Monday, August 26, 2013
C.S. Harris' WHAT ANGELS FEAR
This is another one I poached off my mother's wish list when I got her an ebook reader for her birthday/Mother's Day. She has good taste in diversions, my mother, so when she wishes for a book it's usually something I'm gonna wind up wanting to read, too.
What Angels Fear, the first of a nine-books-and-probably-counting mystery series set during the Georgian era, is certainly diverting, especially in its choice of hero, one Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, whom I would describe as half Francis Crawford of Lymond, half Richard Sharpe, in that he is a larger-than-life aristocrat who is also a veteran of a particularly horrific tour of duty in the Napoleonic wars. But with, you know, all but bionic senses. Dude hears and sees really, really well, you guys.
Also much like Lymond, he spends most of his first novel working under a cloud of suspicion: a beautiful and somewhat famous young actress was found brutally raped and murdered -- or, actually, murdered then raped, as it turns out -- in a church, the corpse still in possession of one of St. Cyr's distinctive duelling pistols. Justice in pre-Regency England being what it is -- constables are paid a bonus of forty pounds for every conviction, for instance -- everyone seems to regard that coincidence as enough to convict him, and soon our man is on the run and his own only hope to clear his name and remain free.
St. Cyr's books do not look to much resemble Lymond's in any other respect, though, nor are they meant to. These look to be straight up cozy mysteries that just happen to be set in a historical setting; dynastic/political struggles are an element of the plot, but the intricacy and subtlety and dazzling erudition of a Dorothy Dunnett would be out of place here. Instead, we have the single, straightforward plot, full of action, description, and a tour of Seedy London with a street urchin named Tom as St. Cyr's and our guide. And a woman named Kat who is an actress/courtesan just like the victim was, who just happens to be St. Cyr's ex-lover and has rather a lot to do with the murder so is very torn about exactly how much she should help our hero.
What's really refreshing about this book, though, is its sort-of antagonist, the investigator officially in charge of this murder, Sir Henry Lovejoy. Where a lot of wrongly-accused-man-must-find-real-killer tales feature our innocent hero being stalked by boobs (or by outright enemies of the hero who are hell-bent on seeing him hang/fry/rot in jail), What Angels Fear features a magistrate-cum-detective who is as committed to finding the truth as is St. Cyr. Sir Henry Lovejoy is a former businessman who chose to become a magistrate to make up for his childlessness, not in the sense of filling a void in his own life, but in the sense of contributing to his society and its future. He appreciates the scientific method and strives to apply it to his own work, making him a figure who would be at home in what I still consider the greatest historical mystery novels of all, those of Caleb Carr. His side of the narrative is every bit as engaging as St. Cyr's, in its quiet and methodical way. I could have used a lot more of Sir Henry Lovejoy, really.
Without Lovejoy, this is very much a by-the-numbers mystery story, complete with sorta-exciting climax that felt like a level of Arkham Asylum, one of those where Batman has to grapple from gargoyle to gargoyle to find the right angle of attack (and now that I think of it, there's something ever so slightly Commissioner Gordon about Sir Henry Lovejoy). And the boss battle is good except, except, ah, I'm not sure how to complain about this without committing spoilers so go read the footnote if you don't care about spoilers.*
But in defense of all of this, mystery isn't really my genre. Like spy novels, mysteries are at best an occasional indulgence for me. I'll read the rest of the St. Cyr books sometime, but they're not knocking anything off the precarious top of my to-be-read pile.
Bet my mystery-loving mom is going to love this, though.
*Dude. I hate, hate, hate it when the ultimate bad guy turns out to be someone who hasn't even appeared as a character in the story. There have been oblique references to the person but he doesn't get any actual "on camera" time until the very end, when All Is Revealed. I call shenanigans. Shaggy dog shenanigans, even.