Anne Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries are perhaps the best loved of all her Victorian bestsellers, luring us into the multilayered richness of London, from the great mansions and secluded drawing rooms to the city's festering slums. Now, in her most mesmerizing novel yet, she invites us to a house-party at Buckingham Palace.
The Prince of Wales has asked four wealthy entrepreneurs and their wives to the palace to discuss a fantastic idea: the construction of a six-thousand-mile railroad that would stretch the full length of Africa. But, alas, the prince's gathering proves disastrous when the mutilated body of a prostitute hired for a late-night frolic (after the wives have retired to bed) turns up among the queen's monogrammed sheets in a palace linen closet.
With great haste, Thomas Pitt, brilliant mainstay of Special Services, is summoned to resolve the crisis. The Pitts' cockney maid, Gracie, is also recruited-to pose as a palace servant and listen in on the guests' conversations, scan their bedrooms, and scrutinize their troubled faces for clues to hidden rivalries and attachments that could have lead to murder. If Pitt and Gracie fail to find out who brutally murdered the young woman-as seems increasingly likely-Pitt's career will be over, and the scandal may just cause the monarchy to fall.
With a cast of wonderful characters, among them the gentle Princess of Wales, and a twisting plot that takes us into the hidden world of the royal family, Anne Perry probes deeply the hearts of men and women ensnared by their own emotions. Never has this distinguished novelist told a story with more truth and passion.
The detecting and diplomatic skills of Thomas Pitt, now assigned to the Special Branch, are tested as never before in bestseller Perry's solid 25th novel to feature the Victorian sleuth (after 2005's Long Spoon Lane). In 1893, the discovery of a prostitute's mutilated corpse in a Buckingham Palace cupboard after a stag party presided over by the prince of Wales could spell political disaster for the monarchy. Pitt soon eliminates the members of the sizable household staff as suspects, narrowing his focus to the prince himself and his close friends, who, it turns out, have been planning a major construction project in Africa--a railway that would run from South Africa to Egypt. Though the sensitive nature of Pitt's assignment precludes any active involvement by Charlotte, his wife and partner in earlier cases, he's able to place her maid, Gracie Phipps, on the palace staff to assist him. Perry does a nice job with some plot twists, even if most readers will quickly discount the heir to the throne of England as a viable suspect. (Mar.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 24, 2008
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Excerpt from Buckingham Palace Gardens by Anne Perry
She was apparently found in the linen cupboard, poor creature," Narraway replied, his lean face dour, his eyes so dark they seemed black in the interior shadow of the hansom cab. Then, before Pitt could say anything further, he corrected himself. "One of the linen cupboards in Buckingham Palace. It was a particularly brutal murder."
The vehicle jerked forward, throwing Pitt back in the seat. "A prostitute?" he said incredulously.
Narraway was silent for a moment. The horse's hoofs clattered loudly, the carriage's wheels rattling over the cobbles dangerously close to the pavement edge.
"Surely that's a bad joke!" he said at last as they swung around the corner into The Mall and picked up speed again.
"Very bad," Narraway agreed. "At least I hope so. But I fear it is perfectly serious. However, if Mr. Cahoon Dunkeld proves to be wasting our time exercising his sense of humor, I shall take great joy in personally putting him in jail--preferably one of our less pleasant ones."
"It has to be a joke," Pitt said, shivering at the thought. "There couldn't be a murder at the Palace. How could a prostitute get in there, anyway?"
"Through the door, exactly as we shall, Pitt," Narraway answered. "Don't be na�ve. And she was probably more welcome than we shall be."
Pitt felt a little stung. "Who is Cahoon Dunkeld?" he asked, avoiding looking at Narraway. He had a reverence for Queen Victoria, especially now in her advanced age and widowhood, even though he was perfectly well aware of her reputed eccentricities and the fact that she had not always been so popular with her people. She had been in mourning too long, retreating not only from joy but also from duty. And he had gained some personal knowledge a couple of years ago of the extravagance and the self-indulgence of the Prince of Wales, and knew he kept several very expensive mistresses. Pitt had been superintendent of Bow Street then, and the conspiracy around the Prince had cost him his job and very nearly brought down the throne. That was why Pitt was now working for Victor Narraway in Special Branch, learning more about treason, anarchy, and other forms of violence against the State.
But the thought of a prostitute in the Queen's home was different. It disgusted him, and he had difficulty concealing it, even though he knew Narraway found him plebeian amd faintly amusing for having such idealism.
"Who is Cahoon Dunkeld?" he repeated.
Narraway leaned forward a little. The dappled, early-morning sunlight of The Mall made bright patterns on the road. There was little traffic. It was not a residential area, and such horseback riders as were out would be cantering up and down Rotten Row on the edge of Hyde Park.
"An adventurer of considerable charm when he wishes, and undoubted ability, who is now seeking to become a gentleman in the more recognized social sense," Narraway answered. "And apparently a friend of His Royal Highness."
"What is he doing at the Palace at this hour of the morning?" Pitt said.
"That is what we are about to find out," Narraway snapped as they came out of The Mall in front of the Palace. The magnificent wrought-iron railings were tipped with gold. Guards were on duty wearing bearskin helmets, their red tunics bright in the sun.
Pitt looked up at the sweeping fa�ade itself and then at the roof. He saw with a flood of relief that there was no flag flying, indicating that Her Majesty was not in residence. At the same time he was inexplicably disappointed. He was quite aware that Narraway would find it gauche of him, but Pitt would like to have caught another glimpse of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. In spite of all common sense, there was a quickening of his heartbeat. Even inside the hansom cab he sat straighter, lifted his chin a little, and squared his shoulders.
If Narraway noticed, he did not allow himself even the slightest smile.
They swung round to the right, heading for the entrance where tradesmen and deliveries would go. They were stopped at the gate. Narraway gave his name, and immediately the guard stepped back and saluted. The cabdriver, startled into respect, urged his horse forward at a newly dignified pace.
Ten minutes later Pitt and Narraway were being conducted up the wide, elegant stairs by a manservant who had introduced himself as Tyndale. He was of slight build but he moved with suppleness, even some grace, although Pitt judged him to be well into his fifties. He was courteous enough, but quite obviously distressed beyond any ability to maintain his normal composure.
At any other time Pitt would have been fascinated to think that he was inside Buckingham Palace. Now all he could think of was the enormity of what lay ahead of them. The magnificence of history meant nothing.
Was this an idiotic practical joke? Tyndale's pallid face and stiff shoulders said not, and for the first time since Narraway had made his extraordinary statement in the hansom, Pitt considered the possibility that it might be true.