Who Speaks for the Damned
Who Speaks for the Damned is book fifteen in C.S. Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth, Sebastian St. Cyr, and could, at a pinch, be read as a standalone. While earlier books in the series featured a long-running plotline concerning Sebastian’s his search for the truth about his origins, that doesn’t really feature here, so a new reader could jump right in. That said, this is a consistently well-written series that has garnered high praise across the board – including several DIK reviews here – and I’d advise any fan of the genre who hasn’t yet read the series to go back to the beginning with What Angels Fear. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
It’s the swelteringly stuffy June of 1814 and London society is preoccupied with the visit of dignitaries from Austria, Russia and the German states, who have gathered in the city at the behest of the Prince Regent to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the re-establishment of peace and monarchical rule throughout Europe. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife Hero are spending time with their infant son prior to attending an engagement, when they are informed of the death – the murder – of Nicholas Hayes, youngest son of the late Earl of Seaforth. The murder of an earl’s son in a tea garden in Somer’s Town is unusual enough, but Hayes, who, twenty years earlier had been found guilty of murder and transported to Botany Bay, is believed to have died over a decade before. Which begs many questions – not least of which is what Hayes was doing back in England when, if discovered, he’d have been arrested and probably hanged.
Sebastian’s valet Jules Calhoun is the one who delivered the news, and Sebastian is a little surprised to discover that he had known the deceased before he was transported – and that he was aware that Hayes had returned to England accompanied by a young, half-Chinese boy named Ji. Calhoun doesn’t know who Ji is to Hayes, but the boy has disappeared; concerned for his safety, Hero, who is currently researching an article about London’s street musicians, sets about looking for him among that community while Sebastian, with the help of Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, begins to look for whoever was responsible for Hayes’ death.
His enquiries begin to paint a picture of Hayes as a rather wild and unprincipled young man. Some months before he was convicted of killing the Comtesse de Compans, he abducted a wealthy heiress, presumably with the intent to force her into marriage in order to gain control of her fortune. Yet that Nicholas Hayes is one completely at odds with the man Calhoun had known, and as Sebastian digs deeper, a rounder, more sympathetic portrait of Nicholas begins to emerge. Sebastian, himself the son of an earl and once accused of a murder he did not commit (What Angels Fear), finds himself identifying strongly with the dead man and becomes more and more convinced that Nicholas was wrongly convicted. Could he have returned to England in order to exact revenge on whoever set him up? And if so, why now? Most importantly, who had a strong enough motive to want him dead? Could Ji be Nicholas’ son and therefore a threat to the position of the current Earl? Could the Comte de Compans – currently in London as part of the retinue of the newly-restored King Louis XVIII – have taken revenge for the murder of his wife? Or perhaps the husband and father of the young woman Hayes is accused of abducting wanted their pound of flesh.
C.S. Harris has – as always – penned a complex, tightly-plotted mystery rich in historical detail and full of intrigue and red-herrings. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot more to the murder than at first appears, and equally unsurprisingly, the people most closely connected to Hayes are tight-lipped and evasive. With the help of Hero, Calhoun, surgeon Paul Gibson and his formidable Aunt Henrietta – who knows everyone worth knowing, and has her finger on the pulse of the best gossip, past and present – Sebastian is able to start piecing together a picture of the truth behind Hayes’ conviction for murder and his reasons for returning to England. It all makes for a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery and, when the truth finally comes to light, reveals an incredibly poignant picture of a life wilfully and carelessly destroyed – a life that could have been Sebastian’s just a few years earlier.
Who Speaks for the Damned is another gripping instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, and one I’m sure St. Cyr will need no urging to pick up as soon as it’s released.