- - Friday, April 4, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

DEATH ON BLACKHEATH
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, $27, 320 pages

DEAD WATER
By Ann Cleeves
Minotaur, $25.99, 400 pages

Trickery, treachery and treason are combined in Anne Perry’s latest account of the dark side of 19th-century aristocratic London.

It all begins with the discovery of what is suspected to be the remains of a lady’s maid employed by Dudley Kynaston, a wealthy naval weapons expert. On the doorstep of his mansion are blood, hair and shards of glass, but there is no body and the maid herself has vanished.

The body in question is found later near the Kynaston house, and it adds to the mystery because the face is so mutilated as to be unrecognizable as the maid or anyone else. What makes the scene even more chilling is that Kynaston and his family seem more exasperated than compassionate about the missing maid’s sordid fate.

This is the situation facing Thomas Pitt, recently appointed commander of Britain’s Special Branch, which has the job of dealing with espionage and spies, not local killings. What rivets the attention of Pitt are not the traces of an anonymous corpse, but Kynaston’s connection to the case, because Britain is working on new submarine warfare and there are concerns about espionage.

That puts the case in an entirely different classification and gets the attention of parliamentary figures, which in turn makes life difficult for Pitt. He is verbally abused by Edom Talbot, an assistant to the prime minister who considers Pitt unqualified for the job.

Things get worse when a second mutilated body shows up and also cannot be identified. Ms. Perry’s ultimate and unlikely explanation of how and why the corpses were stolen is marked by a macabre humor.

The cast of characters in “Death on Blackheath” will be familiar to Perry readers — from Charlotte Pitt’s formidable relative Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould to Victor Narraway, the former Special Branch director who has become Pitt’s mentor and protector.

While poor Pitt worries about his new job and his future, the author adroitly comes to his rescue with a new and interesting relationship between Vespasia and Narraway that may be expected to reappear in later books. Meantime, she makes clear how much of a learning experience the job is for Pitt, a man who came up through the difficult ranks of the English class system.

It’s cold and it rains a lot in the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, yet it is as haunting as it is bleak, and those who choose to live there would not live anywhere else — even when they are faced with two killings in one week, as happens in Ann Cleeves‘ “Dead Water.”

Ms. Cleeves‘ Shetland mysteries have developed a following among readers in the United Kingdom, where the drama of her setting has been transmuted into the kind of televised series that currently focuses on killings in the idyllic and even sunny villages of the English countryside.

Jimmy Perez, the author’s leading character, is of course a local detective still in mourning for his lost love, who was stabbed to death in an earlier book. To help take his mind off it, the author has strung together a clever confection that involves a handful of characters, an illicit affair, an environmental controversy and a killer.

There is also Willow Reeves, a new inspector who is heading the investigation and who is considered an outsider because she comes from the Hebridean Islands. She is well aware of the need to step carefully in order to get the cooperation of the Shetlanders. She and Perez distrust each other immediately and, consequently, get along well by the end of the book.

Ms. Cleeves puts a nice twist on plot development, and it is, somewhat to Reeves’ chagrin, the quiet and inscrutable Perez who figures out who did it and why.

There are frequent references to the weather, and anyone who has spent any time on the mainland of Scotland, let alone the Shetlands, will understand why. It is to the author’s credit that she makes the bleakness of her terrain sound bearable.

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

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