Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris

First Sentence: Molly Maguire hated the fog.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has been asked by a Bow Street magistrate to investigate the brutal murder of Sir Edwin Pym. Pym had been one of the lead investigators on the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 in which two families were slaughtered in their homes. A suspect was arrested but died in his cell prior to the trial, and the murders stopped. Now in 1814, Pym has been killed in a nearly identical way, raising the question: was the real murderer caught, or is this a copycat killing? St. Cyr must go back to the beginning to find the truth.

Harris presents a stark, brutal look at London from the time of Bloody Mary, through Elizabeth I, to the time when the book is set. Nothing here is romanticized –"The farther east they traveled, the older, narrower, and more decrepit the houses became, the more ragged the men, women, and wretched children on the streets, the more foul the air."

It is interesting how Harris weaves together the cases from the two time periods into one investigation when other authors might have been tempted to write in two alternating timelines. By using this method, the story has more impact when it becomes clear that St. Cyr is solving is both a cold case and a current one. Harris is an effective and affecting, writer. Her scenes simultaneously create a sense of anger and desolation.

Hero, St. Cyr's wife, is a wonderful character used wisely by Harris. She has a role that involves her but doesn't have her actively attempting to solve crimes. Hero is the conveyer of a bit of humor when interviewing a young prostitute. She is an activist, writing columns on the city's laboring poor—"In some ways the lives of the Foundling Hospital's children were pitiable. … But in truth, these were the lucky ones. They weren't dead." She is the generous heart who is distressed at seeing a caged parrot that can never be set free, and an orphan who'd rather sell herself than be subjected to abuse—"Why? Why would you want to help me?" Hero drew a painful breath. What should she say? Because my life has always been so comfortable and easy that a part of me can't help but feel guilty for it?...Because sometimes writing articles to stir the public conscience simply isn't enough? … So instead, she said, "I need someone to take care of my parrot." Lastly, she is St. Cyr's wife and partner in the truest sense of the word, which adds softness and humanity to an otherwise very dark and dangerous story.

There are a lot of characters. Some are ones series readers will remember. Certainly, St. Cyr holds center stage, and young Tom, who takes care of his coach and horses and is wonderful in his own right. However, one downside of the double investigation is the plethora of other, secondary characters, who can be confusing as they are not fully developed. There are also a lot of murders. However, there are also exciting scenes of suspense and danger.

A second plot line runs through the series in St. Cyr's search to learn about his true parentage. Some of the most poignant moments come from here, and this book is no exception.

"What the Devil Knows" is a compelling read with a complex plot that keeps you going. Sadly, in many ways, it demonstrates that nothing really changes over time. Do note the map at the beginning of the book and make certain to read the Author's Notes at the end as they differentiate history from fiction.

WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS (HistMys-Sebastian St. Cyr-London-1814/Georgian – VG
Harris, C.S. – 16th in series
Berkeley, Apr 2021, 336 pp.

1 comment:

  1. I do like a good historical mystery. It takes a skilled author to have a good balance of historical information and plot, if I can put it that way. It sounds as though this series has that balance. I'm glad you enjoyed it.