Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas and murder: With Perry’s novels, the combination works (Anne Perry)

From Palm Beach Post --

Christmas and murder: With Perry’s novels, the combination works --

By Scott Eyman –
December 15, 2009 --

A CHRISTMAS PROMISE, by Anne Perry. Ballantine; 193 pages; $18.

Anne Perry gets one primary problem out of the way: The murder that motivates the plot of A Christmas Promise takes place before the book begins, which removes the bloody corpse, which invariably stifles Christmas cheer.

Truthfully, though, Perry’s remarkably successful annual Christmas novels are among the strangest confabulations in publishing, Christmas and murder not being often used in the same sentence, except in daydreams.

Anyway. In the frigid East End of London, a little 8-year-old girl named Minnie Maude Mudway is looking for her donkey Charlie. Charlie was being driven by Alf, her uncle, who was killed three days earlier. She misses her uncle, but she misses the donkey more.

Touched by the child’s desperation, Gracie Phipps, 13, takes up Minnie Maude’s case, and enlists the aid of a local man named Balthasar, who runs something of an old curiosity shop. The two little girls fight the elements of a freezing Christmas to find the donkey, for in finding the donkey they will surely find the killers of Uncle Alf — unless of course Charlie has met the same dire fate.

This is the most Dickensian of Perry’s seven Christmas books, and it flirts with a sentimentality that she has mostly avoided. Were I a much harsher man, and were it any season but this, the plight of two bedraggled children ranging far and wide over Victorian London in search of a donkey would send me into fits of giggles. Not only that, but Perry writes the whole thing in stage-Cockney dialect (“Yer talkin’ daft. Oo’d wanter ’urt Alf?’ ”).

But I confess that I am helpless before this particular kind of expert kitsch — blame it on being hopelessly maimed by Greyfriars Bobby and the sad fate of the aged Donald Crisp. And don’t get me started on Roddy McDowell and Lassie, Come Home.

In truth, A Christmas Promise is made up almost entirely of clichés, roughly speaking equal parts The Little Match Girl, and a conflation of various Dickensian themes. Yet, somehow, it’s not only not offensive, it’s pretty effective, largely because Perry is a master — mistress? — of her chosen period, and she always knows when to stop applying the melodrama and write luscious Victorian atmosphere:

“Most of the lamps were lit, and there was a yellow warmth to them, like lighted windows to some palace of the mind. There was a slight fog rising, muffling the sound of distant wheels, and every now and then the mournful bellow of a foghorn sounded somewhere down on the river.

“There wasn’t much to show that Christmas was only a couple of days away, just the occasional wreath of leaves on a door, some with bright berries; or someone passing by singing a snatch of a song, happy and lilting, not the usual bawdy version of the latest from the music halls.”

Also, there’s a core of moral reality at the base of Perry’s work, as there is with any serious crime novelist: “What kind of people understood evil? Good people? Wise people? People who had faced it and come out hurt but had ultimately survived?”
The character of Balthasar is potentially queasy-making, because of the possibility of overstressing the parable about the wise men and the manger. Balthasar turns out to be wise, yes, but also something of a man of action — dare one say (Sherlock) Holmesian?

Perry artfully piles on the Victoriana, and Charlie and all the innocents have a happy, gentle ending. May the same be said of all of us.

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