Review by Alex Beecroft
This is not a novel at all, but a collection of three long short stories. (Or perhaps a short story and two novellas). The three are ‘The Hellfire Club’, ‘The Succubus’, and ‘The Haunted Soldier’. The Hellfire Club is set before ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ and sees John investigating the murder of a young relative of Harry Quarry’s. This leads him to the infamous Hellfire Club, a botched initiation ritual, a rescue by Harry and a final scene in which the villain explains all.
The Succubus is set after ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’, but before ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’. Lord John is in Prussia, acting as liaison between the English and German forces, when two soldiers are murdered in circumstances which make it seem that there is a supernatural female demon abroad, sexually preying on men. Naturally this makes the armed forces rather nervous. Evading the marital clutches of a local princess, John investigates and eventually all is revealed in the final scene when the villainess explains all.
The Haunted Soldier is set after ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’. John, haunted by the explosion of the cannon he was working in ‘Brotherhood’, finds himself in front of a court martial who seem to think the explosion was no accident. Is John’s half-brother, dim Edgar, really a saboteur, producing unstable gunpowder for government use? Is something dodgy going on at the cannon foundry? Can John discover the whereabouts of the young woman who eloped with the lieutenant who was killed in the explosion before she is utterly ruined? If not, can he at least restore her child to its grandparents? Fortunately, despite the complexity of the plot, everything is revealed in the final scene where the villain explains it all.
As you can see from the short summaries, Lord John is still consistently solving his cases by conveniently having the villain reveal all at the end. However, it’s to Gabaldon’s credit that this device doesn’t get so tedious that it undoes the enjoyment of the stories. And there are many things to enjoy in each story. For a start, I appreciated the way the stories fitted into the time-scheme of the books, filling out the characterization of each. It was particularly nice in the last to have John restored to health, since ‘Brotherhood’ left him so battered.
Given the notoriety and fascination of the real-life Hellfire Club, I found the first story a little short. By Lord John standards it was very skimpy on details and rather simplistic. Which is not to say that it wasn’t good to read. Gabaldon is very good at drawing beautiful young men (and then killing them off) and the victim of this story is no exception.
The Succubus, I found an amusing romp through some dark superstition, and the love triangle between John, Stefan and the princess provided some wonderful irony. I felt a little cheated at the ending but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.
The Haunted Soldier was most like a short Lord John novel; complicated, beautifully detailed, full of interesting people and everything you wanted to know about gunpowder manufacture in the 18th Century. It was also very satisfying to watch John recover from his shell-shocked depression at the end of ‘Brotherhood’ back to his normal self.
The poor man is still fancying just about everything male that breathes, and having a complete lack of success at getting into anyone’s breeches. And I admit that his complete celibacy throughout was a little tedious. Surely it’s about time he had a love interest who didn’t despise or betray him? His continual lack of romantic success is getting me down.
Apparently the next book in the series is called ‘Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner’, so I hope fervently that that will be the book in which John finally puts the whole Jamie Fraser thing behind him. He has outgrown his status of being a minor offshoot character of the Outlander series, in my opinion. Until that happens, Fraser continues to cast a certain blight over the stories. His presence, and the obligingness of John’s villains, are the reason why I’ve marked this as a 4½ rather than a 5.
But still, there’s no way I won’t be reading the next one.