This is the fourth book in a historical mystery series about Sebastian St. Cyr, a troubled nobleman in Regency England (he is probably troubled in part because he has such a romance-novelish name).
The historical mystery is a genre I really like and one you don’t hear much about. Two of my favorite series are Anne Perry’s William Monk series and Deanna Raybourn’s Julia Grey series. Harris’ series is up there with those, although I found this book a little lacking.
St. Cyr is a Viscount in England who is a terrible disappointment to his father – he drinks too much, refuses to marry and have an heir, doesn’t care about societal conventions but is well-born enough to have entrée into the highest rungs of society. He’s not a detective but keeps getting drawn into solving murders because he’s smarter than most people and actually doesn’t seem to have much to do. Like a lot of historical mysteries this series is all about society’s haves and have nots. The wealthy spend all of their time at balls, teas, “nuncheons”, etc. and seem to change clothes about ten times a day. St. Cyr’s valet and carriage driver are prominent characters in these books. At the same time the crimes seem to highlight the hardships of the poor, particularly those of women.
In this book, Hero Jarvis, daughter of the very powerful Lord Jarvis, is researching the plight of women prostitutes. (Clearly, Hero is not your typical high-society woman.) She witnesses the burning of a home for women trying to leave the profession, and when all of the prostitutes are murdered in the fire she presses St. Cyr to investigate.
As with most mysteries, the more these two investigate, the more bodies pile up. They discover that one of the women killed, Rachel, is actually a nobleman’s daughter, and then Hero and St. Cyr investigate her life so they can figure out why she was driven into prostitution and then murdered.
This was an easy, fun read and I really like the series. I like the characters, the action, the historical background, and the depiction of societal and class issues. But this book left me disappointed for a few reasons.
Rachel’s story is predictable. Without saying too much I can tell you this is a frequent plot used by Anne Perry and I could see it coming a mile away. There is only one reason a young woman of good birth leaves a loving family, friends, a life of luxury, and a respectable fiancé, tells no one where she is going and ends up in prostitution. But I won’t say what that reason is.
There’s an additional conspiracy which is the reason for the burning of the Magdalene House and a lot of other murders besides. This one felt a little too tacked on at the end. That’s true of some of the other Harris books as well. Not every crime in a mystery novel needs to be a gigantic conspiracy.
My biggest gripe is this – the previous books in the series were really strong on character development, from St. Cyr’s relationship with Kat Boleyn to his tortured relationship with father and sister to his struggle to deal with his mother’s death. But Serpents relies on a very forced, and again predictable, plot device that keeps St. Cyr from Kat and pushes him towards another woman, Hero. I just didn’t find the relationship with Hero very interesting, and I think I can easily see coming what is going to happen in the next book with Kat. This book was all about building a potential romantic triangle that just felt very trite. St. Cyr’s relationship with his father in this book is about the same – one-note. The mystery story was pretty good but I wished Harris had been a little more subtle.