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The dead body of a young woman has been discovered in a very compromising position, clutched in the arms of the Prince Regent at his exotic palace in Brighton. Though the Prince's surgeons try to pass the death off as suicide, the evidence - a knife protruding from her back - tells a rather different story.
Among the guests at the Pavilion where the body was found is Sebastian St Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and he's asked by the Prince's cousin to investigate. Though initially Sebastian is reluctant to do so, he's persuaded when shown the body. The victim, Lady Anglessey, is wearing a necklace which Sebastian last saw adorning his own mother's throat and which was presumed lost when she went missing many years before.
Having read and enjoyed the first book in this historical mystery series and been blown away by both the excellent storytelling and the richly described historical detail, I was keen to read more about the enigmatic and intriguing Sebastian St Cyr. Some series begin with a bang and then rapidly tail off with subsequent books but that isn't the case here as this latest investigation is every bit as good as the first.
One of the main problems any writer of historical fiction faces is how to blend real and fictional characters. Another is getting the detective to solve the crime using only methodology available at the time. In 1812 when this story is set, there wasn't much use of forensic science; in fact, there wasn't much of a police force either, with most crimes going completely undetected or a half-hearted attempt made to bring the perpetrators to justice via the local magistrate and the Bow Street Runners. Despite the limitations of the era, the author explains how Sebastian deals with each new piece of evidence in a realistic and logical manner and even when Sebastian has to rely on his intuition, his reasoning is logically explained.
In this latest investigation, as well as dealing with this high profile murder, the reader learns more about Sebastian's personal life. I suspect this theme will run through all the subsequent books in the series, building up a more in depth picture of the man as it goes along and explaining some of the mysteries of his past which are as yet unclear.
As a lead character, Sebastian is very appealing. He's a nineteenth century aristocrat with socialist leanings. He's previously been in the army where he's rubbed shoulders with people from all walks of life instead of living in the aristocratic bubble of the ruling elite. He's concerned about the plight of those less fortunate than himself and abhors "a legal system that could hang an eight-year-old boy for stealing a loaf of bread and yet let a king's son get away with murder."
It's pretty obvious to Sebastian that the Prince Regent isn't guilty of this crime and the king's son he refers to here is more likely 'Butcher' Cumberland, another of George III's sons who it was rumoured murdered his valet by slitting his throat; another occasion when doctors proclaimed a suspicious death as suicide!
Sebastian's investigation initially leads him to suspect this will be an open and shut case as the finger of suspicion points to only one person but as he digs deeper, more and more evidence appears which seems to indicate that the case may not be quite so simple after all.
As well as the ongoing murder investigation, there is a goodly proportion of the book devoted to Sebastian's personal life but this is expertly blended into the fabric of the story and never detracts from the main theme which remains that of the murder. The same can be said for the huge amount of historical details which the author includes and the reader absorbs without it ever seeming like a history lesson. It merely enhances the story and creates a greater realism. The blending of real and fictional characters works well, too, with members of the real Spencer Percival's cabinet being composed here of fictional characters but all of whom seem very real, certainly in terms of their political pigheadedness. This is a time of great unrest at home and abroad. We were still at war with France and the radicals in Britain were beginning to be very vocal in their demands for social reform.
There are several characters from the previous book make their reappearance including Kat Butler, Sebastian's lover, who has a huge secret of which he's totally unaware; the Earl of Hendon, his father who I suspect is also harbouring a family secret or two, and Lord Charles Jarvis, a distant cousin to the Royal Family and their Machiavellian Mr-Fix-It.
The story rocks along at a great pace and the plot is full of twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to almost the end. To say it's a page turner is putting it mildly. I just couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.
If I have any criticism at all it's that the author includes a little too much of Sebastian's personal life into the story, though it doesn't seriously impact on the amount she devotes to the crime solving. The various mysteries in the aristocratic detective's own life run through the series, never quite being fully resolved. There's much to be said for a happy ending but with these novels one gets a resolution to the crime with a cliff hanger in Sebastian's personal story which guarantees that I, for one, will keep on reading.
The author, C.S. Harris, is remarkably gifted both as a storyteller and as a historian. She doesn't pull her punches and though she's an American herself, she sees her own country's history just as clearly and unromantically as she does that of Britain and Europe. In the previous novel she presented a very scathing view of Britain. This time, it's America's turn and one of her characters, an American man of colour and former slave, remarks, "They like to think they're a glorious, godly nation, like some shining beacon on a hill that's going to lead all mankind out of the darkness of tyranny into the light. Only look what they've done. They killed all the red men and stole their land and then brought black folks from Africa so we could do all their hard work." She also emphasises the point that the War of Independence was fought not because America wanted to break away from Britain so much as that the King would not allow them to disavow the treaty made with the Native Americans which prevented them from getting their hands on the land. A far more accurate reason than all that romantic tosh about wanting their freedom!
All in all, this was another very satisfying story and it's prompted me to buy the next two books in the series. This novel, and the previous one 'What Angels Fear', will appeal to anyone who enjoys a well written crime story coupled with excellent, unsentimental and accurate history. The series so far, for me, has been a solid 5 star read.
Price: £4.72 Paperback/£4.48 Kindle format.