Crime Writer C.S. Harris Gets the Regency Right

Critics lavished Bridgerton with praise for supposedly making the Regency relevant to a modern audience–as if that had never been done before.

But without gross anachronisms or improbable plot lines, C.S. Harris has been writing a dazzling world-class mystery series since 2005 that couldn’t be more relevant to our time.

The Regency she offers us has plenty in common with the American world we’ve recently been living in.  There’s a vast gulf between rich and poor; intolerance and hypocrisy among the powerful; a war that’s lasted for decades; grievous childhood poverty; a skewed judicial system; xenophobia; a sexist culture suppressing women’s opportunities; widespread and rampant violence. Oh yes, and a seriously disturbed head of state.  Sound familiar?

Her touchstone for all this reality and relevance is a nobleman, Viscount Sebastian St. Cyr.  He’s no superhero, but he’s a strong, determined man with a troubled past who invariably finds trouble when it doesn’t find him.  A  freelance crime solver, he has access to the high and mighty through family and marriage connections, and the rest of London through myriad contacts across its many different social classes.  There’s little he can’t discover, sooner or later.

His case in What the Devil Knows, based on a true crime, involves unbelievably brutal murders that defy understanding and shake even a man like him who’s seen the horrors of war.  A wanton killer who has even slaughtered infants and their mothers seems to be at loose again in London and St. Cyr can’t help but worry about his wife and young son as he scours the city for clues.

From lavish parlors filled with exquisite rosewood furniture and ballrooms crowded with London’s most powerful men to alleys filled with rotting fish heads, we follow the indefatigable sleuth interviewing English citizens high and low.  Harris excels at giving readers entree into a world beyond the rich and powerful, but one filled with myriad professions including bakers, maids, sailors, rag pickers, brewers, cooks, tavern keepers, seamen, night watchmen, landladies, vicars, valets, prostitutes, drivers, thieves.

On the home front, Harris writes about St. Cyr and his wife Hero with deep sympathy, but she’s never maudlin.  The details of their daily life and the lives of everyone around them ring with authenticity.  That warmth makes the extreme violence St. Cyr faces more terrible, violence that might for some readers conjure up recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators and the 1/6 assault on the Capitol.

She doesn’t indulge in foolishness like the hokey duel in Bridgerton that totally ignored the strict rules of that ritual.  Harris respects the past and has brought it to life in book after book with prose that’s smooth and seductive.  She’s one of the most evocative writers in crime fiction today.  She makes you smell the nasty, ever-present London fog; hear the creak of wheels over cobblestones or the whinny of horses sensing danger; treasure the tender warmth of candlelight; dread the footfall of a robber.

In What the Devil Knows, you won’t feel mired in the bonbon-eating Lifestyles of the Rich and Vapid, but you’ll relish a world where people do more than just live for the next scandal sheet.  Many of them are desperately trying to make a living, and since this is a crime novel, some are just trying to stay alive.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

 

 

Why Did I Ditch “The Undoing”?

Because it was boring and obvious. The murderer had to be Hugh Grant. But I kept up with the story since my spouse watched it religiously for the New York wealth porn (clothes!  interiors!).  So I got regular plot reports, and I also read media updates which tried to stir up a frenzy about a lukewarm project that had none of the electricity or coherence of Big Little Lies.

How did I know who the killer was? Well, one way was patterns. I’ve reviewed hundreds of mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and read many hundreds more on my own over the years. I’ve also written a crime series that’s earned kudos from major national newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In classic crime fiction, the killer is often the least likely person. In this case, there was a meta piece to the puzzle. When you cast an actor renowned for his supernatural charm, there has to be one major reason: it’s a red herring.  “Hugh Grant?  But he’s such a sweetheart?  He can’t be a crazy killer!”  Well, duh, of course he can.  He has to be.

As for the other suspects? There just weren’t enough of them, enough to be believable, that is. Nicole Kidman didn’t know about the affair so how could it be her? Neither did Donald Sutherland. The son? Puh-leeze. Sylvia? What compelling motive did she have? Grant was the super-obvious choice from episode one and each subsequent episode nailed that coffin shut. 

In addition to the regular plot updates from my spouse, nothing about the snippets I occasionally caught when I wandered into the living room tempted me back to watch the miniseries. Things just didn’t add up. Kidman was a counselor when she looked dressed and groomed for a holiday in Paris staying at The Ritz? Inconceivable. It would be too distracting to the clients, and my psychologist spouse agreed. Kidman took late night walks in New York alone? Were the writers on drugs? My spouse and I both grew up in Manhattan and her solo strolls were totally unreal.

TIME magazine put it quite well: The show was “littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say.”

But maybe it appealed to Americans in lockdown, the way Depression-era fans flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  Too bad the miniseries didn’t have their wit or pizazz.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has been moderator or panelist at dozens of panels at mystery conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  He’s published 26 books in a wide range of genres and hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews, and blogs.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

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