Saturday, January 13, 2007

What Angels Fear

[ Just an ordinary review; not for any particular challenge ]

Title: What Angels Fear

Author: C.S. Harris (pseudonym; her blog is here)

Copyright: 2005, published by New American Libraries, a division of Penguin Group (USA), New York (hardcover, ISBN: 0451216695). Amazon link

Genre: Mystery

Length: 340 Pages

Summary: Debut novel in a mystery series. Sebastian St. Cyr is Viscount Devlin, heir to the fifth Earl of Hendon, recently returned from the Napoleonic Wars. Falsely accused of murder and sought after by the authorities, St Cyr seeks to clear his name before he's captured and hung for two vicious crimes. While St. Cyr is intelligent and well-equipped both socially and physically to maneuver his way around the various layers of London in 1811, his situation draws others into his orbit -- Tom, a sharp, young pickpocket, and Kat, a beautiful actress from St. Cyr's past. St. Cyr's family is perhaps less supportive than they might be in his troubles with the law; the magistrate and the constables charged with bringing the Viscount to justice have no particular incentive to believe in his innocence. Those closest to the Prince (about to be named Regent) have political reasons reasons for wanting St. Cyr captured and certain truths kept quiet. Particularly strong plotting makes this mystery interesting and the author avoids, for the most part, hack machinations that would push the story into the realm of the predictably obvious.

Extract: The opening chapter is found at the author's website. Actually, that's misleading; that link takes you to the Prologue. The author's web site calls it the opening chapter.

Also Relevant: This was first brought to my attention by one of the participants at my library book group. She was so excited after finishing it, that I took her recommendation and included What Angels Fear in the list of historical mysteries that I was doing in 2007 with the township group. Then, when the group that meets at Didi's needed a recommendation for a mystery, I brought this one up as a possibility because it seemed likely to appeal to their interests.

It's a fairly fast read because of the narrative style she adopts in telling the story. We don't get much in the way of either descriptive passages or transitions. In fact, that's my biggest irritation with this novel. At the end of it, I couldn't have given you a physical description of the hero, with the possible exception of telling you his eye color. With regard to transitions between scenes (within the same chapter), we're reduced to the use of dingbats to indicate that we've moved from a scene of the Viscount purchasing a disguise in Half Moon Street to the next scene of him holding a French aristocrat hostage in a hackney cab. I know that the use of dingbats is not an uncommon device in modern story-telling and I know that there is a belief that modern readers prefer such rapid transitions because it moves the story along. I personally think it indicates a certain weakness in the story-telling. Novels are not television, and I think she has been influenced too much by screen-writing in creating the novel. For my money, I prefer the P.D. James approach of providing the reader with descriptive detail, fueling the reader's imagination in envisioning the whole scene.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the mystery. I did. I would certainly read another St. Cyr mystery by C.S. Harris (which is good because the second in the series is now out in hardcover, the third one is with the publisher in the production process, and she's finishing up the manuscript for the fourth). As I was reading this one, I twice predicted who I thought would turn out to have done it and both times I was wrong. I admit that I would like to see a greater depth of character development in the next few volumes. Harris has set up some interesting tensions between St Cyr and his family, St. Cyr and his former lover, and St. Cyr and the authorities. Those now need to be played out.

All in all, I think this series debut was above average. I'd like to see it soar to excellence.