A thought-provoking and enjoyable historical mystery…
I had read and enjoyed a few of the early Sebastian St. Cyr books, back in the days when “book” pretty much meant “paper”. But somehow in my transition to reading almost exclusively e-books, I lost track of the series – until recently, that is, when I became aware of it again. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m happy to have received an advance review copy of the newest title in the series, What the Devil Knows.
In Devil, author CS Harris revisits an historical series of murders, the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which, per her note at the end of the book, “terrified Regency London at least as much as Jack the Ripper panicked Victorian London decades later”. While staying faithful to what is known for sure about the case, she seamlessly slides Sebastian; Sebastian’s wife, Hero; magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy and other familiar characters into the story, as they investigate some similar murders that are happening a few years later. Is this the same killer – although a man named John Williams had been arrested at the time, and had (allegedly) committed suicide in his cell even before being tried? Or a copycat? Or something else entirely? Readers will enjoy following along as Sebastian and crew figure out what’s going on.
In addition to crafting an engaging plot, Harris also shows readers the ups and downs of Regency London as the action travels from the grim realities of Wapping and the London docks to the luxurious lives of the nobility, and then back again. Hero’s character, in particular, highlights some of the challenging societal issues of the day – today she’d be called a social activist, but at the time, people aren’t quite sure what to make of her, especially given her influential and wealthy father, Lord Jarvis. And woven throughout the entire tale is a fascinating background theme of early 19th century beer-making and distribution, which I knew nothing about, but which seemed remarkably similar (big brewers trying to crowd out indie producers, pay-to-play, even protection rackets) to how things probably still happen today.
All-in-all, What the Devil Knows is a treat to read. I started reading it in the middle of the week, which was a mistake, because I got cranky when I had to put it down to get enough sleep for work the next day! I am happy to give it five-stars, and will be looking forward to going back and picking up some of the titles in the middle of this series that I have missed! And finally, my thanks to the publisher, Berkley, and to Edelweiss, for the advance review copy.