For nearly four decades Anne Perry’s riveting detective novels have played out against the backdrop of the Victorian era. Fans of British royalty will delight in Perry’s “Murder on the Serpentine,” which spotlights the woman this British author reminds us was “queen and empress of a quarter of the earth” during her 63-year reign.
When the body of Victoria’s confidant is found on the banks of the Serpentine, the curvy lake that meanders through London’s Hyde Park, it’s up to Thomas Pitt, the “copper” who heads Special Branch, to figure out whether Sir John Halberd was murdered. The investigation in Perry’s 32nd novel featuring Pitt and his wife, Charlotte, may be the biggest case in Pitt’s career, because Halberd’s death could be tied to a conspiracy that could bring down the monarchy.
In “Serpentine,” Pitt is called to Buckingham Palace where the ailing queen, now 80 (she died at the age of 81 in 1901), asks him to look into Halberd’s last days. At the time of his death, at her request, he was investigating the possible criminal activities of Alan Kendrick, a man whom the queen believes is a bad influence on the Prince of Wales .
Perry writes meticulously laid-out police procedurals, and Pitt’s methodical investigation sets the novel’s early, steady pace. The tone becomes darker and more urgent when Pitt bumps up against Halberd’s and Kendrick’s friends and enemies, as well as their “downstairs” help — the people who always know best what’s going on in their masters’ lives. Blackmail, double agents, illicit weapon sales and the stench of treason arm this novel with the power to entertain as well as enlighten readers on matters of history, crime-solving and devotion to queen and family. In a lovely closing scene, Her Majesty bequeaths Pitt with a most satisfying gift, one that will have Perry’s fans cheering.
Perry’s publisher is promoting “Serpentine” as the last in this series — but it isn’t really. Perry — who writes another Victorian-era series that features detective William Monk — is writing a new series that takes place 10 years after “Serpentine” and will include the Pitts as well as a new generation of characters.
And Perry may have dropped a few clues in “Serpentine” about these new protagonists. While solving the mystery of Halberd’s death, Pitt adds Joseph Bentley, a young veteran of the Boer War, to his team at Special Branch. If Perry has big plans for Bentley, then he’ll join a distinguished brotherhood of fictional military veterans, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s John Watson and Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike, who became detectives after serving their country. Then again, the Pitts’ daughter, Jemima, will be 28 years old in 1910 when the new series begins. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she also gets to carry a badge?
Carol Memmott also reviews books for the Chicago Tribune.
By Anne Perry
Ballantine. 288 pp. $28