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by Anne Perry
Ballantine, March 2017
288 pages
ISBN: 0425284980

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MURDER ON THE SERPENTINE has all of those attributes we might like to enjoy in a historical fiction of the Victorian Era: queens and princes, palace intrigue, lush dress balls, private gentleman's clubs, a game of cricket, a glass of port, spicy gossip, wicked innuendos, perhaps a royal by-blow–what? A bit of–treason– … In her 33rd Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel, Thomas still heads Special Branch, and he must ferret out why one of Queen Victoria's most trusted of advisors has drowned in water too shallow to drown in in the middle of the night, after having fallen out of a rowboat. Of course, he did not drown, at least not on purpose. Thomas'—and Charlotte's—hunt for the killer is pursued quietly, amid the hushed tones of gentleman's clubs or at ladies' at-homes in the layered language of gossip. But the conclusion is one of the most original from among her many well-plotted novels.

Dramatis personae: Commander Thomas Pitt, once an incriminated and discharged gamekeeper's son, not head of Special Branch, yet with his lower-class origins still haunting him; Charlotte, his spirited wife of an upper-class family; Charlotte's wealthy sister, Emily, married to Jack Radley, an MP; Queen Victoria, who hovers between life and death, but who is still imperious; the prince, her son, a playboy despite his 60 years; Kaiser Wilhelm, relative of Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, rattling his sabres a great deal; Somerset Carlisle, a man of means and power whose quick mind enables him to seek the truth; Alan Kendrick, breeder of fine racehorses for the Prince of Wales; his wife, Delia, whose daughter, conceived before her marriage to Alan, resembles the Prince of Wales; Walter Whyte, ex-military (Africa), one of the prince's hangers-on; Lady Felicia Neville Whyte, once one of the prince's "interests"; Sir John Halberd, a loved and trusted advisor to the queen who, alas, is no more; the Serpentine, a shallow lake in Hyde Park that keeps its secrets. Notably absent: Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, who has married Victor Narraway, kicked up her heels, and gone off on a tour of the Continent.

The Special Branch novels run along slightly different lines than those in which Thomas was not yet part of this national investigative arm of British security. As Commander of Special Branch, he is not allowed to share his cases with those around him, including Charlotte; thus, while Charlotte and Emily had openly helped him solve previous mysteries, in MURDER ON THE SERPENTINE, he must pursue his suspicions on his own while Charlotte pursues his suspicions on her own as well. Thus, in a way, two separate investigations are underway in our novel.

Thomas interviews Victoria and the Prince, members of Parliament and the Prince's horseracing and gambling acquaintances. Charlotte, worried for her husband's safety, visits with her sister Emily, and, together they form a plan of investigation. They attend the old and traditional at-homes of the wives whose husbands they know are involved in Pitt's case. Keenly they watch for who is cutting whom, what bawdy gossip is barely concealed, and what little strands of embarrassment are let to dangle. Delia Kendrick and Lady Felicia Whyte do some pretty serious ripping and tearing at one-another's reputations over—could it be an old liaison? Something about Delia's daughter, who has married abroad and is not seen in the environs of London very often? Charlotte and Emily also visit social outlets that are quite a new phenomenon—ladies' clubs that are not terribly dissimilar to that venerable institution, the men's club. There, ladies may meet and hold political discussions about the possibility of war in Africa, or whether women should vote. Charlotte and Emily pick up hints about political leanings which are never uninfluenced by social ones.

Events circle around and back to Africa, to great amounts of money wagered, to women who seem to be at the edges of men's lives, but who are not, really. These all converged one night on the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, not too far from the castle: Victoria's close advisor was murdered. At the last, if Pitt may not catch the criminal, he, the son of a gamekeeper, can lay a mean trap.

§ Dr. Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. A specialist in American Literature, she does not turn up her nose at the well-done whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, March 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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