When Blood Lies (Sebastian St. Cyr #17) by C.S. Harris

when blood lies

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March, 1815. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne of France, Napoleon is in exile on the isle of Elba, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, have traveled to Paris in hopes of tracing his long-lost mother, Sophie, the errant Countess of Hendon. But his search ends in tragedy when he comes upon the dying Countess in the wasteland at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Stabbed—apparently with a stiletto—and thrown from the bastions of the island’s ancient stone bridge, Sophie dies without naming her murderer.

Sophie had been living in Paris under an assumed name as the mistress of Maréchal Alexandre McClellan, the scion of a noble Scottish Jacobite family that took refuge in France after the Forty-Five Rebellion. Once one of Napoleon’s most trusted and successful generals, McClellan has now sworn allegiance to the Bourbons and is serving in the delegation negotiating on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna. It doesn’t take Sebastian long to realize that the French authorities have no interest in involving themselves in the murder of a notorious Englishwoman at such a delicate time. And so, grieving and shattered by his mother’s death, Sebastian takes it upon himself to hunt down her killer. But what he learns will not only shock him but could upend a hard-won world peace.

Rating: A-

I eagerly await the release of a new Sebastian St. Cyr book every year; we’re up to book seventeen with When Blood Lies and it’s one of the best of the recent instalments, a fabulous blend of whodunit and history set in Paris in March of 1815, in the days leading up to Napoleon’s escape from Elba. As the author has picked up the long-running storyline relating to Sebastian’s search for the truth about his parentage, it’s impossible to write a review of When Blood Lies without reference to earlier books in the series, so please be aware there are spoilers ahead.

For the last twenty-odd years, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin and heir to the Earl of Hendon, believed his mother Sophia – who left her marriage and England when he was a boy – was dead.  But he has recently discovered that is not the case, and in the previous book (What the Devil Knows) learned she was living in Paris, and was presently in Vienna, where negotiations between the various countries and states of Europe have been in progress for some time, as they work to rebuild following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

When this story begins, Sebastian, his wife Hero and their children are in Paris where he hopes, at long last, to meet with his errant mother on her return to the city and to finally get some answers to questions long unasked – even though he isn’t sure he’s ready to hear them.  Walking the misty banks of the Seine one evening, he’s reached the Pont Neuf when his attention is caught by a glimpse of what looks like an out-flung arm down on the river bank; he hurries down the stone steps to discover the body of a tall, slim, well-dressed woman lying motionless at the water’s edge, her pale cheek smeared with blood. Bolts of recognition and devastation hit Sebastian when the woman looks into his eyes before uttering a single word – his name.

Sebastian has his mother taken to his house in the Place Dauphine, where he and Hero tend her as best they can while they wait for the doctor to arrive – but her injuries are too severe, and all the doctor can do when he arrives is accede to Sebastian’s request that he examine the body to see if he can give him some idea as to cause of her death.  Sebastian suspects, given where she was found, that his mother may have fallen or been pushed from the bridge; the physician agrees that her injuries indicate a fall, but also tells Sebastian that she was stabbed in the back before being lifted and thrown over the parapet.  Clearly, whatever happened was no accident – but Sebastian knows so little about his mother’s life over the past two decades that he has no inkling as to why she would be murdered.  But that isn’t going to stop him from doing everything he possibly can to find out – no matter that his investigation will bring him into conflict with the most powerful families and factions in France.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, all of them absolutely gripping, all of them very cleverly slotted together. The pacing is swift but not rushed; there’s time to absorb every new development before moving on to the next, each new piece of information often raising more questions than it answers. Sebastian learns that Sophia had been the mistress of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals – a Scotsman to whom Sebastian bears more than a passing resemblance – who is now in Vienna negotiating on behalf of the newly reinstated Bourbons, and that after leaving Vienna, Sophia visited Napoleon on Elba before returning to Paris. But why? What’s the significance of the – now empty – jewellery case she was carrying on the night of her death? And what was she doing on the Pont Neuf that night? Sebastian and Hero have their work cut out as they search for the truth while the political situation in France hangs in the balance; the growing dissatisfaction of the populace with their Bourbon king has rumours that L’Empereur is about to return spreading like wildfire – and when the news reaches Paris that Napoleon has escaped his prison on Elba, Sebastian realises he’s running out of time… as, perhaps, is everyone around him.

