Hansom cabs clatter along shadowy cobblestone streets past street vendors hawking their wares. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, those in power - and those who would like to be - jockey for position on the slippery social slope. A solitary figure hurries nervously down a deserted lane before slipping through a rusty iron gate and disappearing into the garden undergrowth. London, in the golden years of Queen Victoria's reign, is not a place for the faint of heart.
But it is the place where fans of British author Anne Perry and her novels of Victorian murder and intrigue love to spend their time. Scenes like these fill the pages of Southampton Row, Perry's most recent effort and the 22nd book featuring policeman Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte. Presently in the midst of a multi-city American tour, Perry was euphoric this week with the news that Southampton Row had just hit No. 5 on the New York Times Bestseller List, her highest showing ever. She'll be at Auntie's tomorrow night.
"Everyone who writes wants their books to sell and to be well-received," she says, adding that the joy of touring and meeting her readers comes when she learns "that people have not just enjoyed it but really understood the issues. When people say they read it during a hard time and it helped them get through -- well, that's something that even the tax man can't take away."
In Southampton Row, Thomas Pitt has returned to duty as superintendent of London's Bow Street Station, only to have his political enemies step in once again and force his reassignment to the mysterious Special Branch. At first, his assignment is rather vague: to learn what he can about the power-hungry Charles Voisey and his candidacy for Parliament. But soon a spirit medium, one Maude Lamont, is found murdered in her home, and Pitt learns that the progressive and outspoken wife of Voisey's opponent attended Lamont's final, deadly seance. Suspecting blackmail, conspiracy and intrigue, Pitt goes to work unraveling the case, watching over his shoulder for Voisey's retaliation all the time.
Many favorite characters from earlier books in the Pitt series return in Southampton Row, which is comfortable for readers who have been following along with earlier episodes but may be challenging to new readers who aren't familiar with Perry's work. Entering the world of Southampton Row as a novice is a bit like walking into a party where the other guests all know one another but you know no one; it takes a while to catch onto the subtleties inherent in relationships that have a long backstory. But Perry's skill with period settings and political details wins through in the end. The story builds to a satisfying conclusion, but leaves enough unanswered questions to promise yet another showdown between Pitt and Voisey.
Perry has become a master at capturing the Victorian era accurately. She says her research begins in the bookstore. The Victorian era was also the era of early domestic advice books, and Perry finds these sources invaluable for their glimpses into daily period life. "I buy a lot of books. I have a separate room in my house just for books. I can get a picture of a household object, but I want to know how people used it, and what some of the concerns were." She collects guidebooks and catalogs that describe domestic tools and furnishings, along with other references outlining grocery items, the functions of various household servants, and fashionable styles and colors. All of this research allows her to paint a complex social setting with both broad strokes and intimate details.
Perry admits that one of the biggest challenges of historical fiction is keeping the characters true to their time period. "This is where the research really counts, to make them people of their time, and to know what they would hope for." The key, she says, is "Don't make them think as I would now, or even as I think I would in that time."
Into the social setting, Perry weaves the hotly contested political issues in Britain at the time. Given the particularly British social and political complexity, it's surprising to learn that Perry's largest audience is American, but the Victorian setting clearly appeals to readers on this side of the pond. "I think [the period] is far enough away that we enjoy looking back at it, yet many of the issues are familiar enough to us that we can relate," she says. "What appeals to me about the Victorian era is that we're just before police science -- ballistics tests and so on -- so any one of us could probably step in and solve these cases with intuition and common sense."
Perry also appreciates the sincerity and optimism that sprang back then from the approach of a new century. "We had a very optimistic outlook then," she says. "There were social problems but also an optimism that they could be solved. They had confidence and patriotism in the right way, in the sense that you owe your people loyalty. It was much healthier than how we do things now, much less cynicism."