Review of “Why Mermaids Sing: by C.S. Harris

Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.

Background:

This is the third book in the historical crime fiction series set in 1811 Regency England, and featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, the twenty-eight year old Viscount Devlin. In the first book, he was suspected of a murder he did not commit, and had to become something of a Sherlock Holmes to find the real murderer to save his own skin. In the second, he is asked to help solve a murder, based on his expertise evinced in his own case.

You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”

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In this book, which takes place eight months after the first book, Devlin is approached by Sir Henry Lovejoy, the chief magistrate at Queen Square, with whom he has become friends. Lovejoy informs Devlin about a series of grisly murders in which the bodies of young men have been drained of blood, carved up, and left displayed in very public places, with odd items stuffed into their mouths. Jurisdiction for investigation has been given to Bow Street (the Bow Street Runners, a precursor of Scotland Yard, was the name of London’s first detective force, established in 1753). But both Lovejoy and Devlin remain committed to solving the string of murders, and of course, Devlin eventually does, albeit at considerable risk to his own life.

1833 sketch of Bow Street and the police

1833 sketch of Bow Street and the police

As in previous books, Devlin is aided by his “Watson,” the surgeon Paul Gibson; his mistress, the beautiful but low-born actress Kat Boleyn (who refuses to marry him because Devlin’s father would disinherit him if they married); and the former urchin Tom, who now serves as Devlin’s “tiger,” or handler of his horses.

A stunning cliff-hanger ending, however, puts his relationship with Kat in jeopardy.

Evaluation: The circumstances surrounding this crime are much more interesting than the usual “serial killer” motif. And one becomes invested in the recurring characters. I look forward to seeing what happens to them in subsequent books in the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 2008

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Review of “When Gods Die” by C. S. Harris

Note: There are necessarily spoilers for the previous book in this series.

Background:

This is the second book in the historical crime fiction series set in 1811 Regency England, and featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, the twenty-eight year old Viscount Devlin. In the first book, he was suspected of a murder he did not commit, and had to become something of a Sherlock Holmes to find the real murderer to save his own skin.

You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”

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In this book, a crime has been committed at the highest levels of society. An attractive young woman, the marchioness Guinevere Anglessey, is found murdered in the company of the George, the Prince Regent. Charles, Lord Jarvis, “the power behind the throne,” knows there are plots afoot against the crown, and suspects the murder has been staged to discredit the monarchy and bring about a coup d’état. The war with France has been draining the economy and straining the loyalty of the populace and even of those in government. Jarvis asks Devlin, whose status as a peer gives him access to people that would be denied to the police, to find out who the real killer is.

Political cartoon from the era by James Gillray showing the prince regent as a voluptuary and glutton.

Political cartoon from the era by James Gillray showing the prince regent as a voluptuary and glutton.

Devlin agrees to help Jarvis. He has a decidedly non-Regency-peerage awareness of the inequities of both the social and legal system of his era, and his compassion for the less-privileged induces him to want to see justice done on behalf of the victims of crimes. But there is more that intrigues Devlin in this case: the dead woman was wearing the very same unique necklace that Devlin’s mother wore when she was lost at sea when Devlin was eleven.

Thus, Devlin chases down two mysteries in this book. He not only needed to discover why the marchioness was killed and by whom, but how did she get his mother’s necklace, when his mother was supposedly drowned at sea while wearing it?

As in the previous book, Devlin is aided by his “Watson,” the surgeon Paul Gibson; his mistress, the beautiful but low-born actress Kat Boleyn (who refuses to marry him because Devlin’s father would disinherit him if they married); and the former urchin Tom, who now serves as Devlin’s “tiger.”

[Having a “tiger” was the current fashion “among the sporting gentlemen of the ton.” These were the young boys who took care of their masters’ horses, and who wore uniforms of yellow-and-black striped waistcoats that had earned them the nickname tigers.]

