William Monk: a Study of a Detective

William Monk is an enigma, even to himself.  He is the main character in a series by mystery/detective novelist Anne Perry, who is herself a bit of an enigma.  Halfway through her first series, critics and fans dug up a little secret from her past.  As a teenager in New Zealand, Perry assisted a friend in killing the friend’s mother.  She was found guilty of accessory to murder and did an unspecified amount of time in prison.  Perry now lives in the Scottish Highlands and writes mystery and detective novels that have a frightening ring of truth to them.  While the novels are all written from her main characters’ points of view, she gives us an uncanny look into the motives that drive people to murder and the dark secrets that even the most respectable families hide.  She is currently and simultaneously writing two series.  The first on is lighter, although the crimes are no less horrid.  She follows the life and adventures of a police detective, Thomas Pitt, and his wife, Charlotte, who is now cut off from the higher society she was used to because she married a policeman. The second series deals with police inspector, turned private enquiry agent, William Monk.  It is hard to put a finger on the different flavors of the two series.  Both are set in Victorian London, and both deal with crimes that explode from underneath the respectable veneer of civilization.

Perhaps from her own experience, Perry is ruthless in stripping away masks from her characters, exposing lies and depravity on every level of society.  The crimes themselves are often gruesome (one deals with a murderer beheading people in Hyde Park), and the motives are usually sordid.  For the killings that are deemed to be justified homicide, or sometimes suicide, the acts that provoked the death are just as horrifying.  There are no petty crimes in Perry’s world, and very little is motivated by simple greed.  In fact, nothing is ever simple in the world Perry creates.  She draws complex shades of gray that force her readers to think about ideas our own ideas of civilization and when it is okay to kill, and what must be punished under any cost.

Far more so than even the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, Perry’s William Monk series embraces these themes.  Although he lives in Victorian London, he has echoes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe ringing through him.  He is basically a loner, although he has a couple of people he starts to form friendships with over the series.  He doesn’t like being alone and sometimes almost breaks from the sheer loneliness he feels, but his personality is not one that reaches out to others and he is rarely capable of expressing the friendship he does feel.  He is brilliant in figuring things out and furious when he misses something or feels he left some stone unturned somewhere.  He is capable of cold, biting sarcasm that causes his inferiors to cringe, but he is also capable of great gentleness when dealing with a victim.  He is highly respected for his skills, but his ambition and impatience with others’ stupidity tends to drive people away.  He is always professional and is very proud of his skills as a detective.  Modesty isn’t exactly his strong point.  Monk is very interested in justice, but he is also interested in truth.  Even after a conviction is assured, he doesn’t stop working until he has all the facts.  He needs to know how things went and why.  Often, this leads to a discovery that makes or breaks the case, of course.  He leaves the police force after a violent argument with his superior over the arrest of an innocent person, and he opens his own private agency, with the support of a patron, Lady Callandra Daviot, who is bored and something of an amatuer detective.  She proves to be invaluable to him, though, because her position in society lets her go where he cannot and ask questions in a way that is accepted from another member of the upper class.  People are more likely to trust her than a detective, so she often puts herself in the mode of spy, which delights her a great deal.  The other main characters are Sergeant John Evan, first his junior officer in the police force, later his friend and informant who keeps him abreast of the police investigations; Hester Latterly, a young woman of good birth who is recently returned from the Crimea where she was nursing with Florence Nightengale; and Oliver Rathbone, a brilliant defense attorney.  Runcorn is the head of Monk’s police department and he pops up occasionally, usually to make trouble through his own stupidity and blunders.

Although Perry’s novels are not as misogynistic as others we have read, the same theme of perfidy in women, and men, crops up.  In fact, Perry doesn’t seem to have too high of a view of humanity as a whole, which is something we have seen in other novels this semester.  Women are just as likely to be the killer as men are.  In fact, of the four books I’m going to examine in this paper, the killers are split 50/50, as are the victims.  Women are more likely to prove deceptive and Monk is very leery of feminine wiles.  Of course, at the same time, he is drawn to women who are soft and gentle and need to be protected.  He doesn’t like Hester, or says he doesn’t, because she has ambition and intelligence and doesn’t act like a woman should, but she is the one he talks to and trusts implicitly and she is the other character who is very much like Monk.

