Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder—and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished. Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm.
When it comes to C.S. Harris’ long-running series of historical mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, I arrived rather late to the party. With eleven books already available, I wasn’t going to be able to catch up on them all in print, so, as I often do in such cases, I turned to the audiobook editions instead, and have been catching up with Sebastian’s adventures that way, and enjoying them hugely. I couldn’t resist the temptation of picking up book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, when it came up for review, and was completely hooked, right from the first page.
As I said, this is the twelfth book in the series (so there may be spoilers for the others in this review) and Ms. Harris shows no sign of running out of steam – or of ideas. As fans will know, the main mystery plot in each book is self-contained (although occasionally, some elements do turn out to have a bearing on a future story), and there’s no doubt that the author is a master of her craft when it comes to constructing a tightly plotted, gripping and atmospheric tale in which all the pieces are laid out and skilfully drawn together as the book hurtles towards a nail-biting finish. But what draws me back to the books over and over is the overarching storyline concerning Sebastian himself, as he continues to make discoveries about his own past and gradually, over the course of the series, has come to realise that many of the things he has believed about himself are untrue. He is having to adjust his perceptions about himself and those around him, and the revelations he uncovers and the way he handles them over time are just as engrossing as the individual mysteries.
In the three years since he investigated his first murder, Sebastian’s life has undergone significant change. Most recently, he has become a father, and even though he continues to be haunted by some of the things he experienced when he was a soldier fighting on the continent, he is a much more settled individual than when we first met him, and is enjoying a passionately happy marriage with Hero, the daughter of the powerful Lord Jarvis… who just happens to be Sebastian’s deadliest enemy.
When the body of a teenaged boy is discovered in a shallow pit on the grounds of a disused factory in Clerkenwell, the local magistrate sees it as just one more death of a worthless street-child, taking no account of the fact that the body bears the marks of whips, knives and ligatures – which indicate the boy had also been horribly tortured. When an enterprising constable has the body sent to Paul Gibson, surgeon, anatomist and long-time friend and colleague of Sebastian’s, it’s a only a matter of time before Sebastian interests himself in the case and determines to root out the person responsible for such a depraved, gruesome act of violence.
In the course of his enquiries, Sebastian uncovers a pattern of disappearances among the poorest, most vulnerable of those who eke out an existence on London’s grimy streets – orphans and the dispossessed children of parents who have been transported, imprisoned or executed. As always, Ms. Harris does a terrific job of painting a realistic picture of what life must have been like for the large underclass of the city’s denizens who lived in utter squalor, their lives a daily struggle with no hope of anything better and nothing to look forward to but an early, probably undignified, death. The level of disgust and horror Sebastian feels for the perpetrators of the crime and for those who simply brush off the deaths of children is so strongly evoked as to be an almost tangible thing; there’s no doubt that he is being deeply affected by the things he sees, hears and learns, and yet he is not going to give up. Even when he comes up against dead end after dead end, he perseveres, intent on getting justice for the most helpless and voiceless members of society.
The discovery of a number of other graves leads to the realisation that is a monster out there, hiding in plain sight; and as the number of suspects quickly narrows, Sebastian recognises that he is up against more than a single killer. Whoever is responsible has powerful friends and protectors, and without irrefutable proof of guilt, it is going to be next to impossible to ensure that justice is done and the murderer pays for his crimes. But somebody has to at the very least try; and even though the deeper he delves, the more he risks his own safety, Sebastian can’t stand idly by and do nothing while there is someone at large who thinks nothing of raping, mutilating and murdering children.
The book is marvellously well-paced, with the story immediately hitting its stride. The author builds the tension skilfully and it never dissipates, even when she slacks off a little to focus on Sebastian’s domestic life and his relationships with Hero and his father, Lord Hendon. Sebastian and his father have not seen eye to eye since Hendon acted, years earlier, to prevent his son marrying the young actress with whom he had fallen in love, and whom, more recently, Hendon had revealed was his natural daughter. Allowing Sebastian to believe himself to have indulged in an incestuous relationship – he had not, as was revealed shortly afterwards – is difficult to forgive, but even moreso is the fact that his father had concealed the truth surrounding his (Sebastian’s) birth for almost thirty years. Things between them have been very strained over the last few books, but there are signs of a rapprochement here, and it’s beautifully done.
Sebastian’s wife – sharply intelligent, independently minded Hero – is the perfect foil for him. Her reformist sympathies annoy her powerful father, but match with Sebastian’s views, and as her latest project is one in which she is looking into the situation of London’s street-children, she is able to provide some information which proves useful in her husband’s enquiries. Their relationship began in difficult circumstances, but over the last few books, it’s become clear that theirs is a strong, loving marriage built on mutual respect and affection.
I said at the outset that the mysteries in these books are self-contained, and this one does reach a satisfactory resolution. But Ms. Harris has left a few loose ends which I really hope are going to be picked up in the next book. There’s a subplot brewing concerning Hero’s twice-widowed cousin, Mrs. Hart-Davis, and while one of the killers gets his just desserts at the end, one remains at large. Sebastian is sure he knows his identity, but has no evidence or proof and is going to have to bide his time. I’m sure Ms. Harris isn’t going to leave it at that, and I can’t wait to read how this particular plotline is going to play out.
There are lots of historical mysteries out there and while I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of them, I’m sure the Sebastian St. Cyr books must be among the cream of the crop and I’ve found every single one of them to be completely compelling. Because of the long-running plot threads concerning Sebastian himself, the books really do need to be experienced in order, although I expect readers could dip in and out if they are prepared to do a bit of homework and read synopses and reviews for the other books.
Where the Dead Lie is easily one of the best of the series, showcasing an author at the top of her game. The mystery is complex and well-plotted, all the characters are strongly drawn and there’s a pervasive atmosphere of dread and malevolence that keeps the reader glued to the story, even as we’re revolted along with our hero at the horrors wreaked on the weakest members of society. It’s a must-read for fans of the series, and for those who haven’t yet read any of the books, pick up a copy of book one, What Angels Fear. It won’t be long before you’re as hooked as the rest of us.