Well now, The Cater Street Hangman is a book I've been meaning to read for years but, like a lot of books, I've put it off and put it off. Two things have prompted me to pick it up at last - my reading of a couple of Anne Perry's Christmas books, which I've enjoyed very much, and the fact that I'm in a Victorian mystery sort of mood at present. Add to that, that Kay at My Random Acts of Reading made mention of this first book in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, and it seemed like it was time to take the plunge.
The Ellison family live quietly in London. The father, Edward, a banker, considers himself very much the head of the household and his word is law. He and his wife, Caroline, have three daughters - Sarah, the eldest, married to Dominic and still living at home, Charlotte, a spirited girl who says exactly what she thinks without thinking beforehand, and Emily, the youngest, an ambitious girl who wants more than anything to marry well and to marry money.
When the murders begin in their street the family at first try to stay aloof. Edward tries to keep the news from his wife and daughters on the basis that he doesn't want them tainted by it. But events overtake them - the family know one of the murdered girls and the police, who won't take no for an answer, arrive to ask questions - some of them embarrassing. Heading the police investigation is Inspector Thomas Pitt, a quiet but determined young man, who, it appears, has taken rather a shine to Charlotte.
The family are still attempting to stay aloof, treating the police with distain, and continuing with their daily routine as though nothing had happened, when one of their maids is found dead and mutilated in the street. If they thought things were bad before they are now horrified as Inspector Pitt begins turning up at all hours to question them minutely about their activities - especially the men. It seems Edward and Dominic both have secrets... but could they commit murder? Charlotte, in love with her sister's husband for years, is horrified and the only person who can help clear up the mess is the detested Inspector Pitt.
I expected this to be quite a light-weight book and in a way it was; it's very easy to read and I zoomed through it rather quickly. But dismissing it that easily would be doing Anne Perry an injustice because this is not just a crime/mystery story. The various layers of Victorian society are all here in this book. The class-ridden snobbishness the well-off used when dealing with anyone of a lower class, the double-standards of men, requiring their wives and daughters to be complete innocents while actively taking part in some rather dubious, extra-marital, sexual activity, women, completely frustrated at not being allowed to be full members of society, the hypocrisy of the church, and so on; it's all here.
To tell the truth I was really quite taken aback by some of it, even though I've read Victorian history and sort of knew. The father's censoring of the newspapers so that the women only heard the news he read out to them and had no idea what was going on in the world, angered me no end. And the appalling attitude of the middle-classes to the police. They were happy for them to investigate crime it seems, as long as they didn't have to have them in their houses. And woe betide any policeman who was overly familiar or even treated the middle-classes as equals!
More than anything though, I was sorry for the women. Intellectually frustrated, often trapped in loveless or dictatorial marriages, it must have been appalling. And that's just the middle-classes. Compared to the appalling conditions the working classes were expected to endure they had it very easy indeed! Such an interesting subject and I plan to read a lot of more of these Thomas Pitt novels (there are over twenty) because I bet you any money Anne Perry doesn't let up on her dissection of the diseased innards of Victorian society and I *really* want to read more.
This is my second book for the Year of the Historical challenge which is being hosted by Lurv a la Mode