In Lord John and the Hellfire Club, a young man is killed in a premeditated attack made to look like just another knifing in the streets of 1750s London. Asked to investigate by a friend who happens to be a relative of the dead man, Major Lord John Grey uncovers a link to Francis Dashwood and his notorious gatherings at Medmenham Abbey. But in a circle devoted to every type of debauchery, what could someone so desperately need to keep secret? Lord John and the Succubus see life in the Seven Years’ War take a ghostly turn. A couple of mysterious deaths fan rumours of a succubus loose among the English and Prussian camps and soon the men are afraid to sleep - hence in no fit state to take on the French should the French decide to attack. Charged with the task of getting to the bottom of the matter, Lord John is convinced there is an earthly explanation - possibly one connected to the attempted kidnapping of the Princess Louise’s son. Meanwhile the locals are convinced the culprit is the burgermeister’s recently-deceased mother, and a young soldier guarding a bridge is plagued by the sound of crying in the night though there is nothing and no one that could be responsible. There’s also the question of whether Prussian officer Stephan von Namtzen has quite the same interest in Lord John as John has in him. In Lord John and the Haunted Soldier, an accusation of negligence in the matter of an exploded cannon leads Lord John to suspect sabotage - and of more cannon than one. The likeliest target of sabotage is the cartridges, which are filled with gunpowder manufactured by a consortium that includes John’s half-brother. The question is not only who, but why. Would anyone really produce canisters of too-fine gunpowder in the hope of killing one artilleryman? And what happened to the woman with whom the victim had eloped?
Before reading these stories, it would doubtless help to have read the two Lord John novels and the first two or three of the Outlander series. But since the short stories all fit in between the longer ones at various points in the fictional chronology, it can still be a little confusing trying to keep track of what comes before and after what. And I only read the two Lord John novels last year!
The first mystery is the only one really short enough to be called a short story (as opposed to novella), and given that this is Diana Gabaldon it feels rather stunted in its brevity. The solution had an air of falling into John’s lap but it at least left no loose ends and the villain met a most satisfactory end. Succubus was my favourite of the three, with an edge of eeriness and a spooky twist. The burgermeister and his method for defeating the demon, Lord John’s difficulties resolving multilingual disputes, and the awkward condition in which one of the bodies was found (hint: he was with a prostitute when he died) lend laughs to a life-and-death situation. And I was pleased to see the reappearance of Tom Byrd, the opinionated valet who I’m sure would enjoy detective work much more if he could find a way to keep his employer well-rested, well-fed, (relatively) sober and immaculate in the process. I just wish I could remember the details of the section of another book of which the spooky twist reminds me.
I’m still not entirely sure who the haunted soldier is, given that Lord John himself is the only character of any significance to lay eyes on a ghost. Unless the word is being used metaphorically; then I know just which obsessive is referred to. The villain in this one was really creepy (though nowhere near the Jack Randall league) and, without giving too much away, I felt a certain character was better off dead than near him. Also without spoilers, I wanted to know a bit more about what became of several others. One thing I did enjoy was seeing John’s cordially loathed sister-in-law turn out to be far more human than he had always imagined.
This book has given me the most delightful new word: absquatulate. An anachronism, as it turns out, but who cares? It’s fabulous!