A Christmas Odyssey

Anne Perry’s Christmas novels have become as much a part of the holiday tradition for me as cutting down and decorating the tree or hanging the stockings by the wood stove. Here’s a look at this year’s.

By Linda Brinson

A CHRISTMAS ODYSSEY. By Anne Perry. Ballantine Books. 193 pages. $18.

 In Victorian England, it is 10 days before Christmas in when James Wentworth, a wealthy Londoner, turns to his old friend Henry Rathbone. Wentworth is in despair over his son, Lucien. In recent years, Wentworth has helped his son out of scrapes — gambling, unpaid debts, questionable women — he attributed to youthful high spirits. But lately, Lucien has slid into an even more sordid and dangerous world. And now he has disappeared.

If Wentworth pursues Lucien further, he tells Henry, he knows his son will resist and be lost forever. He doesn’t know if anything can be done, but he knows no one else who might help him.

 Henry kindly reminds his friend that this is “the season of hope — some believe, of miracles.” Even though he is a mathematician, he says, he believes there are things in the world that transcend human understanding. And “without those things that are beyond explanation, such as courage, hope, and above all, love, there can be no joy.” Moved by his old friend’s continued love for the wayward son, Henry agrees to do what he can to track down Lucien.

 Almost immediately, Henry regrets his promise. The world where Lucien has vanished is alien to him. The only clue he has about how to begin his quest is to ask his friend Hester Monk, who runs a medical clinic for women of the streets. Squeaky Robinson, a former brothel-keeper who now works for Hester, agrees to help in the search. Squeaky turns to Crow, a mysterious man who didn’t quite make it through medical training but treats the needy in London’s slums. As the three men work their way through the worst that London has to offer, they are joined by one more ally: a skinny, brave teenager named Bessie.

 Anne Perry writes two popular mystery/suspense series set in Victorian England, one starring Hester Monk and her detective husband, William, and the other featuring Thomas Pitt. This is the eighth year that she has also drawn on her vast knowledge of the period for the setting of a Christmas story.

 Perry knows her material, and she’s masterful as she starkly contrasts lavish Christmas festivities among London’s well-to-do with the squalor, misery and crime oppressing the city’s poor.

 A Christmas Odyssey is darker even than Perry’s usual dark as Henry and his unlikely group of helpers make their way literally into the most appalling depths of London. Beneath the city, in rat-infested tunnels and sewers, people who are so depraved as to seem hardly human traffic in the misery of others. The suspense mounts as the would-be rescuers realize that they may be in as much danger as Lucien is.

 Ultimately, as befits a Christmas novel, this book’s message is a strong one of redemption, forgiveness and the need to take a stand for oneself in order to be saved.  The grimmer the journey, the greater the miracle.

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