Secrets and lies, calumnies and evasions: in Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries, these elements, rather than a hat or gloves, a bustle or a watch fob, are the usual accoutrements of refined ladies and gentlemen. Half Moon Street marks the return of Inspector Thomas Pitt (20 novels now, beginning with The Cater Street Hangman and still going strong) to the cobblestoned streets and elegant drawing rooms of 19th-century London.
The inhabitants of those drawing rooms aren't usually thrilled to see him, because he always comes bearing bad news. This time, a body has turned up in a boat on the Thames: Delbert Cathcart, a talented portrait photographer with a taste for blackmail. Clad in a velvet dress, wrists manacled, legs spread grotesquely, skull crushed, Cathcart reminds Pitt of a perverse echo of the Lady of Shalott, or perhaps a debased Ophelia. Which of Cathcart's clients could have been pushed so far as to retaliate in such hideous fashion?
Pitt's official investigation is usually combined with another more idiosyncratic approach to the crime; this secondary analysis gives Perry free rein to dissect the manners and morals of Victorian society. In Half Moon Street, the genteel inquisition falls to Caroline Fielding, Charlotte's mother (Charlotte, who must need a bit of rest after so many outings, has been packed off to Paris for a vacation; her presence in the book is restricted to letters marveling, rather tediously, at the scandalous iniquities of the Moulin Rouge dance hall). Perry's readers will no doubt remember that Caroline scandalized society by marrying a much younger actor, Joshua. Half Moon Street introduces Caroline to his theatrical world, and to Cecily Antrim, a beautiful actress with liberal politics. Cecily poses both a personal and philosophical threat to Caroline, who is disturbed by her willingness to expose the realities of female sexuality on stage: "Should such things be said? Was there something indecent in the exposure of feelings so intimate? To know it herself was one thing, to realize that others also knew was quite different. It was being publicly naked rather than privately." This fear of exposure resonates through the worlds of theatrical and photographic art, as actors, diplomats, and genteel citizens race to hide their secrets from Pitt and Caroline.
While Perry evokes the London atmosphere with her usual skill, her narrative lacks its usual finesse. Rather than balancing Pitt's and Caroline's investigation, the novel lurches between them so that it seems all too often that Perry, in pursuit of one story, has forgotten the other. Additionally, Caroline's reaction to feminist politics and sexuality is inexplicably repetitive; her turgid expressions of horror seem the result of an overly eager copy-and-paste procedure. One hopes that this is a momentary lapse in an otherwise solid series. --Kelly Flynn