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What the Devil Knows

by C. S. Harris

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The Sebastian St. Cyr series descends into ennui. The story line follows the same direction in each new novel and encourages boredom. The historical background provides a little excitement, but the rest of the story follows a formula. Sebastian and Hero attempt to cure the ills of England, but still enjoy their privileged life. Sebastian continues to search for his mother and encounters possible relatives. Many recurring characters have minor roles in this story as Sebastian dominates every page. C S Harris provides excellent description of the setting and the characters, but the tale remains flat. ( )
  delphimo | Jun 12, 2021 |
Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.

Although this is the 16th book in this series, C.S. Harris does an outstanding job of providing enough background in every book - without making it seem tedious or out of place - so that any of the books could be read as standalones.

The Sebastian St. Cyr historical crime fiction series began with the first book set in 1811, the year that George, Prince of Wales (known by the public as “Prinny”) began his nine-year tenure as Regent of the British Monarchy. (A prince regent is a prince who rules in the place of a monarch who is still the titular king but has been deemed unfit for any reason, such as age, or physical or mental incapacity. In this case, the Prince of Wales was standing in for his father George III, thought to be mad. On the death of his father in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV.)

The Regency Era is a popular setting for fiction. For one thing, these were very interesting times historically. Most of Europe was at war, for and against Napoleon, depending on the year. Social mores were in an uproar as well: the rights of both women and slaves were being debated everywhere. And the conflict between the classes, especially in England, proved to be rich fodder for romantic plots. [You may also wish to consult my post on "An Introduction to the Regency Era.”]

In this installment, it is now the fall of 1814, and Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, the main protagonist, is in his early 30s, married, and with a 20-month-old son. Devlin is heir to the powerful Earl of Hendon, but is not actually Hendon’s son. His mother had an affair, and Devlin has been trying to locate her to find out who his real father is. What he does know is that there was a man about his age in London, Jamie Knox, who resembled Devlin so much that eighteen months before he inadvertently took a fatal bullet that was meant for Devlin. Jamie left a son about Simon’s age, who also looked eerily like Simon. Devlin hired an investigator to track his mother, but hasn’t had much luck so far.

In the first book, Devlin had been suspected of a murder he did not commit, and became something of a Sherlock Holmes to find the real murderer in order to save his own skin.

In subsequent books, Devlin continued to be consulted on murders that involved the nobility, because he had an entrée into the upper level of society that would have been denied to the regular police. He agreed, because the thought of anybody stealing away someone else’s life was an abomination to him, especially after the traumatic instances of unjust murder he witnessed in the army. He still felt guilt over these deaths, even though he could not have prevented any of them. He retained a fierce commitment to the pursuit of justice. (And of course, like the rest of the upper class at that time, he didn't have anything else to do anyway.)

Devlin is aided by the insights of his friend, the surgeon Paul Gibson, who generally does the autopsies on all the bodies Devlin finds. He also benefits from the counsel of Sir Henry Lovejoy, now a "Bow Street Runner" (detective) who has become a friend of Devlin’s. Devlin asks his young horse handler Tom, a former street urchin, as well as his valet, Jules Calhoun, to do reconnaissance work for him. Each has an entrée into the lower levels of society that Devlin can’t even manage in disguise. And in an increasing capacity, his wife, Hero, helps him in his investigative work.

The story begins, as usual, with the discovery of a murder victim. This time it was in the unsavory district of Wapping, known for taverns, rowdy seamen, thieves, and prostitutes. The victim was Sir Edwin Pym, a magistrate with a habit of trolling Wapping for young prostitutes late at night. What was most significant about the murder was how it was committed - it looked remarkably like the gruesome modus operandi used by the Ratcliffe Highway killer of three years earlier. (These murders, as the author explains in an Afterward, actually occurred in December 1811 and “terrified Regency London at least as much as Jack the Ripper panicked Victorian London decades later.”). Moreover, only ten days prior to Pym’s death, a seaman was killed in the exact same manner.

The Home Office was anxious to get to the bottom of the murders, lest the populace panic again as they did in 1811. Jarvis, the most influential man in London (who happened to be Devlin’s father-in-law), sent the word out that the terror “must be squashed immediately.” Napoleon was finally vanquished, and now the streets were full of unemployed ex-soldiers and sailors; there was agitation over wages and prices; and “of course Ireland was, as always, hovering on the brink of revolt.” The last thing they needed, Jarvis reasoned, was “a string of grisly murders terrifying the already restive population.” This meant finding the guilty party, or anyone, really, who could be blamed and incarcerated.

