Plot Junkie: Anne Perry’s World War I novels

106. No Graves As Yet, Anne Perry
107. Shoulder the Sky, Anne Perry
108. Angels in the Gloom, Anne Perry
109. At Some Disputed Barricade, Anne Perry
110. (still reading) We Shall Not Sleep, Anne Perry

(Fellow book lovers- recognize the titles? I only recognized the fourth right off, but it seems all are lines from World War I poetry. “No graves as yet” is from G. K. Chesterton’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; “shoulder the sky” is from A. E. Housman’s Last Poems “IX”; I can’t locate the phrase “angels in the gloom”—it sounds like Siegfried Sassoon to me (he talks a lot about gloom and angels) though I can’t find this particular arrangement of words (leave a comment if you know it); “at some disputed barricade” is, of course, from Seeger’s poem; and “we shall not sleep” is from the closing lines of McCrae’s “In Flanders Field.”)

I go back and forth on how I feel about Anne Perry’s novels. Every time I go back to either the Thomas Pitt or the William Monk series, I’m initially enthralled—she does such a great job of evoking the atmosphere of the mid or late Victorian world. Her research is absolutely meticulous. I’ve not yet stumbled across a detail in her books that seemed off: the language is perfect, the characters—especially the women—might not act exactly as the stereotypical Victorian woman, but it’s clear what that standard is and how they are reacting to or acting within that framework. But then.

But then, after reading two or three, I always get sick of her. Her bad guys are always whoever is at the top of the food chain. Every investigation reveals hidden depravities in polite society. Which is all well and good—I get it. The mannered Victorian world had just as many prostitution rings and child pornographers as modern society. And yes, it’s reprehensible. But no matter how much I love the world she makes and the characters she writes, her plots get boring.

Anyway, even with all that baggage about how I feel about Anne Perry’s novels, I’m loving this series. The first book, No Graves As Yet, opens on the beautiful sunshiny morning of June 28, 1914. Joseph Reavley, a professor of ancient languages at Cambridge, is watching a cricket game when his brother, Matthew, arrives with the horrifying news that their parents have been killed in a car accident. Their father was en route to bring Matthew, a secret service operative, a document which horrified him—as Joseph and Matthew investigate the accident they uncover a conspiracy with repercussions that would shake the entire world and begin to suspect the accident was really something much more sinister. They are so caught up in their own tragedy that they don’t hear about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in Serbia until days later. When they do, England is already hurtling towards the conflagration that would shape the modern era.

In the subsequent books in the series, Joseph goes to war as a chaplain, Matthew continues to work in Intelligence, Judith (their younger sister) becomes an ambulance driver on the front and Hannah (married to a navy officer) holds down the home front.

I’m loving the way the series focuses on each of the siblings in turn. Each of them—each of their stories—are told so well that I’m enjoying it all: I’m not hurrying to finish the bit about Hannah on the home front to get back to Joseph in the trenches—it’s all fascinating. And since Perry built in a far-reaching conspiracy from the very beginning, her propensity to always make the guy in charge the bad guy doesn’t seem quite so obvious. 

Good stuff. Perhaps not the first book I’d recommend about the era (you must read A Very Long Engagement) but definitely worth reading.

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