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Posts Tagged ‘19th-century England’

WHEN FALCONS FALL by C. S. Harris: Book Review

It’s 1813 in England.  In the seemingly quiet countryside of Ayleswick-on-Teme, Shropshire, villagers are talking about the death of a young woman who had arrived there only a week earlier.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has traveled to the village for two reasons.  The first is to honor a request by a young friend, Jamie Knox.  Shortly before he died Jamie asked Sebastian to return a family heirloom to his grandmother, Heddie, and so the viscount goes to Ayleswick-on-Teme to do so.

Before Sebastian can visit the grandmother he’s approached by young Archie Rawlins, who has become the town’s justice of the peace upon the recent death of his father.  After viewing the body of the young woman, known to the townspeople as Emma Chance,  Archie asks Sebastian for help.  Archie isn’t certain that her death is the suicide it appears to be.  It was a criminal offense to kill one’s self in nineteenth-century England; the body of a suicide was buried at a crossroads, without church rites and with a stake through its heart.  And the justice of the peace, although having known the woman for only a few days, would like to avoid that ending for her.

Emma Chance had arrived in the village with only a female servant and the equipment that an artist would carry.  She was allegedly traveling through the countryside to sketch, although that was considered a strange and rather inappropriate thing for a young widow, as she presented herself, to do.  She didn’t appear to have any friends or family in the town but had been asking everyone she met about their family histories.

All of this resonates strongly with Sebastian, as this is the second reason for his visit to the village.  He too is on a quest.  Brought up to believe that he was the third son of Alistair St. Cyr, Earl of Hendon, two years earlier he had discovered that he was the son of his mother and one of her lovers.  His father had known this, but when Sebastian’s two older, legitimate, brothers died, the earl named his illegitimate son his heir.

When Sebastian met young Jamie Knox some time before this book opens, he was struck by their uncanny resemblance to each other; it was remarkable enough so that they might have been brothers.  Thus, upon Jamie’s death Sebastian eagerly seized the opportunity to pay his respects to Heddie Knox, to ask her questions and possibly find out more about his paternal family.

When Falcons Fall begins with one death but soon encompasses many more.  There’s a history in this town of young women meeting unusual ends, usually seen as suicides, that strikes Sebastian and his wife Hero as too frequent to be normal.  And then there are the strange deaths of the two most powerful men in Ayleswick-on-Teme, one having died when his manor home was engulfed in fire, the other in a riding accident.  And no one in the village seems to be particularly upset about either death.

Although When Falcons Fall is the eleventh book in the series, there is enough background given to make the plot easily understandable.  All the characters are vibrant and realistic, and the double searches of Emma Chance and Sebastian St. Cyr make for a gripping plot.

You can read more about C. S. Harris at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.



DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLY by P.D. James: Book Review

It is not often that I read a mystery with a sense of joy.  Interest, enthusiasm, excitement–all those things are to be expected.  But when I finished reading Death Comes to Pemberly, I was filled with the joy that comes from reading a totally enchanting book. 

The novel opens six years after Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. They reside at Darcy’s family estate, Pemberly, with their two young sons, surrounded by servants whose parents and grandparents were part of the Darcy family’s retinue.  They live close to Elizabeth’s older sister and best friend, Jane, and her husband, Mr. Bingley, Darcy’s closest friend.

The Darcys are preparing for the annual Lady Anne Ball when, amidst the pouring rain and howling wind, a chaise is heard outside the front door.  When the group of Darcys, Bingleys, and others go to see who could be arriving in this storm, they are surprised and bewildered to see Elizabeth’s and Jane’s younger sister, Lydia, nearly falling out of the chaise.  She cries, “Wickham’s dead.  Denny has shot him….”  But Lydia has it wrong.  It is Captain Dennis who is dead, and George Wickham will be accused of his murder.

Lydia’s elopement with Wickham several years earlier, scandalous in nature, has created a major rift between the sisters.  Lydia is reluctantly welcome at Pemberly, but her husband George Wickham is not.  Although he was a close childhood friend of Darcy’s, his lies and inappropriate behaviors have ended the friendship between the men, and neither Elizabeth nor Darcy has spoken to him in years.

Darcy and two guests hear from the chaise driver that Wickham and a friend, Captain Dennis, had been in the chaise with Lydia, in the process of dropping her off at Pemberly.  There apparently had been a quarrel between the men and Dennis had run out into the woods, closely followed by Wickham, and two or three shots were subsequently heard.  Darcy and his two friends quickly leave the house and go into the estate’s woods, where they find Wickham, covered with blood, leaning over the body of his friend, saying, “He’s dead…and I’ve killed him.”

P. D. James’ prose perfectly captures the writing of Jane Austen. So skillful is her style that I believe it would fool the most dedicated Austen scholar.  She has captured perfectly the various personalities that appear in Pride and Prejudice–the kind and compassionate Jane, the more volatile Elizabeth, the foolish and vulgar Lydia, the self-contained Darcy, and various other characters, major and minor, who were in Austen’s novel.  Even Darcy’s disagreeable maternal aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is perfectly captured in her letter to Elizabeth:  “I have never approved of protracted dying.  It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work….People should make up their minds whether to live or to die and do one or the other with the least inconvenience to others.”

The Baroness James of Holland Park will be 92 this August, and her writing is as clever and skillful as it was when I read her book An Unsuitable Job for a Woman more than thirty years ago. How fortunate we are that she continues to write and bring delight to her readers.

You can read more about P.D. James at this web site.