In her third Inspector Monk mystery, Perry continues to explore the hypocrisies and social ills of Victorian society, where class distinctions are never forgotten. Monk, now a former inspector, having run afoul of his superior in the London police, plays a supporting role here to Nurse Hester Latterly, a softly outspoken feminist who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Asked by a friend to find a lawyer for a woman who has confessed to murdering her husband, a retired general, Hester turns to her admirer, barrister Oliver Rathbone. He, in turn, recruits the arrogant, testy Monk to penetrate the formidable public facade erected by the murdered man's family and their social circle.
As in her two earlier Monk-Hester books and her dozen other mysteries, Perry has done a masterful job of researching the period. But this time the motive for the murder is obvious, and the courtroom drama that fills the last third of the book is a letdown. The hint of a romantic triangle to come, though, will keep true Perry fans eager for the next in this series. (Fawcett Columbine, $18)