When Blood Lies is an engrossing page-turner, a book I found difficult to set aside and was eager to get back to. The seamless way the author weaves her original plot threads through the fabric of history is masterful, as is the way she incorporates the various historical figures who appear throughout the tale. We see a little less of Hendon and Jarvis here – although the latter makes his presence felt in his usual inimitable fashion – but having Hero taking such a major role in the story is a big plus. She and Sebastian are so finely attuned that they appear almost able to read each other’s minds; I love the level of trust and understanding between them, and the way they bounce ideas off each other and help and support one another is wonderful to see. Sebastian goes through a lot in this book; grief for his mother, regret for their lost years together, frustration at the fact he may never now find out the identity of his biological father – which he tries to set aside while he tries to find the murderer, but his conflicted emotions are never far away and Hero is his rock.

Full of intrigue and suspense with a superbly-drawn cast of characters, a compelling leading man and packed to the gills with fascinating historical detail, When Blood Lies is another wonderful instalment in this excellent long-running mystery series. Now the waiting starts for book eighteen next year!

Miss Moriarty, I Presume (Lady Sherlock #6) by Sherry Thomas

miss moriarty ukThis title may be purchased from Amazon

A most unexpected client shows up at Charlotte Holmes’s doorstep: Moriarty himself. Moriarty fears that tragedy has befallen his daughter and wants Charlotte to find out the truth.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson travel to a remote community of occult practitioners where Moriarty’s daughter was last seen, a place full of lies and liars. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Livia tries to make sense of a mysterious message from her beau Mr. Marbleton. And Charlotte’s longtime friend and ally Lord Ingram at last turns his seductive prowess on Charlotte—or is it the other way around?

But the more secrets Charlotte unravels about Miss Moriarty’s disappearance, the more she wonders why Moriarty has entrusted this delicate matter to her of all people. Is it merely to test Charlotte’s skills as an investigator, or has the man of shadows trapped her in a nest of vipers?

Rating: B

The game is – once again – very much afoot in this sixth installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series of clever historical mysteries.  As the synopsis indicates, she finally comes face-to-face with her nemesis – but rather than the expected violent confrontation, ‘Mr. Baxter’ instead wants to engage Holmes’ services to investigate the disappearance of his daughter from a Hermetic (possibly occultist) community in a remote corner of Cornwall.  Of course, Charlotte knows not to take anything at face value, but with no other options available, Charlotte, Lord Ingram and Mrs. Watson head for the Garden of Hermopolis to see what they can find out.  In the meantime, Charlotte’s sister, Livia, is following an intriguing trail of breadcrumbs left by Stephen Marbleton that leads to some very intriguing coded messages which could prove vital in the fight against Moriarty.

I reviewed this one jointly with Dabney Grinnan over at All About Romance.

The Woman at the Front by Lecia Cornwall

the woman at the front

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When Eleanor Atherton graduates from medical school near the top of her class in 1917, she dreams of going overseas to help the wounded, but her ambition is thwarted at every turn. Eleanor’s parents insist she must give up medicine, marry a respectable man, and assume her proper place. While women might serve as ambulance drivers or nurses at the front, they cannot be physicians—that work is too dangerous and frightening.

Nevertheless, Eleanor is determined to make more of a contribution than sitting at home knitting for the troops. When an unexpected twist of fate sends Eleanor to the battlefields of France as the private doctor of a British peer, she seizes the opportunity for what it is—the chance to finally prove herself.

But there’s a war on, and a casualty clearing station close to the front lines is an unforgiving place. Facing skeptical commanders who question her skills, scores of wounded men needing care, underhanded efforts by her family to bring her back home, and a blossoming romance, Eleanor must decide if she’s brave enough to break the rules, face her darkest fears, and take the chance to win the career—and the love—she’s always wanted.

