|Anne Perry: Victorian Muse|
Anne Perry didn't invent the modern Victorian mystery, but sometimes it's hard to remember that fact. Ever since The Cater Street Hangman, the first novel featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, appeared in 1979, Perry's passionate, lyrical mysteries have become almost as much a part of the literary scene as the Pitts' "contemporary," Sherlock Holmes.
Recently, Perry's work made the jump from printed page to television screen with the Arts and Entertainment Channel's broadcast of The Cater Street Hangman. On a sunny April day in Washington, D.C., Perry took time out to talk to Crescent Blues about the movie, her most recent mysteries and an allegorical fantasy set for U. S. publication this fall.
Anne Perry: I listen to what people say at my book signings. I really do. And they tell me they like the Victorian background. They like the people, and they like ethical and moral questions raised by the times.
And when you've written a number of books, people have certain expectations. They know certain people will never give them graphic violence or hurt animals. As a writer, you must keep the promises you've implicitly made, because it's fair for readers to read between the lines in that manner.
Crescent Blues: In Bedford Square, someone threatens to destroy the reputations of several prominent men by accusing them of dishonorable acts they did not commit -- but can't prove they didn't commit. What was it about this situation that most attracted you as a writer? What made it so compelling for you?
Anne Perry: You can't prove a negative. The minute you start to discuss certain types of accusations, you imply that there is something to the charges. You cannot walk up to someone and say, "By the way, I did not sleep with your wife," without immediately setting up a suspicion that cannot be explained away.
The worst thing about the situation in Bedford Square was that nothing specific was asked in return. The victims kept waiting for the blow to fall. If you know what someone wants, you can always think of ways to supply it. It's a tremendous threat to know someone is out there with this hold over you, and not know how or when they will make their demands or what you will need to do to save yourself.
Crescent Blues: The fragility of a person's reputation seems such a Victorian theme. Do you think it still has meaning for the end of the 20th century?
Anne Perry: You live in Washington, D.C., and you have to ask me that? I think people can get blown up by committing acts that may not be crimes but still ruin their reputations. The accusations and damage are based on different things, but it can still happen. And does.
Crescent Blues: You deal with a related theme in last year's Breach of Promise, the ninth in your William Monk series. When a young girl's fiancé cancels their engagement, the girl's parents file suit to protect her reputation. How common were such cases in Victorian times?
Anne Perry: I really wouldn't know. But the story wasn't about reputation. It was really about an obsession with beauty, which we certainly have today. How many people diet themselves ill to meet the current standard of beauty? Look at the size of the diet industry!
It's certainly worthwhile to try to look as good as you can, but not to the extent that you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery or diet yourself ill -- or diet yourself dead. We've lost a sense of proportion about our physical appearance, and that's what Breach of Promise was about -- obsession with beauty.
Crescent Blues: Mysteries and other novels set in the Victorian era continue to fascinate modern readers. Why do you think the period has such a resonance for people today?
Anne Perry: It's partially the morality of the times. It's also partly because it was a very ebullient era. It's far enough away to be different from our own time, but still close enough that we can identify with it.
There was such a great optimism then. There was a feeling that no matter what problem you faced, you could fix it. Whereas, these days, people tend to think, "Oh dear, there's a problem. Better not try that."
Crescent Blues: Speaking of fixing things, how far do you think we've come in remedying the social ills of the Victorian era that you explore in your books?
Anne Perry: We've made enormous advances in the position of women. In some cases, I think we've gone a little too far and become unfair to men, especially in divorce and access to children.
I don't think marriage should be viewed as a free meal thicket for life unless the woman has given up her career solely to advance her husband's. I think we should have equality in the workplace, but I don't think we should have any extra perks just because we're women.
With respect to the social ills of Victorian society, one of the great problems we've addressed in varying degrees is the plight of the ill who cannot pay for medical treatment. We have socialized medicine in Britain, and you have it to some degree here.
We do allow women to own property and earn their own living. We have Legal Aid and other social programs. But the things that spring from human nature haven't changed -- the things that cannot be legislated against.
Crescent Blues: For those readers who've not yet read your mysteries, could you describe what you feel to be the major differences between the novels that feature the Pitts and those featuring William Monk and Hester Latterly?
Anne Perry: Earlier on, I would've said that the books featuring Monk were darker, but lately…