Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Cater Street Hangman

The Cater Street Hangman (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, #1)The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I stayed up until 5:30am listening to this audiobook, because it was due back at the library today.  I can't say that it was wasted time. It was a pretty good book and the narrator, Davina Porter does a satisfying job.  However, I didn't love this book.  I think the major issue I had was that I found most of the characters unlikable.

Charlotte did grow on me.  She had some notions and beliefs that weren't ideal (she tended to be very naive about things and was somewhat snobbish and judgmental towards others), but at heart, she was a decent person.  She matured a lot over the course of this book, and I liked how her feelings evolved for Thomas Pitt and how they changed from where they were initially.  My favorite character, Inspector Thomas Pitt, doesn't have a point of view. We only see him though the eyes of the Ellison family, including Dominic, who is married to the oldest daughter, Sarah.  It's a shame, because he's the only character I truly liked and respected without reservation.  I guess I can say that I didn't have anything against Carolyn, the mother, but she lacked depth to me.  She seemed to be a cipher for a 'good Victorian wife' and did not seem to know how to be true to herself.  I am not being judgmental.  I completely understand the pressures that were on her.

After all, this book focuses a sharp lens on the Victorian woman and the tremendous societal forces on her.  In some ways, this book is more of a social commentary than a suspense novel.  Yes the mystery is prominent, because someone is murdering young women (and the police are hunting for the killer) and this affects the lives of the Ellison family on a deeply personal level. But I feel that this series of murders is really more of a catalyst for the exploration of characters in this family and an examination of their individual roles in this microcosmic society of their family and the people they interact with in their periphery.

Anne Perry seems to know Victorian society.  While she does not info-dump facts about the time period, the narrative doesn't bypass any opportunities to give the reader insight on the time period.  I think that this was well-done.  Perry uses characters, situations and conversations to convey the social mores of the times.  It was pretty evident that Victorian women did not have it easy, whether they were upper class, titled society women or lower class women. It was just a question of whether they had the dubious security of marriage or the uncertain and likely demoralizing life of a single woman with few prospects as far as earning a living.   Through the eyes of Carolyn and Sarah, we learn what it's like to be married to a man who we must spend our lives with and take care of, be the perfect wives to, and hope that they take their marriage vows as seriously as we do. And if they do not, we don't really have the agency to leave him or hold him accountable for his failings as a husband.  Through Emily, we learn about the society girl's quest for an advantageous marriage to a man who clearly has shortcomings, but we have to make the most of the man and the opportunity.  Martha Prebble's character is the vicar's wife, and she has spent many years subjugated to an unfeeling moralist, which has done her great emotional and mental damage. Charlotte is the next oldest daughter who has always felt alienated from society and who has been in love with her sister's husband for several years, but is unable and unwilling to act upon those feelings.

As you can see, there is a built-in complexity to this novel, despite the subtle presentation.  It gave me something to think about, but as I said earlier, it was hard to get as invested as I wanted, since the characters were largely unsympathetic in their point of views. I don't know if that was a failing of the narrator in how she conveyed their POVs, or just the things they said and did.  The characters seemed to be in a state of arrested development, although I did see growth in Charlotte's character, and Sarah as well.  I especially disliked Dominic. I felt little sympathy for him, but then I have a huge issue with marital infidelity.  Not to mention his inherent sexism. He treated his wife and other women like they were intellectually inferior to him. He was also a self-absorbed snob.  Emily was a brat, and I didn't care for her manipulative nature.  Thomas, on the other hand, had a maturity, a depth of character, and a firm, steady personality that allowed him to navigate the stormy seas of both high society and the rookeries to get his man. His love and admiration for Charlotte made me like her more as a person. I felt that Thomas Pitt showed great insight into the other characters that helped Charlotte to get past her emotional involvement with her family and societal counterparts and at the same time to trust her instincts about human nature as well.

After much rambling, I have come to the point of concluding this review. This was a good book. It had some insights to offer this reader, but it lacked characters that I could feel for, with the exception of Thomas and Charlotte, and to a lesser degree, Carolyn and Sarah.  I felt terrible for those girls who were murdered, and I wish that more of the characters in this book were able to feel the wrongness and the waste of young life for reasons that were quite disturbing with the final reveal in this novel.  The whole structure of this novel points to the issues of Victorian society in which hypocrisy is a facade for dark decay and the deep dysfunction that was integral to its institution.

I'd give this book 3.5/5.0 stars.  Fortunately, my library has more of these on audio, so I will continue this series.

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