How many people in the real world actually get amnesia so badly that they can’t remember who they are or recall any of the details of their past life? Definitely not as many people as get amnesia in the literary world. Amnesia in books is used as a deus ex machina, an obvious contrivance on the part of the author to force the story to take a certain turn. But although deus ex machina’s are a complete cop out when used to end a novel, they can rightfully have a place at the beginning of a novel when the author is creating the parameters of the fictional world.
The Face of a Stranger, by Anne Perry, is a Victorian mystery novel that begins with the protagonist waking up in the hospital. He has no idea who he is or how he was injured. Gradually he pieces together some facts. His name is William Monk and he is a police detective. He has been very successful with past cases, but his arrogance and impatience with others have earned him the dislike of his inferiors and the jealousy of Runcorn, his superior officer at the police station.
As soon as Monk is ready to go back on duty, Runcorn saddles him with a difficult, sensitive, and high profile case. Jocelin Grey, a young nobleman with important connections, has been brutally murdered in his apartment. Embarrassed by his amnesia, and fully aware that Runcorn wants him to fail the case, Monk tries to conceal his lack of memory. He fumbles and bluffs his way through every conversation trying to conceal his condition. The only person he admits his weakness to is Hester Latterly, an opinionated and strong-willed nurse who is able to remind him of details of a past case that may connect to this one.
Through a long and painful process of interrogation, the case begins to come together. When Monk finds evidence linking the crime to someone in Grey’s elite family, he runs the risk of jeopardizing his own career. He refuses to give up, however, and the stakes grow higher as the two questions most troubling him converge: “Who killed Jocelin Grey?” and “What led up to his own accident and amnesia?” Are the two events related? Running through many twists and turns, this novel is a masterpiece of suspense and characterization that will keep you guessing till the end.
The Face of a Stranger is the first William Monk novel in a series of a dozen or so mysteries. After finishing it, I immediately ordered the next four novels from the library and have been racing through them during the long, solitary hours when my husband is at school or work. The only reason I’m writing this blog post right now instead of devouring the sixth installment is because it’s still on hold at the library. If you like the Lord Peter Wimsey books, give these novels a try. Anne Perry is a worthy second to Dorothy Sayers.