"Traitors Gate," by Anne Perry. 411 pages. New York: Fawcett Columbine. $21.50
In the history of Anne Perry's career, "Traitors Gate" will go down as the last book she wrote before her secret past as a convicted murderer became known. Shortly before this, her 20th mystery novel, was published, the film "Heavenly Creatures" was released, depicting the obsessive friendship between two New Zealand schoolgirls who in 1954 bludgeoned to death the mother of one of them. It soon came out that Perry, a quiet-living resident of the Scottish Highlands, was in reality Juliet Hulme, the more glamorous of the two 15-year-old felons (and the one whose mother was not killed).
The plot of "Traitors Gate" is predicated on the somewhat questionable notion that late Victorian London society - the book is set in 1890 - was consumed with the moral question of the European's rights over Africa. A gentleman dies in his club reading room of an overdose of laudanum; it looks like suicide or an accident, but his son calls in Thomas Pitt, a Bow Street investigator who, with his perhaps overly-helpful wife, Charlotte, has figured in other Perry tales. It seems there exists an unsavory, ultimately powerful secret society, the "Inner Circle" - "a web of loyalties under the surface, conflicting with, and stronger than, all the ones you can see" - which the deceased had accused of conspiring to pillage a considerable portion of eastern Africa. His son believes he was murdered to shut him up.
The first half of the book is preoccupied with defining and condemning the malign influence of profit-minded explorers such Cecil Rhodes, an off-stage villain.
Once the second murder has occurred, however, the Dark Continent is pretty much forgotten, and Perry finally turns to the things she does best: tracking the origin of a cigar butt; grilling smooth, tony suspects; confronting smooth, tony evildoers. The book's ending is unquestionably socko.
Most interesting, however, especially to connoisseurs of Victorian literature, is a subplot recapitulating "The Odd Women," George Gissing's 1893 novel examining the role of the emerging independent, unmarried woman. Perry presents women's subordinate legal and social position as an equally destructive parallel to the rape of Africa. "There is a gulf between what you believe is acceptable and what I believe, and it is one I cannot cross," says the book's New Woman, rejecting the proposal of the man she loves. This renunciation, carefully written to re-create the principle-over-love climax of Gissing's novel, falls short of its model's emotional impact. Perry's ambitions are notable, but her skill, while adequate for the conventions of genre, does not stretch to encompass the novel of ideas.
Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia as well as editor and publisher of the New Dance Review. A Ph.D. from the University of California, she has worked for Ballet News, Charles Scribner's Sons and Barron's.