Drums of Autumn

The Fiery Cross

Lord John and the Private Matter
by Diana Gabaldon
(Delacorte, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-385-33747-7
† Take a quirky secondary character from a wildly popular series, give him a mystery to solve, and what happens? If youíre Diana Gabaldon, you probably have thousands of eager fans lining up to read what started as a short story and ended up as a brief (for her) novel. Pardon me if I donít share in the rejoicing. Although the storyline of Lord John and the Private Matter moved along quickly, I was left without much more insight into the titular lead character and wasnít terribly impressed with the resolution of the mystery plot. I guess itís back to the long-suffering wait for the next Jamie and Clare Fraser book; Lord John just doesnít have the same dramatic impact as the time-traveling couple. †

Lord John and the Private Matter takes place in 1757, which would place it at approximately the same time as the events in Voyager. Lord John Grey is vexed to discover first-hand that a fellow member of Londonís Beefsteak Club appears to have syphilis. His agitation is due to the fact that the man in question, Joseph Trevelyan, is engaged to Greyís cousin Olivia. Grey seeks discreet advice from Colonel Harry Quarry, who warns him of more urgent concerns. Sergeant OíConnell, a member of their regiment and a suspected traitor, has just been found murdered before Quarry could determine the identity of his spymaster. In fact, a young man who was assigned to follow OíConnell has also disappeared. Quarry asks for Greyís help, as the information OíConnell may have stolen could prove devastating to Englandís attempts to defeat France in the current war. †

Grey manages to juggle the two investigations as he explores Londonís seamier side. In a society where reputation is everything, Lord John is painfully aware that the price to keep shameful secrets is astonishingly high. In order to avoid the scandal of his homosexuality becoming public knowledge, Grey once accepted an unappealing posting at Ardsmuir prison in Scotland, where he met the unforgettable Jamie Fraser. But Grey learns that there are some practices in Londonís secret societies that are even more bizarre than his sexual preference. †

Fans of Jamie and Clare who are hoping to catch a glimpse of the super-couple will be disappointed Ė this is definitely Lord John Greyís book, although he does make a few wistful references to Jamie, the object of his unrequited affection. Grey is a decent man who does his duty admirably to family and country, even with the knowledge that both would turn their backs on him if his homosexuality were revealed. I like Lord John Ė throughout the Outlander series he has always come across as sympathetic, complex and slightly tormented Ė but this story doesnít shed much new light on his core character. Heís always been a bit of an enigma, and he remains elusive. His experiences clearly show how difficult and virtually life-threatening it would be to live an alternate lifestyle in Georgian England. Makes me appreciate how far we have come in the 21st century, although we havenít reached total acceptance yet. †

Considering the fact that Gabaldon is new to this genre, the mystery unfolds with respectable competence. Although Iím no mystery expert, I like to believe that I could have added up the clues and arrived at a similar conclusion without having to make any huge leaps of logic, and this book satisfies in that regard. However, the novelís climax is weakened by uncharacteristically foolish behavior on Lord Johnís part and by one of those lengthy villain confessions that conveniently fills in the remaining blanks. †

The novelís succinct 300 pages entertained me but didnít come close to engaging my emotions in the same encompassing way that the Outlander series has done for the past 12 years. Gabaldon is a master of portraying the heart-pounding passionate relationships between Jamie and Clare, as well as super-couple-in-training Roger and Brianna MacKenzie, so why write a novel in which the main characterís relationships are all formal, cool and British? †

Since the front cover of the book proclaims it to be the First Lord John Grey novel, and the bookís ending hints at further adventures, I can assume there will be other historical mysteries to follow. I think I can easily skip them and re-read Outlander instead while I endure the long wait for the sequel to The Fiery Cross. †

--Susan Scribner

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