This summer, in anticipation of reading MissB’s Where the Dead Lie ARC, she listened to the first 10 volumes of C. S. Harris’s Regency-set murder mystery, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series. MissB. listened to them, rapt, when she took a walk, prepared dinner, and dabbed make-up on in the morning. And, she discovered something about her mystery reading: she reads mysteries for the detecting figure’s personality, his mind’s workings, motivation, method, and relationships. Nothing is more satisfying for good doses of those reading interests than Harris’s series.
At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, gorgeous figure of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, amateur sleuth, military veteran: tall, handsome, with penetrating strange yellow eyes, and a deep sense of finding justice for the vulnerable and oppressed. Equally fascinating and much beloved are his family: wife Hero and baby-son Simon; the doctor-friend who helps him reveal what dead bodies can tell about their murders, Paul Gibson, and his mid-wife partner, Alexi Sauvage; the austere, fragile elderly man who is Sebastian’s father, Alistair St. Cyr, Earl of Hendon; arch-nemesis, father-in-law, Lord Jarvis; embittered, jealous sister, Amanda; beautiful, tragic niece, Stephanie, and dissipated nephew, Bayard; sleuthing partner, magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy; former actress-lover, Kat Boleyn; and Miss B’s personal favourites, Sebastian’s valet, Jules Calhoun and former-street-urchin tiger, Tom. While some novels in the series are stronger than others and MissB. may prefer some over others, Harris has created a Regency world, peopled it with the most likeable set of characters, drawn her villains with complexity, and ensured that MissB. remain with the series no matter where it might go.
In the case of Where the Dead Lie, out of all the series books, Miss Bates had difficulty with where it went. It is a strong entry, but a difficult read. Sebastian et. al. are caught in an evil web, trying to figure out who is killing London society’s most vulnerable, neglected population – its street children. Harris doesn’t spare the Regency’s powerful: weaving a tale of power over the helpless and oppressed by the aristocracy’s vilest members. Suffice to say, the reader has to have the stomach for this iteration of Seb and Company, but the lure of knowing them and following their stories, especially our flawed, but justice-seeking hero, was too much for Miss Bates. She carried through to the end and confidently says that, at least, justice has served … with the possibility of further justice needed. With apologies for the teasing tone and hinting, how else to avoid spoilers when reviewing a mystery?
What Miss Bates can say openly is that Sebastian proves to be as easily loved, complex, and fascinating as ever. While in the early books, Sebastian is an angry man, haunted by dreams of his time at war and family’s dysfunctional nature, Harris does a great job of developping his character beyond that. By Where the Dead Lie, Sebastian is a happier, less volatile man, a devoted, loving father and husband. What Sebastian is unwaveringly, from the first book to the last, however, is self-aware. Sebastian is a hero who thinks and feels deeply and, for that, Miss Bates stays with the series. While Sebastian’s contentment is evident, his characterization as a military veteran still haunted by war experiences figures prominently in explaining something of what drives him to solve murders:
He could not explain what had driven him from his bed. His dreams were often disturbed by visions of the past, as if he were condemned to relive certain moments over and over in a never-ending spiral of repentance and atonement.
Sebastian may be motivated by “repentance and atonement,” but he is also a philosopher of human nature. The war experience is at the heart of his understanding of human nature and his own complicated psychological make-up:
He wandered the streets of the city, gradually winding his way westward, his troubled thoughts on the past. Any man who has ever gone to war understands only too well the worst of what his fellow men are capable … Sebastian had seen it all … It had come to him eventually that such things were not aberrations; nor were they, as most would like to believe, “inhuman.” He reached the conclusion that this capacity for barbarity actually forms a fundamental and inescapable part of whatever it means to be human … Nor was he so delusional as to except himself.
A deep thinker, self-aware, a man of integrity, brave, and humble, never exempting himself from the darkness of what people are capable of. This allows him to approach each “case” with the humility and intelligence needed to bring justice to the dead.
Another character development that Harris does so well in the St. Cyr mysteries is to show Sebastian’s “softening” over the books’ course. What was anger and even violence in the first volumes, as well as echoed in Sebastian’s war memories, has been tempered by love and family to a thirst for justice, a protectiveness borne of love for wife and child, a willingness to forgive and express compassionate where there was condemnation (evident in a great scene with his father, the Alistair St. Cyr), and an ease with articulating his love and care for and of others. Miss Bates loved this moment when Sebastian speaks with one of the piece’s many villains and easily declares:
” … So tell me, why ye care what happened to some worthless young thief?”
“I care,” said Sebastian and watched the sneer on the other man’s face slide into something less confident, more confused.
Because he “cares”. To echo Lear, “o reason not the need,” simply because Sebastian “cares”. Maybe there is an element of atonement and repentance, as we saw earlier quoted; nevertheless, in the end, Sebastian and his friends and family show over and over again what good comes when people care.
Miss Bates would like to give the last word to Tom, Sebastian’s tiger, whom Sebastian rescued from the streets in book one of Harris’s series. Hero, Sebastian’s wife, is also one of the good guys. She is a journalist, interviewing the city’s vulnerable and raising awareness of their plight. In this scene, she speaks with Tom about the Tom of pre-Sebastian days, asking him what life was life as a street child, after his mother was transported and brother hanged:
” … I was always comin’ upon dead boys and girls, curled up under the bridges and by the bog houses. I reckon most ’em jist give up ‘n’ died. I guess they figured, why keep fightin’ it? Yer crawlin’ with critters and yer belly’s so empty it’s like ye got somethin’ live inside ye, clawin’ at yer backbone. And yer ‘ands, they’re so covered with chilblains from the cold that they aches like they’s on fire. But you know what’s the worst of it? The worst part is, nobody cares. Nobody cares that yer hurtin’. Nobody cares that yer hungry and cold and scared. And nobody cares when ye die.” Tom looked up, his sharp-featured face held so tight and bleak, it broke her heart.
This glimpse into Tom’s memories is in contrast to who he’s been throughout the series: a delightful boy, full of mischief, with a strong sense of purpose, justice, and a love for Sebastian that rivals Hero’s, Simon’s, Paul’s, and Alistair’s. And the reader’s … 😉 And this is because Sebastian cared.
While Miss Bates has to warn her reader Where the Dead Lie is a difficult read because of the mystery’s content, she would urge any reader to pick up Harris’s wonderful series. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Where the Dead Lie “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
C. S. Harris’s Where the Dead Lie is published by Berkley. It was released on April 4th and may be procured at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Berkley, via Netgalley.