The first novel in the series is The Face of a Stranger.  Here we meet Monk as he is lying in a hospital bed after a terrible carriage accident.  We have no idea who he is, and neither does he.  His entire past has been taken away and it is only when Runcorn comes to visit and calls him by name that Monk starts to get a handle on what his life might be.  Before that, he is terrified he’s in the poorhouse or that he’s a criminal.  Knowing that he’s a policeman gives him something to hold on to.  He recovers and finds his way home somehow, not telling anyone about his memory loss.  In his apartment, he is faced with a collection of items that mean nothing to him and a face in the mirror that is a complete stranger.  He recognizes the good cut of his clothes and all of the little items that are there to stroke his vanity, like a gold pocketwatch, and wonders how he afforded them on a policeman’s salary.  That is something he’s still wondering in Perry’s latest novel.  He does note the simplicity of his necessities and wonders what drove him to make such sacrifices to look like a gentleman.  He finds letters from his sister in Northumberland,  which shocks him:

A fishing village!  What was his sister doing there?  Had she married and gone there?  The surname on the envelope was Baqnnerman.  Or had he been born there, and then come south to London?  He laughed sharply.  Was that the key to his pretension?  He was a provincial fisherman’s son, with eyes on passing himself off as something better?

When?  When had he come?  He realized with a shock that he did not  know how old he was.  He still had not looked at himself in the glass.  Why not?  Was he afraid of it?  What did it matter how a man looked?  And yet he was trembling…

The face he saw was dark and very strong, broad, slightly aquiline nose, wide mouth, rather thin upper lip, lower lip fuller, with an old scar just blow it, eyes intense luminous gray in the flickering light.  It was a powerful face, but not an easy one.  If there was humor it would be harsh, of wit rather than laughter.  He could have been anything between thirty-five and forty-five (Perry, The Face of a Stranger, 16).

He notes that his accent is as standard British as you could ever want, so he knows that he spent a great deal of time trying to better himself.  As the book progresses, we see his manners and mannerisms are those of a gentleman, but when he journeys to visit his sister, we see that his roots are those of a humble cottager.  The visit to his sister brings back childhood memories, but nothing of his time in London.

Monk returns to work, still hiding his memory loss, and Runcorn, suspecting it, hands him a gruesome case.  It involves the death of a young, handsome, war hero, wounded in battle, beloved by all, who was beaten to death with a stick in his own home.  The young man, Joscelin Grey was one of those lovable fellows who spent his time in the hospitals comforting the other soldiers and helping them write letters home before they died.  At the same time Monk discovers that before his accident he was helping a woman who felt that her father-in-law’s suicide might actually have been murder and asked Monk to investigate.  Hester Latterly, is the girl’s sister-in-law.  It was her father who was killed, and she offers Monk her aid in finding out why.  In the investigation it comes out that he was involved in a business deal that went bad.  That deal was set up by none other than Joscelin Grey.  As Monk investigates further, surprised by the connection of the two cases, he discovers more men who have suffered the same loss, while at the same time, Grey was rolling in money and paying off debts.  All along, snatches of memories return to Monk of a beloved mentor and a crushing loss and a great anger.  He starts to feel anger towards Grey as he discovers that Grey was defrauding all these families, worming his way in to their lives with news of their dead sons, the boys he’d “befriended” in the hospital.  Realizing that he knew all of this before his accident, Monk starts to worry.  What might he have done?  When he finds his walking stick at Grey’s apartment, he is terrified that he might have killed him.  Evan and Hester refuse to believe that though.  Carefully they help Monk reconstruct that night.  Memories of an argument resurface, but he remembers that Grey was laughing at him when he left.  They turn their attention back to Grey’s family and discover that one of the families he defrauded was the family of his older brother’s best friend.  It turns out that Menard Grey killed his brother to revenge all those families who had been defrauded on top of their grief and to keep his brother from hurting anyone else.  Monk is saddend by the whole affair, but performs the arrest.  Callandra Daviot, who is related to the family hires Oliver Rathbone to handle the defense, which leads into the second book in the series, A Dangerous Mourning.

