranges to introduce Hester Latterly, the nurse who served in Crimea, as a nurse in the Moidore house to care for the distressed Lady Beatrice Moidore. Hester quickly discerns that the Moidore is no ordinary household. The difference of opinion and the quarrels, which seem such trivial nastiness, had been so deep they had led to a violent and treacherous death. Arguments betray deep-rooted resentment built over the years. Hierarchy and social stratification have also singled out a disliked footman, who entertains ambition beyond his station, to be a scapegoat just out of convenience. Monk refuses to arrest this footman because he doesn’t believe him guilt. Although a gross miscarriage of justice occurs, Monk and Hester persist in pressing the case to its chilling and shocking conclusion.
Someone in my own family murdered my daughter. You see, they all lied. Octavia wasn’t as they said, and the idea of Percival taking such a liberty, or even imagining he could, is ridiculous. (Ch.10, p.293)
Perry really Victorian age into its rightful perspective by pitting the murder mystery against the struggle between upstairs and downstairs, between the elites and their servants. Servants are as convenient a crime suspect as they are victims of amorous intentions—all because of their lower social class. To the upper class it’s absurd for a lady to be in rivalry with a maid for the love of a footman. All these period details and psyche are used to set up the story and to create conflicts. The book itself is masterly layered and plotted. From the beginning, it’s clear that the Moidore is mostly concerned with hushing the scandal and finding a guilty party from among the staff as soon as possible, the ending still comes as a huge shock. It’s the classic case of how far people would bend the truth to bring about what they see as justice.
345 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]