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By Anne Perry

Ivy Books

Reviewed by Therese Greenwood

What is a woman to do with her life? It was a topic explored in exhaustive detail by 19th-century writers such as Anthony Trollope, whose lengthy career included the period just after the Crimean War (1853-56), the setting for author Anne Perry's William Monk series.

For Trollope -- whose best work on the subject is 1864's Can You Forgive Her? -- the answer inevitably included marriage. He often described a woman's "coming out" season in terms of his beloved sport of riding to hounds, a dangerous, desperate, break-neck pursuit of a prize that would define the winner for life. It is inevitable that Perry, with her heightened sense of the period, recreates the desperation of that race -- at the same time injecting a feminist sensibility that would have sent Trollope reaching for the decanted port to ease the shock.

The ninth of Perry's William Monk series revolves around, as the title suggests, a breach of promise for marriage. The alleged fiance, the brilliant architect Killian Melville, doggedly refuses to marry the young socialite Zillah Lambert and, equally stubbornly, refuses to say why. With Zillah's reputation -- and her marketability as a wife -- hanging in the balance, her parents must sue to clear her name.

As Monk and the court try to assess the blame in the case, a second, larger question arises: What responsibility does a man have to a woman? While the answer to that question leads inevitably to murder, it also muddies the increasingly romantic relationship between nurse Hester Latterly, a veteran of the Crimea, and her two suitors. Can Hester -- who has suffered society's censure for a profession that has only found a recent respect due to the efforts of Florence Nightingale -- also have love and marriage?

As the brisk story unfolds, Perry's series shows no evidence of growing stale. Her characters continue to develop, with the amnesiac investigator Monk probing his past and his soul, and distinguished barrister Sir Oliver Rathbone evolving against his will from a man society knows is "sound" to someone considered "questionable."

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