The Face of a Stranger Essay - Critical Essays

The Face of a Stranger

Against the backdrop of Victorian London with its pickpockets, usurers, and street sweepers, its lords and lady dowagers, Anne Perry has created a fast-paced detective story with an intriguing premise: a detective who must investigate himself. As William Monk delves into the murder of Joscelin Grey, youngest son of the wealthy and powerful Shelburne family, he comes closer and closer to uncovering his own identity; inexplicably, the two events appear to be intimately related.

What Monk learns about himself is not flattering; he was a cold, ruthless, ambitious man with no friends or lovers, who rose quickly through the ranks of the police department—for some, including his superior, too quickly. As a detective, however, he was superb, and he will now need all his old skills to solve the case. If he fails, he risks being demoted or even fired with nothing but the workhouse ahead of him. If he succeeds, he risks antagonizing the powerful and perhaps implicating himself.

Joscelin Grey, by all accounts, was a charming, graceful, attractive young man who was wounded serving his country in the Crimean War. Yet he was beaten to death, with a brutality that suggests it was no stranger who killed Grey. And the motive? Evidence accumulates suggesting that gambling debts, blackmail, business fraud, adultery, even sibling rivalry might have played a part. Monk is thrown into the tempest with little more than his instincts to rely on. As he begins to unravel the case, he is troubled by violent nightmares and flashes of memory that suggest complicity in the murder.

Woven into the plot is a historically accurate depiction of nineteenth century England with its many social and political problems: the poverty that fosters crime, the lack of social services that would provide a safety net, the unsanitary conditions of the hospitals, and the position of the middle- and upper-class women, forced into “suspended animation.”

Anne Perry has written a riveting detective story, but one that also serves as a history lesson on nineteenth century England.