Nothing Ventured

This week I thought I’d try a new mystery novelist. Anne Perry has written a lot of mysteries set in 19th century England, and historical settings and historical research interest me. So let’s give her a shot.

After 40 pages of The Sins of the Wolf, I’m bored. Elmore Leonard, who has also written a lot of mysteries, once said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Leonard would have left out the entire beginning of this book.

Hester, who is a nurse, takes a train to Scotland. She has been hired to escort an elderly lady on a train trip from Edinburgh down to London and then back. The elderly lady has a large and varied family. The family is, of course, rich; they could hardly have hired a nurse otherwise. After 40 pages, nothing much has happened. Hester has met the family and eaten luncheon and dinner with them. She and the old lady are now on the train.

The old lady requires, of course, medicines, which have been packed in little bottles from which Hester is going to administer daily doses. It’s not hard to guess that one of the little bottles may contain poison. But other than that ever so slightly ominous hint, there is absolutely nothing that would qualify this as the opening of a mystery story. Elmore Leonard would have torn it up and started over.

Several members of the family evince an interest in Hester’s experiences serving with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. This is inherently interesting material, of course, at least to a history buff, but the extent to which Perry dwells on it makes Hester a central character, and that’s not what one wants in a mystery. A mystery is about the crime and the suspects; it’s only incidentally about the sleuth.

Perry has some bad habits. She tells us too much about the inner nature of her characters by describing their faces. “It was a clever, meticulous face, that of a man who concealed as much as he told.” Unless Hester is psychic, it would be impossible for her to divine such details from her first glimpse of a stranger.

“Looking at the intelligence and the resolve in Oonagh’s features, Hester saw that she [Oonagh] was not a woman to waste her energy on such things, which mattered not in the slightest…”. The “things” referred to in this sentence are domestic matters (dealing with dinner plans and the servants) that are not even the topic of conversation in this scene. Hester is imagining Oonagh dealing with the servants, and concluding from Oonagh’s features that she wouldn’t waste energy on such things — and yet, oddly, Oonagh is the de facto head of the household, and certainly does devote a fair amount of energy to supervising the servants, as we learn in a later scene. What we’re left with, then, is Perry’s remarkably clumsy attempt to illustrate Oonagh’s “intelligence and … resolve.”

Here’s another tidbit: “She pulled a slight face as she said it, as if she had been in awe of him until very lately.” This description of a young woman doing something (we can’t be sure what — curling her lip? cocking one eyebrow?) with her face when she mentions her elder brother is pure mind-reading on the part of either Hester or the author. It fills in a bit of back-story — something, the reader will gather, has happened recently to lower Eilish’s opinion of Alastair — but the technique used is inferior. It’s not good writing.

Perry’s initial description of the old man named Hector is stunningly inept. We have earlier seen a portrait of Hector’s deceased brother hanging in the hall. The portrait has “a broad mouth whose lines were blurred and strangely uncertain.” One gathers that the blurring was not the result of bad painting: On the next page, “Hester could not help glancing at the portrait again. The face haunted her, the ambiguities in it remained in her mind.” What ambiguities, we’re not told. And now to Hector: “an elderly man who so resembled the portrait in the hall that Hester was taken aback so much she found herself staring. But it was only coloring and features, the same fair hair, now thinning drastically, fair skin, and the refined nose and sensitive mouth. The inner man was utterly different. He too had wounds of the spirit, but he gave Hester no sense of uncertainty as the portrait had done, no ambiguity; there was a sharp knowledge of pain which had overwhelmed him, and he had lost to it, while knowing exactly what it was.”

In typing that out, I realize it’s even worse than I thought at first. The portrait’s mouth is “blurred and strangely uncertain,” and Hector has “the same … sensitive mouth.” Yet Hector has “no sense of uncertainty.” But we have been given no hint of any source of uncertainty in the portrait, other than its blurred mouth. In the sentence, “It was only coloring and features,” the pronoun “it” has no referent. The sentence before it has a doubled use of “so,” and ought to have been rewritten, preferably by replacing “so much she” with “and”.

