While enjoying a drink and conversation with an old friend, Lord John Grey is approached by a mysterious red-haired man. The man is his friend's cousin by marriage, and he asks John for a secret meeting. He has an urgent matter to discuss that he can entrust to no one else. Intrigued, John agrees, but before the meeting can take place, the man is murdered and dies in John's arms. John vows to find the killer and avenge the man's death. His investigation takes him into the realm of the infamous and secretive Hellfire Club, where he is drawn into a clandestine meeting and a dangerous situation from which he may not come out alive.
Lord John and the Hellfire Club is the first novella in Diana Gabaldon's Lord John Grey series. I'm not sure if it's the shortest story she's ever written, but it's by far the shortest one by her I've read to date. In this novella, she's taken Lord John Grey, a popular secondary character from the Outlander series, and given him a mystery to solve, thereby turning him into an amateur sleuth, which is what I understand he'll be doing throughout the series. It takes place in London sometime after Lord John's return from his time as warden at Ardsmuir Prison where Jamie was held. Harry Quarry, the warden who preceded Lord John, is also a part of the story. He and John share a loose friendship and he's related to the murdered man.
The plot is a fairly simple and straightforward one. John is approached by a man he's barely met, asking for a clandestine meeting to discuss something of import that he can trust to no one else, but before the meeting can take place, the man is stabbed almost before John's eyes and dies in his arms. John vows to find the killer, which leads him to a surprising meeting of a secret society know at the Hellfire Club.
As usual Diana Gabaldon has done an exceptional job with her research. Hellfire Clubs actually did exist during that time period, and Sir Francis Dashwood's, the one which John attends, appears to have been the most famous. I also found it interesting to learn more about the perceptions of gay men in that era. Of course, John, out of necessity for his own safety, keeps his sexuality a closely guarded secret, but we do get hints of how he gets around the social mores of the day to engage in intimacies and how he views society's attitudes toward men like him. I felt rather bad for John, because he still pines for Jamie even though he's trying to set aside that unrequited love.
The main reason this was a four-star read for me instead of higher is that parts of the story didn't seem to flow as well as the Outlander books I've read. The details of the first chapter weren't quite gelling in my mind's eye the way this author's work usually does. I had to concentrate pretty intently to fully grasp the situation. Also, Ms. Gabaldon is a highly intelligent person, and it definitely shows in her writing. That's great, except that in this story, she uses more historically accurate language in both her dialogue and prose. This made it a bit more challenging to read, because the dialogue is unfamiliar to my modern ear, and while normally I can pick up on the meaning of unfamiliar words in context, some of the words in the prose still remained a mystery to me. Otherwise I enjoyed Lord John and the Hellfire Club. The mystery was handled well, especially for such a short format. It was a good start to the series, and I look forward to reading more about Lord John's adventures. Lord John and the Hellfire Club can be found in the anthology Lord John and the Hand of Devils.
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