Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.
This is the eleventh book in the historical crime fiction series set in Regency England, this one in August of 1813, and featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, the thirty 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 subsequent books, he was consulted on murders that involved the nobility, because he had an entrée into the upper level of society that would have been denied to the regular police. He agrees because the thought of anybody stealing away someone else’s a life is an abomination to him, especially after the traumatic instances of unjust murder he witnessed in the army, and for which he still feels guilt, even though he could not have prevented any of it.
Devlin 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 Sir Henry Lovejoy, now a “Bow Street Runner” (detective) who has become a friend of Devlin’s. Devlin also has his young horse handler Tom, a former street urchin, to do reconnaissance work for him.
You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”
As this book begins, Devlin and his family-entourage, including his wife of one year, Hero, and his six-month old son Simon, have journeyed to Ayleswick-on-Teme. Devlin had reason to believe there would be clues there about who his real father was. (Ever since Devlin learned the truth about his parentage, that he “was not, in fact, a son of Alistair St. Cyr but the bastard offspring of one of the Countess’s many nameless lovers,” he had become desperate to find out who he really was: “It was as if a yawning hole had opened up inside him that he was both desperate and terrified to fill.”)
His quest is interrupted by a murder in the village, with the new Squire appealing to Devlin for help. A young woman, Emma, was found suffocated, and as Devlin makes further inquiries, other people start dying as well. And when Devlin suspects that Emma was trying to discover who her real parents were, Devlin feels a kinship with her, and is determined to get justice for her.
In the meanwhile, Hero begins an investigation of her own, into the effects of the Enclosure Acts on the villagers. This was a series of acts by Parliament by which large landowners were allowed to enclose open fields and land previously used in common by local people. The Acts made the wealthy even more so, and drove many peasants into poverty.
As the author notes, because each landlord pursued his own bill through Parliament on an individual basis, the seizure of land by the rich progressed piecemeal thus militating against a unified, widespread resistance. But local instances of disorder were not uncommon, and the punitive “Black Act,” passed in 1723 (and not repealed until 1823), introduced severe penalties for protest activities including poaching. As one character explained, The Black Act introduced the death penalty for more than fifty new offenses, most of which entailed countrymen trying to exercise the ancient communal rights of which they’d been deprived. Those found guilty were hanged, transported to the prison colony in Australia’s Botany Bay, or forced into the army. “Wives, mothers, sisters, children, all left behind to fend for themselves, just when prices were rising and they’d lost all their old common rights. Was an ugly time, it was.”
Indeed, Hero and Devlin find that the disruptive effects of an enclosure act on Ayleswick-on-Teme may be behind the murders happening now.
But there are complications, as always. Lucien Bonaparte and his family, living in exile for nearly three years, are also in the area. Both Paris and London are wary of him and have spies watching him. Are the murders related to his presence?
Discussion: Most of this book is given over to social and political history. But there are still interludes in which we learn of the growing closeness of Devlin and Hero and their son Simon:
“They had first come together just fifteen months before, in a desperate affirmation of life in the face of looming death. But death had not come. Instead, from those raw, tentative, unexpected beginnings had come Simon and a love so powerful and uplifting that it still filled him with a shaky wonder.”
“Sebastian loved both mother and child with a passionate tenderness that awed, humbled, and terrified him.”
Evaluation: This is not my favorite of the series, since there isn’t much space devoted to the recurring characters. Still, one can’t deny learning a great deal from the stories, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest.
Published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 2016