Tom, who has “agility, a talent for keen observation, and quick wits,” was rescued from the streets by Devlin, and now has a fierce loyalty to him. He also provides much of the charm of the story.

As Devlin closes in on the killer, his own life becomes increasingly at risk. While we can be certain he will escape since this is a long-running series, the dénouement manages to be thrilling in any event.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 2006

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Review of “What Angels Fear” by C. S. Harris

The first book of this historical crime fiction series is set in 1811, in the Regency Era. (See my introductory post for more information about this time period.)

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This book begins with the discovery of the gruesome murder of a beautiful young actress, Rachel York. Evidence on the scene suggests the murderer was Sebastian St. Cyr, the twenty-eight year old Viscount Devlin. The police are determined to calm the fears of the populace by quickly nabbing and convicting the suspect. St. Cyr, who is innocent, feels he has no choice but go into disguise, flee, and find the killer himself.

St. Cyr is not without resources to do the detective work. He was an undercover agent during his time in the military, having served for six years fighting in the Napoleonic Wars; he has been back home some ten months. He also has extraordinarily acute eyesight and hearing. He employs those same skills to save his own life.

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He is aided by the counsel of his friend, the surgeon Paul Gibson, who serves as a Watson to St. Cyr’s Holmes, as well as by Kat Boyeyn, 23, the toast of the London stage and the love of Sebastian’s life. He also -unknowingly at first – has the help of Sir Henry Lovejoy, Chief Magistrate at Queen Square, who suspects St. Cyr was not in fact the killer. And most amusingly, he acquires an “acolyte” of sorts in the street urchin Tom, who is hired by St. Cyr to help him with his detective work. Tom uses the thieves’ slang, or “Patter Flash” but Devlin always speaks to Tom in the “posh” diction common his class and background. The juxtaposition of the two argots is most amusing, and incidentally provides us with a guide to what Tom is actually saying.

Evaluation: The historical part of the book is definitely superior to the crime part, but the “mystery” is adequate enough to form a framework for a very good depiction of Regency London. And the characters are very appealing, enough so to make me eager to read more in the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 2005

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Marathon Reading of the Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery Series by C. S. Harris: Introduction to the Regency Era

What can be more fun than discovering a good series after a lot of the books in it are already out? That is what happened to me with this series by C. S. Harris. Each of the next eleven posts will feature a review of a book in the series, in order.

The Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series is historical crime fiction set in the Regency Era, and so I will start by describing the era and why it has proven such a popular setting for fiction, from the books of Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer to Naomi Novik, to name three of the most popular. The works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Sir Walter Scott also fall into this category, as do those of many modern romance writers, including Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, and Lisa Kleypas.

Jane Austen is one of the best-known writers of classic Regency fiction.

Jane Austen is one of the best-known writers of classic Regency fiction.

Why has this period inspired so much literature?

For one thing, these were very interesting times historically. Most of Europe was at war, for and against Napoleon, depending on the year. America declared war on Britain in 1812, adding to the drama. Social mores were in an uproar as well: the rights of both women and slaves were being debated everywhere. And the conflict between the classes, especially in England, proved to be rich fodder for romantic plots.

The world being carved up into spheres of influence between Pitt and Napoleon — one of the  most famous political cartoons of all time

The world being carved up into spheres of influence between Pitt and Napoleon — one of the most famous political cartoons of all time

The Sebastian St. Cyr series begins in 1811, the year that George, Prince of Wales (known by the public as “Prinny”) began his nine-year tenure as Regent of the British Monarchy. (A prince regent is a prince who rules a monarchy in the place of a monarch who is still the titular king but has been deemed unfit for any reason, such as age, or physical or mental incapacity. In this case, the Prince of Wales was standing in for his father George III, thought to be mad. On the death of his father in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV.)

The Prince Regent

The Prince Regent

Generally, though, the term Regency, or Regency era, refers to the broader period of 1795 to 1837, which was characterized by distinctive aspects of manners and social expectations, as well as styles in fashion, architecture and literature. “The Regency Era” formally ended in 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV.

