It’s 1811, and the threat of revolution haunts the upper classes of King George III’s England. Then a beautiful young woman is found savagely murdered on the altar steps of an ancient church near Westminster Abbey. A dueling pistol found at the scene and the damning testimony of a witness both point to one man-Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, a brilliant young nobleman shattered by his experience in the Napoleonic Wars
Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B
The Sebastian St. Cyr series is one I’ve meant to get around to reading for ages. I like historical mysteries, especially when there’s an intelligent, handsome, damaged hero on offer, so these sounded like they’d hit the spot. There are eleven books in the series now, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to catch up with them all in print, so I did what I usually do in this situation and turned to the audiobook version instead. Narrator Davina Porter is someone I’ve listened to before and enjoyed, so I knew I was going to be in safe hands – so to speak.
This first book in the series introduces our hero, a former soldier whose wartime experiences continue to haunt his dreams and his waking moments. Now Viscount Devlin, he is the heir to the Earl of Hendon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, confidante of the Prime Minister and thus an extremely important figure in the government of the day. Father and son do not have an especially cordial relationship for a number of reasons, some of which are strongly hinted at in this story and which I am sure will play out in future books. Since his return, Sebastian has been reckless and has acquired himself a reputation as a bit of a ladies man, both of which annoy his father, who wants him to settle down and take a seat in Parliament.
As the story is a mystery, I’m not going to say much about the plot, save that it begins when a young woman – a beautiful actress named Rachel York – is discovered to have been raped and brutally murdered in the Lady Chapel of St. Matthew’s of the Fields church. Lying beside the body is a pistol that bears the insignia of Viscount Devlin, making him the prime suspect, and naturally the chief magistrate, Sir Henry Lovejoy wants to bring him in for questioning. A misadventure sees Sebastian having to run for his life and then determining that he needs to discover the identity of the killer in order to prove his innocence; while the authorites think he’s their man, they won’t bother to look at alternatives. With the help of a street-urchin named Tom, his friend, ex-army surgeon Paul Gibson and his former lover, actress Kat Boleyn, Sebastian utilises the skills gained as a spy during the war in order to interrogate witnesses, find clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
As the first in a series, there is a fair bit of setting up to be done, but C.S. Harris manages to do that without holding up the progress of the story or indulging in huge info-dumps. The story is well-paced and deliciously complex, weaving the murder investigation through a tapestry rich with historical detail and political intrigue. There’s sex, blackmail, grave-robbing and espionage, and the author does a splendid job of recreating the dingier, seedier side of Regency London, although I did have to remind myself at times that the book is set in 1811 rather than the 1840s or later, because some of the descriptions reminded me more of the London of Dickens or the Whitechapel murders. That said, Ms. Harris still succeeds in drawing an evocative picture that puts the reader/listener firmly on those dank, smelly streets, and gives her story a very strong sense of place.
On a negative note, which can also perhaps be attributed to the fact that this is the first in a series, the characterisation could have been a bit stronger, especially of Sebastian himself. The story is told in the third person (thankfully!) so we’re not in his head the whole time, but I would have appreciated a little more insight into his thought processes. His father and utterly awful sister are also somewhat underdeveloped, but again, I’m hoping that perhaps that will be rectified as the series progresses. As I’ve already said, the reasons behind Sebastian’s strained relationship with Hendon become clear, so I’m keen to see where that plotline takes us. I’m afraid I didn’t care much for Sebastian’s love-interest, though. Six years earlier, Sebastian fell head-over-heels with Kat Boleyn, a beautiful Irish actress, and wanted to marry her. Knowing she wasn’t a suitable bride for the son of an earl, Kat refused and broke Sebastian’s heart, continuing her stage career and having several wealthy protectors along the way. The couple resume a physical relationship in this book, and it’s clear that they both still care for each other, but I didn’t like that Kat had her own agenda which led to her keeping secrets from Sebastian which could have aided him in his search for the killer. She does help him in other ways, it’s true, but the fact that she hides information in order to protect someone else didn’t sit well with me.
I’m not a great reader of mysteries, so even in books where the identity of the killer is fairly obvious, I don’t always see it (!), but here I’d be surprised if even veteran mystery fans had worked it out! It’s not that it doesn’t make sense or that there are no clues as to his identity, but they’re well hidden, and I can’t quite work out whether to think they should have been just a teeny bit more obvious or to applaud the author for keeping things so well under wraps. The author’s style is very readable and although there are the seemingly obligatory smattering of Americanisms and a few anachronisms in the language, the story is strong enough for those to be fairly easily overcome.
Davina Porter’s narration is well-paced and expressive, and she differentiates effectively between all the characters. Her voice falls naturally into the contralto range, so she doesn’t have to lower the pitch overly much to portray the male characters, although sometimes there isn’t a lot of difference in register between the men and the women. Kat Boleyn, for example, is performed at more or less the same pitch as Sebastian, but is easy to identify because of the Irish lilt in her voice. It’s a good and nuanced performance overall, and fortunately she’s been retained to narrate the other books in the series, so I expect to be proceeding to the next book fairly soon.