What the Devil Knows (2021) by C. S. Harris
In 1811 John Williams was arrested and ordered for pre-trial in what became known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. In the first event, Timothy Marr, his wife, infant son, and shop boy were brutally killed in their draper's shop. A few days later, Old John (John Williamson), his wife, and their female servant were killed in a similar manner in their public house. London was held in a grip of terror before Williams was placed in a jail cell. But before he was even officially bound over for trial, Williams was found hanged in his jail cell--and his suicide was taken as an admission of guilt. All London breathed a sigh of relief--the murders ceased and the terror was over. Or so it was thought...
Three years later, a seaman named Hugo Reeves and an East End magistrate by the name of Edwin Pym are found murdered in the same manner as those killed in the Ratcliffe Highway murders--their heads bashed in with a heavy instrument and their throats cut. Bowstreet magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy barely has time to bring Sebastian St. Cyr, Lord Devlin to the site of Pym's death before the rumors start swirling that maybe Williams was innocent...or had an accomplice who has decided to kill again. It's also possible (though less likely, at this late date) that a copycat killer has started up.
The more Devlin investigates the more convinced he becomes that Williams was innocent and set up to take the blame. But then who was really behind the killings and why are more people dying now? The trail is a long and bloody one...and more blood is destined to be spilled before Devlin is able to fully unravel the complicated story behind the murders.
Throughout the St. Cyr series, Harris has woven real life events into her stories. Sometimes the historical facts serve as simply a background setting for the mystery, but in this installment the primary mystery relies on the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 for its premise. My previous knowledge of the horrific killing of seven members of two households came from the true crime book The Maul & the Pear Tree by P. D. James and T. A. Critchley. Their examination of the materials still available about the crimes (the original depositions of evidence disappeared in 1812) makes it clear that the handling of the investigation was mismanaged at best and justice deliberately subverted at worst. Harris takes the doubts surrounding John Williams's guilt and builds a realistic fictional explanation while giving Devlin a series of murders to investigate in 1814.
This is--in my opinion--Harris's finest historical mystery yet in a completely absorbing series. The Ratcliffe murders make an excellent starting point and her explanation of the murders and the fictional murders of 1814 make for a gripping mystery. It never takes me long to read her books, but I seemed to fly through the pages of this one in my eagerness to see what happened next. The motive for the more recent murders isn't difficult to figure out, but I must admit that the "who" took me by surprise.
I was also very intrigued by some of the additions to Devlin's personal story. The events are small (in comparison to some of the big changes we have seen occur over the course of 16 novels), but very dramatic and compelling. I am all caught up on the series now--and am impatiently waiting for the next book to be ready for release. ★★★★★
First line: Molly Maguire hated the fog.
Last lines: Pippa was already turning away, but she paused with one hand on the hackney door to look back at him. "Patrick. His name is Patrick."
Deaths = 24 (ten head bashed & throat cut; one hanged; five stabbed; two strangled; one fell from height; two drowned; two shot; one hit with flotsam from the brewery flood) [Harris's books are always pretty death-ridden, but this one was a regular blood-bath. It includes all of the deaths related to the original Ratcliffe Highway murders which are detailed in the story.]