Rating: B

I associate Lecia Cornwall’s name with historical romances, although I confess I haven’t read any of her work in that genre.  The blurb for her latest book, The Woman at the Front, caught my eye because of its First World War setting; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Northern France (pre-Covid) researching family history so it’s a period I’m particularly interested in – and the premise of a young female doctor wanting to make a useful contribution to the war effort but being thwarted at every turn promised an interesting read.

Eleanor Atherton, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, has always longed to follow in her father’s footsteps.  In 1917, she graduated from medical school in Edinburgh near the top of her class (and thus ahead of almost 130 of her male colleagues) and has been looking forward to using her hard-earned skills in a meaningful way – but she’s derided and looked down upon for her choices at every turn.  Even her father doesn’t support her ambitions and has relegated her to menial tasks, such as doing paperwork or cleaning his surgery, while her mother constantly bemoans the fact that Eleanor will never be able to find a husband because no man wants a wife with an advanced education who refuses to stick to her ‘proper’ place in the order of things.

But Eleanor – who worked harder than anyone else so she’d be taken seriously, who put up with the constant bullying of the male students – refuses to be diverted from her chosen path.  When we meet her, it’s January of 1918 and she’s in a meeting with Sir William Foxleigh at the War Office, asking to be allowed to offer her services to the army hospitals in France.   Unfortunately, Sir William’s response is just the same as she’s received from just about every other man when informed she’s a doctor – distaste, disbelief and an instruction to “go home, sit down, and take up something more useful, such as knitting.”  With the war raging into its fourth year, she knows doctors are desperately needed and tries to make her case, but Foxleigh dismisses her and suggests that she should instead find a position at one of the hospitals in England that care for women and children – or if she’s set on going to France, that she should become a nurse or a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as those are “much more ladylike pursuits.” Furious and frustrated, Eleanor responds:

“I am not a nurse, Sir William, or a volunteer.  I am a doctor.”

Back at home a couple of weeks later, however, an unexpected opportunity presents itself when the Countess of Kirkswell informs Eleanor that her son Louis – a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and now the heir to the earldom following his older brother’s recent death – has been injured and is currently being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station near Arras – and then asks Eleanor to travel to France to act as Louis’ doctor and to bring him home.

Even though she knows her parents will disapprove, Eleanor jumps at the chance to do something useful, and is soon on her way to France.  Even amidst the destruction and carnage all around, and the obvious need for people with her skills and medical training, she is still viewed with disdain and suspicion by most of the medical staff – even the nurses – and instructed that she is to attend no patients other than Louis on threat of being sent back to England.  Eleanor tries to stick to this rule, but it’s hard for her to just stand by when there are people who need the help she can give – and with ever increasing numbers of wounded flooding into the CCS, it’s not long before she decides that some rules need to be broken and grabs the opportunity to finally prove herself, in spite of the inflexibility of the commanding officer and the matron.  And she does it in spectacular fashion, working as quickly, skilfully and indefatigably as any of the other doctors.

The author does an absolutely incredible job with the setting in this book.  The sights and smells, the mud, the despair, the exhaustion, the everyday heroics of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances (the bravery of the stretcher-bearers who have to venture onto the battlefields in order to retrieve the wounded while still under fire, for instance), the knowledge that no matter how many men are treated, there will be more tomorrow and the next day and the next… it’s all superbly captured and conveyed on the page and I was thoroughly immersed in the time and place.

The book is less successful as a romance, however.  Ms. Cornwall sets up a number of potential love interests for Eleanor – Louis Chastaine (the countess’ son), Scottish stretcher-bearer Fraser MacLeod and doctor, David Blair – but although it’s fairly obvious who she’s going to end up with, the romance is pretty insta-love-y.  I get that the circumstances (“there’s a war on”) don’t allow for a lot of on-page togetherness (and it makes perfect sense that way),  so while  The Woman at the Front does include a romance and an HEA, those are very much secondary to Eleanor’s struggle to make her way in the hostile, male-dominated environment of medicine in a world being torn apart by war, so I’d class the book as historical fiction with romantic elements, rather than as an historical romance.

