- - Thursday, December 26, 2013

A CHRISTMAS HOPE
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, $18, 208 pages

Claudine Burroughs is a woman with everything in the London of Christmas 1868. She has a wealthy husband and a place in society, and it isn’t until she goes to a party that bores her and encounters a Welsh poet in the darkness of a garden that she realizes what is missing from her life.

When a killing is committed in the garden that night, Claudine is shocked. She cannot forget it. The plight of a young streetwalker beaten to death outside a society party angers her, but her anxiety increases when questions arise that focus on the Welsh poet.

The moral that Anne Perry drives home in this poignant little Christmas morality play is that it isn’t easy for a woman like Claudine to rebel against the comfort of her world or to defy an indifferent husband — even if it’s in defense of those without a voice.

In “A Christmas Hope” the reader soon discovers that Claudine seeks to answer a need within herself that she had ignored too long. She realizes that her occasional charity work is not enough. There is no suggestion of romance between Claudine and the Welsh poet, Dai Tregarron, who finds himself charged with killing the pathetic young woman — a prostitute, it turns out — he had invited out on the festive evening when she died. The poet and the prostitute were not guests at the elite holiday party, nor were they welcome. They were skulking in the garden where young men who were invited guests sought to sample the charms of the young streetwalker who died as a result.

At first, Claudine is no more than curious about her brief encounter with the fey poet who appeared out of the night to call her “Olwen” and tell her she reminded him of white flowers. Yet she cannot dismiss the young woman’s death from her mind, and she involves herself in a way she never has before in a situation entirely alien to her status.

To do so, she uses her acquaintance with Squeaky Robinson, a tough and colorful character who helps raise money for the clinic for women in trouble where she does sporadic work. He is as surprised as she is by her determination and is even disapproving of it. She perseveres, though, even when the Welsh poet is arrested and jailed on suspicion of murder. To gather evidence, she forms unlikely alliances with women of social standing and ignores the anger of her husband. Ironically, it is the evidence of Alphonsine, the daughter of a wealthy and socially prominent woman, that makes Claudine certain that the prostitute’s death was not caused by Tregarron. She uncovers the truth when the frightened young woman admits she had witnessed the attack and had not spoken up because she was in the company of the young man she loved but was not allowed to marry. Her unhappiness bitterly reminds Diane of what happened to her when a forced marriage to a suitable husband brought her money and nothing else.

Diane offers advice from her heart to Alphonsine, who is terrified to reveal what she saw and just as frightened to admit with whom she saw the assault on the streetwalker.

“If you are certain of what you saw, I think you have no choice but to tell it now,” Diane warns the young woman. “Or be prepared to live with your silence and whatever consequences might follow it for the rest of your life.”

She reminds Alphonsine that her fiance was involved in the violent attack and that he must be aware of a truth that will forever stand between them. To make matters worse, John Barton, the man whom Alphonsine would prefer to marry, is also aware of the facts, and according to her, he “would despise me if I said nothing. The thought of that hurts more than I can bear.”

In the end, it is Alphonsine’s father, Forbes Gifford, who comes to the aid of his daughter and to the solution of the murder in ways I won’t reveal here. Claudine, who has fought a lonely battle against far more than social niceties, the rage of her husband and even the disapproval of the stern and cynical Squeaky, finds some kind of wisdom and peace. In this stirring and mysterious seasonal tale, Ms. Perry expertly ties up all the loose ends.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.