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 15th book in the series, it is now 1814, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, the main protagonist, is in his early 30s, married, and with a 16-month-old son. 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, Devlin 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 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 asks his young horse handler Tom, a former street urchin, as well as his valet, Jules Calhoun, to do reconnaissance work for him. Each has an entrée into the lower levels of society that Devlin can’t even manage in disguise. And in an increasing capacity, his wife, Hero, helps him in his investigative work.
The story begins, as usual, with the discovery of a murder victim. This time it is a friend of his valet’s, who brings the matter to Devlin’s attention. Devlin would have heard of it in any event; Nicholas Hayes, the victim, was a member of the aristocracy – the third son of the late Earl of Seaford. Nick was presumed dead after having been convicted of a murder 18 years before and sent to Botany Bay in New South Wales, one of several notoriously bad convict settlements established in Australia. Britain had been sending convicts there since 1788. Hayes improbably managed to escape and fled to Canton, where he lived for 15 years. Now he had come back to London where he would surely be put to death – and indeed, upon his murder he had been, although not by any lawful process. Why had he returned and who killed him?
There are plenty of suspects as usual, most of them also members of the nobility. Furthermore, Hayes brought a young, half-Chinese child with him named Ji, and now the child, possibly the actual heir to the Earldom, is missing. Both Sebastian and Hero are distraught with the thought of a child alone on the streets or captured, and either way in grave danger. It is critical that Sebastian figure out what is going on and where Ji is, particularly as more people related to the case are killed and Sebastian and his wife are attacked as well.
Discussion: In this series, many of the aristocracy are despicable characters: haughty, entitled, hypocritical, and contemptuous of the masses of poor who barely eke out a living while the upper tier of society carouses and parties. Harris juxtaposes the egregious attitudes of these rich, entitled people with those of her empathetic protagonists, making their differences stand out in stark relief.
In this particular installment of the series, the author also integrates the sordid history of the East India Company into the plot. The East India Company eventually – but not yet when this story took place – was excoriated and dismantled because of its ignominious mistreatment of Indians who were in its power; its use of slave labor; the company’s promotion of the opium trade to enrich themselves at the cost of the lives of so many non-whites; and its actions leading to the starvation deaths of millions of people. (See, for example, accounts of how that happened here and here.)
Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In addition, one always learns a great deal of well-researched history about this fascinating and horrifying period, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest.
The author does an excellent job smoothly filling in background from previous books, but I believe readers would derive more enjoyment from the books by reading the series in order.
Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020