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

Mini-Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN UNEXPECTED PERIL

An_Unexpected_PerilAn Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.

That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. Continue reading

Miss Bates’s 2020 Year-End “Review”

Sky_Dec_31_2020Dear readers and friends, if there’s one quotation that ran through my mind this annus horribilis, it’s Fitzgerald’s, “It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence, or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well” (The Great Gatsby). And we have lived it every single day since March, when the subtle rumbling of the covid avalanche came to our attention. Then, lockdown … and a strange, united elation of singing from balconies and applauding health care workers and a kind of strange peace for those of us staying home that took the form of bread-baking and staring out windows. And, what I thought would be “reading time”, despite WFH. It wasn’t. Not the reading time part: instead a length of days, lost, in dream and lethargy. Of the books I did read, few stood out. Here they are. Continue reading

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s HID FROM OUR EYES

Hid_From_Our_EyesI have come to the most recent “end” of Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series with a sigh of satisfaction and anticipation for the next book, underway but by no means on the pubbed radar. One reason I love this series is Spencer-Fleming’s ability to deliver the familiar with something fresh, new, and surprising. In Hid From Our Eyes, she continues Clare and Russ’s great love and now adorable parenthood, offers ample glimpses into the ensemble cast who surround them, but also introduces new characters, fleshes out beloved, well-known ones, advances, but barely, to my great chagrin, a secondary romance, and depicts three murders occurring in different time periods, 1952, 1972, and present-day. She links them by the murders’ similarity: a dead young woman is found on a Millers Kill roadway, the autopsy failing to establish cause of death, and three police chiefs, Harry Neil (1952), Jack Liddle (1972), and Russ Van Alstyne (present-day), committed, intelligent, ethical, try to find the murderers. (Spencer-Fleming lobs a gasp-worthy revelation when one of Jack’s 1972 suspects is a newly returned military vet, angry, wild, and oh-so-sad, barely out-of-his-teens Russ!)  Continue reading

Review of C. S. Harris’s WHO SPEAKS FOR THE DAMNED

Who_Speaks_For_the_DamnedWhen you review the 15th installment of a beloved historical murder mystery series, your review is inevitably about where the volume fits in the series’s scale of goodness to weakness. Because I have no perspective when it comes to Harris’s Regency-England-set Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, read no further if you haven’t read the series, just start reading it – from the beginning to the present volume.

In this 15th installment, Harris sees her nobleman-hero, Viscount Devlin, affectionately known as Seb for us in the series’s thrall, seek the murderers of a disgraced nobleman, Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the deceased Earl of Seaforth. Years ago, Hayes was convicted of the murder of an exiled French aristocrat’s wife and, having stayed the noose, was sent to Botany Bay, an equally devastating, but protracted death sentence. Hayes’s return to London, with an Asian child, purported to be his son, shakes many privileged lives, not least of which is the present Earl, a distant cousin. But no sooner does the ton whisper speculation about Hayes’s return than he is found dead in Pennington’s Teas Gardens, with a sickle in his back. What brought Hayes back, though he would be captured and executed if caught by Bow Street? Was it revenge? Vindication? Continue reading

REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s A ROYAL AFFAIR (Sparks and Bainbridge #2)

Royal_AffairI loved Allison Montclair’s first Sparks and Bainbridge mystery, The Right Sort of Man, and anticipated the second. Is there anything better than a summer holiday, with only a modicum of work obligations, to enjoy an anticipated book?

A Royal Affair takes Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge out of their humble business start and into the highest echelons of royal matters, to the possible engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Someone, however, doesn’t want this to take place. A blackmailer, with damning letters involving the prince’s mother, Princess Alice, and intrigues implicating Greek leftists (anti-monarchist, of course) and those who would restore Greece’s ersatz (sorry, my side is showing) royal family, who, where I come from, are neither royal, nor Greek. This lent a moue of disappointment reading the mystery novel, but it is strictly a personal one and I can still heartily recommend the series and this addition to it. To set the scene, Lady Matheson, Gwen’s cousin, arrives at London-based Right Sort Marriage Bureau with a task for Gwen and Iris: to search out the person, or persons, who seek to destroy the union between the handsome Greek prince and the future queen. Continue reading