On the negative side, the pacing is uneven and the story drags in places, and I found it hard to believe in the intense dislike displayed towards Eleanor by her family.  It turns out that her father only allowed her to go to medical school as a way of shaming her twin brother Edward, who had no interest in medicine.  Atherton expected Eleanor to fail and that failure would teach her some humility – and when she didn’t, he thought her medical training would mean she’d make a suitable doctor’s wife.  As for her brother, well he’s a self-centred prick, but I still didn’t see why he so disliked her.

And finally, a word of warning. The way Eleanor is treated by so many around her, the prejudice she encounters, the way she’s dismissed, belittled, talked-down-to – even by other women – is rage-inducing.  I have no doubt the attitudes presented are realistic, but I had to actually put the book down a time or two in order to calm down!

Despite that, however – and if you’re okay with the romance taking a back seat on occasion – The Woman at the Front is a fascinating read and one I’m recommending to anyone looking for a story featuring an engaging protagonist and a well-researched, well-realised setting.

The Sign of the Raven (Ash & Juliana #2) by L.C. Sharp

the sign of the raven

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The London ton protect their own. Even when it comes to murder. 

“There’s been an incident.”

In the finer circles of 1749 London, incident is apparently the polite way to describe discovering a body with a gruesome wound and no sign of the killer. But for newlyweds Lady Juliana and Sir Edmund “Ash” Ashendon, it’s a chance to track down the culprit and right a wrong—something they are both intimately familiar with.

Indeed, it is the only thing they are intimately familiar with. For the moment.

Though their marriage may be one of convenience, there’s nothing convenient about learning the victim has ties to a name from their past: the dreaded Raven. And the Raven isn’t the only danger they face. The aristocracy protects its own, and in London’s darkest corners, no one wants to be unmasked.

With Juliana’s life on the line, time is running out for Ash to find the killer before their marriage comes to an inconveniently bloody end.

Rating: C+

Opening around a year after the events of the previous book (The Wedding Night Affair), The Sign of the Raven, the second book in L.C. Sharp’s series of historical mysteries set in Georgian London sees husband and wife Ash and Juliana looking into the suspicious death of a nobleman at a firework display.  Like the previous book, this story benefits from a strong sense of time and place and two very engaging leads whose evolving relationship is one of the book’s main draws – but the slow pacing meant I found it difficult to get into and the mystery was so simplistic that I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the end.

Please note that this review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series.  While it’s not essential to have read that first, I’d advise it, as it provides important background information about the two principals and their relationship.

Sir Edmund Ashendon is with his family – his wife and his siblings – at a firework display at Vauxhall Gardens when a member of staff summons him to the scene of “an incident”.  The incident in question is actually a dead body – that of a man lying face down on the ground, blood still seeping from the bullet wound to his back.  By the look of his clothing and possessions, the man is obviously well-to-do, but neither Ash nor Juliana can identify him.  An examination of his pockets yields little of interest other than some tokens made of a dull, silvery metal with something stamped on the surface –  and it’s not until Juliana’s parents put in an appearance, disapproval radiating from them, that Ash and Juliana can put a name to the victim – Lord Coddington.

The name rings a bell for Ash; he’s heard of Coddington and his “exploits” – a fondness for gaming hells and running up debts among them.  At first, the gossip puts Coddington’s death down to a robbery gone wrong, but Ash isn’t so sure; too many things don’t add up, and when another gentleman is murdered, Ash and Juliana find themselves setting an elaborate trap to catch the killer.

Unfortunately, after a strong set-up, the pacing starts to flag and there is little progress for the first half of the story.  I did, however, enjoy the introduction of some important new secondary characters – Ransom, the nosy journalist whom Juliana very cleverly recruits to ‘Team Ash’ – and pickpocket and scoundrel  Cutty Jack, who can recruit any number of urchins to be Ash’s eyes and ears on the less salubrious streets of London.  I enjoyed reading about the development of Ash and Juliana’s relationship, too, but the mystery here is weak and didn’t really capture my interest.