That’s bad enough, but in her first glance at Hector, Hester is able to know that the “inner man was utterly different.” Perry is spoon-feeding the reader with information that Hester couldn’t possibly have divined — and yet she’s doing it in a way that obscures whatever she might be trying to say. We’re told that Hector has been overwhelmed by a sharp knowledge of pain … or has he been overwhelmed by the pain itself? Has he lost to the pain, or to the knowledge of the pain? What would it mean to lose to pain, anyway, or to the knowledge of pain? And what would it mean to know exactly what a pain was? Pain is pain, after all. Knowing what a pain is is not difficult. No, the passage is just too confused. I don’t know what Perry was trying to say.

Nor are the flaws in her writing confined to this one novel. I dipped briefly into Slaves of Obsession and found the following description of a dinner party Hester is attending with her husband Monk. She and Monk are among people they do not know, and the people (including Judith and Casbolt) are conversing: “They spoke of summer visits to Italy when the three of them … had walked the golden hills of Tuscany…. Judith laughed with pleasure, and Monk thought he saw a shadow of pain as well. He glanced at Hester, and knew she had seen it also. Casbolt’s voice held it too: the knowledge of something too keep ever to be forgotten, and yet which could be shared because they had endured it together…”. Isn’t this a jolly bit of mind-reading? And yet, at the same time, it tells us nothing. It’s a wisp.

Perry is felt by some reviewers to be a good historical novelist. I’m not sure why. Returning now to The Sins of the Wolf, Hester enters the family’s library, which is of course well stocked with books. “Several well-known authors were represented,” Perry tells us, “both living and from the past.” And that’s all we learn. Perry omits precisely the details that would have anchored the scene on the page. What authors? Shakespeare, certainly. Swift? Fielding? Smollett?

In the next paragraph, Hester “selected a book of verse [Shelley, perhaps?] and settled herself in one of the half dozen or so large armchairs and opened it to read.” Be very suspicious of an author who envisions a room so sloppily that she doesn’t even bother to count the armchairs. That “or so” is absolutely wrong. A good editor would have red-pencilled it.

This is not an isolated lapse. Here’s a different room: “The room was decorated largely in a cool mid-blue with a floral pattern of some indistinct sort upon the walls and in the carpet.” Perry has not bothered to figure out what sort of floral pattern the wallpaper and carpet bear, and her lack of care produces the dreadful “of some indistinct sort.” Unless the wallpaper and carpet were both very faded, the floral pattern would not have been indistinct, and faded wallpaper and carpet would have been a clear indication that the family had fallen on hard times financially, which is clearly not the case here.

As Hester is approaching Edinburgh, we get this very odd sentence: “The train rattled and lurched around a curve in the tracks, and when the air had cleared Hester could see in the distance the dark rooftops of the city…”. This is the beginning of a new paragraph, after seven longish paragraphs of flashback and background sketching. You have to jump back almost two pages to find, “It was a little after eight in the morning, and the stubble fields were still wreathed in mist…”. The clearing of the air occurs, evidently, because the mist is evaporating due to the rising heat of the morning. But the way the narrative is structured is bound to leave the reader with the confused impression that somehow the air has been made opaque by the train as it rattled and lurched around the curve.

And now Hester is headed back toward London with the old lady. “‘Have you traveled a great deal?’ Hester inquired … ‘I used to,’ Mary replied to the question with a reminiscent look.” No, that’s not a typo in my copy. Mary’s reply really does contain a comma-spliced dialog tag. If “to the question” were deleted, as it should have been, the dialog tag would be clumsy, but the punctuation would be acceptable. As it is, the dialog tag clearly is a complete, free-standing sentence, so the only correct punctuation following “I used to” is a period.

But that’s a detail. What, pray tell, is “a reminiscent look”? That phrase leaves this brief passage twitching in a heap on the floor. It combines, in one gesture, both of the problems detailed above. It’s mind-reading based on facial expression, and it’s also vague writing.

I could write better prose than this while playing table tennis with my free hand.

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