It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.
In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?
Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?
This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.
At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.
After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.
The story that follows is fast-moving and satisfyingly complex, as Sebastian moves from suspect to suspect, many of whom have much to hide and are rarely forthcoming. As always, the author skilfully incorporates some of the lesser-known histories of London into her plot, and the way Sebastian pieces together all the snippets of information – and weeds out the lies he’s fed along the way – is superbly done, with lots of character interaction, investigative pondering and insightful observation about the huge disparity that existed between the haves and have-nots, and the injustices perpetrated on the lower echelons of society by greedy public officials and institutions that were supposed to exist for the betterment of all, not just a self-serving few.
Sebastian continues to be a compelling, sympathetic character, and one of the things I so enjoy about this series is watching him grow and change from the hot-headed younger man who was careless of his own safety to a devoted husband and father, a truly and deeply compassionate man who believes strongly in justice and in using his position and abilities to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves. His wife, Hero – daughter of the devious, formidable Lord Jarvis – shares his interests and convictions; she is an investigative journalist who writes about what life is really like for London’s poor and less fortunate, and I love how in-tune they are and the way they are each other’s staunch support. She has a relatively small part to play in this story, but her discoveries pack a considerable emotional punch as she interacts with young women making a living on the streets, telling stories about their lives and experiences that are far from pretty.
As with the last few books in the series, the standalone mystery takes precedence, so a reader new to it could jump in here and not feel as though they’re missing anything. This has been the case with the last couple of books; the long-running storylines concerning Sebastian’s search for the truth about his heritage – and particularly his search for his mother – his relationship with his father, and the machinations of the Machiavellian Lord Jarvis are present, but are simmering along on the back-burner. Sebastian learns that his mother has been living in Paris, but that she’s recently removed to Vienna – where European heads of state are gathering to put “the world back together after the defeat of that Corsican upstart” – under an assumed name, but has no idea why; Jarvis’ relationship with the cunning and mercenary Victoria Hart-Davis (were ever two villainous characters so well suited to each other?) progresses, and changes are afoot in Sebastian’s household. As the timeline of the series inches closer to Napoléon’s escape from Elba and to Waterloo, I become more and more intrigued as to what lies in store for Sebastian – and I certainly plan on sticking around to find out.
What the Devil Knows is another strong instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series. The mystery is gripping and tightly-written and the author’s descriptive prose is – as always – so wonderfully evocative that the reader can feel the dampness of the creeping fog , see the crowded tap-rooms and hear the gulls screeching overhead around the docks. Why is it not a DIK? Simply because I’m starting to feel the need for a bit more movement on issues surrounding Sebastian’s history; this seems to have been pushed aside in the last few books in the series – and while I can sort of understand the author wishing to keep this particular mystery going a bit longer as she obviously has more stories to tell, cynical me can’t help but see the drawing out of it as a delaying tactic.
But don’t let that put you off; this series is one of the best (if not THE best) historical mystery series around, and What the Devil Knows is another fantastic read.