In fact, the most interesting part of it is the involvement of the eponymous Raven, the mysterious and dangerous criminal mastermind who rules London’s underworld with a rod of iron.  He’s been a thorn in the side of London’s lawmakers for some time, and here, he and Ash are set up as major antagonists.  I’d begun to suspect the truth of his identity – but only just before the reveal, which certainly puts the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons – or, indeed, ravens – for future entries in the series.

It’s clear that the marriage of convenience Ash and Juliana embarked upon in the previous book has evolved into a strong friendship, and that by the time this book begins, they’re on the cusp of more. For the first time ever, Juliana has someone in her life who genuinely cares for her and her welfare, and Ash is delighted to see his wife growing into herself and recognises that his feelings toward her are changing – but although their relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, what we see here is the result of progress that has happened mostly off page, in that year between stories, and I have to say that I felt a little bit cheated by that.

Once again, the story is very firmly grounded in mid-eighteenth century London, whether the action is taking place in a palatial mansion, a bustling coffee house or the worst of the slums, and those who enjoy their mysteries served with a good helping of historical background are sure to appreciate the author’s skilful way of incorporating interesting historical detail into the story.

Unfortunately however, the stodgy pacing and the lacklustre mystery mean this outing for Ash and Juliana isn’t as strong as the first.  I can’t quite recommend The Sign of the Raven, but I’m going to keep an eye out for future instalments and hope the next one grabs my attention more than this one did.

Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson with Marguerite Kaye

her heart for a compass uk

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London 1865

In an attempt to rebel against a society where women are expected to conform, free-spirited Lady Margaret Montagu Scott flees her confines and an arranged marriage. But Lady Margaret’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, as close friends with Queen Victoria, must face the public scrutiny of their daughter’s impulsive nature, and Margaret is banished from polite society.

Finding strength amongst equally free-spirited companions, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, Margaret resolves to follow her heart. On a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain, Lady Margaret must follow her heart and search for her place, and her own identity, in a changing society.

Rating: B

Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.

I reviewed this one with Evelyn North, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR.

You can read our review at All About Romance.

The Wedding Night Affair (Ash & Juliana #1) by L.C. Sharp

the wedding night affair

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The year is 1748, and Lady Juliana Uppingham awakens in a pool of blood, with no memory of how her new husband ended up dead beside her. Her distaste for her betrothed was no secret, but even so, Juliana couldn’t possibly have killed him…could she?

Juliana’s only hope is Sir Edmund Ashendon, a dashing baronet with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable crimes—and a reputation for trouble. A man as comfortable in the rookeries of St. Giles as he is in the royal court, Ash believes Juliana is innocent, though all signs point to her as the killer. He doesn’t expect to develop a soft spot for the spirited widow, one that only grows when escalating threats against Juliana force Ash to shelter her in his home.

When another body is found, it becomes clear that Juliana has been dragged into something much, much bigger than simply her husband’s murder. With a collection of deadly black-tipped feathers as their sole clue and a date at the end of a hangman’s noose looming, they’ll have to find the real killer—before it’s too late.

Rating: B

The Wedding Night Affair is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in Georgian England entitled Ash & Juliana for its two protagonists – Sir Edmund Ashendon, a well-to-do young lawyer and Lady Juliana, daughter and sole heir to the Earl of Hawksworth.  This opening instalment has a similar premise to the first books in at least three other historical mystery series I can think of – Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn), John Pickett (Sheri Cobb South) and Lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) – in that the heroine is accused of murdering her (thoroughly unpleasant) husband, but that’s really the only similarity, and The Wedding Night Affair very quickly establishes its own distinctive world and authorial voice.

The story opens in a memorably shocking way as new bride Lady Juliana awakens the morning after her wedding to Lord Godfrey Uppingham.  Every part of her body aches and she’s covered in bruises; her wedding night was one of pain and terror as her husband used her roughly and repeatedly in a way she had not been at all prepared for.  (The assaults are not detailed on the page but are referred to in sufficient detail as to leave no doubt about what took place the night before.)  When Juliana moves the covers so she can get out of bed, she at first thinks the smear of blood on her thighs is only to be expected – until she realises it’s more than a smear. She’s lying in a pool of blood, her husband lying flat on his back next to her with his own knife sticking out of his chest.  The same knife he’d used to slice through her clothes the night before.