The families of Grey’s victims are called as witnesses for the defense.  The jury is forced to return a verdict of guilty, which means hanging, but they plead with the judge for leniency, and it is granted.  Menard is transported to Australia for 20 years, to make a new life for himself.  Monk is grateful, but he is already embroiled in another case.  He is still battling with his memory loss.  His skills are all there, but he is working without his net of informants, because he has no idea who they are.  He has the manner necessary to mix with the lower classes, looking for his criminals, but he doesn’t know who to trust and is forced to work on instinct alone.  The second book deals with the murder of the daughter of a gentleman, in her bedroom in the middle of the night.  Some of her jewelry is missing and the ivy outside her window is broken.  Monk immediately starts interrogating the neighborhood, looking for anyone who saw anything suspicious.  There was nothing.  He interrogates the underworld, informant courtesy of Evan, and is told that anyone who killed a lady during a break-in would be insane, but there was one housebreaker on the street.  Locating him, Monk discovers that he was at the other end of the street, and the man is able to prove it, but he saw nothing either.  All the evidence starts to point to someone inside the house, trying to make it look like a robbery gone bad.

Monk convinces Hester to get a position as a nurse inside of the house where she can act as a spy.  The lack of blood in the room makes Monk think the girl was moved.  Slowly but surely he uncovers the secrets of the family, the little infidelities, the alcoholic sluttish aunt, the controlling patriarch.  There are several people with motive, but the one the family pushes him to is the handsome footman.  The theory is that she invited him to her room for an affair, but changed her mind and in a rage, he killed her.  Monk doesn’t buy it, but with the girl’s father and sister insisting that’s how it must have been, he is forced to report what he has learned to Runcorn, who immediately orders an arrest.  Fueled by what Hester says, that she thinks the mother knows something about who did it, Monk refuses to arrest the footman.  When Runcorn insists, Monk quits the force in a rage.  The footman is arrested, tried, and hanged, but Monk isn’t done yet.  With Hester’s help, he continues to investigate, tracing the girl’s movements the last day.  Hester learns that she went to the war office to enquire into the circumstances of her husband’s death in the war.  The girl desperately loved her husband and was still grieving, which is why they don’t buy the footman affair.  Hester goes to the office, using her Crimean connections, and discovers what the girl must have learned that day:

(A Major describes the young man)  “I think more than most men, he wanted to live.  He had a great love for his wife—in fact the army was not the career he would have chosen; he entered it only to earn himself the means to support his wife in the manner he wished and to make some peace with his father-in-law, Sir Basil Moidore—who paid for his commission as a wedding gift, I believe, and watched over his career with keen interest.  What an ironic tragedy.
“Ironic?” she (Hester) said quickly.

His face creased with pain and his voice lowered instictively, but his words were perfectly clear.

“It was Sir Basil who arranged his promotion, and thus his transfer from the regiment in which he was to Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade, and of course, they led the charge at Balaclava.  If he had remained a lieutenant as he was, he would very probably be alive today” (Perry, A Dangerous Mourning, 316).

It turns out, naturally, that the girl’s father ordered her husband to be put at the front, to lead each charge, knowing that he would most likely be killed, and the father could retain control of his daughter.  Hester sneaks into his study and finds the letter confirming his perfidy that his daughter must have found and she finds bloodstains on the carpet and a letter opener with blood at the hilt.  Monk concludes it’s suicide, but if so, then someone in the house had very neatly framed the innocent footman, and let him die.  They turn the evidence over to Evan, after concluding that it had to be her sister.  Evan accuses her of moving the body and framing the footman, and she insists that her father helped.  Both are arrested and taken to prison.

