“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner (1897-1962) “Requiem for a Nun” (1951)
If you liked Anne Perry’s previous Charlotte and Thomas Pitt historical novel “Treason at Lisson Grove” you’ll fall in love all over again with her newest one, “Dorchester Terrace” (Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $26.00).
Following the dramatic events in “Treason at Lisson Grove” (for my review, click: http://www. huntingtonnews.net/3578.) former Scotland Yard policeman Thomas Pitt is solidifying his position as commander of the Special Branch. He has succeeded Victor Narraway, a still influential man tainted by corruption and mismanagement of the agency that was created to protect the country from foreign and domestic terrorism. Despite his promotion, endorsed by Narraway, there are many in London who believe that Pitt has been promoted above his pay grade.
Narraway has been elevated to the House of Lords, a sanctuary for eminent people, but Pitt still relies on him for occasional guidance. Much of the criticism of Pitt stems from the class bigotry of 1896 England, where Pttt, the son of a gamekeeper, is deemed suitable for a police position, but may not have the gravitas and sophistication for the post he now holds.
Faulkner’s oft-quoted (and even more often misquoted) saying about the past is true in England a year after the events of the previous novel featuring the Pitts. Serafina Montserrat, an elderly Italian freedom-fighter against the Austro-Hungarian empire, lives in a handsome house in Dorchester Terrace with her great-niece Nerissa Freemarsh and a full complement of servants. Serafina was one of many in London who rose up in the fight against monarchies in the pivotal, revolutionary year of 1848, and is visited by many people, including the beautiful 38-year-old Adriana Blantyre, a native of Croatia, married to a diplomat and power broker Evan Blantyre, also a visitor to the home of the once fiery freedom fighter Serafina. Both the Blantyres have significant ties to Serafina.
Another visitor to Dorchester Terrace is Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, a decade or so younger than the ailing Serafina, but still a renowned beauty and a woman of influence in a country ruled by the utlimate woman of influence, the aged Queen Victoria, on the throne since 1837. Vespasia learns from talking to Serafina — a woman she’s admired for many years — that the elderly Italian fears she’s losing her mind, sliding into dementia, and might divulge secrets and crimes of the past that would disturb the always delicate power in a Europe that is seeing the rise of the newly unified Italy — and especially a resurgent, unified, technologically advanced Germany.
“Dorchester Terrace” will provide the reader with a crash course in 19th Century European history, especially about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, which at the time of the novel sprawled across central Europe, including Croatia, parts of present-day Italy (Trieste, now in Italy, was a major seaport for the country, both for the military and civilian sector), all of the present Czech Republic and Slovakia, and much of present-day Poland, Ukraine and Romania. Along with the Ottoman Empire, the fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian Empire is considered to be an extremely diverse country, both in religions — Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim — and restive ethnic minorities, that is a disaster waiting to happen.
Pitt’s able right-hand man Stoker has learned of suspicious activity along the railway line from Dover to London, important to the Special Branch because of an upcoming visit from Austria to England of Duke Alois Habsburg, a distant relative of Queen Victoria. Rumors swirl around that someone may blow up the train carrying the obscure duke to London.
Pitt and Stoker wonder why would anyone destroy an entire train to kill one obscure Austrian royal, creating an international incident that will remind history buff readers of a terrorist event in June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia (also part of the Austrian Empire) that triggered World War I. Perhaps, Pitt wonders, the rumors of suspicious activity in Dover and along the tracks are a ploy designed to distract Pitt from an even more devastating plot. He must resolve this riddle at once, before the damage is done.
As he has in the past, Pitt turns to his charming, clever and capable beyond belief wife for help. Charlotte Pitt befriends Adriana and provides valuable intelligence to the Special Branch commander. Charlotte is entranced with Adriana and the two women become friends, enjoying Croatian cuisine and attending art gallery exhibits and musical performances with her.
Along with the political elements, Charlotte has to contend with the fears of inadequacy experienced by her new maid and cook, Minnie Maude Mudway, who had replaced her mainstay Gracie Phipps. Gracie has her own home now and had recommended Minnie Maude for her new post. Perry deftly handles the interplay between Upstairs and Downstairs, with poignant humor. Look for a particularly charming domestic incident toward the end of this novel of intrigue, romance and treason. Charlotte also has a complicated relationship with her wealthier sister Emily, married to the up-and-coming political operative Jack Radley.
A few words about the unit Pitt heads: Lisson Grove is the West London district where the Special Branch has its headquarters. It’s the home neighborhood of George Bernard Shaw’s fictional heroine Eliza Doolittle of “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady” fame. It’s a gentrified neighborhood today, but in Victorian times, it was a near slum. The Special Branch acquires and develops intelligence of a political nature and investigates terrorist and subversive activity, much like the CIA and the FBI do today in the U.S. The first Special Branch was formed in 1883 as a unit of London’s Metropolitan Police, Thomas Pitt’s former employer, and was at first called the Special Irish Branch because of the struggle of the Irish for home rule and eventual independence.
Summing up: “Dorchester Terrace” is a classic, very readable and educational Anne Perry historical novel replete with well-drawn characters.
About the Author
Anne Perry is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including “Treason at Lisson Grove” and “Buckingham Palace Gardens”, and the William Monk novels, including “Acceptable Loss” and “Execution Dock” (both of which I’ve read and reviewed). She is also the author of a series of five World War I novels, as well as nine holiday novels, most recently “A Christmas Homecoming”, and a historical novel, “The Sheen on the Silk”, set in the Ottoman Empire and reviewed on this site by the present reviewer. Anne Perry lives in Scotland. Her website: www.AnnePerry.net.