Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry

A murder inside the grounds of Buckingham Palace leads to Thomas Pitt being summoned to the Palace to deal with it. Right from the start, it is made clear that the murder could not have been committed by an intruder from the outside, because the Prince of Wales, Albert, has been having a meeting with four wealthy, titled men on a project to build a railroad through Africa, from south to north (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it). That leaves only a few people who could possibly have done it: the servants, one of the financiers and/or their wives, or the Prince of his deaf wife, Alexandra. Naturally, nobody wants to think that the Prince is involved or committed the crime.

To aid Pitt in his investigations, Pitt's superior Narraway asks Pitt's maid Gracie to agree to serve in the Palace for a while. Gracie is to serve as an informant and to search the areas of the house that generally servants only get to see. Also, because servants in noble houses are generally overlooked and treated as invisible, servants get to overhear things that generally aren't let slip in "polite" company.

Gracie agrees, and so must deal with the Palace servants, who are just as status-seeking and opinionated as their masters and mistresses, but she is able to recover several important clues, such as port bottles filled with blood, bloody sheets with the Queen's initials embroidered on them, meaning they came from the Queen's own bed, and the remains of a smashed plate identical to the one from the Queen's own bedroom.

The murder victim, a prostitute who was brought into the palace to serve as "entertainment" for the Prince and his male guests, was found wrapped in a sheet and stuffed into the linen closet. No one knows her real name, but that she was only brought in for that one night.

Reports surface that three of the noblemen were in Africa, specifically Capetown, when a half-caste prostitute was murdered in a very similar way. Also present was the brother of one of the Aristocrat's wives, who later died in an alligator-infested river, apparently attacked by the animals.

One of the men, Cahoon Dunkeld, is particularly abrasive at Pitt. Dunkeld is handling things for the Prince so that the Prince is spared the worry and the necessity of soiling his hands by dealing directly with the Prince. But it seems that Dunkeld has some secrets. In fact, all of the men meeting with the Prince do, along with their wives. Dunkeld's wife fears him and is afraid he will get rid of her so that he can marry the Crown Princess's lady in waiting, for he has boundless ambition and is tired of her. Dunkeld's daughter is married to another man, who Dunkeld's wife is completely in love with, but the daughter doesn't appear to value her husband and is having numerous affairs.

Her Husband has a brother who despises him, and so on. The ladies, even though the men try to keep the facts of the matter from them, find out all too quickly what has happened, and one of the women, Minnie Dunkeld-Sorokine, decides to investigate on her own. At dinner one night, she asks many questions, and by the next morning she is dead, apparently killed by her husband, who Dunkeld beats savagely before calling in Pitt.

But Pitt is by no means convinced that Sorokine killed his own wife and simply left her body in their shared room. For one thing, it's stupid, and Sorokine isn't stupid. So who is the real killer, and what is the circumstances of the Prostitute's death? If Pitt can't find the answer soon, the whole matter could come out and cause the fall of the monarchy, not to mention lose Pitt his job.

This book takes us to an area of Victorian society we haven't really seen before in a Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel, literally, to the house of the Queen and the people who congregate there. While we have been exposed (so to speak) to the nobility before, we haven't actually seen what life was like for those who ruled the nation, in the form of Prinny (Prince Albert Edward of Wales), his wife, and those he associated with.

Needless to say, this is pretty rarefied air for Pitt, who was born to a servant on a manorial farm. But despite not being comfortable with the company he'll be keeping, Pitt must do his job if he is to have any chance of succeeding.

This is also one of the few Thomas Pitt novels to lack his wife, Charlotte. Though he loves her dearly, as the wife of a man in trade, she is not allowed to circulate in the same ranks as the wives of the men Pitt is investigating, so she literally only appears in one scene in the novel, towards the beginning. This will be a blow to fans of the couple, as Pitt is staying in the Palace until the case is solved. Frankly, the book seems a little dead without her, even though the plot is a good one and moves along swiftly. Frankly, scenes with Pitt and Gracie just didn't have the same kind of buzz and left me a little disappointed.

It's a solid novel, but not, I think, one of Anne Perry's best. Unfortunately, there is a kind of feeling scenes between Pitt and Charlotte bring to the novel and they were missed in this book, leaving a sort of "off-kilter" feel to the book.

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