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Sebastian St Cyr is recently returned from the Peninsular Wars and is having some difficulty in settling back into a civilian life of balls and routs. As a consequence, since his return to London he's gained a reputation as something of a hell-raiser always on the lookout for a fight. His latest exploit has been a duel fought with a particularly unpleasant and far from honourable man.
When some days later, Sebastian finds himself accused of the brutal murder of a young actress he's never met, he refuses to escape abroad as his friends suggest but instead takes himself off into the stews of London determined to clear his name and bring the real culprit to justice.
Every once in a while I come across a book which totally absorbs me both in terms of subject matter and storyline. 'What Angels Fear' was just such a book and when I discovered that it's the first of an on-going series of historical mystery novels, my joy was unconfined!
As this was written by an American I wasn't expecting much from this story to be honest. I find that most American writers are incapable of conveying a sense of time and place when writing novels set in any period of British history, not just because they're unfamiliar with the English vernacular and errors immediately throw the reader out of the story, but also because they are writing from a non-British perspective. Not so with this writer. She got just about everything spot on.
The novel begins with the murder of the actress, Rachel York, who has come to the church of St Matthew of the Fields to meet someone for an unknown reason but it's soon clear that the person who turns up is not whom she was expecting. When the body is discovered, the Chief Magistrate, Sir Henry Lovejoy, is sent to investigate along with a couple of Bow Street runners. The only clue they find is a pistol bearing the St Cyr coat of arms. Despite the evidence being decidedly circumstantial, Lovejoy and his constable deduce that Sebastian St Cyr must be the murderer.
When Sebastian is arrested he realises that the only way he can prove his innocence will be if he investigates the crime himself and that would be impossible from inside a prison cell, so he escapes his would-be jailers and disappears into the narrow and dangerous back streets of London. During his ensuing investigation he turns up several red herrings, quite a few previously unknown family secrets and someone from his past.
A short history lesson ....
England at the beginning of the nineteenth century may have appeared glamorous on the surface with an aristocracy living high on the hog but people of lesser status lived very different lives and the gap between rich and poor was far wider than it is today.
Across the Channel, France was still in political turmoil following the Revolution and many of England's wealthy and powerful elite had a real fear that that same revolutionary zeal might spread across to these shores, and with good reason as there were many political radicals not only preaching about change but actively trying to bring it about.
History lesson over!
This story is set in 1811 shortly before the Battle of Waterloo brought England's war with Napoleon to a conclusion. St Cyr had been a soldier in the Peninsular Wars and has returned to England though the reasons for his leaving the army are as yet unclear and shrouded in some mystery and the cause of much ill-informed gossip amongst his peers. He comes across as an enigmatic and fair minded man with a social conscience but with plenty of demons he's still dealing with. Once he escapes into the back streets, St Cyr sets about trying to piece together events and come up with the answer as to who has committed this murder and why they've deliberately tried to implicate him in the crime. During his investigation, each stray piece of information Sebastian turns up leads him deeper into the world of lies, deceit and subterfuge that surrounded Rachel York.
Had this crime occurred today, the criminal would have been apprehended almost immediately but this is set in a time before forensics meaning St Cyr has to rely far less on science and more on his powers of deduction. That isn't to say, he doesn't use what science is available and with the help of an ex-army doctor friend and some local body snatchers, there is a very basic autopsy of the body, all described in putrefying detail.
With St Cyr being a fugitive from justice, most of the story revolves around him and he's a superbly realised character, totally believable. He has preternaturally acute hearing and eyesight which I thought was rather unrealistic but there's a note about this at the end of the book stating that this is a recognised but rare medical condition known as Bithil Syndrome.
The secondary characters are also well rounded and realistic and their reasons for acting the way they do are always logically explained.
The sense of time and place in this story is superb with an excellent use of nineteenth century slang and wonderful descriptions not only of life in the homes of the privileged few but also of the seething underbelly of a London where most aristocrats wouldn't dare to tread. The plot is tautly woven with every thread of evidence, as well as the loose ends, developing into a near perfect whole.
The author has written a masterly piece of historical crime fiction. She has a PhD in European History and it shows in the level of detail she manages to work into the story and she perfectly captures the hypocrisy of the English aristocracy of the time. One of her characters, a French emigree, puts it very succinctly. "You English, you talk so fine, looking down your noses at the Americans and prosing on about the sin and inhumanity of their African trade. And yet you sell your own children into slavery."
The story moves along at a cracking pace and the identity of the murderer remained a mystery until almost the very end. I think by the time his identity was revealed, I'd suspected just about every dubious character in the story.
I found this book to be a real page turner. It's a five star read which I simply couldn't put it down and I read into the wee small hours to finish it. It was pretty obvious by the end that because of the amount of loose ends which weren't tied up that there would have to be a second novel and I'm looking forward to reading more stories featuring this very appealing aristocratic detective.
This is available in paperback and Kindle format from £4.75.