Why Kings Confess is the ninth book in C.S. Harris’s series of regency mysteries. I was going to make a post about the first books or maybe a series overview, but I figured I might as well talk about it here. Each book in the series is largely formulaic: there is a murder and Sebastian investigates, moving from the glittering ballrooms of the aristocracy to the poor houses of the East End in his quest for justice. This time the plot starts with Sebastian’s friend Gibson stumbling over the body of a young French doctor; the police insists that it was the work of footpads, but Sebastian isn’t so sure, especially when he finds out that the victim was in England as part of a delegation sent by Napoleon, and the (now-deposed) French royal family might also be involved… Something like that, murder with a dash of historical characters. However, far from becoming dull and repetitive over time, this series has sucked me in and I’m already looking forward to the next book.
The two main draws for me are the setting and the characters. I’m really nitpicky about historical novels because I read a lot of them and I can usually spot if an author has done her research or if she’s just talking about ladies in fancy dresses. C.S. Harris really knows what she’s writing about, there’s a great attention to details and the setting feels genuine. The characters too: Sebastian has somewhat modern sensibilities, for example in his attitude towards sexism and democracy, but he still acts and talks like he’s from the 19th century. This is also true about my favourite character, Hero Jarvis. In another book Sebastian makes the following observation about her: “however scornful Miss Jarvis might be of society’s strictures, she was still careful not to fall afoul of them”.
Hero, like countless other female characters, has realized that the rights of women in regency England are sorely lacking, and so she’s decided that she’ll never marry and instead she’s going to devote her life to social reform. But she’s far from running around wearing trousers and engaging in the kind of behaviour that would get her banned from polite society. Hero dresses in fashionable dresses that are suitable to her station, she brings her maid with her whenever going out because that’s what propriety dictates, and enlists Sebastian’s help because she knows that there’s some places where a well-born lady simply cannot go. Thus proving that a lady doesn’t need to flout convention to be a complete badass. (I’m keeping a tally of how many men she’s killed so far. It’s six. Hero sometimes needs help and sometimes she’s terrified and sometimes she’s hoping someone will save her, but she’s never helpless.)
As for the main character himself, Sebastian St. Cyr, the author on her website describes him as a mix of Mr. Darcy and James Bond, which… yeah, sounds about right. He’s the third son of an Earl and his father didn’t like him very much, but when he was a child his brothers died and so he’s now the Viscount Devlin and his father’s heir. (Devlin, not Devil, damn you autocorrect.) In the first book he’s just returned from fighting in the army, and he’s a bitter and disillusioned man. You can probably read Why Kings Confess without having read any of the other books first, because the recurring characters are given a short introduction and each book is a self-contained story with no cliffhanger, but you’d miss out on all the character development and revelations about Sebastian’s family history. He does start off drinking too much to forget about the war and fighting duels because he doesn’t care about his life, but two years later he’s quite happily married and frets about going out of town for a day because his wife is nine months pregnant.
To me, the personal lives of Sebastian and his family and friends are the strong suit of this book. The mystery of Damion Pelletan’s murder is well built and there are several plot twists that kept me guessing until the end. I did guess a few things, but the murderer turned out to be someone I had completely discarded as a suspect. However my personal preference is for detective novels à la Agatha Christie, while this is more of a thriller. Sebastian’s favourite method of investigation is confronting suspects and badgering them until they tell him some important plot point, which he uses to track down another suspect and confront them until they tell him something else that he didn’t already know. Rinse and repeat until you figure out who the murderer is.
So, on the strength of the mystery plot alone, I wouldn’t recommend this book. But as a part of a long-running series with solid storylines and complex, engaging characters? Definitely. If you like regency mysteries, dashing gentlemen and kickass ladies, you should check out the first book in the series, What Angels Fear, which has just been republished with a shiny new cover.