11.11.09

Anne Perry's Paragon Walk

As one of the few novelists who has firsthand knowledge of murder, Anne Perry is uniquely qualified to write mysteries. Who better to write about crime than a person who has committed one? When Perry was 15, she helped her friend, Pauline Parker, bludgeon Parker’s mother to death. Perry spent five years in prison, admitting in a Guardian article that it was “the best thing that could have happened.” It certainly gave her the kind of insight into crime that almost no mystery writer possesses. Not surprisingly, a number of her fictional murderers are female.

Perry admits having been pushed to the limit in the weeks leading up to the murder of Parker’s mother. Anyone looking for convincing explorations of the pressures that provoke criminal actions will find them in her fiction. Her criminals have a psychological complexity and plausibility that make them fascinating studies in character.

Perry’s forte is the historical mystery novel; situating crimes in the past gives her the advantage of distance and perspective. Paragon Walk is the third book in her popular Victorian series starring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. The Pitt series, which began in 1979, is the longest sustained crime series by a living writer. Perry has also written a series of World War I mysteries and two sets of Victorian mysteries (the William Monk series and the Christmas series).

Set in the upper-class neighbourhood of London’s Paragon Walk, the novel begins with the discovery of the brutal rape and murder of a 17-year-old. The murder is investigated officially by Inspector Thomas Pitt and unofficially by his wife – the unconventional and outspoken Charlotte Pitt. Since Charlotte’s sister – Lady Emily Ashworth – is a neighbour of the victim’s family, the sisters become involved in the mystery investigation. Class distinctions play a large role in the novel, and are especially prominent in the juxtaposed lives of the two sisters. The murder takes place “in an artificial world of social privilege, where appearance is all that matters. Appearance is, quite literally, to die for” (Holland-Toll 2000, 256).

The plot is intriguing and the murderer difficult to guess; many of the characters lead hidden lives and possess dark secrets. All of them prefer to think that depravity lurks outside their neighbourhood and their class. Everyone is ready to blame servants or foreigners for the rape and murder. But evil lurks beneath the veneer of polite society erupting at different points in the novel.

The wilful blindness of people to the darkness that is within is a particularly strong theme in Paragon Walk. As the narrator reminds us, “Crime so often surprised people, as if it were not merely an outward act born from the inward selfishness, greed, or hate that had grown too big inside, the dishonesties suddenly without restraint” (29). Perry is known for her focus on moral/social concerns – themes that add interest and depth to her mystery novels.

Her writing is also distinguished for its historical accuracy. Victorian Britain was an extremely class-conscious society, and Perry captures the subtle nuances of class in her novels. As Holland-Toll points out,
She carefully sets up the class distinctions by which the Victorians ordered their lives; she accurately depicts the gradations within each rank, the very well-understood but unarticulated cultural models by which Victorians understood class ranking to occur. (Holland-Toll 2000, 266)
Perry is indeed an acclaimed historical mystery novelist. Twenty million copies of her books have been sold and all of her books are still in print according to her website. The Times has selected her one of the 100 Masters of Mystery. If you love novels with period authenticity and domestic detail, you will certainly find the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series highly readable.

Holland-Toll, Linda J. “Anne Perry: Victorian ’Istorian and Murdermonger.” In The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, edited by Ray B. Browne and Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr., 265-82. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000.

Perry, Anne. Paragon Walk. New York: Fawcett Books, 1981.