REVIEW: When Maidens Mourn by C.S. Harris
Dear Ms. Harris:
I have read the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series since the first book, What Angels Fear was published in 2005. My grades for the first six books have included three B+ grades, two B grades and one A-. So it’s fair to say that the series has been pretty consistent for me, and though I didn’t jump on this book when it was published earlier this year, I had always intended to read it.
Sebastian St. Cyr is a Regency gentleman who is accused of murder in the first book in the series. After clearing his name, he continues to become embroiled in murder mysteries, sometimes due to his friendship (of a sort) with Scotland Yard investigator Sir Henry Lovejoy. Sebastian has a complicated relationship with his father, and a tortured one with his ex-mistress, the actress Kat Boleyn. He’s also recently acquired a wife, the former Hero Jarvis, daughter of Sebastian’s sworn enemy. Lord Jarvis is a very powerful and dangerous man, ruthless in devotion to maintaining the government of his cousin, the Prince of Wales. Jarvis hates Sebastian and hates that Sebastian and Hero have married and that his first grandchild will be Sebastian’s son or daughter.
Hero and Sebastian also have a complex relationship (you may be sensing something of a theme here); Hero is fiercely intelligent and loyal to her father, though she’s aware of his shortcomings. A bluestocking, she hadn’t thought to marry, but she’s thrown together with Sebastian during a life-threatening situation (in an earlier book), and one thing leads to another. Now the two are married but still extremely wary of each other. They are just considering going on a honeymoon when word comes of the murder of Hero’s friend and fellow scholar, Gabrielle Tennyson.
Gabrielle is found at Camlet Moat, an excavation site not far from London that she was supervising. She was looking for evidence that Camlet=Camelot and that this is the location where King Arthur is buried. Gabrielle”s been stabbed through the heart and left in a boat at the edge of the water, apparently on the evening of the pagan festival of Lammas (a fact that may or may not be significant). Alarmingly, her two young cousins, who were visiting her in London, are missing.
Suspects pile up quickly: there’s the scholar who had pursued Gabrielle since she was disturbingly young and with whom she’d quarreled over the Camelot question, the paroled French officer with whom Gabrielle had struck up a friendship, and maybe more, the owner of the land on which Camlet Moat sits, as well as his religious zealot wife, and finally, Gabrielle’s social climbing cousin, Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt, who just seems to be an all-around creep.
Hero’s own father, Lord Jarvis, comes under some scrutiny: he’s trying to tamp down a sort of Arthurian fever that’s sweeping through London, driven mostly by discontent with the current monarchy. Posters heralding the return of “the once and future king” keep cropping up, thought to be the work of French agents. Jarvis’ attempt to quell the notion that Arthur could return (which I guess some people really believed? It seems far-fetched for the 19th century, but whatever) put him in conflict with Gabrielle, and both Sebastian and Hero have no trouble believing he’d stoop to murder to protect his interests.
In the midst of the mystery of Gabrielle’s murder, another mystery crops up, one that was more intriguing to me (in general the mysteries of Sebastian’s past that are dealt with throughout the series interest me more than the central mystery of each book). Jamie Knox is a tavern owner who was seen arguing with Gabrielle a couple of days before her murder. When Sebastian investigates this lead, he finds that Knox is extremely dangerous, and that he has an unexpected connection to Sebastian himself. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out in future books.
I’m honestly not a big reader of mysteries, and to some degree I find the machinations of mystery plots sort of tiresome. First this person is suspected, and then that person, and there are always plenty of suspects and suspicious behavior to keep the investigator guessing and running down leads. It can feel a bit rote to me. In the case of this book, I’ll admit to being sure near the end of the book that I knew who the killer was. I was wrong, which is fine, but what bugged me was that Sebastian seem to pull both the identity of the real killer and the motive out of thin air at the last minute. It didn’t feel organic or realistic to me.
I’ll continue to read the series, mostly to see how Sebastian’s personal issues resolve themselves, both in his family and romantic life. Not much progress is made in Sebastian and Hero’s relationship in the course of this book, but they do take tentative steps towards trusting one another more fully (something that definitely does not come easily to either of them).
My grade for When Maidens Mourn is a straight B.