Saturday, November 10, 2012

I've been to London to visit the Queen

Anne Perry is almost frightening prolific, with about 70 books under her belt since she was first published in 1979. (Uncharitably, I simply cannot think of her without remembering this.)  I used to read her religiously, but now it's more of an occasional indulgence (about one book a year for the last ten years). Although I don't feel like she's going through the motions, the 25th (!) in her series featuring Victorian London policeman Thomas Pitt and his upper-class wife Charlotte, Buckingham Palace Gardens, offers few surprises.

A few books ago, Thomas Pitt ran afoul of his superiors at Scotland Yard and was assigned to investigate crimes against the state with Victor Narraway and the Special Branch. Early one morning in 1893, he is called by Narraway to Buckingham Palace. The bloody body of a prostitute -- throat and abdomen viciously slit open -- has been found in a linen closet. Edward, the Prince of Wales, had hosted a party the night before: entertaining four Victorian entrepreneurs eager for the Prince to support their grand plan to build a railroad stretching from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.  Once the wives had gone to bed, the leader of the group, Cahoon Dunkeld (I continue to admire Perry for the intriguing names she provides her characters), arranged for a visit with some prostitutes. Two left, one did not. The Queen is due back in a few days and this unpleasant mess must be cleared up before her arrival.

Pitt and Narraway quickly conclude that the murder is one of the three railroad men (not Cahoon), but the evidence is contradictory and the gentlemen themselves obstructive. Even with the help of his housemaid Gracie, brought to the Palace to be Pitt's eyes and ears on the inside, Pitt cannot solve the puzzle before another death occurs.

Perry is clearly deeply enmeshed in her history, and she likes to explore the class divide (epitomized by the marriage of son-of-a-gamekeeper Pitt with socially connected Charlotte). She explores the internal lives (occasionally ad nauseum) of her characters, but also enjoys concocting an intricate puzzle. I've felt in reading the last few that her books are sometimes weighted down by everything she throws into them. I had this feeling in Buckingham Palace Gardens, while at the same time the denouement felt really rushed and overly reliant on coincidence. There's also some oddly enlightened Victorians in this novel who want to leave Africa for the Africans. I'm not even sure Westerners felt that way about Africa 100 years later.

Michael Page, a prolific audiobook narrator, reads this novel. Years ago I listened to him read an installment in another Perry series, but I've not heard him since I started keeping this blog [edited to add: Wrong! I listened to this.].  He has a very actor-y voice -- rich and resonant with lots of variation. He is very good at characterization -- the more obvious choices through social class, but I particularly admired the subtle differences between his voice for Pitt and for Narraway (the latter was quick, nasal and emphatic, Pitt speaks slower and slightly deeper). His women also sound female without being femmy (many a male narrator has failed in this area).  Page does substitute volume for emotion with certain characters, I found the bombastic and loud voice he gave to Cahoon to be earshattering upon occasion. Like Katherine Kellgren, he's an American who can put on a mean British accent (I think he's originally from the U.S. ... maybe not). It might be interesting to hear him read something in his own "native" tongue.

On my first trip to London in 1977, I read in some guidebook that if you approached the guards at the gate of Buckingham Palace and asked to sign the Queen's guestbook, you were permitted to enter and walk across the red gravel to that part of the building that fronts the inner courtyard. We entered a doorway, and sure enough, there was the guestbook awaiting my signature.  I wonder if you can still do that.

[The aerial view of Buckingham Palace, showing the gardens behind, was taken by Brendan and Ruth McCartney as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Buckingham Palace Gardens (Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, Book 25) by Anne Perry
Narrated by Michael Page
Brilliance Audio, 2008.  12:35

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