* Prices may differ from that shown
The sons of high born Englishmen are being found horribly murdered and each of the aristocratic corpses has been left with a token in their mouth: a page from a ship's log, a goat's hoof, a papier-mâché star. The magistrate, Sir Henry Lovejoy is perplexed and calls on his friend, Sebastian St Cyr to help with the investigation. Keen to take his mind off his personal circumstances, Sebastian begins to sift through the evidence and it doesn't take him long to link the deaths with a poem by John Donne entitled 'Go and catch a falling star'. There also seem to be connections to a tragic maritime event and with the burgeoning trade between Britain and the Indian sub-continent. Sebastian is surprised to discover that the parents of these butchered sons all seem remarkably reticent to talk about what could have led to their child's murder and it will take Sebastian a great deal more detective work to discover the motivation behind the murders and who the culprit might be.
I've been spending a great deal of time immersed in the early nineteenth century just lately and in particular, in the life of Sebastian St Cyr, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite fictional men. Sebastian has returned to England from the Napoleonic Wars which still rage in Europe but his life since his return has been thrown into free-fall, not least his false accusation of murder which resulted in him uncovering several uncomfortable family secrets which call into question all he'd previously believed about himself. His brush with the law also brought an old flame back into his life, Kat Boleyn, and his renewed liaison with the Irish actress is causing a good deal of friction between himself and his father and is also proving of interest to Lord Jarvis, the power behind the throne and definitely not a friend to either Sebastian or his father. This new investigation doesn't seem to have any links to his family, however, and Sebastian welcomes the opportunity to concentrate on the puzzling deaths instead of issues surrounding family politics.
This third book in the series is much less political in content than the previous two, although given the fact that these were very politically sensitive times in Britain, there is some mention but this just serves to give the story more credibility. The author is a history graduate with a particular interest in British and European history of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and her in-depth knowledge of the subject makes this an exceptionally good read. She deftly intertwines factual and fictional events, real and imaginary characters and a cracking plot into a compulsive read and, as with her previous two novels in this series, the portrait of early nineteenth century England is gritty and realistic.
As Sebastian is a Viscount and the heir to an earldom, he's familiar with the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the 'ton', that top ten thousand or so of the privileged elite who ruled the country, but as a soldier recently returned from war in Europe, he's also used to rubbing shoulders with the less fortunate. C.S. Harris doesn't present the sanitised version of Georgian England as seen in most Regency romances but describes the streets of London in all their stink and squalor and misery and in a way which pulls the reader completely into the story.
Many historical mysteries tend to keep the murder details to a minimum and concentrate more on finding clues which lead to the perpetrator being discovered. Although there is plenty of pure detective work here, the murders described are brutally realistic and are completely relevant to the solving of the crimes. In Georgian England criminals were generally brought to justice in a very haphazard manner and crimes were solved more by luck than judgement in many cases. Sebastian's friend, an ex-army doctor, provides the necessary forensic science, though the term had yet to be invented, and often it's the clues picked up from examining the bodies which points the way of the investigation.
As the body count rises, the clues are pointing towards a possible motive but, if Sebastian is right in his conclusions, the reasons are almost too horrific to contemplate.
The personal aspects of Sebastian's life may be taking something of a back seat here but his story is moved forward a little nevertheless and is neatly tied in with the investigation, too. It seems that the son of the ultra-manipulative Lord Jarvis may be linked to this latest case which brings Sebastian and Jarvis head to head once more, and ensures that Sebastian again crosses paths with Jarvis's headstrong and rather intriguing daughter, Hero.
The author is an American but, unlike many of her fellow countrymen, she never puts a foot wrong in terms of creating a sense of time and place. There aren't any glaring Americanisms creeping into either the main narrative or the dialogue to throw the reader out of the story. I'm not saying it's completely free of little linguistic slips but these are so minor as to be almost undetectable and certainly not worth mentioning in any detail.
The story grips from the very beginning and the pace is such that it's hard to find a convenient place to stop reading. In fact, with all the books I've read in this series, I've tended to just keep reading well into the wee small hours just to find out what happens in the end.
This series has rapidly become one of my all time favourites with its blending of murder, mystery and romance in equal measure and I've read the first seven of the eight books in the series almost back-to-back. Each book can be read as a stand-alone story but this inevitably results in the reader missing some of the more subtle nuances of Sebastian's private life and the series is such a good one anyway that I think you'll be missing a real reading pleasure if you don't begin with book one (What Angels Fear) and work your way through.
Why Mermaids Sing
Paperback available for around £5 or used copies for a few pence