An historical detective novel, if it’s done well, evokes a distant era but also places against that backdrop a mystery tale that displays a few of the modern literary virtues: a crisp delineation of plot, a preference for showing rather than telling, a lean and down-to-earth approach to dialogue. This first William Monk adventure reverses that formula. It draws on the fiction stylings of the Victorian era—its prose is melodramatic and orotund, sentimental and imprecise—yet touches only glancingly on the realities of the Victorian life. As a mystery, too, it resembles an ungainly penny-dreadful more than it does an elegant murder puzzle.
That said, Perry does keep her potboiler running at full strength. Monk, still recovering from a hansom-cab accident that wiped his memory nearly clean, conducts an inquiry into the killing of Joscelin Grey, a Crimean War veteran and a scion of the lofty Shelburne family. To find the culprit who viciously beat the young toff to a lifeless pulp, Monk must not only plumb the lower depths of Limehouse but also scale the higher reaches of “Society.” Simultanenously, and in secret, he must conduct an inquiry into his own identity. What he discovers, as his memory returns bit by bit, is that these two investigations might have more than a little in common.