Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris!

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Watching TV With My Westies

We have two feisty and super-smart West Highland White Terriers who seem to love TV–each in different ways.  Television is as important to me as reading and because I write mysteries, I watch a lot of movies and crime series, domestic and foreign.  I’m always curious to see how other writers develop character, work twists into their plots, and create believable dialogue.

And I’ve been surprised that the dogs enjoy it, too, though obviously they have different interests.  Our six-year old, Rudi, is fascinated by a wide range of things, and after dinner, he sits in the kitchen waiting for us to say, “It’s time for TV.”  While we’re cleaning up, he trots into the living room and plants himself on a chair or ottoman opposite the 65-inch screen, waiting.

Rudi is happy watching nature specials and enjoys simple scenes like the wind sweeping across a planted field, rippling the wheat or corn.  He also sat there riveted by most of Babe.  At the end of that movie, he turned to us and moved his lips like the animals he’d been observing, and he does that every now and then when he’s excited about something.

He’s been no fan of the dragons in Game of Thrones or zombies in The Walking Dead.  He races to the set to bark at horses tearing across the screen as they do somewhat too often in Poldark, but he seems especially fascinated by extreme closeups of people expressing intense emotion.  At those moments, I watch his ears twitch and his head move from one speaker to another.  Sometimes his eyes go wide if characters are yelling or crying.  Both Westies are fascinated by fast-paced chases and fight scenes like the ones in the Jason Bourne movies.

Rudi’s half-brother Ravi, who’s just over two years old, is a typical little brother and often seems drawn to whatever Rudi is watching or barking at.  But emotion triggers something extra special in the little guy. We were all watching Daredevil last week and I reacted intensely to a car crash that left the driver trapped upside down near her dead passenger because I have some lingering PTSD from a car accident of my own.  I gasped during that scene in the show and Ravi raced onto the couch and started licking my face as if to reassure me.  It’s happened before, and sometimes he responds even when I’m silent but experiencing surprise or momentary distress at what’s on the screen.  He’s clearly been observing my face.

So TV nights at our home are layered: my spouse and I are watching the screen, but we’re also watching the Westies, who watch each other, the screen and us, too.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of the health club mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in many genres.