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A CHRISTMAS PROMISE
By Anne Perry
Ballantine Books, 2009 ($18.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
London, 1895, two weeks before Christmas. Thirteen-year-old Gracie Phipps is just returning from an errand for her grandmother when she sees a young girl standing in the street, looking cold, miserable, and lost. She knows she should go on home, but Gracie has a big heart, and an inquisitive nature. She approaches the child and asks if she is lost. No, Minnie Maude Mudwell, age eight, tells her, her uncle has been murdered and Charlie is lost. Charlie, it turns out, is the family donkey, and she is worried that he is cold and hungry.
Gracie reluctantly says she can't help, and goes home to help Gran with supper. Her guilt and curiosity sends her out in the street early the next morning to find Minnie and offer her assistance. When she finally tracks down the right house, she is met at the door by a surly and unwelcoming man who wants to know why she's looking for Minnie. Using quick wit but poor judgment, she says Minnie is needed to do an errand, for which she'll be paid. It works, and Minnie is promptly ushered out on the street with Gracie. She has no idea where the promised money will come from, but she knows she'll think of something.
She and Minnie set out on a journey not just to find Charlie, but to solve Uncle Alf's murder, a task that puts them in grave danger. Alf was a rag and bone man, and he may have been murdered for something he accidentally picked up, something of great value to a very powerful person. Gracie's quick wit and resourcefulness, along with some assistance from a mystery man, Mr. Balthasar, saves their lives and leads them to a Christmas miracle.
This is the seventh of Perry's Christmas novels, each of which focus on a minor character from one of her Victorian series. I enjoyed learning about Gracie's background, where she was already developing the skills she will use to help Inspector Pitt and his wife Charlotte when she becomes their maid a few years later. As always, Perry creates a vivid sense of place, seeing through Gracie's eyes the London of the 1890's, not really a city but a group of contiguous villages, each with their own character.
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