C.S Harris’ latest mystery Who Speaks for the Damned is another fascinating tale of the early Victorian period. As part of a long running series the reader may see a returning character or two, or fear that as a new reader they will be lost and confused as to the nature of relationships and past events in the book. The latter turns out to be a great concern, with a story that is accessible and characters who have a history but do not rely on unexplained past events for narrative purposes.
The lead of the book is Sebastian St. Cyr, a wealthy man of breeding who happens upon it’s strange sight of what appears to be a boy running from him. His attention is also drawn to the death of one Nicholas Hayes. Hays is the disgraced son of a Duke, believed already dead and illegally back in the country when his bidy is found. He appears to have been stabbed in the back with a sickle, and I am in large those around are less concerned with his death than many might be.
Sebastian finds himself trying to solve two related problems at once. He is researching the death of a man who should not be in the country, having been transported out and functionally exiled. He is also trying to between himself and those closest to him to find the missing child, an individual of chinese descent called Ji. Several sections of the book are performed from Ji’s point of view.
Sebastian is a gentleman detective in the classic sense, a man with a special position who none-the-less finds himself repeatedly looking into grisly crimes. He is upstanding and moral, with his most obvious vices being that he solves crimes in his free time and that he is quick to anger for the sins of his time. The reader is not likely to hold either against him. The first because of genre convention, and both because of reader goodwill generated. Chances seem high that a reader with any historical awareness will find him a paragon when accounting for the biases and difficulties of his time, and his associate Hero a woman of similar morality.
A fair number of suspects are put into place, virtually all among the nobility. Many of them were family to the deceased, although thst very much do not like to have the victim discussed in any capacity. All have reputations to consider, and quite often serious monetary or inheritance related concerns as well. The readers will find some of these issues more understandable, and possibly more sympathetic, than others. Yet the writing always makes clear the nature of the times and thus the amount that this behavior is within the norm. The question of motive is easiest for Sebastian, yet as others begin stalking him and his loved ones it becomes apparent that if agents were used then opportunity is a fairly useless tool.
One of the core issues of this book is the question of justice, and in particular what it means in relation to societal expectation. The various family members of the victim want nothing to do with the case, although the question exists as to if this is because of their personal involvement in the muder or dus to societal expectation and image concerns. The latter are certainly not sympathetic, yet hardly on the order of murder. Further this is clearly a domain of parties of both genders, with men and women alike concerned more about image than they might be about the lives of human beings.
The East India Company is in power and it’s terrible crimes are in full effect, and only journalist and forward-thinking woman Hero expresses significant concern over their actions. Most don’t care at all, and those involved with the company find any effort to draw attention to atrocities they participated in is seen as more an annoyance than a threat. To his credit the lead Sebastian can be forgiven for his lack of focus upon the issue as he is rather preoccupied solving a murder and trying to track down a missing child, yet the overall apathy regarding oppression and mass starvation is an excellent reminder of the darker and less human oriented views often expressed during the time. It is a well balanced book, keeping focus upon the mysteries and plot without needlessly excluding the many elements of history.
There is a major character of vital importance to the narrative who is of partial Chinese descent. This was very much not common in early Victorian times, and a scene where children ask what it is to be Chinese is both amusing and a startling reminder of that fact. Bigotry towards people of various backgrounds plays a large role. Once again both leads, as well as a number of women, are given the opportunity to show that they do not share this opinion and find it utterly despicable. This is far easier on a modern reader than dealing with overly racist protagonists, however it also serves to remind the reader that even when the product of an era that was less than enlightened in some ways people could be forward-thinking.
At the end of the book comes a wonderful section of h8storical notes, which make clear what portions of the story are directly based on events in the past, as opposed to being fictional inventions. For those who are not steeped in the early Victorian time period and its various eccentricities these are a godsend, both allowing the reader to better understand the situation Sabastian and Hero navigate and also providing a fair deal of context for those curious about the time, without dumping uneccessary exposition into the narrative.
C.S. Harris’ Who Speaks For the Damned is an excellent entry in his bibliography, and easy to recommend. The book has been well-researched, down to consideration of police methods at the time. The various bigotries and biases individuals in power and society as a whole possessed at the time are addressed, and incorporated into the mystery very well. An excellent example of a historical mystery, playing well into the setting and yet holding the reader’s attention. This book will work quite well for new readers and long-term series fans alike.