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I know I'm probably in the minority but Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical-come-time travel series leaves me cold. I do however love a good historical mystery and Gabaldon's books featuring Lord John Grey as the main protagonist and set in my favourite Georgian period are just the kind I like. Lord John Grey was commander of a Scottish garrison and a relatively minor character in the aforementioned Outlander series but here he takes centre stage.
Diana Gabaldon intended this book to be a novella but at 400 pages long, it is certainly more substantial than that.
The year is 1757 and Lord John Grey, an aristocratic and high-ranking officer in the British Army, has just witnessed something that could have repercussions on his family but before he can begin to deal with this matter, his superiors assign him to investigate the murder of a fellow soldier who is also suspected of being a traitor. Lord John's investigation takes him into some very unexpected places.
In the foreword to this book, Diana Gabaldon says this novel is part of the Outlander series and follows the same timeline but to my mind, apart from the timeline that is where the similarity ends. This is a historical mystery with no paranormal elements whatsoever.
Lord John Grey is a different sort of detective, certainly when compared to more modern ones. This novel is set in an era before a formal police force existed except for the newly formed Bow Street Runners who offered a very limited and unreliable service, so any investigation of a murder would need to be conducted privately. Lord John is also gay, something punishable by death at that time, so he has to be very circumspect in any relationships he has.
It's through a casual glance at his neighbour's *privy part* whilst relieving himself at his club that Lord John notices a small sore which indicates that the man, the Honourable Joseph Trevelyan, has contracted syphilis, "the French Disease". Apologies to any French people reading this review, but that's how syphilis was described in eighteenth century England. No doubt the French knew it as the English Disease!
Syphlis wasn't anything particularly out of the ordinary at that time but Trevelyan is betrothed to Lord John's cousin, Olivia, so he is determined to prevent the marriage taking place, as syphilis was an incurable disease and remained so until relatively recent times. His older brother who is Olivia's guardian, is currently away leaving Lord John to act as head of the family, hence his concern.
However, before he can deal with that matter, his superior officer, Colonel Quarry, asks him to look into the death of Sergeant Tim O'Connell who has been killed in what seems to be a pub brawl but as O'Connell is a suspected spy, it is imperative that his killers are found especially as it isn't known for whom O'Connell was spying. This story is set a decade after the second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and at a time when England still had many enemies both at home and abroad.
Lord John's investigations take him from the back alleys of London to the homes of the highborn, and I certainly learnt a great deal about the seamier side of eighteenth century life. As homosexuality was a capital offence, men met in secret and often frequented 'molly houses' although doing so put them at great personal risk. This made for some interesting reading as prior to this book, I didn't know such places existed. I often think that as a species we haven't progressed very far in terms of civilisation but we certainly have with regard to sexual tolerance!
I liked Lord John who comes across as a good and decent man and his personal secret lent balance to the story allowing the reader to see things from the perspective of a gay man. The other characters were well-drawn and authentic and the mystery was well plotted with a few surprising twists and turns. The mystery does rather take second place to the historical detail but, for me as a lover of this time period, that wasn't a problem.
I couldn't fault Diana Gabaldon's research and the historical detail was excellent lending a sense of time and place which gave the story a great deal of authenticity. I was never thrown out of the story by any jarring inaccuracies either in the language or the setting. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a reasonably engrossing mystery element. I certainly enjoyed it enough to read the two further books featuring Lord John.