Juliana’s screams naturally bring servants running, followed by her in-laws, who immediately berate her for alerting the servants by making so much noise and then accuse her of murdering their son.  Still in shock, the only thing Juliana can do is cling to the knowledge that she didn’t kill her husband while his parents send her back to her family home in disgrace.

Henry Fielding (yes THE Henry Fielding) is the magistrate in charge of Bow Street at this time, and having learned of the murder, asks lawyer Sir Edmund Ashendon to go to question the lady and bring her back to Bow Street where she can be safely housed until a date is set for her trial.  Already intrigued by the case, Ash agrees and makes his way to the Hawksworth town house, where he is able to speak with Lady Juliana and get her side of the story.  As he listens to her and realises how terribly she has been treated by everyone around her, he can’t help feeling sympathy – and listening to her account of her wedding night, suggests she may have been acting in self-defence.  But Juliana insists she didn’t commit the murder – and Ash is starting to believe her.

The Wedding Night Affair gets this series off to a good start; and I should say now that while the murder mystery is solved and we find out who killed Uppingham, the author has also set a larger, overarching plot into motion featuring the mysterious London crime-lord known only as Raven, which is to be continued in the next book.  In this one however, we watch as Ash and Juliana work together to find the evidence necessary to exonerate her, and in doing so, develop a strong friendship with the potential to turn romantic at some point in the future.  There’s a definite attraction between the pair, but the author very wisely keeps it fairly low-key and allows them to get to know each other, and for Juliana – in the company of Ash and his family – to be able to enjoy the sort of family life she’s never had.

Ash is an engaging hero; kind, intelligent and principled, he doesn’t open up often or easily, but he finds himself letting his guard down with Juliana (just a little bit) and maybe liking her a bit more than he feels he should.  He’s the head of his family and obviously cares deeply for his siblings, but there are some secrets in the family’s past he’s keen to keep hidden.

One of the best things about the book is its very strong sense of time and place – which isn’t surprising considering that L.C. Sharp is a pseudonym for Lynne Connolly, who has written a number of historical romances set in the period.  Her research is always impeccable and she makes really good use of it, inserting fascinating period detail (such as the very real ‘fad’ for kidnapping heiresses and forcing them into marriage or holding them for ransom) into the background or even into the main plotlines, and evoking the sights, sounds (and smells!) of the smoke-filled pubs and taverns, or the narrow, muddy streets or the grand, Palladian mansions of the newer West End.

She also hammers home just how precarious life could be for a young woman in Juliana’s position. Outwardly living a life of luxury, she seems to have it all, but behind closed doors her parents treat her despicably, marrying her off to a man of whose depravities they are well aware in order to further her father’s plan to have her son inherit his lands and title.  Sadly, it takes a horrific assault to set her on the path towards becoming her own person, but I was rooting for her to make the most of her second chance (and I may have been cheering inwardly when she at last talks back to her horrible parents!).  The one issue I had with that though, was that Juliana so often thinks “I’ll never go back to being that person” (or words to that effect) that it felt repetitive and got old very quickly.  I could see her gradually taking control of her life; I didn’t need to be reminded she was doing it so often.  There are a few other minor irritants along the way, such as Juliana’s very nearly TSTL moment (when she decides to go against Ash’s express wishes) and an early clue which was then forgotten about until near the end.

One last thing.  I know authors often have no input into the titles for their books, but whoever came up with this one has devised something misleading.  “The Wedding Night Affair” gives the impression this is much a more light-hearted read than it is, so if you’re thinking about picking it up, please take note of what I’ve said about the way in which the story begins.

Poorly chosen title aside, The Wedding Night Affair nonetheless earns a recommendation.  The characters are engaging, the plotline is intriguing and I’m invested enough to want to read book two, The Sign of the Raven, when it comes out later this year.

