The case seems open and shut. Lt. Edwin Lovat, an army officer turned junior diplomat, has been found shot to death at Eden Lodge on Connaught Square. An anonymous call with that newfangled invention, the telephone, has dispatched officers to the scene so promptly that they’ve caught Ayesha Zakhari, the beautiful Egyptian who rents the house and owns the murder weapon, standing over a wheelbarrow containing the bleeding corpse. But because the presumptive killer is the mistress of Saville Ryerson, MP for Manchester and cabinet minister, Prime Minister Gladstone demands that Her Majesty’s Special Branch do whatever it can to shield Ryerson, who says he arrived at the crime scene moments before the police. Special Branch officer Thomas Pitt (Southampton Row, 2002, etc.), surveying the evidence, realizes what a tall order that will be, since Ryerson’s brief—which includes cotton exports that have long been a sore subject between cotton-growing Egypt and cotton-weaving England—places him at the heart of an intrigue that will soon pack Pitt off to Alexandria, where the wealth of reliable detail about Egyptian customs and history will help mask the vacuity of characters whose only interest is in the forces they stand for. Back home, Pitt’s wife Charlotte is pulled into a search for Martin Garvey, an equally blank valet whose disappearance is connected to Lovat’s murder in ways that illuminate still deeper social abuses in Victoria’s England.
Indefatigable Perry forgets a cardinal rule: Even if the fate of nations depends on their characters, novelists first need to make readers care about them as people.