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By Anne Perry

Ballantine, 2010 ($18.00)
ISBN-10: 0345518586
ISBN-13: 978-0-345-51858-3

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

Henry Rathbone, a mathematician and a gentleman, is somewhat taken aback when an old friend, James Wentworth, approaches him with a request for a very big favor. Wentworth, also a man of class and privilege, is at his wit's end. His son Lucien, a handsome and bright young man who had been brought up in a proper household, has gone missing. Christmas is ten days away, the London winter is bitterly cold, and Wentworth fears his son has gone so far underground in the seamiest part of the city, both physically and mentally, that he may never be found.

At first, Wentworth explains, his son's lust for life was typical of others like him: gambling, drinking to excess, and spending time with ladies of less than spotless character. Over the last year, however, one of the women had gotten him into these and other vices much more serious and dangerous. Wentworth has made attempts to find him and bring him home, but that has made Lucien even more elusive. Lucien is no longer a youth, but a man of thirty-four, and Wentworth fears that if Lucien cannot be coaxed out of the pit he is in soon, his chance for living the life he was born to will be over. In fact, his very life may be forfeit.

Rathbone, knowing how deep Wentworth's love for his son is, and the pain he is in, reluctantly agrees to use his contacts to find Lucien and try to bring him home. His first thought is to ask his old friend Hester Monk for guidance. Hester, a nurse, is married to William Monk, an ex-police inspector turned private investigator. When he goes to the East End clinic where she treats indigent patients, her accountant, Squeaky Robinson, says she is busy, and asks if he might be of assistance. The clinic used to be a brothel, and Squeaky was the owner and proprietor of a thriving business. Hester, William, and Oliver Rathbone, Henry's son, had managed to put a halt to that business and take over the ownership of the building. They helped Squeaky see the error of his ways, and he is now grateful to be a respectable businessman and a friend and, when the need arises, a protector to Hester.

Rathbone tells Squeaky the nature of his call, and Squeaky, who knows the mean streets, alleys, and tunnels of the city, as well as the main players in the world of depravity, convinces him he will be a better guide than Hester. When Squeaky tells Hester about his quest, she gives him her blessing. He teams up with Crow, who has medical training and treats the poor and "semi-criminal" denizens who dwell on both sides of the river Thames around the Pool of London. Together they travel through the pubs, brothels, and opium dens that operate in the streets of the West End, but have no joy. Henry joins them as they literally take the search deeper and deeper underground, almost, it seems, to the gates of Hell.

This is the latest of Perry's Christmas series, each of which feature minor characters from either the Inspector Pitt or the Monk mysteries, and it is the darkest. I found it interesting, but depressing. I miss the bits of humor, the sense of the strength of the human spirit, or at least the faint glimmer of hope, that most of the previous books contain.

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