Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.
The Sebastian St. Cyr historical crime fiction series began with the first book set 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 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.)
“Prinny” mostly elicited “sentiments ranging from contempt to disgust.” He was “endlessly self-indulgent, notoriously dishonest, and reviled. . . .”
The Regency Era is a popular setting for fiction. 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. [You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”]
In this thirteenth book in the series, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, the main protagonist, is now in his early thirties. 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. He still felt guilt over these deaths, even though he could not have prevented any of them. He retained a fierce commitment to the pursuit of justice.
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. And in an increasing capacity, his wife, Hero Devlin, helps him in his investigative work.
Hero has an “in” with the nobility via her father, the [fictional] 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 crimes of the realm. Hero’s courage and obstinacy match her father’s, and she isn’t afraid to confront him when it appears he might be involved in such crimes himself. (One of her usual ways to greet her father now is “Did you kill ____?”) Also, because of Jarvis, Hero is well acquainted with many of the powerful families in society, especially the women, giving her access even Sebastian doesn’t have.
This story begins in January 1814 when London was suffering through a horrifically cold winter.
As the U.K. Independent reports:
“London and much of England was gripped by temperatures which fell to -13C, bringing chaos as roads became blocked with snow to depths of 6ft. Tales were legion of mail coaches becoming trapped in drifts and the poor, unable to afford coal, freezing in their homes.”
It was so cold the Thames River actually froze, and a “Frost Fair” was set up on the ice.
In this forbidding weather, Hero Devlin was out walking with Alexi Sauvage, a doctor who was the lover of Paul Gibson and also joined him in his work. Alexi had taken Hero to interview a woman in the poor district of Clerkenwell for an article Hero was writing about the hardships of families of men impressed by the Royal Navy. On their return, Hero stumbled over a dead body half-buried in the snow, and it was someone Hero knew: Jane Ambrose, the piano teacher of Princess Charlotte, the Regent’s daughter.
Alexi pointed out that although Jane had a severe head injury, there was no blood around her, suggesting she had been killed elsewhere. But both women knew there was little hope the death would be officially investigated; the palace could not afford even a hint of scandal to touch Princess Charlotte.
This situation did not stop Devlin and Hero from looking into it, however. As in previous books, because of the identity of victim, the potential perpetrators were many, and some of them were an integral part of the political machinations of the Kingdom. In this way, the author is able to educate readers about the history of the era.
As usual, Jarvis warned Sebastian to mind his own business, saying “This maudlin obsession of yours with vague and essentially useless philosophical constructs is beyond tiresome. Justice comes from God.” Sebastian knew the warning was serious, since Jarvis would not hesitate to eliminate any threats to what he saw as the welfare of the monarchy, even if that threat was embodied by the husband of his wife and father of his grandson.
The future of Princess Charlotte happened to be a point of great contention in the Empire at that time:
“It was an open secret that the Prince Regent was eager to see his daughter married and that the needle-thin, awkward, and decidedly unattractive William, Hereditary Prince of Orange. . . was his favored suitor.”
It was also an open secret that Orange was gay and would not make a very good husband for Charlotte. But the liaison was thought to be politically favorable by the Tories, who pushed for it, and anathema to the Whigs, who sought to prevent it. Might Jane, who had the freedom to move about denied to Charlotte, be involved in some activity related to this arrangement?
Jane also had various pupils from the ruling class besides the Princess. One was the daughter of Nathan Rothschild, the German financier. Sebastian found out she was suddenly dismissed several weeks before, and Jane seemed frightened about something related to that dismissal.
Rothschild, an émigré from Frankfort, had managed to become one of the richest men in Britain. The author maintains that Rothschild was more than a financier; he was also heavily involved in smuggling, and “at that level smuggling was a deadly serious, highly lucrative, and dangerous business.” If in the process of teaching Anna Rothschild, Sebastian speculated, Jane Ambrose had accidentally overheard or stumbled upon something she wasn’t supposed to know, he could see Nathan Rothschild or his associates ordering her killed.
[At the end of the story, there is an extensive Author’s Note commenting on historical aspects of the novel. Harris does identify some “composite” characters, but doesn’t include Nathan Rothschild as one. Nor does she clarify that it was James Rothschild, not Nathan, who was the primary smuggler of the family. Nathan, while extremely rich and successful (at the time of his death in 1836, his personal fortune made up as much as 0.62% of the British National income), had no need for the small-scale smuggling attributed to him by the author. Moreover, this particular Rothschild was respected and admired and engaged in a number of good works that would probably have been approved of by Hero and Sebastian.]
The nature of Jane’s personal life yielded potential guilty parties as well, giving the author an opportunity to expose the gender disparities of the time. Jane was an accomplished musical composer, but this was not an acceptable occupation for women, so male counterparts of these talented females, whether brothers or husbands, tended to claim the music as their own and profit financially from it. Jane’s husband was in debt, and Jane’s compositions (peddled as his own) supported him. But he was rumored to have had a mistress, and if Jane had found out, she might have threatened their arrangement. She had recently been reading the work of Mary Wollstonecraft.
[Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education, and they should be treated equally.]
But most of the evidence about why Jane was killed points to her last days, when she was seen going back and forth between the residences of Charlotte and Prinny’s estranged wife, Caroline, Princess of Wales. Caroline was also opposed to the marriage of Charlotte to Orange.
As Sebastian and Hero close in on the killer, their own lives are in danger once again.
Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In addition, 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, 2018