A while ago, at the same time that I bought Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris I bought another by her, the first Sebastian St. Cyr mystery (on which she is listed as “C.S. Harris” – wonder why): What Angels Fear. (Oh, that’s why – it’s not Charlaine Harris. Well, that kind of explains it. Don’t I feel silly.) I made the jump from Urban-slash-contemporary fantasy to plain old good-stuff fantasy to period mystery with this one… And I’m following it with a reread of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. The two are superficially similar: both are set in the murky depths of a city somewhere around the turn of the century (although different centuries). Both feature gaslight and hansom cabs and foul weather. Both begin with the depraved and sexually tinged (if rape can ever be called sex) murder of a should-be-but-isn’t-innocent. They’re both very well written indeed, and both excellent books…
What Angels Fear opens with the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an actress-cum-prostitute (Cyprian – I’d forgotten about that term). At the scene of the crime is found a dueling pistol with the name “St. Cyr” engraved on it – which obviously incriminates Sebastian St. Cyr, young nobleman and rake, who has been a sore disappointment to his father. But Sebastian (SSC) didn’t do it, and when the officious twits of the London police force come to arrest him, he is rather indignant, especially when the Beau Brummel-wannabe sergeant mouths off to him. SSC puts the latter in his place, which may have been a bit of a tactical error given the circumstances – and given that the sergeant has a knife and a temper. In the end, the second constable stumbles onto the knife, the sergeant is yelling that SSC has killed him, and SSC runs for it. At that point his choices are: turn himself in and hope for the best (although the case is strong against him, and whoever else could or would have stabbed the constable?); find a ship to smuggle him to America or somewhere; or stay hidden and try to find the real killer. SSC being SSC, he has no real choice – he has to try to clear his name.
In working to do so, SSC must turn to the woman who broke his heart several years ago, Kat Boleyn, and a doctor friend who provides valuable forensic information; he is also joined by a young boy who starts off trying to pick his pocket and, in the grand tradition of Regency and Victorian novels, becomes his ally. (And of course he’s much cleverer than SSC was expecting; I swear I’m tempted to write a book about a street urchin being taken under someone’s wing, someone who realizes the boy is at least as intelligent as anyone in society, and educating him and training him to “pass” – and maybe end up in Parliament. I’ll call it “My Fair Laddie.”) I don’t want it to sound like it’s Just Another Regency; it has some rather standard plot turns, and I admit I saw the end coming a ways off, but I was enjoying myself so much that didn’t care. And I did think the killer was someone else; there were some lovely red herrings.
There was political intrigue – the French, of course, and the mess surrounding the Madness of King George – which usually annoys me, but this was quite well done and well integrated into the plot: it’s integral, and more cloak-and-dagger than oh-lord-not-another-worldwide-conspiracy. There was some truly wonderful period detail. And I loved the characters. The supporting cast could easily have been a cast of cliches, but Harris provided enough twists and quirks that those who peopled this novel came quite close to living and breathing. Sebastian St. Cyr is not Mr. Darcy, nor Julian Kestrel, nor William Monk, nor yet Sherlock Holmes, or any of the other dandy or detective (or both) heroes of gaslit fame; he is himself, damaged by childhood tragedies, a cold father, and heartbreak and war horrors as an adult. I have to admit, I was still in Fantasy mode when I started this, and still thinking it was by the author of supernatural mysteries, so when the narrative started talking about how he could see almost perfectly well in the dark and hear what no one else could I kept expecting a paragraph along the lines of “He caught the scent of blood on the constable’s coat, and turned his face away. He had learned to manage his unholy hungers, but since the night he was bitten he lived in constant fear of losing control”… Obviously I was wrong, and I’m glad of it. (It was an odd experience, though…) I loved the book; it wasn’t perfect – again, there was really only one way the climactic struggle could end – but it was close enough. C.S. Harris is on The List, and I can’t wait to get hold of more of her books, SSC and everything else besides. (The SSC series has what has to be the slickest theme for its titles that I’ve seen: What Angels Fear, Where Serpents Sleep, Why Mermaids Sing, When Gods Die – very nice. No Who?)
While What Angels Fear takes place in London in 1811, The Alienist is set in 1896 Manhattan, but the feel is much the same: masterful writing, a milieu lit by gaslight, a sea change in the political arena, hansom cabs and boys snatched from certain hanging to work for “nobs”; depraved murder of someone the public won’t miss, and about whom the public wouldn’t care except it’s not the only killing and at some point less expendable members of society might be targeted… Unusual detectives and hansom cabs and fighting the Establishment to find the real killer: these are the similarities. I know the resemblance ends about there, but I only just began The Alienist and it’s been years since I first read it, so I’ll not venture further. I do remember absolutely loving the book, and being rather disappointed that Caleb Carr a) didn’t write dozens more and b) turned out to be something of a radical. But I’m already relishing the reread.
Oh dear. Now I’m going to be stuck in the groove of Gaslight Mystery. Anne Perry, here I come.