During this period, society was greatly stratified – the wealthy and largely idle upper class was called the “ton,” a French word meaning “manners” or “style” and serving as shorthand for this group which included most of the peerage, aristocracy, and wealthy merchants or bankers who formed the top crust of English society. [Note we still use the word “tony” to denote something fashionable among wealthy or stylish people.] The ton lived, as Harris writes in Who Buries the Dead, in “a rarified world of manners and careful calculations ruled by the dictates of taste and fashion. . . . ” What mattered most in this world, she explains, was not intelligence, moral fiber, education or talent, but birth and wealth.

On the other end of society, and drawing the revulsion and contempt of the ton was the great mass of the poor. Many of these desperate people turned to begging, theft, or in the case of women, prostitution. The Church, as the author points out [in the second book], “taught the poorer orders that their lowly path had been allotted to them by the hand of God.”

Curricle, such as would have been driven by Sebastian St. Cyr (via Georgian Index)

Curricle, such as would have been driven by Sebastian St. Cyr (via Georgian Index)

At both ends of society, however, vice flourished, although in a more “overt” style in the lower stratum. The Port of London was the busiest in the world, attracting a large number of thieves and other criminals, and leading to the creation of crowded slums known as “rookeries.” [At that time, “rook” was a slang term meaning to cheat or steal.] The people living in or frequenting these areas developed their own argot, known variously as “flash patter” or “St. Giles’ Greek,” [the area of St. Giles was one of the more notorious of the rookeries], language you will encounter in novels set in this period. (Some authors, like Lyndsay Faye, include a glossary in their books. Others use narrative devices to clue you in on the content of conversations. You can find an online Flash dictionary here.] Another such district, Covent Garden, figures prominently in the St. Cyr books.

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

“Flash houses,” as Liz Hanbury explained on her excellent post about the period:

“. . . were the colloquial names for pubs frequented by criminals. A combination of brothels, drinking places and centres for criminal intelligence, some were kept exclusively for young boys and girls. They were described at ‘hot beds of profligacy and vice’ and usually situated in the rookeries described above. Some, like The Finish in Covent Garden, were under the nose of Bow Street.”

Bow Street, also figuring prominently in this series, was a precursor to Scotland Yard. Bow Street Runners are considered to be the first British police force. The force, originally numbering six men, was founded in 1749 by the magistrate Henry Fielding, who was also well known as an author. “Bow Street runners” was the name the public gave to the detectives on the force. Because of their experience in solving crimes, they tended to be consulted on cases throughout the greater London area. The force was disbanded in 1839, having become redundant after the creation of a London police force in 1829. The new force was constituted by an act introduced in Parliament by the home secretary, Sir Robert Peel – hence the nicknames “bobbies” and “peelers” for policemen.

[The original headquarters of the new London police force were in Whitehall, with an entrance in Great Scotland Yard, from which the name originates. Scotland Yard was so named because it stood on the site of a medieval palace that had housed Scottish royalty when the latter were in London on visits. Thus “Scotland Yard” is a metonym for the police force serving most of London.]

19th Century engraving of the Bow Street Magistrates' Court, to which the Bow Street Runners were attached

19th Century engraving of the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, to which the Bow Street Runners were attached

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the period from the standpoint of literature was the wide gulf between rights and opportunities afforded to different genders. [As for what the social, legal and religious landscape was like for bisexual and gay people in this era, as author Ann Herendeen reported in an article:

“In the Regency, the sodomy law established in the sixteenth century was still in effect. Sodomy, defined as anal sex between men, was a capital crime punished by hanging. Because credible eyewitness testimony was required for all convictions, executions were relatively rare, and men were more often found guilty of “attempted sodomy,” although even this brought a fine, a stint in the pillory and a jail sentence.

