Set in London in the 1850s (no dates are given, but the Crimean War is prominent), The Face of a Stranger is the first in a 20-volume series of novels featuring detective William Monk. In an inventive twist, Monk is not introduced like Holmes or Peter Wimsey, with a full set of eccentricities and inhuman brilliance, but as a completely blank slate- he has total amnesia. I don’t have much experience in the detective genre, but like anyone else present in the current glut of Sherlock Holmes remakes and cookie-cutter police procedural TV, I think I have a decent handle on the general tropes, and Perry seems to both use and subvert the expected elements common to the mystery genre in Stranger. Rather than employ a somewhat clueless Watson type, the story is told almost exclusively from the detective’s perspective. However, having an amnesiac detective undercuts this choice, and condenses the perspective to one that is perhaps almost as clueless as an outsider, but with more personal and emotional involvement. It’s a brilliant cold open to a series, and feels very different from earlier detective stories.
A brief summary: Detective William Monk wakes up in a hospital following a near-fatal carriage accident, with no recollection of his life or even an idea of his own identity. After a few weeks of recovery, in which his body heals but his mind remains essentially blank, he is thrust into a controversial case concerning the murder of Jocelin Grey, a promising young war veteran from an upper class family. Fearing failure and the penury that would follow, he tries to cover up his lack of memory while investigating- relying purely on instinct and intelligence- and discovers his not inconsiderable natural skill along the way. Also unlike a lot of popular detectives, Monk is an actual policeman (or “peeler,” after police reformer Robert Peel) and has to deal with the hierarchies inherent in both the police force and a highly stratified society that sees him as a working man, and thus not a gentleman.
While investigating Grey’s murder, Monk becomes embroiled not only in the family drama of the Greys and complications of police hierarchy, but also in the mystery of an alluring young woman, Imogen Latterly, who seems to know Monk from a previous case. While Imogen is not as essential to his identity as he initially believes, her particular mystery is deeply involved in his current case. I won’t give further detail here, since detective stories are particularly easy to ruin with “spoilers,” but mention of Imogen leads me to a much more interesting character that deserves a look, her sister-in-law, Hester.
Hester Latterly is an intelligent, independent woman seemingly born at the wrong place and time. Returning home after nursing in the Crimea, she finds herself continually frustrated by the incompetence and stupidity of those in power, whether they are pompous generals or her stuffy brother. The story could have easily become anachronistic with the introduction of Hester, but she manages to be a clever, strong-willed, and dynamic without becoming a backward-facing caricature of the proto-feminist. She is very much hemmed in by social position and gendered expectations, and while she fights hard against her constraints, she also knows that she has to work as well as she can within the limitations of the system. Hester and Monk lock horns the very first time they meet, and they never really come to like each other, though each has a grudging respect for the abilities of the other. Hester becomes a key part to the final solution, but again, we’ll leave that alone. I mention this mostly just because I really hope Hester becomes an important character in the series and that she and Monk come together- not necessarily romantically, but in some sort of partnership. It would be so much more interesting than the helpless, “feminine” types Monk seems to favor.
The Victorian angel-in-the-house type does manifest itself in several female characters, and yet they all manage to be different. Unlike most historical detective stories, the characters rarely feel like stock choices. Nearly all of Perry’s characters are well drawn and complex, even those with very little bearing on the overall plot, but she also does an excellent job with the setting as well, recreating a very palpable Victorian London. Not only does she provide the requisite set pieces of hansom cabs and frock coats, but she doesn’t shy away from the dirt and squalor of the city and how miserable life in the slums could be. The city doesn’t simply operate as a throwback to the days of yore; there is a real despair and horror in the dark corners of the city that go beyond a mere stage setting. Children die in the gutters and cutthroats roam the alleyways, and the rich are typically self-involved, but equally capable of suffering- especially when they bring it upon themselves.
This book was chosen for my book club, and as I have mentioned, I’m not a mystery aficionado, so I came into this book completely blind. I didn’t even have the prurient thrill of knowing that Anne Perry had served time for murder before becoming an acclaimed author! (I won’t get into that here, it’s really not important to my experience, but you can definitely check it out on Wikipedia if you’re curious- or just look at some of the other reviews). I was very pleasantly surprised to realize not far into the text that I really loved this book and am thoroughly looking forward to starting the next volume in the series. With such a long run, I might be spending quite a lot of time with Mr. Monk.