BOOK REVIEW: 'Death on Blackheath': Special Branch Commander Thomas Pitt Faces His Greatest Challenge

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Death on Blackheath':  Special Branch Commander Thomas Pitt Faces His Greatest Challenge

Readers of Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels have come to expect twists and turns and red herrings by the bushel full, but her newest entry, "Death on Blackheath" (Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $27.00) raises the bar in this respect. And that's a good thing, because much of the charm of these Victorian era novels is the clash of personalities in a world threatened by competing empires.

Pitt has been challenged before by people who don't believe he has the right credentials or the gravitas to head the country's Special Branch, the agency that was created to protect the country from foreign and domestic terrorism (it was originally called the Irish Special Branch). 

He's the son of a  gamekeeper, and he lacks the army or navy service that is deemed vital to men who head the agency. Through ability and success in solving crimes, he rose through the ranks of Scotland Yard and was named Special Branch commander, replacing Victor Narraway, who was removed from the post and elevated to the House of Lords in the wake of a corruption scandal. Pitt retains his ties to Narraway and in this novel, those connections prove to be invaluable.

At first there appears to be no need for Pitt to be involved in the disappearance of a maid in the household of Dudley Kynaston, except that Kynaston is a high-ranking scientist working on naval weapons, especially submarines. The time of the novel isn't specified, but I'm guessing it's 1898 or 1899, near the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, when Europe's empires were engaged in power struggles that in 1914 boiled over and started the Great War, later known as World War I.

There are signs of a bloody struggle outside the Kynaston house on Shooter's Hill in Blackheath, the area of southeast London adjacent to the Greenwich Observatory (for more on this scenic area of London: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London) today better known as the start of the London Marathon.

What would be a case for Scotland Yard -- the blood, hair and shards of glass evident of a struggle outside the Kynaston home and the disappearance of the family's beautiful maid Kitty Ryder -- becomes a case for the Special Branch, with Pitt and his trusty right-hand man Davey Stoker becoming involved because of Kynaston's national security work.

When a mutilated woman's body is found in a gravel pit not far from Kynaston's house, speculation begins that the scientist might be involved in what might be the murder of the unidentified woman who may or may not be Kitty. 

Questions are asked in the House of Commons and the pressure on Pitt becomes more intense as Home Secretary bureaucrat Edom Talbot, who becomes an instant foe of Pitt,  pressures him to solve the case as quickly as possible. Following the advice of Narraway, Pitt manages to contain his anger at Talbot.

As evidence mounts that seemingly implicates Dudley Kynaston in an espionage conspiracy and murder,  Pitt needs the help of everyone, including the dogged investigator Stoker; his wife and confidante Charlotte; his sister-in-law Emily Radley and her husband Jack, who is considering a post with Kynaston; and his key to London's drawing room gossip,  Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould.

Even with all these people providing information, the case baffles Pitt. Only through the kind of meticulous investigation work that distinguished his career in Scotland Yard can Pitt hope to unravel the tangled web facing him. Even this might not be enough; sheer luck may play a role.

"Death on Blackheath" sets new high standards for a Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel. It has a complex and rewarding plot and outstanding characterization and even involves important events in Sweden, making it a book that fans of Stieg Larsson's "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy will find interesting.

About the Author   Anne Perry, born in 1938 in Blackheath, London,  is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including Midnight at Marble Arch and Dorchester Terrace,and the William Monk novels, including Blind Justice and A Sunless Sea. She is also the author of a series of five World War I novels, as well as eleven holiday novels, most recently A Christmas Hope, and a historical novel, The Sheen on the Silk, set in the Ottoman Empire. Anne Perry lives in Scotland. For David M. Kinchen reviews of her books, use the search engine at the upper right hand side of the www.huntingtonnews.net site. Perry's website: www.anneperry.co.uk    For more on the history of submarines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_submarines
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