The pillory was not the innocuous little shame ritual some of us may imagine. Convicted offenders, men and women, were subjected to the abuse of the mob, pelted with rubble, dung and entrails from butchers’ and fishmongers’ shops nonstop for the length of their sentence, with the full encouragement of the authorities.”

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C.S. Harris addresses this situation through her characters Russell Yates and Ambrose LaChapelle, inter alia. You can find out more about homosexuality in Nineteenth Century England from primary documents compiled on this web site.]

A woman lacked significant rights in England until the mid 19th Century. Not only did she lack educational and professional opportunities. The law of primogeniture stipulated that any daughters’ rights of inheritance were forfeited in favor of an eldest son’s, compelling many women to secure their social status and subsistence through marriage. A woman could only inherit if she had no brothers, or a husband who died intestate. If a woman did have property, the law of coverture, which defined the legal status of woman following marriage, provided that the husband and wife became a single unit for property purposes, with the husband having complete control over all the property of either person. Anything the woman brought into marriage, including real estate, clothing, furniture, or money, became the property of her husband. The husband could not sell dower real estate without his wife’s consent, but he was free to squander her assets. Given the significant proportion of time the idle upper class spent gambling in Regency England, this was not an insignificant consideration.

[Note the situation was not so different in early America.]

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In the upper classes, families could usually arrange marriages for their daughters, and mothers were often obsessed with doing so. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter of March 13, 1816:

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”

Husbands in England at this time were also permitted by law to beat their wives.

In the lower classes, however, women’s choices were much worse. There were workhouses, in which work was often difficult, even dangerous, and entailed long hours. They could also enter into domestic service, in which they waited on the upper classes all day from early morning until late at night, without much time off. (A good fictional portrayal of life for domestics in this time period is offered in the novel Longbourn by Jo Baker.)

But many women didn’t even have those options. Harris portrays the harshness of the lives of the underprivileged with an acute and sympathetic eye. She writes in When Gods Die:

“It was a familiar enough story, a tragedy enacted a thousand times or more a year in London, Paris – in every city across Europe. Women barely eking out a subsistence wage, caught by illness or a downturn in the fashion industry and thrown onto the streets. Most turned to prostitution or theft, or both. They had no choice, but that didn’t stop the moralists from condemning them as sinful women and railing against them as the source of all corruption and decadence.”

The Royal Joke, or Black Jacks Delight, by James Gillray (1757-1815)

The Royal Joke, or Black Jacks Delight, by James Gillray (1757-1815)

Impoverished men did not have enviable situations either. Harris reported in What Darkness Brings:

“The East End of London was choked with men . . . raised in want and desperation, uneducated, angry, and long ago cut loose from the moral underpinnings that typically anchored those who looked askance at them. . . Living precariously from day to day, subsisting largely on potatoes and bread and crammed as many as five or ten to a room, they wreaked their own kind of vengeance on a system that viewed them as a permanent ‘criminal class,’ impervious to improvement and suitable only for containment.”

She adds:

“Those who didn’t die young or violently could generally look forward to being either hanged or transported to the nasty new penal colony at Botany Bay that had replaced the earlier hellholes in Georgia and Jamaica.”

[Botany Bay in eastern Australia was opened as a penal colony in 1786. Between 1787 and 1868, approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to it and other Australian penal colonies by the British government. Many convicts were transported for petty crimes while a significant number were political prisoners. More serious crimes, such as rape and murder, were not “transportable” offenses.]

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Religion played an important role in maintaining the social order. In What Angels Fear, Harris observed:

“The Church, like the monarchy, was a valuable bastion of defense against the dangerous alliance of atheistical philosophy with political radicalism. The Bible taught the poorer orders that their lowly path had been allotted to them by the hand of God, and the Church was there to make quite certain they understood that.”

