REVIEW: C. S. Harris’s WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS

What the Devil Knows is C. S. Harris’s 16th Regency-set Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. Always leery of a series losing its reading-lustre, I’m amazed how each one keeps me in thrall for the one or two days in which I devour it. Part of it is thanks to Harris’s rich historical setting, focussed on the injustices of a society where the privileges of wealth and birth are in turn the exploiters of the poor, vulnerable, and low-born. Most of it, however, is due to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin; wife, Hero (adorable son, Simon), a slew of sleuthing-helpers (among my favourites, Irish surgeon Paul Gibson and Sebastian’s “tiger,” Tom) who care: they care about justice being done, they care about the downtrodden; they care about the precarious lives of the ordinary people who make up Regency London. If you come looking for the verve and froth of Bridgerton‘s London (I loved it, but this is a different animal), you won’t find it. Instead, the steadiest, most loving of couples and Harris’s meticulously researched world, more in service of great fiction than exactitude (always read the author’s note). In What the Devil Knows, London’s port and the publicans who serve her is her setting; past murders and mysteriously connected new ones set Sebastian on the path to untangling past and present:

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect–a young seaman named John Williams–was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.

Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question–who was and why are they dead set on killing again? Continue reading

Summer Reading: A Wow Book

Say_NothingDespite a week of family and work obligations, I spent most of it rushing back from an errand, or logging off a Zoom meeting eager to return to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. (If you read one nonfiction text this year, make it this one.) It’s remarkable and, rare in nonfiction, written with spare, clear, elegant prose. It is, as the subtitle makes obvious, an account of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s conflagrations to present-day; vague images of fires and bombs on the television news as I was growing up. Radden Keefe brought things home: I grew up in a society divided along fraught, linguistic lines; one who, like Northern Ireland, stood on the brink of chronic sectarian violence. (In 1970, as I walked to school, Canadian soldiers manned every street corner: the FLQ kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, ironically Irish-born, and deputy premier Pierre Laporte. Unlike Northern Ireland, though Laporte was killed and Westmount mailboxes bombed, Quebec slid into sullen stability: the English fled; the French stayed; allophones endured; language laws passed; separatist referenda, defeated. Quebec continues playing chicken with Canada and Canadians, for the most part, politely tolerate it.) I compare apples with oranges and ignore the matter at hand, Radden Keefe’s amazing book, my digression a testament to how thought-provoking it is. Continue reading