A discriminating reader I know advised me not to miss Anne Perry’s William Monk Victorian murder mysteries. Good advice. Execution Dock was intricate, wildly descriptive and is set in a world it’s easy to get lost in. Monk has been appointed Commander of the River Police and he is up against old ghosts and present evil that reaches far beyond the dodgy and treacherous waterfront.
The River Police close in on a pornographer and flesh peddler of young boys who operates a brothel of degradation and torture on a pleasure boat on the Thames. One of the boys held captive on the boat has been found badly burned by cigars with his throat cut. Monk snags the killer, Jericho Phillips, but Monk’s testimony and his wife’s about the horrors of Phillips’ trade are picked apart in court and a vicious murderer goes free. As stunning and terrible to the Monks is the tactic of the defense attorney who gets the killer off by attacking the credibility of two of his closest friends—William and Hester Monk.
The sights and smells and dangers of the waterfront are vivid and evocative and the characters in this story are all colorful. There is some very clever work in the first part of the book to throw the reader off the trail and it is well done enough to be really effective. Monk is torn between loyalty to his former commander, who died saving Monk’s life and whom he admired unreservedly, and the urgent necessity to disprove ugly allegations about the man that might be true.
Hester struggles with the day-to-day management of her clinic and the tragic lives of the prostitutes and impoverished Londoners who show up for medical care. She burns at her treatment on the witness stand by a man who once wanted to marry her. She determines to shield Monk from the pain of the revelations his sleuthing threatens to uncover by finding out who is linked to the sex slave business first. And she is meticulously protective of the ‘mudlark’, the young boy who survived by his wits gathering and selling flotsam from the mudflats of the river and who now lives with Hester and William.
Perry takes a fine scalpel to the motives and emotions of the main characters and the glimpse inside their heads is as fascinating as the efforts to catch the killer. Socially prominent people do completely out-of-character things—some admirable, some despicable, some irrationally risky. Wary denizens of the darkest alleys know more than they are willing to tell. Scuff, the Monks’ young charge, becomes a pawn in the deadly game played out on the river. Scurrilous charges begin to make the rounds, attacking William’s and Hester’s reputations and endangering the existence of the rough and tumble River Police unit.
There’s plenty of violence, plenty of fine writing and plenty of juicy plot. I’m adding Monk to my great all-time gumshoe list—but he makes it on there as much for the pleasure of reading about the indomitable Hester.
Execution Dock: A William Monk Novel (William Monk Novels) Anne Perry | Ballantine Books 2009