What did the rich do all day while the poor were struggling to survive? During the day (which started in the afternoons, since the rich stayed up so late), the men hunted, went to clubs, drank, took snuff, played cards, and gambled. Occasionally they dueled. At night they partied. The women shopped, did needlework, visited one another, and gossiped. And then at night, they too went to parties.

From Pride and Prejudice

From Pride and Prejudice

Eligible young people (along with their older chaperones) frequented Almack’s, a famous club where gently bred young ladies could meet highly eligible gentlemen. Almack’s makes its appearance in most Regency Era novels set in London. Almack’s was governed by a select committee of the most influential ladies of the ton, known as “The Patronesses” of Almack’s. These Patronesses allowed entrance to the rooms only to those they considered good ton.

The First Quadrille at Almack's: a French print

The First Quadrille at Almack’s: a French print

C.S. Harris acquaints you with all these aspects of the Regency Era and more in her books. Each one highlights a part of history from that time. I hope you will join me as I share these stories with you in the coming posts.

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Review of “The Bone Sparrow” by Zana Fraillon

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This affecting story about an Australian-run camp for refugees from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, although a novel, could have come right out of the news. As The New York Times reports, “Myanmar has long persecuted the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, denying it basic rights to citizenship, to marry, to worship and to an education. After violence unleashed in 2012 by Buddhist extremists drove tens of thousands of Rohingya out of their homes, many risked their lives to escape in smugglers’ boats; more than 100,000 others are living in squalid internment camps.” A recent release of more than 2,000 complaints detailed allegations of horrifying conditions and abuse (including sexual abuse of children) in a refugee camp in the island nation of Naura, site of a refugee camp run by Australia. In 2015, the BBC reported that:

“Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore facilities, for months, even years, has attracted strong criticism from bodies such as the United Nations. But government secrecy surrounding the operation of these isolated centres means many Australians know little about what life is like for those detained inside.”

Ethnic Rohingya refugee children from Burma © EPA/SHAMSHAHRIN SHAMSUDIN

Ethnic Rohingya refugee children from Burma © EPA/SHAMSHAHRIN SHAMSUDIN

The Bone Sparrow tells the story of some of these refugees through the eyes of ten-year-old Subhi, who, along with all of his family except his father, came from Myanmar, and was part of the Rohingya minority, or Muslim Indo-Aryan people who have been identified by human rights organizations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The Rohingya have been trying to escape a genocidal government for years via rickety boats over the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. Many die trying to complete the journey. Subhi believes that his father, Ba, is trying to make his way to him, his mother Maa, and sister Queeny. Although it has been a very long time, and Subhi’s mother has fallen into a debilitating depressed state, sometimes Subhi finds tokens from his father he believes come from the sea. But then Subhi’s best friend Eli, a “troublemaker” is taken away from the family compound, and Subhi feels even more alone.

Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugees

Outside the camp we meet, in alternate chapters, a girl named Jimmie, ten years old like Subhi, who lost her mother to illness. She wants to know what goes on in “The Center” as the camp is known. She finds a way to steal inside at night, and begins a friendship with Subhi. Together, they find ways to find some respite from the loss and sorrow in their respective lives.

Conditions in the camps have been criticised by NGOs and the UN

Conditions in the camps have been criticised by NGOs and the UN

But in response to increased cruelty by the wardens, the relatively complacent mindset inside the Center changes. The refugees go on a hunger strike and try to alert the media to their plight. The wardens, called “jackets” by the detainees, strike back, and tragedy ensues.

The author said in an interview that the message of her book is one that should be discussed with children, since they will hear about these issues anyway, and it is a good opportunity to help them “imagine a different reality, imagine that the world doesn’t have to be this way.”

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Evaluation: This poignant story is excellent. The author reports in her Afterword that the conditions she described in the book have all been taken from reports of life in Australian detention centers. Asylum seekers and refugees who come there are locked in detention centers indefinitely, and not allowed to resettle in Australia, ever. One can only hope those who read it will be inspired to think about the tragic situation of refugees in a new way.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2016

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