Lord John and the Hand of Devils

Lord John and the Hands of Devils is a collection that contains three Lord John mysteries... one simply called a short story and the other two meriting the designation "novella" from the author. Prior to starting the Lord John novels, I should have done a bit of research, as the first of these stories comes before the first novel in chronological order... similarly, the second story comes before the second novel and then the third story finishes things up. Reading them out of order doesn't necessarily harm you, but I wish that I had somehow contrived to figure out the chronological order as it would have filled in some details within the larger books that get more attention in the stories (who kills someone in the Abbey, why suddenly the Prussian guy is pining for John, etc.). It's a quick read, but really only worth it to those who enjoy Gabaldon's other work and, in particular, Lord John.

"Lord John and the Hellfire Club" is the first and shortest of the bunch -- though it is to this story that we are indebted for all of the Lord John spin-off works, as it was this story that launched him as an independent protagonist. Lord John comes across the historically famous/infamous Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey as he investigates the death of a young man, a cousin of John's friend Harry Quarry. Immediately returned from his exile in Scotland and still burning with desire for Jamie Fraser, John is implored by Harry Quarry's (gay) cousin for assistance in a certain matter, but before John can meet him to discuss the matter, the young man is killed. John is then courted by the elite club, which includes an ex-lover of his among the members, but he's quite right to believe that there are many things amiss with the Hellfire Club. Very short and simple, this mystery solves itself quite quickly, but one must at least appreciate this story for spurring Gabaldon to write other Lord John tales.

In "Lord John and the Succubus," Lord John is stationed in Gundwitz with a companies of Prussian and English troops as they attempt to rout some French and Austrians, but the men seem more frightened by rumors of a demon spirit in the area. Of course, Lord John is smart enough to see mortal hands behind these actions... though it might take some real magic if he wants to keep out of a widowed Princess's matrimonial designs and get a moment alone to find out if his friendship with handsome German soldier Namtzen is just brotherly love or a bit more. The mystery isn't much of a mystery, but there are some amusing scenes of suspense and the standard fear that men have about their manhood and essence being stolen.

For "Lord John and the Haunted Soldier," you certainly need to have read Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade to understand everything well -- because the story largely concerns the battle of Crefield, which closed out that novel. Lord John is summoned before a military commission that is concerned with the explosion of the gun he had commanded and the death of a lieutenant, floating the veiled accusation that it might have been Lord John's inept leadership that led to it. The military seems more concerned about the gun, which leaves John to try and see what right he can do by the family of the lieutenant and the man's missing widow. Lord John also investigates some leads on what caused the gun's explosion and finds a few problems, including the faulty construction of guns due to someone inside the military stealing copper and the potentially volatile ammunition provided by John's half-brother's company.

In the author's notes before each story, Gabaldon makes jokes about the fact that by the time she's hit the page count for a Lord John novel, she generally feels like she's just starting up the story, so real short stories and novellas were quite the challenge indeed. Her real talent lies in creating wonderful characters and taking them through epic stories, so while individual stories might not be ideal as short stories on their own outside of the context of the larger world, they are lovely little installments in the ongoing story of Lord John Grey. I l like Lord John as a strong male figure who happens to be homosexual -- while this fact of his existence doesn't define his life, it does play a large role. He's witty and clever... and there's always the odd glimpse of Jamie, which is fun. I do hope that Gabaldon eventually gives us a story that takes us through the healing of his friendship with Jamie... which might relieve poor John from pining after his russet-haired Scot.

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