The Royal Secret (Marwood and Lovett #5) by Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret

Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.

Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…

Rating: B+

The events of The Royal Secret – book five in Andrew Taylor’s series of mysteries set in seventeenth century London during the reign of Charles II – take place around four years after the Great Fire and our first meeting with James Marwood and Catherine – Cat – Lovett.  Theirs is an unusual relationship; they’ve saved each other’s lives and reputations more than once, and both have good reason to be distrustful of others, yet they’ve formed a somewhat uneasy but genuine bond of something stronger than friendship, but which doesn’t always contain any of the warmer feelings friendship might provide.  There’s a strong undercurrent of attraction there, too, something neither of them is particularly willing to acknowledge, especially Cat, whose traumatic personal history and unhappy marriage to a much older man, mean she is more determined than ever to never again give up her independence.

Cat has taken over the running of the business left by her late husband – a draftsman and architect – while Marwood continues to do well in his post as secretary to (and sometimes spy/investigator for) Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington.  They’ve started to see each other every couple of weeks – to take walks, to dine, to visit the theatre – and it’s during one of the latter excursions (after Cat gets annoyed when she sees Marwood looking appreciatively at a comely orange-seller) that they chance to meet Mr. Fanshawe, a  merchant and a client of Cat’s, and his companion, Henryk Van Riebeek  (to whom Marwood takes an instant dislike because he starts flirting with Cat.) 

Marwood encounters Fanshawe again few days later, when he is instructed to retrieve some confidential files that were removed from Lord Arlington’s office by one of his clerks, Richard Abbott.  Abbott has died suddenly and had not returned the files beforehand, and when a visit to Abbot’s lodgings proves fruitless – all Marwood and his servant find there are dead rats – he learns that Abbott’s wife – who was formerly married to Fanshawe’s son – and stepdaughter have gone to live with Fanshawe at his home in Slaughter Street.  Marwood pays Fanshawe a visit in order to retrieve the files, and when looking them over later that day, uncovers some discrepancies which only intensity his suspicions as to the nature of Abbott’s death.  He discovers that Abbott had run up huge gambling debts at the Blue Bush – and while there to see what he can find out, Marwood catches sight of a familiar face – Van Riebeek – although he’s going by a different name.  This fact, in addition to the dutchman’s familial connection to Abbott (Abbott’s wife is Van Riebeek’s sister) convinces Marwood that he is involved in some way – and also that there is more going on than meets the eye; that what he found in the files, Abbott’s murder and Van Riebeek’s hiding under an assumed name are all related somehow, and that whatever links them is far more serious than he’d at first thought.

Meanwhile, Cat has been commissioned by Lord Arlington to design a poultry house for the king’s sister Minette (who is married to the Duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV), and is asked to travel to France with the plans and to have a scale model built to take with her as well.  Once arrived in France however, she can’t help wondering if there is some other reason for her presence there – and whether the interest Van Riebeek had shown in her before her departure, had been genuine.

As is the case with the other books in the series, the mystery in this one incorporates actual historical events and takes place (mostly) in a London still being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Mr. Taylor skilfully weaves together fact and fiction wherin uncertain political alliances, treachery and intrigue all come into play as Cat inadvertently becomes caught up in the very mystery Marwood is investigating. Although I wasn’t sure what that mystery was going to be to start with – with mentions of poison, witchcraft, a caged lion and disgruntled servants, there’s a lot going on! – I was nonetheless caught up in the world of Restoration London the author evokes so well.

Cat and Marwood are complex, flawed, three-dimensional individuals and their relationship – which veers from dislike to affection and back again – is frustrating and well written.  I appreciate Cat’s determination to make her way in an unusual (for a woman) profession in a man’s world, and how much Marwood has grown – is continuing to grow – as a character.  He’s perhaps more cynical than he was, and he’s learned how to play the game with those who are more powerful than he is, but at heart, he’s a good, decent man while very much a man of his time. 

Excellent research, clever plotting and fascinating historical detail combine to make The Royal Secret another excellent instalment in the Marwood and Lovett series.  I really hope there’s more to come

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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?

