Victorian London comes alive in Anne Perry’s tension-filled new mystery, Blood on the Water, the 20th novel in her best-selling William Monk series.
Monk, commander of London’s River Police, is on patrol with his deputy, and the two watch a large pleasure craft as it wafts sounds of music and laughter across the water. Suddenly, they witness a terrible explosion and fire that sinks the boat within minutes, leaving few survivors. Monk’s boat, along with scores of others, become rescue crafts, as they pull ashore those lucky enough to be alive and retrieve nearly 200 bodies of drowned victims.
Readers of Perry’s popular series will know that this deliberate act of murder is just the opener for an intricate and densely plotted novel that will involve close detecting by Monk, his wife, Hester, and a number of other neatly described characters, including Scuff, an urchin the couple discovered barely surviving on the streets a few years earlier, and who is now part of their household.
Though the tragedy takes place on the river, the case is inexplicably handed over to the city’s Metropolitan Police, and Monk suspects an official cover-up, possibly connected to politics and profits from the newly built Suez Canal. The police arrest an Egyptian man, who is quickly tried and convicted, but evidence later exonerates him, and the bungled case is returned to Monk’s jurisdiction. He now must start from square one to find not only the culprit who set off the explosion but, more importantly, the individual or group behind the horrific but meticulously planned event.
Perhaps due in part to the era in which it’s set, the story is sometimes overcome by a dreary “morality tale” atmosphere, and interactions laden with guilt often predominate. Monk and his determined wife, Hester, are deeply moralistic, not folks you can easily cozy up to. Fortunately, Scuff and his new associate, nicely called Worm, add a bit of lively detail to the strict tone of the book, and any levity comes as a welcome relief.
As always, the author’s strength lies in her knowledge of the early Victorian era, which enlivens and adds authentic color to the well-plotted narrative. Every detail of custom and costume is carefully aligned with 1860s England, with its teeming streets, polluted waterways and deeply rooted class structure and social mannerisms.