When Commander William Monk finally arrests Jericho Philips, he expects the trial to be a mere formality. He can’t wait to see this child pornographer and murderer dancing at the end of a rope and the barge brothel of little boys put out of business for good. However, when his friend Oliver Rathbone shows up as the lawyer defending Philips, Monk is shocked and suspicious. Who recruited Rathbone? Why is he doing this? Are there those in London's high places who have an interest in seeing Phillips set free? The issues addressed in Execution Dock, Anne Perry’s latest in the series of William Monk novels, make the book seem surprisingly current despite the fact that it’s set in 1864 London, England.
Perry tells the story through various characters – Commander Monk, head of the River Police, his wife Hester who runs a dockside clinic for down-and-outs, Rathbone, a boy named Scuff, and others. This variety of viewpoints gives a rich repository of insights and memories.
One of the plot strategies Perry uses is to have Monk and Hester travel about London gathering evidence for their case. Though the resultant tramping around streets, alleys and pubs, and the second-hand retelling of bits of the story by the witnesses they track down does sometimes get tedious, Perry’s overall sense of timing and skillful storytelling make for a gripping tale.
Perry has created characters who are complex, interesting and whose lives often intertwine. For example the lawyer Rathbone, now a friend of Monk’s, was once in love with Hester. Rathbone’s shrewd questioning of her during the trial makes for compelling human drama. Durban, a man full of mystery and seeming contradictions, is a character who dominates the story even though he never appears in the flesh — because he’s dead. Perry’s ability to write in cockney dialect brings her many colorful minor characters to life as wise and humorous straight-talkers.
Perry’s writing style takes full advantage of the book’s colorful historic London dockside setting. Her descriptions plunk the reader right into the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of a busy port:
“Everywhere there was noise: men shouting, the cry of gulls, the clang of chains, the creak of wood, the constant slap of river water against the stone. There was the incessant movement of the sun reflected on the water, sharp and glittering. The huge moored ships rose and fell. Men in grays and browns toiled at a score of tasks. Smells filled the air: river mud thick and sour, the harsh cleanness of salt, the sickly sweetness of raw sugar, the stench of hides and fish and ships’ bilges, and, a few yards ahead, the bewitching perfume of spices.” p. 8,9
She doesn’t only concern herself with setting, though. Perry has a keen eye for the subtleties of people, too, and alerts us to her characters’ thoughts and emotions by reporting the smallest clues of body language:
“On his high seat Sullivan winced and closed his eyes. Rathbone wondered if any of the jurors had seen that small gesture of revulsion or noticed that Sullivan was more than usually pale.” p. 32
Though the themes in Execution Dock are old, they seem modern: child sexual exploitation and society’s responsibility to mete out justice to accused and accuser alike. Characters think about and discuss more personal matters as well, like a woman’s role in society and what makes a satisfying marriage.
Surprising character revelations and the ruthlessness of some of them make for a read that picks up speed as the story moves toward its dangerous end. It’s a destination you reach before you know it, because Execution Dock is hard to put down. It’s also a good introduction to Anne Perry. I want more!