Who Slays the Wicked
Do you love historical romance and/or historical mysteries? Then you should be reading (or listening to) the Sebastian St. Cyr series. Who Slays the Wicked, the fourteenth book in this long-running series is another compelling entry – although it isn’t quite as strong as many of the novels that precede it. As usual, Ms. Harris masterfully disguises her villain until the bitter end, and there are red herrings and surprise twists throughout. But this entry suffers from one significant problem: the murder victim is a nasty piece of work we first met in book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, and quite frankly I didn’t care who killed him! I wish the author had spent more time giving this character the torturous and painful comeuppance he so richly deserved, so I felt cheated! Who Slays the Wicked is a compelling and clever mystery, but far from the best in this amazing series.
Fair warning to new readers: this review will contain spoilers for the earlier novels.
What Angels Fear introduced readers to Sebastian St. Cyr, a brilliant young nobleman shattered by his experience in the Napoleonic Wars. Accused of a rape and murder he didn’t commit, Sebastian fled his home and went into hiding, and while on the run, he used investigative skills honed as an agent during the war to find the killer. As the book progressed, we learned more about Sebastian and the people and events that shaped his life, and over thirteen books the author has slowly advanced his life story while at the same time crafting clever and complicated standalone mysteries that only Sebastian (with help from his family and friends – including a Bow Street magistrate) can solve. There are surprises and secrets and lies and lovers and enemies and spies and betrayals and trysts (and more!), all juxtaposed against significant historical events of the time. Ms. Harris’s worldbuilding is comprehensive – people, places, events – and all of it is supremely well done.
In book twelve, Where the Dead Lie, Sebastian was drawn into one of his darkest and most harrowing cases: finding the person who was kidnapping, sadistically brutalizing and then murdering London’s homeless boys and girls. The investigation eventually led him to conclude two friends committed the crimes together simply because it pleased them to do so. When Where the Dead Lie concluded, one of the killers was dead, and in a surprise twist, Anthony, Viscount Ashworth, the only son and heir to the Marquis of Lindley – and the man Sebastian suspects (but can’t prove) was the second killer – is engaged to be married to Sebastian’s beautiful, troubled niece Stephanie.
Who Slays the Wicked picks up seven months later. Despite Sebastian’s attempts to block the union and find evidence linking Ashworth to the murders, Stephanie and Ashworth are married, and parents to twin boys. But the marriage is a sham. Amanda lives with her father-in-law at his Park Street mansion, and a dissolute Ashworth continues living the life of a bachelor. When the story opens, Ashworth has just been found viciously stabbed to death in his own bed, hands and feet bound to the bedposts. Sebastian learns of the murder from Bow Street Magistrate (and friend) Sir Henry Lovejoy, and he can’t help but worry that Stephanie might have killed him. The ghastly, bloody crime scene and Ashworth’s savaged body point to an angry killer, and when Sebastian uncovers additional evidence that seems to suggest the killer was a woman, Stephanie becomes his number one suspect.
Like the books that precede it, finding Ashworth’s killer is complicated by the abundance of suspects and their hidden agendas. In addition to his young wife, Ashworth was despised by a large and disparate group – shopkeepers he failed to pay, victims of his sadistic sexual games, grieving relatives, his household staff – and Sebastian is compelled to investigate every lead, even when the evidence appears to point to Stephanie as the killer. His inquiries are further complicated by Ashworth’s apparent involvement with Princess Ivanna Gagarin, a lady in waiting attached to Catherine of Oldenburg, sister to Tsar Alexander of Russia, who delights in many of the same perverted sexual games Ashworth enjoyed when he was alive. When Ashworth’s missing valet is found – naked and stabbed to death – Sebastian realizes it’s a race against time to stop the killer from silencing anyone related to the case.
Part of what makes the Sebastian St. Cyr series so superb is the exquisite balancing act Ms. Harris pulls off with every book. The novels are equal parts Sebastian’s life, a clever, intricate self-contained mystery (the villain is rarely who one initially suspects) and history lesson. Usually, this author gets the mix just right, but in Who Slays the Wicked, Sebastian’s ongoing journey of self-discovery is sacrificed in favor of finding the killer – and since there are LOTS of suspects, the balance the author has so carefully maintained before is off. While I was interested in Sebastian’s niece, her BIG REVELATION was more depressing than surprising, and the link between Russian political machinations in London at the end of the Napoleonic war and Ashworth’s murder felt tenuous at best. Ivanna could have been a great villain, but her character is underdeveloped within the context of this story.
Fortunately – and despite my ambivalence about who killed Ashworth – we get to spend time with the memorable cast of secondary characters that inhabit Sebastian’s world – although these vignettes are too few and far between. The marriage between Sebastian and his brilliant wife Hero is still passionate and tender, and Hero provides the emotional and intellectual support Sebastian needs to persevere in his investigations. Via her efforts to investigate and publicize the lives of London’s poorest citizens, she also unwittingly helps Sebastian identify Ashworth’s killer. (I love how Ms. Harris pulls together seemingly unrelated, disparate threads in her stories before she reveals whodunit.) There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from Hendon and Henrietta, and if you didn’t loathe Sebastian’s sister Amanda, the Dowager Lady Wilcox (but you probably did) before this novel, you will. Evil bitch. Hero’s father, Jarvis, only plays a minor role in this story, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after his relationship with conniving cousin Victoria is revealed. Hero suspects they’re engaged in a secret affair, but I think there’s more to Victoria than meets the eye. Am I the only one who suspects she killed Hero’s mother?
Although I enjoyed the novel, Who Slays the Wicked didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The murder that opens it is an anti-climactic conclusion to the events of Where the Dead Lie, and I found the abhorrent revelations about Sebastian’s extended family less compelling and slightly repellent. The historical aspects don’t quite dovetail into the plot as well as in previous books, and overall, I found this novel weaker than earlier entries in the series. With fourteen books written, and still so many unanswered questions, I’m skeptical as to how Ms. Harris can possibly wrap up the series with only one book to go. But since every book is good for at least one big revelation (or two! or three!), I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she surprises us with next.