Perry has written an unusual Victorian mystery, part of her Thomas Pitt/William Monk series - although the closest we get to Monk and Pitt is a brush with Hester Monk, who runs a medical clinic for wayward women in London.
When wealthy James Wentworth asks for Henry Rathboneís assistance in locating his son, Lucien, Henry is seriously out of his depth but willing to do what he can. Lucien has fallen into a dissolute life of drugs and perversion, lost in the warrens of the London underground, a network of illegal substances and the fulfillment of every sexual appetite known to man, all for the price of admission. What was formerly a diversion and acceptable to a tolerant father has become a lifestyle for Lucien, one that will lead only to his ruin: ďHell is everybodyís world, at one time or another.Ē
Rathbone has to go no further than the first man he encounters at Hesterís clinic. The reformed prior owner of a brothel, Squeaky Robinson, is intimately familiar with the world Rathbone must explore and adds another critical member to the entourage: Crow, a slum doctor who carries his medical bag for any emergencies they may encounter. One more person joins the unlikely group: Bessie, a teenager at home in the alleyways of poverty that exist beyond the brightly lit streets of London. It is ten days before Christmas, Lucien trapped in the bowels of hell, while carefree Londoners greet one another with holiday cheer.
From one dark club to another, they search for word of Lucien, unsuccessful more often than not. But a few names surface: the beautiful Sadie, who has captured Lucienís attention with her ready laughter; the Shadow Man, who rules the vices and addictions of customers with an iron fist, deciding who will live and who will die; Niccolo, another of Sadieís passionate suitors; and Rosa, a lost beauty buried in the detritus of depravity. From smoke-filled opium dens to rooms where every sexual fetish is available, the searchers delve deeper into a netherworld where human life has no value, the scent of Lucien as strong as the evidence of a violent murder that stains the walls with glistening blood. Is Lucien the victim or the perpetrator? Is this a foolís errand doomed to fail?
Perry leads her eccentric characters on a merry chase, their very different backgrounds somehow brought together in singular purpose. There are no easy answers: Lucien caught in a web of his own making; Sadie bright-eyed and wildly energetic, fueled with cocaine and fear; a syphilitic Lionel Ash pointing the way, his skeletal arms waving an ornate walking stick that conceals a deadly dagger, the staggering brutality in rooms where often death is the only way out. The contrasts of the world are clear in a mystery that does not shirk from the realities of Londonís underbelly or the camaraderie of unusual friends - or a lonely fatherís hope for the return of a dissipated son. Perry nicely packages her Victorian thriller in shiny wrapping, tied with a red bow. Pandoraís Box or Christmas present, you decide.