Who Slays the Wicked by C.S. Harris the Latest in the Regency Detective Fiction Series
The first detective story is generally agreed to be Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. The first detective novel, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, followed in 1868 and was described by Dorothy Sayers as “probably the very finest detective story ever written.”
Sherlock Holmes featured in both novels and short stories from 1887 and by the early 20th century books by writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were making detective fiction one of the most popular literary forms. Today, the second most-borrowed adult fiction author in UK libraries is MC Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth mysteries.
Popular as detective mysteries are nowadays, it was a genre completely unknown in Regency times, not least because there were no actual detectives in that period. In fact, the word ‘detective’ is first recorded by the OED in 1843. Yet lately there seems to have been a plethora of “detective stories” set during the Regency. One of the latest is Who Slays the Wicked (Berkley 2019), the fourteenth in C.S. Harris’s series featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, a gifted amateur crime-solver.
St. Cyr finds himself investigating the brutal killing of young Lord Ashworth, the husband of St. Cyr’s niece, Stephanie. Ashworth was a sadistic brute and Stephanie was living apart from him. Can St. Cyr find the murderer before suspicion inevitably falls on the man’s wife?
Contemporary detective fiction is a boon to social historians because the clues are usually disguised in a wealth of minutiae about daily life. Historical detective fiction therefore allows the writer to include a lot of historical detail in a way that fits naturally into the genre and Harris, with her Ph.D. in European history, is well suited to take advantage of this.
Ideally, a detective story integrates facts about the period seamlessly into the plot. For example, Jean Stubbs’ Dear Laura relies on the flu epidemic of 1890 to drive some elements of the plot and the details of the number of dead and the fear that the epidemic generated fit naturally into the story. It fascinated me – I didn’t even know there had been an epidemic then. In Who Slays the Wicked, one of the suspects is travelling in the entourage of the Grand Duchess Catherine of Oldenburg, who is visiting London. The Grand Duchess’s visit is part of a (historically accurate) plot to destroy the marriage of the Prince Regent to leave him free to marry her, tying Britain to the Russian dynasty. As with the flu epidemic, this is something I had absolutely no idea of until reading Harris’s novel and it’s riveting stuff.
Harris follows a well-established path in writing her detective stories as a series. As already mentioned, Who Slays the Wicked is the fourteenth story to feature Sebastain St. Cyr. Series books tend to sell much better than standalone titles and, in an increasingly competitive market, there is a lot of pressure on authors to produce series. It’s not just a modern trend, though. Conan Doyle is an early example of an author who wrote a series of books and short stories with the same detective, even though he famously tired of Sherlock Holmes and did his best to kill him off. Detective fiction seems to favour returning characters, whether they are Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey or Inspector Morse.
Writing series allows a lot of creative opportunities. Characters can be allowed to develop and do not have to be introduced from scratch in every book. Running plotlines can add an additional layer of interest. But there is always the problem of bringing new readers up to speed. Many authors deal with this by having relatively socially isolated detectives so that there is little baggage for them to carry to a new case. Once you’ve met Watson and Lestrade you know pretty well all Holmes’s significant others. Poirot and Miss Marple have a fairly limited social circle and perhaps surprisingly limited interests outside their detecting. Even Lord Peter Wimsey, whose family life is more central to the character, is reasonably easy to pick up mid-series. Fourteen books, though, is a lot. Harris herself is the first to admit that this brings challenges.
“I do try hard to make each new book accessible to anyone who hasn’t been reading the series,” she says. “Because the series contains several important personal story arcs, it’s not easy, but as a reader I know how annoying it can be when an author doesn’t do that… There are a lot of challenges to writing a series, from coming up with new, interesting places to set scenes, new situations and character types, to finding new ways for people to die. And the longer a series goes on, the more characters and personal backstory it accumulates, so that it can feel as if the author is lugging a heavy ball and chain through each new book.”
By now, Sebastian St. Cyr has acquired a positive army of family members, political and royal links, assistants and servants. As Harris mentions, it can be difficult for a reader to keep track of them all. In a tradition that dates back at least as far as Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey with his Harriet Vane, the most important of them is St. Cyr’s wife, Hero. Hero is very much an active participant in St. Cyr’s adventures, though she has a relatively limited role in this one. Hero’s character might strike a jarring note, given the reality of life for early 19th-century women, but Harris has taken care make her behaviour credible.
“The key to getting it right is to be aware of and respect class differences, and to make certain the people around a better-born heroine are shocked by what she does when she breaks the rules or steps outsides the bounds of what is acceptable,” Harris explains. “And [Hero] has to pay the consequences. If she’s an upper class or bourgeois woman and everyone around her is just indulgently smiling and saying, Oh, she’s so cute and spunky, then there’s a problem. … Hero is protected by who her father is—a distant cousin of the King and the power behind the Prince’s fragile regency – so she is less likely to suffer social ostracism than someone less well connected. But even she is careful about what she does.”
Who Slays the Wicked follows a long line of detective fiction with all the recurring themes of the genre and also serves as an example of Regency fiction with all the tropes we associate with novels set in that period. This approach can bring out the best in both genres and it looks as if the Regency era detective story is here to stay.
About the contributor: Tom Williams writes spy fiction set in the same era with James Burke buckling a mean swash from Argentina (Burke in the Land of Silver) to Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo) via Egypt (Burke and the Bedouin). Burke in the Peninsula should appear later this year. He shares C.S. Harris’s concern with historical accuracy and making each book in a series accessible as a standalone read.