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A Sunless Sea shines light on Victorian conventions

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Anne Perry, author of “A Sunless Sea” (Ballantine, 2012), is a top-notch writer of Victorian mystery novels. She is also among the most prolific, with more than a dozen titles featuring detective Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte; another dozen or so featuring William Monk; several short Christmas mysteries; and even a handful of World War I novels.

My personal favorites from Perry (read about her sordid past in the column above) are those that, like “A Sunless Sea,” star Monk, a former police detective who is currently the commander of the River Police; his wife, the feisty nurse Hester; and their good friend Oliver Rathbone, a successful barrister.

On the surface, “A Sunless Sea” chronicles the brutal murder of a quiet, unassuming middle-aged woman named Zenia Gadney, found eviscerated in a poor section of town known as Limehouse Pier. None of the neighbors knew Gadney well, and police are puzzled by her lack of employment and an apparent dearth of friends, relatives and hobbies.

But soon investigators discover that Gadney entertained a regular male visitor for several years, prompting questions: Is he a lover? A friend? Or is there a more sinister meaning behind the visits? Police also probe whether there is a relationship between Gadney’s murder and the recent suicide of Joel Lambourn, a successful London doctor.

Perry’s success is attributable in part to her vivid descriptions of life in England circa the 1850s and 1860s, including her observations on societal conventions among the different classes of British society. Upperclass women, for example, were expected to be accomplished at running a household of servants, in arts and music, and perhaps in a bit of gentile gardening. They had no status on their own but did what they were told to do, first by their fathers and later by their husbands.

But Perry’s books are remarkable for their plots as well. Each book delivers an exciting story, with surprises and dramatic conclusions. “A Sunless Sea” is no exception, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the opium epidemic in England, when the drug was legal and its use not restricted to doctors. The book is set in 1864, when Parliament was considering restrictions to the sale of opium. Readers soon discover that the deaths Perry describes may be inexorably linked to people wanting to influence proposed changes to the law. As one character notes, “Opium’s a powerful thing, like fire. Warm yer hearth, or burn yer ’ouse down.”

“A Sunless Sea” is a great selection for a book club, particularly those that enjoy mysteries or historical novels or books by Deanna Raybourn or Tasha Alexander, fellow writers of the same genre.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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