Book Review: The Devil’s Breath
by Tessa Harris
Kensington Books, 2014
Tessa Harris’ new Thomas Silkstone mystery, after The Dead Shall Not Rest and the excellent The Anatomist’s Apprentice, sporting a wonderfully evocative cover by Jim Griffin (whose work on romance covers is quite eye-catchingly good), turns on a very contemporary-feeling environmental catastrophe: a dark, poisonous fog that’s roiling across the Lincolnshire countryside of 1783, first catching the brief notice of a young woman helping the barley-harvesters:
She was gathering up the baskets when she happened to glance beyond the wold toward the salt marshes. A great flat expanse of open country lay before her, stretching as far as the coast, and the sight of it barely registered at first. She had even continued to busy herself with the task in hand before she realized what she had seen. She looked up again a few seconds later and there it was – a thin bank of gray mist lying low across the horizon.
… and then by one of the crew’s foremen, who quickly senses the deadly nature of the coming disturbance, so finely described by Harris:
First a look of puzzlement, then of shock, then of fear scudded across Bullimore’s face. The fret was gone, true, what was that looming over the horizon? Not mist, but a bank of billowing cloud, its great curves and sweeps and pillows of vapor easily visible, like the full sails of a galleon. It was heading straight toward them. Spread out across the entire sky-line, it seemed to be traveling at speed, like an enormous wave blown by a gathering wind. It was rising high, above the skylark’s domain, and would soon block out the sun … Gasping and spluttering, he staggered back toward the reapers. By now they, too, had seen the ominous cloud looming up over the fields and smelled the stifling vapors. The rain, mingled with the gray snow, was falling heavily, drenching the stubble and making it harder to see.
“Run!” one cried. “Run!”
Chaos in the countryside involves young Dr. Thomas Silkstone, native of Pennsylvania, because he himself has business in the country, at Boughton Hall, the country seat of his great love and intended wife Lady Lydia Farrell, whose lost son Silkstone has vowed to find. When Silkstone arrives at Boughton Hall and Lady Lydia gently taunts him about his future role as master of the house, he retorts: “I am a surgeon, Lydia. The blood in my veins runs red, not blue like your English aristocracy” (“As soon as he said these words, however, he regretted them,” we’re told, and having winced at the original line, we might well believe it).
Silkstone isn’t in the country long before he’s encountering not only a local mystery but that great noxious fog, which sets many factors into alignment in his conundrum-solving mind:
Suddenly all the strange phenomena he had encountered over the past three or four days began to make sense. The rise in barometric pressure could explain the arrival of this noxious cloud, the unseasonal flight of the geese, the swarming of rats, the absence of bees, the low-flying birds. Nature knew instinctively that something extraordinary and potentially deadly was in her midst – and it was heading south.
The Devil’s Breath is every bit as, you’ll pardon the term, atmospheric as the previous two books, and thanks to the block of exposition Harris presents early and painlessly, it’s easily possible to begin the series with this volume (Harris also provides a glossary at the back of the book, although it’s a testament to her writing ability that the glossary isn’t at all necessary while you’re reading). More frustratingly, the same weaknesses of the previous two books are present here in undimmed form – mainly that Thomas Silkstone is more of a cipher than a sleuth. When something shocking happens, he’s shocked; when something angering happens, he’s angered, but we never know why he does anything that he does – even his love feels rotely empty. It’s lucky for him that Harris is so adept at creating the world that surrounds him, because he couldn’t fill a soup-can on his own.
Thankfully, he’s one character among many here, and Harris excels at bringing all her other characters to life, including the minor characters (real and imagined) who fill the book. This is a series with lots of life in it – and The Devil’s Breath is as good a jumping-on point as any.