“Upstairs Downstairs”-type class tensions waft through Perry’s swank London townhouses as thickly as they do the passageways of Downton. (Indeed, the solution to one of the murders in this novel emerges after Perry’s detective hero, Thomas Pitt — himself the son of a gamekeeper — has a confidential chin-wag over a pot of tea with the housekeeper in a prominent household.) And, most ominously, the approaching storm of World War I twists nerves taut in both the British soap opera and Perry’s stately page-turner.
“Dorchester Terrace” is the 25th suspense novel featuring Perry’s married sleuths, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt. Through adventure after adventure, Thomas has diligently risen through the police ranks to finally ascend, here, to the apex: the august position of head of the Special Branch. Unfortunately, he barely has time to bask in that honor before the sky falls down.
An elderly woman (and former spy) named Serafina Montserrat becomes terrified when she realizes that her mind is faltering and she may unwittingly divulge old secrets that could still present a danger to present-day British interests. Panicked, she turns for help to a long-time ally, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, who happens to be Thomas’s aunt by marriage. While Lady Vespasia susses out this security threat, Thomas weighs disturbing news from his own espionage agents in field. Known anarchists have been spotted lurking around railroad crossings and asking alarming questions about tracks and equipment. The only dignitary due to arrive in England is a small fry, a minor Austrian duke. As Thomas tries to figure out whether the perceived threat to the British rail system and international relations is real, he must contend with the snobbery of his betters in Her Majesty’s Service. Just when it seems the situation can’t get any stickier, Thomas discerns that there’s a mole busily wrecking havoc within the Special Branch itself.
The plot of “Dorchester Terrace” moves along in suspensefully serpentine fashion, and given that we readers know what historical horrors really did follow from the assassination of an Austrian archduke, Pitt’s dilemma has the ring of genuine urgency. What remains most vivid, however, about this series in general, and “Dorchester Terrace” in particular, is those small moments when Perry takes readers deep into the rituals and brutal social realities of a vanished world. We learn, for instance, that Serafina has died (or been murdered) not through a telephone call, or — heaven forbid, an e-mail — but through the dawning awareness of Lady Vespasia as she rides in her closed carriage to pay a call on Serafina. Lady Vespasia realizes that she can no longer hear the pounding of her horses’ hooves on the pavement. That’s because sawdust has been strewn on the road outside Serafina’s house — as was the custom outside the houses of the recently dead — to muffle sound in consideration of the mourners.
“Dorchester Terrace” ends with some unlikely malefactors unmasked and greater evils left lurking on the horizon. Doubtless, by the time Perry’s series — and “Downton Abbey” — reach their next installments, the clouds will have begun to gather more thickly in what the famed World War I poet Rupert Brooke called “an English Heaven.”
Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”