BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Sunless Sea’: Grisly Murder Leads to Greatest Challenge to the Investigative Skills of William and Hester Monk

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'A Sunless Sea': Grisly Murder Leads to Greatest Challenge to the Investigative Skills of William and Hester Monk
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran /  Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. — opening lines of “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), composed 1797, published 1816.

The legend has it that one of Samuel T. Coleridge’s great poems — a fragment actually, since he was interrupted by the “Person from Porlock” — was written while the poet was under the influence of opium. It was perfectly legal at the time and widely used as a painkiller and anesthetic. Of course, it was widely abused, as Anne Perry demonstrates brilliantly in her latest William Monk novel “A Sunless Sea” (Ballantine Books, 384 pages, $26.00).

In fact, opium is as much a character in this novel as William and Hester Monk, Scuff, Sir Oliver Rathbone and the other characters populating Perry’s Monk books. In more than a few ways, “A Sunless Sea”   advances plot points and information in the previous Monk novel, “Acceptable Loss” (link to my Aug. 19, 2011 review :

When I reviewed “Acceptable Loss” last year, I wondered how Perry, who turned 74 on October 28, could top the twists and turns and intricacies of that novel, involving the Commander William Monk of the River Police. A veteran of the regular police,  Monk is accustomed to violent death, but the mutilated female body found on Limehouse Pier in early December 1864 moves him with horror and pity. The victim’s name is Zenia Gadney. Her waterfront neighbors can tell him little — only that the same unknown gentleman had visited her once a month for at least 15 years. Those who jump to conclusions think she’s a prostitute, but she doesn’t appear to be a woman who walks the streets, like the victims of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel murders almost two decades in the future.

Monk draws upon the skills of his wife, Hester, who as a nurse in the Crimean war a decade earlier had also become accustomed to violent death, to discover that Zenia Gadney has a connection to Dr. Joel Lambourn, an apparent suicide who died on One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park two months before Zenia’s body was discovered. An inquest concludes that Lambourn, a scientist and investigator,  committed suicide after his report on the dangers of unrestricted opium in Britain is rejected by the powers that be.

Any reader of Anne Perry’s Monk novels — as well as her novels featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt —  knows that anything that appears obvious and straightforward will turn out to be complicated beyond belief. “A Sunless Sea” is no exception as complications pile on like players in a rugby match. Men at the highest levels of government are identified as parliament attempts to do something about the opium epidemic.    William and Hester have their faith in their country shaken as they learn the truth about the opium wars the British Empire waged against China starting almost 30 years before, with the world’s greatest power forcing the weak Chinese government to grant concessions like Hong Kong and in treaty ports like Shanghai. In the process, the wars addicted millions of Chinese to consume opium grown in  India, a British possession, at great profit to many Englishmen. (for more on the Opium Wars, which forced China to accept unequal treaties with Western powers — including the U.S. — see:

Monk’s investigation leads him to arrest Joel’s wife, Dinah Lambourn,  for the murder of Zenia, but that’s just the beginning as the tangled web is unraveled. Dinah wants the best defense lawyer available asks Monk to secure the services of his friend and one time rival for the affections of Hester, Sir Oliver Rathbone.

What sinister secrets could have made poor Zenia worth killing? And why does the government keep interfering in Monk’s investigation?

Like the torch-wielding villagers  in vampire novels, the public cries out for blood, as Dinah’s trial begins in an example of the speediest of speedy justice.  Monk, his spirited wife, Hester — Rathbone calls her “anarchic” —  and   Rathbone, search for answers. Unless they can gather evidence to convince a judge who is anything but even handed — and a jury already convinced that Dinah Lambourn is guilty of murdering Zenia — an innocent person will hang three weeks after the verdict. Did I say justice was speedy? Read “A Sunless Sea” for Anne Perry at the top of her game.

 About the Author
Anne Perry, born Juliet Hulme in England  Oct. 28, 1938,  is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the William Monk novels, including “Acceptable Loss” and “Execution Dock”, and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including “Dorchester Terrace” and “Treason at Lisson Grove”. 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 Byzantine Empire.    Anne Perry lives in Scotland.


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