When Maidens Mourn, C.S. Harris
I really enjoy C.S. Harris' series of Regency mysteries, centered around Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, of which this is the seventh. For me her books work both as mysteries and as historical fiction, which not all authors can pull off, particularly in writing about the Regency. Like Dorothy Dunnett, she has created a hero with unusual abilities, a military and intelligence background, and a tangled family history that he is trying to unravel. And Devlin has married into an equally complicated family situation. He has clashed repeatedly with his father-in-law, the ruthless Lord Jarvis, the Prince Regent's cousin and the power behind his slightly wobbly throne, and Jarvis has tried more than once to eliminate him.
This book opens just four days after Devlin's sudden marriage to Hero Jarvis. Their relationship is, yes, a complex one. Hero is an intelligent young woman, interested in history and the new science of archeology, as well as social causes and women's issues. She has worked with Sebastian on some of his previous cases, over her father's objections. Like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, they will find their first days of married life overshadowed with murder, but in the course of the case they too will find a balance and a partnership.
The victim is Hero's friend Gabrielle Tennyson. Sharing Hero's interest in history and archaeology, she had been consulting on the excavation of a site called Camlet Moat on an estate, Trent Place, north of London. The estate's owner, Sir Stanley Winthrop, believes that Camlet, a corruption of Camelot, may be the ruins of the real King Arthur's court. Then Gabrielle's body is discovered floating in a boat; she has been stabbed. And the two young cousins, George and Alfred, who were staying with her, have disappeared. (I didn't immediately connect "Alfred" and "Tennyson," but once it clicked I resorted to Google to learn more about the family.) As Sebastian and Hero begin to investigate, they discover more than one motive for murder: rumors of buried treasure on the site, academic disputes about its authenticity, and family secrets. There are even shadowy figures using the Arthurian legend to challenge the House of Hanover and its sybaritic Prince Regent, which draws in Lord Jarvis.
The mystery of Gabrielle's death is an interesting one. The investigation plays out against the deepening relationship between Sebastian and Hero, and it also reveals yet another twist in his family's history. Only the case comes to a neat conclusion (and one firmly grounded in history). While they seem to have found a tenative balance in their marriage, what they have learned about Sebastian's family could destroy their lives. I will be very interested to see what the next book brings.
My only historical quibble is that the Tennysons' cook makes oatmeal raisin cookies for the young boys. I know oatcakes have been around for centuries, as have all kinds of sweet biscuits, but it seems a little early for these. I found a reference to a recipe from 1896, though C.S. Harris, like Georgette Heyer a careful researcher, may have come across something earlier in her sources.