Sebastian takes it upon himself to find the (real) murderer or murderers before the Home Office finds a scapegoat, and as he investigates, he himself gets in danger. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up. The connections among the new victims offer clues to the motive behind the murders, and to the nefarious politics fueled by greed and corruption behind the carnage.

As a side plot, Hero, who tries in her own way to right the injustices of society by writing muckraking articles, is currently looking into the situation of foundling hospitals and the workhouses to which many orphans were sent. They were seldom inspected and most of their charges ended up dying. As with Hero’s previous investigations, this one also ends up having ties to Sebastian’s murder case.

Discussion: In this series, many of the aristocracy are despicable characters: haughty, entitled, hypocritical, and contemptuous of the masses of poor who barely eke out a living while the upper tier of society carouses and parties. The author juxtaposes the egregious attitudes of these rich, entitled people with those of her empathetic protagonists, making their differences stand out in stark relief.

In this particular book, the author also integrated the sordid history of the treatment of orphans into the plot. Another interesting aspect of the period she explored was the interrelationship between public officials, tavern owners, and breweries, one which sounds reminiscent of the gang infiltration of the liquor trade during Prohibition in the U.S.

Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In addition, one always learns a great deal of well-researched history about this fascinating and horrifying period, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest. This series is entertaining, educational, and well worth delving into. ( )
  nbmars | Jun 7, 2021 |
What the Devil Knows - C. S. Harris
Audio performance by Davina Porter
4 stars

“He was beginning to realize that the true number of murders he was dealing with reached into the double digits.”

This is the 16th book in a series that does seem to have an extremely high body count with each edition. The setting is London in 1814, with an investigation that reopens the case of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. A cold case that seems to be reheating with a gruesome new murder ( or two, or …) for Sebastian St. Cyr to investigate. The historical accuracy of this series has always impressed me. The author has created a credible alternative explanation for the Ratcliffe murders. According to the author’s notes, she speculated directly from the facts recorded at the time.

As usual, the mystery is also a vehicle to expose the massive corruption of the monied classes against the poor of London. This book delves into the lack of a cohesive criminal justice system and the growing cries for an organized police force. (The story predates the founding of a London Police force by 15 years.) Sebastian continues to work with the Bow Street magistrate, Sir Henry Lovejoy, with autopsies performed by his friend, Paul Gibson. But, there’s actually little new information concerning the ongoing characters. The ever increasing number of murders makes for a convoluted plot full of red herrings and extraneous characters. I enjoy listening the Davina Porter’s gifted performance, but it might have been easier to keep track of things with a book in front of my eyes. ( )
  msjudy | Apr 21, 2021 |
When you're reading a good series, a series that retains its high standards, one is surprised to find that this is book number 16. How the years and books fly by. This book follows Lord Devlin, Sebastian St. Cyr as he attempts to solve a case that eventually reason includes a great many bodies. It also mimics murders from three years previous, where it was thought the killer had been brought to justice, though he killed himself before he could be convicted. His wife Hero is still compiling knowledge for her series on women on the street and she will use this endeavor to aid her husband.

I love this series, though I admit there were so many publicans, different characters that in the beginning this was confusing. As I read the main characters became clearer, and I sank into the mystery of who was doing what, and of course, why. That in the authors note at books end I find that these cases were real cases in history, was a bonus. I enjoy these characters and the book does draw one into the time period, that of the 1800s. At books end Sebastian decries the seemingly unending corruption of those of higher status. Graft and corruption, sometimes it seems that we have not come very far as a society but are doomed to repeat history, over and over again. Greed and the perfidy of man..

ARC from Edelweiss. ( )
  Beamis12 | Apr 18, 2021 |
This is a great series and this one keeps up the great work. I do recommend reading at least a few of the other books in this series to understand who many of the main characters are. I enjoyed reading about these murders that truly did happen in London with some added to work in other characters. I love Sebastian and his wife, Hero. I hope there will be more books in this series. I received a copy of this book from Berkeley and Netgalley for a fair and honest opinion that I gave of my own free will. ( )
  Virginia51 | Apr 11, 2021 |
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