- Title: The Cater Street Hangman
- Author: Anne Perry
- Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/20/2017
**Spoiler Alert** In many ways, The Cater Street Hangman starts off in a similar way to a “romance of manners” rather than a mystery novel. The Ellison family have three girls. The oldest, Sarah, is married to Dominic, but they still live in the family home. The second daughter, Charlotte, is a forthright and honest girl that the parents, Edward and Caroline, fear will never marry. If, like me, you’ve read other books in this series you know that isn’t the case. The youngest, Emily, meets the young Lord Ashworth and immediately sets her sights on him as a future husband. Emily’s parents and both her sisters discourage her – as they are middle class, Lord Ashworth is above Emily’s station, and the family fears he will hurt her in the end to marry for money or family connections.
A maid of an acquaintance is murdered, as is the daughter of another middle class family. The women are garroted in the street – a horrific crime. Then the Ellison’s maid, Lily, is murdered. Inspector Thomas Pitt informs the family and begins to ask everyone questions, so he can learn what he knows to solve the crime. Sarah instantly dislikes Inspector Pitt, and frequently insults him – of course, this means they are fated to fall for each other.
Edward consistently insults Inspector Pitt and tells him their business is none of his. Pitt is a policeman, whether Edward likes it or not, asking questions is his business. Much later in the book it turns out the reason Edward is reluctant to provide an alibi for his maid’s murder is that he was not at his club as he first says, but visiting his long-term mistress. A woman that his wife and daughters know nothing about. When they find out, it causes considerable hurt and pain to the household.
For a time, Sarah and Charlotte secretly suspect Dominic – in part because he is also being cagey about his whereabouts. But Dominic is true – he has no mistress, and although he enjoys a bit of gambling, and staying out with men at his club – he is no murderer. Sarah’s suspicions drive a bit of a rift between the two anyway. It’s also revealed that Charlotte had a bit of a crush on Dominic for years – but she knew that Sarah loved him so she never did anything about it. Over the years the two have developed a sibling relationship rather than a romantic one.
Caroline, Sarah, and Charlotte all try to convince Emily that she is aiming too high in pursuing Lord Ashcroft. By the end of the book – he proposes secretly, though due to events it will be a while before he can work things out with Edward and propose formerly.
Essentially the same thing happens with Thomas Pitt and Charlotte. Their squabbling turns to admiration, especially when Charlotte visits the police station to give Pitt some information and evidence – and is confronted with the realities of Victorian life for the poor, the suffering, and even the “criminal classes”. She’s shocked, but to her credit, she’s sympathetic to those less fortunate than herself. By the end of the book, it’s clear the two are meant to be together, and it’s no surprise when Thomas proposes in secret, then remarks he must work things out with her father. As this is the first book in the “Thomas and Charlotte Pitt” mystery series – and I’ve read later books where the two are married and solve crimes together – this is absolutely no surprise whatsoever.
The book moves along, mostly centered on the Ellison family. Caroline and Sarah are very involved with the local church, working with the vicar and his wife in good works. Throughout the book, especially as she has fears for her marriage, Sarah becomes more and more involved in her charity work, and going on visits in the parish. Pitt strongly advises the girls to never go out alone. None of them really listen.
Sarah is then murdered in the same fashion as the other women. The Ellison family is shocked. Charlotte is attacked and discovers the murderer at the same time. She’s rescued by Pitt and the murderer is arrested.
Much of this book is devoted to the daily life of the Ellison sisters, and much of that involves their interactions with the vicar and his wife. Charlotte despises the vicar – he’s sanctimoneous, and pompous. But he also blames the poor for being poor, claims that “loose morals” are the fault of women, condemns unfortunate women for their own situations, etc. He even claims that the maids and young women were murdered “because they deserved it” for not being “good Christians” and “moral people”. He’s a piece of work, and for much of the book – I suspected him as the murderer. It turns out to be his wife – who’s both bat-shit crazy and a secret lesbian. Sigh.
That the murderer was the vicar’s wife was quite the surprise. That she’s a lesbian and denying her feelings her entire life drove her to it – was, um, very uncomfortable. The “crazy lesbian” trope is damaging and really deserves to be laid to rest. I had thought this book was from 1990, but checking the copyright page – it’s from 1979. That explains the hurtful explanation for why the vicar’s wife suddenly decides to start killing the women of her parish (she apparently believed all these women were making passes at her, something she felt was “sinful” and deserving of death). But it doesn’t excuse the author’s use of a hurtful “explanation” for the five murders.
Overall, although at times the book is slow reading, and the ending has definite issues, this is a solid start to a well-known mystery series.