Desert Isle Keeper
Why Kill the Innocent
C.S. Harris has maintained a consistently high standard throughout her long-running Sebastian St. Cyr series of historical mysteries, but the last two or three books, in particular, have been outstanding – which is quite remarkable when one considers that this latest instalment, Why Kill the Innocent, is number thirteen. The individual mysteries are extremely well-constructed and set against a superbly researched and realised historical background; and so far, each one has been self-contained, so that each book could be read as a standalone. Notice I used the word could – because actually, this isn’t a series I would recommend dipping in and out of or reading out of order, because there are overarching plot threads that run from book to book you really don’t want to miss out on. But unlike the other books in the series, the previous one – Where the Dead Lie – left some aspects of the mystery unsolved and readers wondering whether the main villain of the was ever going to be made to pay for his crimes. As we’re at book thirteen of a fifteen-book series, I’m guessing the answer is yes, but we’re going to have to wait a little while longer to see it!
Why Kill the Innocent is set in the winter of 1814, which is on record as being one of the coldest ever experienced in England. On her way back from a charitable visit in the East End, Sebastian’s wife Hero stumbles – literally – on a body lying in the street, and is surprised to recognise the dead woman as Jane Ambrose, a talented musician who taught piano to a number of the children of the nobility – including Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Regent and Heir Presumptive to the throne. It’s immediately obvious that Jane was murdered – she died from a blow to the head – and that the lack of blood around her indicates she was killed elsewhere. Hero immediately sends for her husband and for Henry Lovejoy, the magistrate from Bow Street who has aided Sebastian on a number of investigations and has become a friend; all of them know that once the news of Jane’s death is made public, the palace machinery will move fast to prevent any scandal being attached to the princess by covering up the truth and preventing any further investigation into the matter. Or trying to – because Sebastian isn’t about to allow the brutal murder of a young woman to go unnoticed or her murderer to evade justice.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot, which is utterly compelling and kept me turning the pages into the small hours. Although Jane Ambrose is dead when we meet her, the picture built up of her through the eyes of others is poignant and intriguing. A musical genius at a time when ladies were never supposed to excel at anything other than being decorative, Jane had to supress her gift for performing and composing and instead spend her time teaching others. Her marriage was not happy, and her husband’s infidelities and abuse, coupled with death of her two children from illness a year earlier eventually led to a profound change in the woman who had previously been a model wife. She was clearly a woman driven to the edge, but who, instead of falling over, found or rediscovered an inner strength that gave her the will to stand up and fight for herself and others. Her desire to protect Princess Charlotte from an enforced marriage to a man bound to make her miserable meant that Jane put herself in the middle of what proved to be deadly palace intrigue and political manoeuvring – most of it masterminded by Hero’s father, Lord Jarvis, a cold, ruthless man who will do whatever it takes to maintain his position as the power behind the throne.
As usual, Sebastian finds himself baulked at many a turn of the investigation; everyone has secrets they are determined to keep and nobody can be trusted… and those in positions of power are actively trying to prevent him from uncovering the truth which, of course turns out to have implications far more wide-reaching than he could ever have suspected.
One of the many enjoyable things about this series has been Ms. Harris’ obvious love for and knowledge of the period in which it is set. She has a splendid grasp of the volatile political situation of the time, and makes very good use of that knowledge to provide a solid historical background to her stories. In this novel, however, I think the author has outdone herself. The background to the tale, the terrible relationship between the Prince Regent and his daughter, how he almost hated her for her popularity and tried to control every aspect of her life… it’s all true. The Regent really did treat his wife in the appalling manner described, and his paranoia, his excesses, his narcissism and lack of interest in the people he ruled are all matters of record, gleaned from correspondence with friends and family. Many of the secondary characters in the story are real, or are closely based on historical figures, and many of the events – such as Princess Charlotte deliberately procrastinating over an unwanted betrothal – actually happened. All these things – and more – are seamlessly and skilfully incorporated into the story without the reader ever being subjected to info-dumps or a static history lesson – which just goes to show that truth really is stranger than fiction at times.
The setting of a London so cold that the Thames froze over is hard for the modern Londoner to envisage, but Ms. Harris’ descriptions of a city blanketed in white and the Frost Fair on the river are wonderfully evocative and paint a detailed picture in the mind of the reader of what it must have looked like. But as well as the Christmas-Card imagery, she takes care to show us the other side of the pretty picture; of the extreme hardship faced by the poor when the extraordinary weather conditions led to shortages of food and fuel.
The reparation of Sebastian’s relationship with his father continues apace, and I loved watching Sebastian’s interactions with his young son. He and Hero are obviously very much in love and are devoted to each other – yet they don’t live in each other’s pockets. They know each other very well, and the trust and confidence Sebastian places in his wife is admirable, while Hero’s ability to listen and understand have become his bedrock.
The long running plot thread concerning Sebastian’s parentage doesn’t get much screen time here and the threads left over from the previous book are also not forgotten, but both are passing mentions, which I thought a wise move given that there is more than enough here to keep the reader glued to the story. There is also, clearly, more to come from the recently widowed Jarvis and Hero’s manipulative cousin Victoria, and I can’t wait to see how things pan out.
The murder mystery is satisfyingly complex, the historical detail is fascinating and I continue to adore Sebastian St. Cyr, a character who has come such a long way since we first met him as an angry, damaged and resentful veteran of war. With its masterful storytelling, intricate plotting and intriguing characters, Why Kill the Innocent is a truly gripping read and I’m sure that fans of the series need no endorsement from me to be waiting to pounce on it upon release.