by Anne Perry (Ballantine, $25) Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry, 587-5737; noon-2 p.m. Thurs., March 14
AFTER penning 20 novels about Victorian copper Thomas Pitt and his intrepid wife, Charlotte, it's hardly surprising that British author Anne Perry should want to shake things up a bit. She did that with last year's The Whitechapel Conspiracy, in which Pitt was ousted from his command of London's Bow Street police station by a powerful camorra known as the Inner Circle. However, by book's end, Pitt had not only foiled a Circle plot to topple Britain's monarchy and connected that intrigue to the devilish doings of Jack the Ripper, but won back his old job.
Now comes Southampton Row, which marks the unexpected return of Charles Voisey, the Inner Circle leader whom Pitt thought he'd routed in The Whitechapel Conspiracy. Voisey has decided to campaign as a Tory for what seems a vulnerable Liberal Party seat in Parliament—a move that Pitt and others interpret as a first step in the Republican's effort to undermine the British government from within. Under assignment to the secretive Special Branch, Pitt sets out to learn whether the malevolent Voisey has any "unguarded vulnerabilities" that might derail his current election bid or at least prevent him from achieving higher elected office. This won't be an easy task; Voisey may in truth be "shallow, self-important, [and] condescending," but voters find him more charismatic and less controversial than his anti-imperialistic opponent, Aubrey Serracold. Furthermore, Serracold's candidacy may be endangered by his wife's connection to the recent slaying of a popular spiritualist, who'd been blackmailing her clients with information obtained during s顮ces. If Pitt is to have any hope of aborting Voisey's political career, he'll first have to solve the medium's murder.
Perry is a forceful plotter and a consistently polished writer, though she takes few stylistic chances. Her greatest strength is in presenting the Victorian upper crust without sounding overly mannered. As she's done in previous books, she introduces Britain's volatile politics of the 1890s into Southampton Row's storyline without seeming too pedagogical. She also establishes here a fine friction between Pitt and his former subordinate, Inspector Samuel Tellman, as they compete to solve the medium's slaying. Less attention, sadly, is paid to the usually resourceful Charlotte Pitt, who spends much of this adventure in a fret over threats to her family—an odd thing, when you consider Perry's renown for giving voice to the historically mum women of the Victorian Age.
J. Kingston Pierce
HELL TO PAY
by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown, & Co., $24.95) Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry, 587-5737; noon Thurs., March 21; University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400 7 p.m. Thurs., March 21
GEORGE P. Pelecanos owes an obvious debt to Elmore Leonard—he works a direct nod to the senior crime scribe into Hell to Pay—but his fiction seems even more informed by his experience in the film industry as a writer and producer. Not only is Pelecanos a diligent reporter of setting (the mean streets of Washington, D.C., in this case) and sounds (the soundtrack of hip-hop and '70s soul is neatly compiled throughout), he also possesses a canny sense of timing. Pelecanos doesn't linger on any one scene for very long, but he obviously knows how to execute both the jump cut and the slow fade. His most apparent cinematic skill, however, may simply be his unobtrusiveness as narrator—his highest priority is always moving his story along, a difficult act of modesty for many novelists.
Hell to Pay marks the return of the private investigation team of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn that Pelecanos introduced in his previous novel, Right as Rain. A case involving a runaway teen prostitute and a later one concerning the shooting death of a 9-year-old peewee league football player provide the book's central action and touch the lives of both men, but the parallel plots mostly allow the author to focus on each character separately. Quinn, the volatile ex-cop whose past was the main grist for Right as Rain, becomes intimately entangled in the prostitution case, yet Strange's ties to the death of the young man clearly take precedence here. The author's dedication of the book to a slain 7-year-old is a telling sign that the unseemly cycles of inner-city life are something about which Pelecanos is hardly dispassionate. At times he channels his frustration through Strange rather bluntly: "Suburban liberals plastered Free Tibet on the bumpers of their cars, seemingly unconcerned that just a few short miles from the White House, American children were enslaved in nightmare neighborhoods, living amid gunfire and drugs and attending dilapidated public schools."
If anything, the social messages might give Hell to Pay a little more heft; for the most part, though, Pelecanos isn't interested in preaching. Themes like human frailty and honor—plus good old-fashioned action—are more crucial to his storytelling here, and he handles them with an elegance rare to the genre.