Rating: B+

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.

Gathering Storm (Storm Over Scotland #1) by Maggie Craig (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Worsley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Edinburgh, Yuletide 1743, and Redcoat Captain Robert Catto would rather be anywhere else on earth than Scotland. Seconded back from the wars in Europe to command the city’s town guard, he fears his covert mission to assess the strength of the Jacobite threat will force him to confront the past he tries so hard to forget.

Christian Rankeillor, her surgeon-apothecary father, and his apprentice, Jamie Buchan of Balnamoon, are committed supporters of the Stuart Cause. They’re hiding a Jacobite agent with a price on his head in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary: a hanging offense.

Meeting as enemies, Robert and Kirsty are thrown together as allies by their desire to help Geordie and Alice Smart, young runaways from Cosmo Liddell, bored and brutal aristocrat and coal owner.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A

I first reviewed Maggie Craig’s Gathering Storm when it was released in audiobook format back in 2015, in the version narrated by James Bryce (which is no longer available). I enjoyed the story a great deal, but had a number of reservations about the narration; one that the pacing was very slow, but most importantly, that the narrator was not able to effectively portray the hero of the story, Robert Catto, who, rather than a virile young man just shy of twenty-five, sounded like a grizzled old campaigner in his forties.

When the author released the sequel – Dance to the Storm – last year, she opted to self-publish and selected a narrator much more suited to the material. Ms. Craig has now had Gathering Storm re-recorded by Steve Worsley and was kind enough to send me a copy. Given I’d so enjoyed the story, but felt let down by the narration, I decided to revise my original review to reflect the change. Gathering Storm is a terrific book, and it deserves to reach a wide audience; the historical backdrop is meticulously researched and skilfully incorporated, there’s a star-crossed romance, political intrigue, secrets, lies and betrayal, and an intensely charismatic leading man, things which combine to make this a must for fans of well-written romantic historical fiction.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Nowhere Man: Another John Pickett Novella (John Pickett Mysteries #9.5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Having resigned his position at Bow Street, John Pickett waits in vain for someone – anyone! – to engage his services as a private inquiry agent. As weeks go by with no responses to his newspaper advertisement, he has taken to spending his days wandering idly about London rather than admit his failure to his wife.

One day, while loitering in the Covent Garden market, he wonders morosely if it might have been better had he not been born at all. Then he sees one of his former colleagues and, in an attempt to make a discreet exit, manages instead to knock himself unconscious.

He awakens to discover that his Bow Street colleague doesn’t seem to remember him, and after staggering back home to Curzon Street, he finds someone else living in the house where he lived with Julia. But still greater surprises are in store for Pickett as he attempts to navigate his way through a world in which he never existed….

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Bedford Falls meets Regency London in Nowhere Man, a new novella in Sheri Cobb-South’s long-running series of historical mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett.

Or more accurately, EX-Bow Street runner, because by the time Nowhere Man begins, John has resigned his position at Bow Street and has branched out on his own as a Private Inquiry Agent. But it’s been a month now, and he’s had not a single response to his newspaper advertisement – and rather than admit his failure to his (very pregnant) wife, John has taken to wandering the streets of London during the day to make it look as though he actually has something to do.

The inequality of his marriage to Lady Julia Fieldhurst is something John has always felt keenly. Julia is a wealthy young widow, and her jointure pays most of their expenses, but John has always felt uncomfortable about living off his wife. As a Bow Street Runner he had at least had a salary – albeit a modest one – but now he doesn’t even have that and feels he is contributing absolutely nothing to their marriage. He’s walking around Covent Garden one afternoon, feeling down and pretty useless and thinks – not for the first time – that maybe everyone would be better off had he never been born. Just as he thinks it, the rosy-cheeked woman selling apples from a stall opposite him tells him he’s wrong and he shouldn’t be thinking such a thing – but before he can ask her what she means, his attention is diverted elsewhere by an altercation, and in attempting to avoid it, he slips, falls, hits his head and is knocked out.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.