This is the second time I’ve tried to read Anne Perry’s novel, A Sudden, Fearful Death. And it is the second time I put it down without finishing it. Part of it is the subject matter – abortion and the role of women in Victorian England.
Tell me something I don’t know….oooh! They were kept ignorant about sex and birth control? 99.9 percent of the world was ignorant about birth control at that time, even men. Abortion is horrible? Yes, it is, and even worse for women before anesthesia, pain killers and antibiotics. Sorry, but this is not a subject I want to read about in my leisure hours.
Although Perry does take a nuanced approach to a difficult topic, I find any mention of abortion, especially some of her descriptions, very distressing. Perry doesn’t offer a black and white view of the subject, and that’s to her credit. She’s dealing with abortion issues in Victorian England, where girls get raped by family members and cannot even report it to the police; their morals are questioned, their futures ruined, through circumstances entirely not their own. Victorian England may have had better fashions and designs, but oh, to live there? No, no thank you.
This is a mystery novel, and the book begins with William Monk, her dapper, acerbic amnesiatic detective investigating the rape of a young woman who lives with her sister and brother in law in a pleasant, middle class household. Lady Callandria Daviot, Monk’s patron, hires him to discover the rapist. He does, but not before he is called in by Lady Callandria to another crime scene; the murder of a former Crimean war nurse at the local hospital.
Monk’s investigation of both crimes links together the Victorian attitudes towards sex, birth control, abortion and child birth. The problem? It feels contrived. And it gets boring – fast. Perry’s real theme is the role of women in Victorian society. She’s a deft and skilled writer, creating memorable and genuinely likable characters, even the one who is dead and never met in real life. We see Nurse Prudence Barrymore through the eyes of others – her father, her mother, her suitor, even Florence Nightingale, who makes a brief appearance in the novel. And we grow to like Prudence as our curiosity about her death is piqued.
I think the biggest problem with this novel, aside from my personal problem with the subject matter, is that it feels like 3 novels in one, with poorly connected parts. Part I is the investigation of the rape, Part II the investigation and subsequent trial of Prudence’s killer, with the motive of unrequited love. But then in an abrupt volta that feels forced to fit the feminist agenda of the plot – practically screaming, “Look! Isn’t it just AWFUL how women were treated in Victorian England?” – we run smack into Part III, where we find the true reason for Prudence’s death.
My reaction upon reading this novel the second time around is the same. As we stumble and putter towards suspect after suspect, my attention span wanes. I stop caring about what happens to Julia and her sister from Part I. I wish Prudence’s killer gets his comeuppance and the noble, kind and caring Dr. Beck is cleared, but I don’t care to read any more tales of botched back alley abortions, women dying because they had a dozen kids, or the horrors of Victorian sexuality.
My great grandmother had 13 children and another great grandmother of mine had 11. Both Victorian women, both struggling to raise families. One was married to an alcoholic who had trouble holding down a job, so she opened a bakery to support the family. You try raising a dozen kids while running a business in the early part of the 20th century. Yes, women did it. They did it all the time and it was tough. But so are the challenges of today’s society – just tough in different ways.
All in all, although I remain a staunch Perry fan and eagerly await her next Monk or Pitt novel, this one is to me her weakest in the series. A Sudden, Fearful Death drags, and meanders, and makes me yawn. Not my favorite book.