In the third novel of the series, Defend and Betray, Monk is working on setting himself up as a private detective.  He’s had a few missing person cases and some burglaries, but nothing really meaty.  Then Hester brings him a case through Oliver Rathbone, the attorney.  A prominent general, a little boring and stodgy, but well-liked, has been murdered, pushed down the stairs and killed with a halberd from the suit of armour at the bottom.  His wife, Alexandra has confessed, saying he was having an affair.  Rathbone and Hester don’t think she did it, but is protecting her daughter, who hated her father.  Monk begins to investigate, but soon discovers that Alexandra is the only one who could have done it, but that there wasn’t even a hint of an affair that he can find.  She finally admits that there wasn’t, but refuses to tell them why she killed the general.  His family is furious, but wants her put away quietly, because she must be insane.  Rathbone thinks she’s perfectly sane and had a good reason to do it, and begs Monk to find out why.  Throughout the investigation Monk is confronted by memories from his past that start to haunt him, memories of another woman accused of killing her husband, a woman Monk feels he loved very much.  He asks for Evan’s help in tracking down which case it was, and after he has exhausted all other possibilities, he finds her, and gets a glimpse into his own shadowed soul:

He almost choked on his own breath.

She came in.  There was never any doubt it was her.  From the crown of her head, with its softly curling fair hair; her honey-brown eyes, wide-set, long-lashed; her full, delicate lips; her sleder figure; she was completely familiar…

He wanted to speak, but suddenly he had no idea what to say.  All sort of emotions crowded inside him:  relief because she was so exactly what all his memories told him, all the gentlenes, the beauty, the intelligence was there; fear now that the moment was here and there was no more time to prepare.  What did she think of him, what were her feelings, why had he left her?  Incredulity at himself.  How little he knew the man he used to be.  Why had he gone?  Selfishness, unwillingness to commit himself to a wife and possibly a family?  Cowardice?  Surely not that—selfishness, pride he could believe.  That was the man he was discovering…

Suddenly he felt sick.  Had he asked her before, told her his feelings and she rejected him?  Had he forgotten that, because it was too painful—and only remembered that he loved her, not that she did not love him?

“William, you promised,” she said almost under her breath, looking not at him but at the floor.  “I can’t.  I told you before—you frighten me.  I don’t feel that—I can’t.  I don’t want to.  I don’t want to care so much about anything or anyone.  You work too hard, you get too angry, too involved in other people’s tragedies and injustices.  You fight too hard for what you want, you are prepared to pay far more than I—for anything.  And you hurt too much if you lose.  I don’t want to feel all that.  I don’t love that way—and I don’t want you to love me like that—I can’t live up to it—and I would hate trying to.  I want…I want peace—I want to be comfortable.”

Comfortable!  God Almighty! (Perry, Defend and Betray, 369-71).

This is the first glimpse we’ve gotten of who Monk is, and was, beyond the professional.  His inferiors at the police station feared and hated him because he was impatient and often cruel.  His sister loves him because of the boy he was, but this is the first time we get an impression of how passionate he’s always been.  He has been afraid that he was always as cold as his reports sounded, but, in spite of the pain, he now has confirmation of the strong feelings that he is capable of.  His confusion in earlier novels gave us a sense of him as human, but this passage really opens him up to pain and loss and love, which he has seemed to be slightly apart from.  He returns to London and hides his new pain from his friends, but Perry continues to let us see it.

Alexandra’s case comes to trial and still Monk has no reason, but he is committed to saving her.  Finally, Hester (somehow she always provides the necessary pieces for Monk to put together) discovers that the general’s son is being sexually abused by his grandfather.  Monk and Hester ask careful questions around, and the boy’s nurse finally admits that the general was abusing his son as well.  Alexandra knew and that’s why she killed him.  However, she refuses to put her son on the stand or to hurt him further until they tell her the general wasn’t the only one and that the boy is still being abused.  Fearing for her child, she allows them to bring it into the case.  Rathbone does it with great finesse, and a little help from Monk, who finds other children who were abused by the general, as well.  The son comes straight out, finally, and tells the jury what his father did, and they are properly horrified.  They find her guilty of manslaughter and the judge agrees, even though it was technically murder.  Leniently, he sentences her to only six months in prison and orders her child to be remanded into the custody of her sister-in-law  where he’ll be safe.  The other abusers are arrested and Monk is amazed at the relief he feels.