Once Sebastian St. Cyr starts investigating a new case, he discovers street children have been disappearing for years but no one has noticed because they are at the edges of society, and its most vulnerable members. The fact that a novel about the early 19th century and its treatment of the poor, and most especially poor children, still feels relevant today is rather condemning. Of course, to paraphrase a scholarly article I barely remember, historical fiction and sci-fi are both genres that tend to say more about the time during which they were written than the time during which they take place since the authors focus on things that are relevant or feared in their present day.
No one would have even noticed the disappearances of the children if a homeless veteran had not investigated odd noises, leading to the discovery of a boy digging a grave with a gentleman waiting at a cart. However, the former soldiers disrupts the activities, and while both suspects escape, it is too late to hide the tortured body of a fifteen year homeless boy. While the inquest quickly declares the case a one off and has no desire to pursue it, one official is offended by the unfairness and arranges for an autopsy by Paul Gibson, who involves Sebastian in the case.
When Sebastian starts asking around, he interviews a local pawnshop owner and a kindly clergyman who connects him to some of the other children. The children have noticed other friends and family members disappearing over the past few months, though it can be hard to tell when someone is truly missing vs. attempting their hand in new territory. Still, a few children seem to have simply vanished without anyone noticing beyond other, similarly vulnerable children.
Sebastian’s investigations take him to some of the seedier establishments of London, including a brothel that caters towards a clientele that like to play with young children. The owner shares the names of some of the gentlemen that have taken things too far and been banned, which helps Sebastian progress. He also finds a potential link between admirers of a lost work of the Marquis de Sade and the wounds that have been inflicted on the dead boy. One of the names that keeps coming up throughout the investigation is his niece’s recent fiancé. Sebastian was already against the match due to the unsavory character of the man even before his name was connected to a case involving the torture, rape and murder of children.
This one gets rather dark. While Hero’s interviews have added interesting historical information in the last few novels, her topics in this novel and the previous have been particularly illuminating and condemning of the rich and society as a whole. One wonders how many serial murders have gone undiscovered because they chose victims no one cared about or would have even noticed were gone, especially in previous centuries. Early 19th century London as portrayed would have been the perfect hunting ground for a discreet serial killer between the economic situation, the continuing war and its effects, and the lack of support systems. I can’t even imagine what the situation looked like on the continent, where the wars actually raged at the time.