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Mark Noll

Mysteries, Sacred and Profane

What makes for a satisfying detective story? In an often-reprinted essay from the May 1948 Harper's, W. H. Auden answered this question by referring to "the Aristotelian description of tragedy" where "there is Concealment . . . and Manifestation. . . . There is also peripeteia, in this case not a reversal of fortune but a double reversal from apparent guilt to innocence and from apparent innocence to guilt." Auden was characteristically perceptive, but most of us who share an addiction (Auden's word) for the genre can put it in simpler terms--clever plot, a solid sense of place, interesting characters, and a compelling moral universe.

Two recent efforts--one by a veteran of the historical mystery and the other by a promising neophyte in her first shot at detection--offer a nice contrast in strengths and weaknesses. By so doing they clarify what it is that brings many of us back for more and more of the type.

Anne Perry's Ashworth Hall is her seventeenth historical novel featuring Thomas Pitt, a member of London's finest, and his well-born wife, Charlotte, who usually figures prominently in setting atmosphere and solving the crime. Perry has been widely praised for bringing Victorian England to life, and this latest effort shows why.

Ashworth Hall is set on the country estate of a rising member of Parliament who came into his land by marrying a widowed patrician. She happens to be Charlotte Pitt's sister. The time is November 1890; the task at hand is a conference between Irish Catholic nationalists and leading figures of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy. The convener of the conference, Ainsley Greville, is a high-placed mover and shaker in the Foreign Office who hopes that face-to-face negotiating might solve "the Irish Problem." Even as the suspicious antagonists gather for their face-to-face deliberations, the divorce trial of Katherine O'Shea, charged by her husband for adultery with Charles Parnell, parliamentary leader of the Irish nationalists, moves toward ...

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