Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.
This is book twelve in the historical crime fiction series (and the last published so far) set in Regency England in 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 agreed because the thought of anybody stealing away someone else’s a life was an abomination to him, especially after the traumatic instances of unjust murder he witnessed in the army, and for which he still felt 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, a surreptitious burial was interrupted and the body thus discovered of a 15-year-old boy who had been raped and tortured before finally being strangled to death.
Devlin comes to believe that there is a person or persons in London mimicking the barbarity described in The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage, the novel by the French writer and nobleman known as the Marquis de Sade. The book, written in 1785 and smuggled out of France, tells the story of four wealthy men who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification by the sexual abuse and torture of their victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter.
In London in the early 1800s, unfortunately there was no shortage of potential victims. As the author recounts in her Afterword:
“There were tens of thousands of ragged children on the streets of London. . . . they frequently turned to begging, stealing, and prostituting themselves. . . . Sleeping in doorways, under bridges, or beneath the stalls of markets like Covent Garden, they formed the most vulnerable segment of the city’s motley population of poor.”
It doesn’t take long for Devlin to come up with the names of some in the aristocracy who might be implicated, but proving it, and stopping them from further abuse, is another matter.
There are also complications by the possible complicity of his father-in-law, the powerful Charles, Lord Jarvis, “the real power behind the Hanovers’ wobbly throne.” Jarvis is dedicated to protecting the House of Hanover, even if it means covering up some of the worst elements of the realm.
Even worse, one of the possible suspects may be about to become part of Devlin’s own extended family.
Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In additions, one always learns a great deal of history from the stories, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest.
Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017