Desert Isle Keeper
Lord John and the Private Matter
Diana Gabaldon writes in her introduction to Lord John and the Private Matter that she referred to the book as a “short story” until her agents (quite correctly) informed her that at 301 pages, a Gabaldon short story is the length of most books. That observation, I think, might be the key to understanding this novel and what to expect from it. While not the multi-layered, many-paged extravaganza we’ve come to expect from Gabaldon, Lord John and the Private Matter is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a mystery and a fascinating exploration into a side of 18th century London of which most of us are virtually ignorant. Add in the fact, that Lord John is – as he has been since he first made his appearance in Dragonfly in Amber – an intriguing and throughly likable character, and the result is a book admirers of Ms. Gabaldon’s writing won’t want to miss.
For those familiar with the Outlander saga, the events in this novel take place in 1757. The now 27-year old Lord John has left Scotland and his position as the governor of Ardsmuir Prison. He is in London and awaits news of his next military posting. Prior to his arrival, however, in an act of kindness and great decency, he allowed prisoner Jamie Fraser to fulfill the remainder of his sentence by working as a groom at Helwater, a Lake District estate. The events that later earn Lord John Jamie’s eternal gratitude (I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the saga) have yet to occur.
While relieving himself in the retiring room of his London club, Lord John is taken aback when a quick glance reveals that the privy member (penis to you and me) of Joseph Trevelyan, the young man engaged to his 16-year old cousin, bears an unmistakable sore. Clearly, in an era when syphilis amounted to a virtual one-way to ticket to madness and a slow and painful death, this is a discovery Lord John can’t ignore.
But, while pondering his best plan of action, Lord John finds himself drawn into another, equally disconcerting, matter. A career soldier is found murdered, a troubling enough occurrence at any time, but the dead soldier’s possible involvement in the theft of valuable military intelligence clearly necessitates a discreet and careful investigation that Lord John is asked to conduct. But, as he follows the trail of the murder, while also attempting to verify the truth of Joseph’s affliction, Lord John is stunned to discover that the two matters might, in fact, be connected in altogether surprising ways.
As Gabaldon readers know, matters in the author’s books are rarely straightforward and seldom follow an expected path. And, like all great writers of historical fiction, Diana Gabaldon possesses the extraordinary gift of making faraway times and places come vividly to life in the imagination of the reader. But, instead of limiting herself to the gentleman’s clubs and drawings rooms with which most of us are already familiar, the twists and turns of Gabaldon’s intricately crafted mystery take us inside the world of bordellos and clubs catering to (for very obvious reasons) London’s deeply underground gay community. Given Ms. Gabaldon’s well known penchant for exhaustive research, I found these segments to be nothing less than fascinating.
Of course, Lord John’s homosexuality is an integral part of his character. And, considering the fact his kindness is so well known to readers of the Outlander saga, I felt great sadness that this very good man is forced to hide such an important aspect of his life from virtually everyone around him. But, the complexities of his sexuality aside, what ultimately matters here is Lord John’s ability to command center stage and his astuteness, decency, humor, and agile mind make for a fascinating lead character I’ll be happy to follow in future books.
But what about Jamie? Aside from a mention or two, our beloved Mr. Fraser plays no part in this book, making Lord John and the Private Matter a ideal starting point for readers new to the author. (Not to mention that 301 pages is a bit easier to tackle than the 800+ to which we’re accustomed from the author!)
If you haven’t yet read Diana Gabaldon, I hope you’ll seriously consider getting your feet wet by starting with this book. But if you’re already a fan, what choice do you really have? Ms. Gabaldon is on the money here and Lord John and the Private Matter is both a fascinating detour and a short story (in Gabaldon’s terms) to savor while we all wait (very) impatiently for the next Outlander installment.