The Circle of Sappho

Written by David Lassman Terence James
Review by Lucille Cormier

The Circle of Sappho is Lassman’s and James’s second Regency mystery featuring detective Jack Swann. Their first, The Regency Detective, introduced Swann as the protégé of an upper-class family that adopted him after his father was killed defending them. He has tracked the killer to Bath, where both stories are set.

Swann’s personal pursuit is interrupted when Lady Harriet, his benefactor’s sister, asks him to investigate a seemingly clear-cut case of murder-suicide. He feels he cannot refuse and thus heads out to the exclusive girls’ school where a popular French teacher, Miss Leigh, and her favorite pupil, Grace, were found dead on an uninhabited island just a short boat ride from the school. Did Miss Leigh stab Grace and in a struggle, did Grace fatally strike Miss Leigh in the head with a rock? Everyone thinks so. Grace was scheduled to leave the school, and Miss Leigh perhaps could not bear their parting. However, there is another story playing out at the same time, one more complicated and more dangerous than this dramatic tragedy—which is what makes The Circle of Sappho so much more interesting.

Both stories are good mysteries. Each is well-paced with a surprising and interesting ending. There is a fine sense of place with lots of detail and description. One thing troubled me, however: the lack of response to Miss Leigh’s sexual relationship with Grace. There is pedophilic grooming and a graphic seduction scene, in case anyone had doubts. But no one expresses dismay or even surprise when it is discovered. I cannot think that this was acceptable even in the 19th century. Putting this aside, however, I can recommend The Circle of Sappho as a very good winter’s read.