- - Friday, September 20, 2013


By Anne Perry
Ballantine Books, $15.60, 352 pages

Judge Oliver Rathbone, a brilliant lawyer who has reached the pinnacle of his career, is the man in the dock, facing disgrace, disbarment and even prison in this latest of Anne Perry’s tense courtroom dramas.

In an intriguing switch of focus, Ms. Perry tilts away from her customary championing of the underdogs of Victorian England with a reminder that the aristocracy was also at risk, with everything to lose. William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police, and his indefatigable wife, Hester (not to mention Scuff, their adopted river orphan), play their usual detective roles. But the plot centers almost entirely around Rathbone, a man whose personal and private suffering has not affected his meteoric legal success. He remains bitter that his marriage collapsed because his wife Margaret refused to admit her father was guilty of a crime involving pornographic photographs of children and prominent men.

What haunts Rathbone most is that he has those photographs locked in his safe as a ghastly legacy from his late father-in-law, who died in prison. He is reminded of their presence as he hears a fraud case in which a witness proves to be one of those photographed. The question is whether Rathbone should use the photograph as evidence that would change the course of a trial, one in which Abel Taft, a charismatic London minister, is charged with using charitable contributions pressured from his middle-class parishioners to make himself and a partner rich.

The dilemma facing Rathbone is his decision to give the prosecution evidence that calls into question the integrity of their chief witness. Since Rathbone was unaware that the witness was in the photograph until he suddenly saw and recognized the man in court, he was prevented from providing the incriminating picture for the defense. What he should have done, as he knew too late, was give the evidence to both parties and recuse himself from the case. But that would have meant a mistrial, and the unscrupulous Taft would not have been punished.

There is a dramatic development surrounding the death of Taft and his family, but it is of no legal help to Rathbone, and there is also a question regarding how the killings took place. It is Monk who warns the judge, “The question has become whether you as a judge in our legal system, and therefore in a place of unique trust, used secret knowledge to twist the outcome of a trial over which you presided, and that you did it for some personal reason of your own.” It is a grimly accurate assessment of Rathbone’s plight.

The conscience of the judge is the crux of Ms. Perry’s plot, and she adroitly contrasts the shock impact of a brutal and sordid jail cell on a man accustomed to the services of a personal valet and a luxurious home. Rathbone is drawn sensitively as he becomes increasingly aware of his own shortcomings and those of the aristocrats who are part of his life.

His psychological misery is exacerbated by the hostility of the fellow judge dealing with the Rathbone case, as well as with the rage that explodes from Margaret, his estranged wife. She takes the position that her previous charges that her husband had wrongly accepted the guilt of her father have now been borne out as evidence of his ambition and selfishness. She sits in court with her mother and gloats over Rathbone’s downfall.

It is Monk who finds the key to the mystery of Taft’s death, and tracks down the killer, yet Rathbone still has to face the music.

Once again, in yet another of Ms. Perry’s gripping tales, it is Monk who plays a major role by helping him decide exactly what to do with the hideous photographs. That in itself is not only a relief, but a culmination to the horrors of a past case that reverberates in the current one.

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



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