Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What we're reading: Regency Mystery

There are certain mystery writers whose series I follow, but someone at the library slipped up and didn't order #10 of the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency Mystery series by C. S. Harris. I discovered this when I saw #11 on the shelf, only to realize that I had missed one because no one had bought it! These things do happen at a library, where we are each, all the time, looking out for the next book by hundreds of authors. So when I saw that we were missing one, I did two things: First, I ordered it (and put a "red flag" notation on it so it will be processed quickly once it arrives); and second, I selfishly bought the e-book for myself over the weekend, and read it so that I could then read #11!

Who Buries the Dead, Sebastian St. Cyr #10, is Harris's usual combination of the personal and the avocational. A West Indies slave owner is murdered in a particularly grisly manner, just as a dangerous enemy from Lord Devlin's past reappears in his life. Coincidence? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Certainly all parties knew one another; but it might be too convenient to link the decapitation of Stanley Preston, a West Indies plantation owner, to the ruthless former army officer (also with connections to the West Indies) who once nearly destroyed Sebastian's life and has now turned up in London under suspicious circumstances. Sebastian is determined to find out.

Tied into the murder is the discovery of an artifact connected with King Charles, the seventeenth century Stuart king who was likewise beheaded. And this draws the notice of Sebastian's unprincipled and powerful father-in-law, Lord Jarvis. Also tangentially connected to the murder (and providing some historical local color) are the authoress Jane Austen and her brother, Henry, a nice touch.

This was a cleverly written story in and of itself, and also successful in terms of furthering the series. We received more details about Sebastian's personal life with his new wife, Hero (and learned more about her personality and causes); it was a well-researched historical mystery that Sebastian takes his usual pains to solve; and, best of all, I had no clue until almost the end "whodunnit."

I was even happier with the following book, When Falcons Fall (#11).  At the end of the last book, Lord Devlin finally unearths a substantial clue about his true parentage, and as this one opens, Sebastian and Hero have journeyed with their infant son (also Sebastian) to the village of Aylswick-on-Teme, in bucolic Shropshire, in search of answers. But even in a seemingly peaceful rural setting, trouble lurks beneath the surface, and when the body of a lovely young widow is discovered in the water meadows down by the river, an extremely inexperienced new magistrate discovers Devlin's presence in the village and applies to him for assistance.

The plot thickens exponentially as the magistrate and Sebastian explore all the possibilities for the identity of the murderer, and come to realize she may not be the first young woman who lost her life in Ayleswick under the guise of suicide. Another interesting twist is the presence, as a guest at the local manor house, of Lucien Bonaparte, estranged brother to the recently deposed dictator, Napoleon.

One of the things I personally enjoyed the most about this chapter in Sebastian's story was the occupation of the murdered widow. Her supposed reason for being in the neighborhood was a sketching tour, and there were wonderful descriptions of her sketchbook illustrations of local people, buildings, and vistas that were so evocative I could almost draw them myself.

There was also a lot more about Hero in this story, who takes an active part in solving the mystery while also pursuing her own quest to interview the locals about the effects of the Enclosure Acts. It was an eye-opening revelation about a change in English history that isn't often discussed (particularly in a novel), and I appreciated how Harris wove it into the overall story.

C. S. Harris's series continues strong. If you have never read any of her books, this is a series that you must begin at the beginning and read through, to adequately grasp the motivations, purpose, and trajectory of Sebastian St. Cyr's life as Lord Devlin and as a detective obsessed with the solution of murders about which no one else cares. He's a compelling character, somewhat of an anti-hero, and the series is a beguiling read. The first book is What Angels Fear.

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