REVIEW/RESPONSE: C. S. Harris’s WHO SLAYS THE WICKED

Who_Slays_WickedI hoard C. S. Harris’s Regency-set St. Cyr mysteries like a squirrel her winter-nut-stash. But every time, when I have time off, I crack one open to enjoy without interruption. Given it’s a pandemic-summer and stay-home is still the best way to go, I’m happy to say I have TWO St. Cyrs to enjoy! Number fourteen sees Sebastian St. Cyr and wife Hero’s sleuthing hit close to home as Sebastian investigates the murder of his beloved niece’s husband, Lord Ashworth, dissipated, privileged, arrogant, and, as Sebastian suspects, a murderer and defiler of women and children. No one will mourn Ashworth, least of all his wife, Stephanie, who suffered at his hands, but his murder becomes personal when Stephanie is suspected. Like all of Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries, it’s a wild ride: a Russian delegation arrives in London to foil the Anglo-Dutch alliance sprung out of Napoléon’s dwindling/defunct powers. Russian and English nobles, London’s poor and destitute, one notch above-impoverishment servant class mix and mingle in Sebastian and wife’s, Hero’s, attempts to discover who killed the vicious Lord Ashworth. The narrative moves towards a confrontation between Sebastian, with his preternatural detecting powers, and evil. There is, in this volume, evil in Biblical proportions and Seb, more than ever, aware of human frailty, as the people he loves are caught in Ashworth’s depraved vortex.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Eliza Casey’s LADY TAKES THE CASE (Manor Cat Mystery #1)

Lady_Takes_CaseAfter Not the Girl You Marry‘s cynicism, it was refreshing to discover a cozy, well-written historical mystery with an engaging, likeable heroine, her “downstairs” sidekick, A CAT NAMED JACK (who saves the day), a Yorkshire setting (one of my favourite places in the world), and a Christie-esque closed-manor murder. Our heroine is nineteen-year-old Lady Cecilia Bates of Danby Hall; her mother, the Duchess, determined to save the crumbling manor and family’s waning finances by arranging a lucrative marriage for her son; the Duke, urbane and warm, sells off  the family treasures, piece by piece, to keep staff, grounds, tenants, and family; the heir, Patrick, handsome, but distracted and solely focussed on his botanical experiments. When the novel opens, Danby Hall awaits the arrival of Miss Annabel Clarke, the swimming-in-money American bride-to-be, whose fortune will save Danby Hall in exchange for a Duchess’s title. Lady Avebury has rallied the staff and her family to welcome Annabel with balls, masquerades, garden parties, and picnics. To that end, she has invited neighbouring aristos, as well as interesting London-based guests, one of whom, Richard Hayes, famous explorer, expires of strychnine poisoning at the first grand dinner. The spoiled, mercurial heiress believes the poison was meant for her, but Lady Cecilia Bates and the heiress’s New-Jersey-born lady’s maid, Jane, with Jack’s help, are on the case.
Continue reading

REVIEW: Tessa Arlen’s POPPY REDFERN AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDERS

Poppy_Redfern_Midnight_MurdersI have droned on and on, to your great boredom, about how I love romance and how my second love is the mystery-romance-historical combo, like Deanna Raybourn, or Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Jennifer Ashley … *sobs* and the no-longer-writing-new-Renegades-of-the-Revolution Donna Thorland. Let’s face it, I love the hybrids as much as I love romance, so let’s let that second love thing die. Now, with Tessa Arlen’s first in A Woman of WWII series, I’m adding another much-anticipated series to the beloved list. Given the stay-at-home state of things, Arlen’s Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders made for the perfect comfort read: with a Christie-Foyle’s-War-inspired English village + eccentrics setting and intrepid, engaging, loveable heroine, the eponymous Poppy, a too-charming-for-his-and-Poppy’s-own-good American Army Air Force hero …  and no less than a Midsommer Murders corps of village-body-count! While I toiled away at WFH and dabbed lipstick for Zoom meetings, I enjoyed, in the time-interstices, my reading of Poppy, her American hero, and their joint sleuthing. Continue reading

REVIEW: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT KENSINGTON PALACE

Murder_At_Kensington_PalaceOy, as if I need another historical mystery with romantic elements to follow, but this cross-genre is appealing to me … so, here I go again with Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane Regency-set, slow-burn romance and mystery series. Add this to the pile with Harris’s St. Cyr, Raybourn’s Speedwell, and Ashley’s Holloway.

Murder At Kensington Palace is the series third and I’m sorry I didn’t read the first two. The present volume was so satisfying, however, that it made me an insta-fan and regretful not to have discovered it from the get-go. As with Harris, Raybourn, and Ashley, Penrose creates engaging, easy-to-love protagonists. Like Ashley especially, she fashions an irresistible band-of-sleuths ethos, with a circle of friends, servants, street-people and -children, Bow Street runners, an eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued aged aunt, aiding and abetting the primary protags, compelling, lovable characters in their own right. Wrexford and Sloane are Lord and Lady “statussed,” but their world goes way beyond the ton. Continue reading