I had actually started reading an older sci-fi novel recommended on various Pajiba/Cannonball FB threads, but I spent the weekend in Toulouse, France, and while surrounded by the beautiful medieval architecture of the churches and museums, space exploration and colonization didn’t feel appropriate. Not that a mystery novel set in 19th century England is a perfect fit, either, but it’s a bit closer to matching the atmosphere, especially since I wouldn’t even know where to start for novels set in France. Fortuitously, even though this novel was set in England, it had a very strong tie in to France.
Being set in London during Napoleon’s reign, all the novels in this series have had some French references and occasional French agents. However, in this novel, the murder victim was a French doctor, who had accompanied a French delegation to London for secret peace talks following Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. Since Gibson stumbled on the victim and a woman injured in the attack during his evening walk, he asks Sebastian to investigate. Higher authorities would prefer to wrap this one up quickly and blame it on footpads since it could draw attention to the peace delegation. Of course, that answer might be more convincing if Damion’s heart had not been removed.
As Sebastian investigates, he ends up speaking with the surviving members of the French royal family, all in exile near London. The remaining nobles hope to be restored to the throne but their approaches to government are very different. The eldest surviving brother of the dead king realizes that the pre-Revolutionary excesses of the French monarchy would need reform and accepts that any restored monarchy would require concessions, while his younger brother and his niece (daughter of Marie Antoinette) are absolute monarchist and think a harsher hand is needed. Given her time in prison with her parents, Marie Therese’s anger is understandable even if her approach and desire to return to traditional ways with no reform shows a lack of understanding of reality. The further Sebastian proceeds with the investigation, the more questions he has about the motivations, since he finds potential ties to the Revolution and Reign of Terror. Does this murder have motivations ranging back more than 18 years, is it a method to thwart the peace talks, or did the doctor have personal enemies out to get him?
I enjoyed learning more about the different phases of the French Revolution. I knew the broad strokes but didn’t realize just how long the King and Queen were imprisoned prior to their execution. Additionally, I learned some interesting things about the burial habits of French monarchs. I visited Paris years ago but never made it to St. Denis, which I rather regret now (I think it is also the church mentioned in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth when Jack was in France learning more about building cathedrals).
Harris has mentioned repeatedly in her novels that Gibson is a brilliant surgeon, a veteran who lost part of his leg in the war, and an opium addict. However, despite repeatedly mentioning his addiction, at no point has it impeded his actions in the previous novels. It is in this novel that Harris starts making Gibson face his addiction and its potential consequences with the introduction of Alexandrie Sauvage, a French woman with an Italian medical degree. After his addiction being a character trait for the last few novels, it was time to address the elephant in the room. However, the extra Gibson time unfortunately means that there is very little of Sir Henry Lovejoy in this novel, and Tom also has been a very minor side character lately who basically just shows up to take care of the horses, and make a few comments that portray the foreign prejudices of the time. Hopefully, this means there is a novel coming up soon that will a bit more Lovejoy or Tom-centric.