Book Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C. S. Harris
By Angie BarryApril 7, 2020
Who Speaks for the Damned by C. S. Harris is the 15th Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, where the viscount investigates the mysterious life and death of a nobleman convicted of murder.
While London is in the midst of a gala for the Allied Sovereigns’ celebration commemorating the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is pulled into another curious murder. The victim, Nicholas Hayes, was the son of an earl, but that’s not the most shocking part of his demise. Hayes, who was convicted of murder nearly 20 years earlier and transported to Botany Bay, reportedly died 15 years ago.
How did he escape his brutal imprisonment in Australia? Where has he been for 15 years? Why on earth would he come back to London, knowing he’d be summarily executed if discovered? What is his relationship to the young Chinese child he was traveling with, the one who drew Sebastian into the case and has now disappeared into the city?
And which one of his many enemies planted the sickle in his back?
Nicholas Hayes—if this was indeed Hayes—couldn’t have been more than thirty-eight or thirty-nine, not too many years older than Sebastian himself. But life had been hard on this earl’s son. His once dark hair was thickly laced with gray, his complexion weathered by years of hard labor beneath the blazing hot sun of New South Wales. Born with all the advantages of wealth and lineage, he should have lived a comfortable, dignified, even productive life. Instead he’d endured nearly two decades of unimaginable horrors that ended in … this. Sebastian felt the tragedy of the man’s wasted life and senseless death press down on him like a heavy weight of sadness mingled, he knew, with an unsettling realization of just how easily this man’s miserable life could have been his.
Piecing together the facts, Sebastian becomes convinced that the key to everything lies in the past, beginning with why Hayes’s father disowned him and how he came to be convicted of the murder of a French dignitary’s gorgeous young wife. The deeper Sebastian’s investigation digs, the more obvious it becomes that Hayes was innocent of every accusation, that there was a far-reaching conspiracy that sent him overseas and profited monstrous, heartless men.
Meanwhile, Sebastian’s wife, Hero, searches desperately for the missing child while interviewing the poor street musicians of London. And the child, Ji, struggles to survive with only his wits and what Hayes has taught him.
Even after a dozen novels starring Sebastian St. Cyr, C. S. Harris has yet to disappoint. Damned is a taught, well-crafted mystery that practically screams with anguish; Hayes’s life is a labyrinth of tragedy that leads to the puzzling enigma of his murder. Each time you think the poor man’s suffering has reached its zenith, Sebastian uncovers yet another heartbreaking detail.
With every revelation, we become more outraged on Hayes’s behalf, just as furious with the past events and current status quo as Sebastian. So often in murder mysteries the victim is more prop or set dressing than full-bodied character, but not so here. Harris makes us truly feel for Nicholas Hayes, which gives Sebastian’s investigation the powerful, compelling air of a righteous crusade for justice.
“Who speaks for the damned?” asks the novel’s title, and the clear answer is Devlin, another once-disgraced son of an earl who fully sympathizes with this victim and refuses to let the evils committed against him go unpunished. If no one else will give voice to Hayes’s story, he will.
“I’ve heard you frequently interest yourself in such matters, although I fail to understand why — particularly in the case of this murder. What could Hayes possibly mean to you? You didn’t know him, did you?”
Sebastian found himself hesitating. What could he say? That no, he hadn’t known Hayes, but somehow that didn’t stop him from feeling personally invested in the man’s death in a way that had nothing to do with ties of friendship or kinship? That he’d looked at the dead man lying on Gibson’s slab and felt a jolt of powerful emotion that went beyond empathy, far beyond it to something he couldn’t identify but suspected was at least partially colored by a cold breath of fear? For Sebastian was an Earl’s son who’d once been accused of murder. He understood all too well how easily a man’s life could be shattered, He himself had once come uncomfortably close to being forced to endure the horror, pain, and humiliation that Hayes had suffered. Those shackle and flogging scars could easily have been his.
Except of course he could say none of those things.
“No,” said Sebastian as a footman reached to open the Count’s door. “I didn’t know him.”
It was the truth. And yet the denial had the flavor of a lie and left a bad taste in his mouth.
With short, fast-paced chapters, Harris whisks us into a shadowy maze packed with surprises. There are blitz attacks, shocking connections between the various nefarious players, and a repugnant crew of nasties both high-born and low. Familiar faces from past exploits pop up to help or hinder. Emotions run high with dramatic consequences.
And though there’s enough sorrow here to make Job weep, there’s also an extremely rewarding resolution that proves more sweet than bitter (thank God). Even the damned can be absolved, and evil men who thought themselves untouchable can be brought low by the right avenger.
So long as Harris continues to write about Sebastian St. Cyr, I’ll be right there to follow him into battle. If you already love this peculiar viscount, Damned will delight. And if you’ve never met him before? Here is as good a place to start as any; this supremely capable Napoleonic Era hero stands out from the historical sleuth crowd and never lets us, or the victims, down.