Call it a lucky dozen for mystery novelist Anne Perry, who, in addition to churning out a novel each year or so in both of her two main series of Victorian historical mysteries (the long-established William Pitt books, and the only slightly newer William Monk novels) now also writes a slim novella for publication each November, around a Christmas theme.
Some of these, quite frankly, probably never should have seen the light of day. They are sweet and saccharine little tales with moral little messages that sound like something a second-rate novelist in Perry's favorite era might have penned. They might be high on emotional content, but the writing -- never her strongest suit -- fell below acceptable standards and the plots were tissue thin.
And then came this excellent twelfth addition to the series. Perry has knocked it out of the park -- Central Park this time. Within the confines of the novella form (this adds up only to about 170 pages, and took me little more than 90 minutes to read), she has delivered a crisp, well written and very suspenseful yarn revolving around Jemima Pitt's trip to New York in late 1904. Jemima, daughter of William and Charlotte Pitt, the main protagonists of the novels that Perry has been writing for 30 years or so, is now 23, and has been asked to accompany the young Delphinia (Phinnie) Cardew, about to make a very eligible marriage indeed to a young American man, the heir to a family of great wealth and standing and the son of her father's long-time business partner. It might sound like an arranged match, but Phinnie is, in fact, head-over-heels in love with young Brent Albright, and prone to patronize Jemima for her lack of standing, wealth and husband (in spite of her essentially good heart -- this is, after all a Christmas novella...)
But there's a mystery in Phinnie's background. Years ago, her mother, Maria Cardew, an American, vanished, and now Brent's older brother enlists Jemima's help to ensure that Maria doesn't return to spoil the happy occasion. Jemima leaps at the opportunity to develop her own sleuthing skills -- only to come crashing into some ugly realities when murder spoils the outlook for both the Christmas holiday and the wedding...
How Jemima extricates herself from her plight as prime suspect and brings justice to all (another preoccupation of these novellas) is handled deftly and with a great deal of suspense, too often lacking in other "Christmas" books. Sure, it's predictable, and the final pages include a few too-pat and implausible plot twists -- you don't pick up an Anne Perry novel looking for something radically innovative, after all, much less a downer -- but it's also compulsively readable. I literally walked into a wall with my e-book reader in front of my nose while finishing the final pages.
This will be a favorite with anyone looking for a historical mystery set in New York, too. Perry captures the flavor of the city circa 1904, and if she decides to make Jemima Pitt the heroine of her own series, authors like Victoria Thompson, author of the Gaslight Mysteries, may want to look to their laurels.
Highly recommended, although given the price point, this may be a book you may want to seek out at a library. Although diminutive in size, the publishers continue to price this as if it were close to being a full-length book, when it's only about a third the length, if that -- closer to a long Kindle single, if anything.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review containing my honest opinion.