Anne Perry knows what it takes to engage readers with a thrilling mystery and has been challenging fans of the genre with her multitude of characters for the past several decades. As an additional treat, she has been releasing a mystery inspired by the Christmas season for the past eight years, and A CHRISTMAS ODYSSEY is the latest in this series.
Having read all of her previous Christmas-inspired books, I have noticed a trend in their themes. The earlier novels featured more glimpses into the old British Christmas seasons and were rife with crackling fires and plum pudding galore. More recently, though, Perry has moved away from traditional holiday fare and delved deeper into the other and often unseen side of London.
When Henry Rathbone is visited by his good friend, James Wentworth, 10 days before Christmas, he knows something is wrong. Wentworth, an upper-class individual, goes on to talk about his son, Lucien, who has led a reckless life and now is missing. But he is only aware of the very surface issues Lucien is dealing with. This is more than enough to alarm Rathbone, who has a better idea of what happens to young British men who fall prey to the vices of brothels and illegal drugs in the sensation-obsessed underworld of London.
Not being familiar with this particular scene, Rathbone turns to the medical practice of his friend (and regular Anne Perry character) Hester Monk. Working for Monk is Squeaky Robinson, himself a reformed brothel keeper now in Monk’s employ as a bookkeeper. With Squeaky in tow, Rathbone is confident that he has a guide who can escort him through the underworld. Squeaky suggests the aid of a third party, a mysterious slum doctor named Crow, who is known not to turn away any citizen needing medical care. Crow proves to be an invaluable companion in the mission to find Lucien.
As the three men begin to visit various pubs and dens of iniquity, they piece together clues that are slowly painting a picture of what may have happened to Lucien. It appears that he was linked to a young prostitute, Sadie, and that her “handler” was an evil man who is not one to be crossed. The trio gets their best information from a teenaged prostitute named Bessie, who they immediately bring into their favor and ask to join them in the hunt for Lucien.
When clues are uncovered that reveal a place where two people may have been murdered, the identity of the alleged victims are rumored to be Lucien’s best friend, Niccolo, and his favorite girl, Sadie. Crow confirms that the site where the two bodies lay is covered in enough blood to indicate that one or both of them could be dead from blood loss. The question remains: Did Lucien kill them both in a fit of jealousy, or was Niccolo a demented sadist who may have turned his blade on Sadie in a fit of anger? Even worse, could there be an unknown third party behind this act of violence, and could Lucien be the victim?
Their search is a frustrating one, and Rathbone tries to keep his small group engaged to continue looking for Lucien even though the likelihood of finding him alive grows dimmer with each passing moment. Rathbone reminds his colleagues that some people are prone to the vices of evil, as Lucien surely has been, when they see glimpses of themselves and what they could have been but weren’t. As Christmas Day grows closer, Rathbone also laments privately about the residents “above-ground” who seemingly lived in another world as they bought presents and prepared for the coming holiday --- people who knew what Christmas was supposed to be.
Being a Christmas tale, the ending of the novel must be uplifting, and the trials the group goes through to rescue Lucien from the fate to which he has resigned himself will take more out of them than they ever expected. Anne Perry is definitely visiting Dickensian territory here, as there was no other writer better at depicting the dark side of London life coupled with the plight of human redemption than Charles Dickens. A CHRISTMAS ODYSSEY is a dark tale that will guide readers to the light via the strength of human spirit that each of Perry’s characters possesses.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 5, 2011