Book Review: What the Devil Knows by C. S. Harris
By Janet WebbMay 5, 2021
Life is coming up roses for Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin… or does that cliché exaggerate? It does ignore his inability to resist stirring up hornets’ nests. Even if he did exhibit restraint, determined gadfly journalist Hero would undoubtedly shove him aside and do the poking herself. Emerging intact from a chaotic past, Sebastian is in a good place: his allies have his back when he rights wrongs and untangles dangerous puzzles. He and Hero adore their precocious toddler Simon, who has his parents’ height and the “winsome smile” of Hero’s father.
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
Sebastian’s “hostages to fortune” are his family. The two men who impede his great enterprises are his father and his father-in-law. They frequently demand Sebastian cease his inquiries when he gets too close to their less salubrious activities. The Earl of Hendon’s currency is access and power, not surprising for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. FYI: Sebastian is not the earl’s biological son, a reality that impacts their relationship although it is not as strained as it once was. Hero’s father, Lord Jarvis, cousin of the King, is an outright villain who consorts with amoral men whose consciences are as paltry as their bank accounts are vast.
Molly Maguire, a young prostitute who plies her trade on the London docks, trips over a dead body late one evening. She recognizes him because he took her cruelly that same night and then stiffed her of her pay. Sir Henry Lovejoy, a Bow Street magistrate, asks Sebastian to come and gaze on the “bloody ruin of a man.” Vandals have been busy stripping the corpse of his belongings.
“And his hat, buttons, purse, and watch,” said Lovejoy. “I can easily imagine footpads bashing in his head. But why would they bother slitting his throat, as well?”
“It does seem rather excessive.”
What’s more, Lovejoy tells the Viscount that ten days earlier, a seaman was viciously killed leaving him nearly decapitated in the same neighborhood. Sebastian voices Lovejoy’s unspoken concern.
“They’re saying it’s like the Ratcliffe murders.”
Lovejoy pressed his lips together and nodded.
Less than three years before, in December 1811, the East End of London had been terrorized by two horrific sets of murders. First, on 7 December, four members of a family—a twenty-four-year-old linen draper, his young wife, their three-months-old baby, and a fourteen-year-old apprentice—were found with their heads bashed in and their throats slashed. No explanation for the carnage was ever found.
Less than two weeks later, another family was butchered. A suspect was arrested but he never came to trial because he “was found hanging in his cell in Coldbath Fields Prison.” Were the authorities too quick to pin the murders on a conveniently dead man? No matter because the killings stopped and eventually people moved on.
“Do you think it’s possible?” said Sebastian, his gaze on the stiffening dead man before them. “That this could be the work of the same killer, I mean.”
The dead man is Sir Edwin Pym, a magistrate and the lead investigator of the murders three years earlier. He has a bad reputation and was known to troll the streets for harlots frequently. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is all in. If it is the same killer today as then, that presupposes an innocent man was killed for murders he did not commit. More killings ensue and “London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.”
The theme of What the Devil Knows is control. Control of the pubs frequented by sailors and the beer they drink. Greedy men ensure, by suppressing all competition, that independent publicans are prevented from developing, selling, and distributing their own brews. One way to get wicked men to change course is through exposure, sunlight being the best disinfectant, as Hero Devlin knows.
Her series of articles for the Morning Chronicle had been enraging her father, Lord Jarvis, for nearly two years now. But while Jarvis terrified virtually everyone from royal dukes to field marshals, his wrath had little effect on his daughter, who was every bit as strong-willed and determined as he—and in some ways nearly as ruthless. Lately it had occurred to her that she was far more like her father than she cared to admit, but she had never decided if that was a good or a bad thing.
The men behind the killings break into Sebastian’s home with murderous intent. Sebastian is incandescent with rage. He crashes a gathering in his father-in-law’s drawing room and dares the brewer turned plutocrat—Sampson Buxton-Collins—to answer for his behavior. Lord Jarvis is not best pleased:
“What the devil are you doing here?”
“I’ve a message for one of your guests—Sampson Buxton-Collins, to be precise.”
“The devil you say.”
Sebastian brought his gaze back to his father-in-law’s full, angry face. “If you’d prefer, you can deliver the message yourself. Tell him he can kill everyone from John Williams to Robert Vermilloe, but it won’t make any difference. A man with his wealth and status might have nothing to fear from the public hangman, but this isn’t about what passes for justice in the Kingdom of Great Britain. This is about retribution, and whoever butchered Pym and Cockerwell is coming for him next.”
Jarvis let out a low hissing sound. “Are you mad? What the bloody hell are you accusing the man of now?”
Sebastian met his father-in-law’s blazing eyes. “Ask him. And while you’re at it, ask if he sent those men to break into my house last Thursday night. Then watch his face when he answers you.”
“Are you quite through?”
Sebastian cast another glance toward the big, bulky brewer. “For now.”
One would think that Lord Jarvis would know that nothing deters his daughter and son-in-law from pursuing the truth. The stakes are very high in What the Devil Knows which explains the heightened violence. Rich ruthless men are prepared to fight to the death to maintain power and control, but Sebastian and Hero are more than up to the challenge.