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Tuesday 16 March 2021

‘The Devil’s Harmony’ by Sarah Rayne

Published by Severn House,
30 November 2020.
ISBN: 978-0-7278-8988-1 (HB)

Phineas Fox is a self-employed researcher into musical history, but the ability to choose his assignments doesn’t mean he can afford to turn down boring but lucrative jobs. Phin is working on a particularly uninspiring task when he is offered the sort of challenge he has cannot bear to refuse. Lucek Socha, a young Polish student, had been earning some extra money by helping to clear a derelict site for construction when he discovers a scrapbook that could date back to the 1940s. He passes it on to Nina, a British postgraduate exploring archive material in Warsaw, and she sends it to her old professor in Durham. The professor and his equally well-informed colleague decide to employ Phin and his girlfriend, Arabella, a translator, to investigate the scrapbook. In the back of all their minds is the remote possibility that this new information could be connected with the Chopin Library, a music venue that has disappeared so entirely that it is almost impossible to find references to it, still less discover its exact location. Scholars believe that the Chopin Library was demolished without trace in 1944, by the Nazis, when they knew the war was lost and were determined to destroy Warsaw. An even more tenuous and darker prospect, which they hesitate to voice, is that the scrapbook may hold some clue to the Dark Cadence, legendary music played before the execution of a traitor: music so dark it should never be written down.

The story is told in three time-periods, the first two of which are times of violence. The earliest period is 1918, describing the hours before and after the murder of the Czar and his family. The second time is in Warsaw, 1944, during the Nazi occupation, where some courageous patriots associated with the Chopin Library risk their lives to resist the brutal occupiers. In the contemporary part of the story, Lucek again contributes to the investigation when he discovers a box of old children’s books written in Russian, which provides a link between the events of 1918 and 1944 and the present day, and also with Helena, who was adopted into Lucek’s family when she was discovered as a small child in the war-devastated streets of Warsaw. It is only in her nightmares that Helena has any fleeting remembrance of her past. Lucek, Helena and Nina travel to England, where they meet up with Phin, Arabella and their academic associates. They meet Thaisa, a woman who is in some way connected to Helena and, with her help, they finally unravel the secret history of the Dark Cadence, and the fate of the Chopin Library, as well as the secrets of Helena’s past.

The Devil’s Harmony is the fifth book featuring Phineas Fox, but it is complete in itself, with enough backstory to set the scene without slowing the pace of the book. It has excellent historical details and captures the fear and confusion of perilous times. The characters are engaging and the rapport between them is delightful. The musical investigation is fascinating, and the conclusion of the book is moving without being sentimental. The Devil’s Harmony is an excellent read, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Reviewer: Carol Westron

Sarah Rayne's first novel was published in 1982, and for several years she juggled writing books with working in property, pounding an elderly typewriter into the small hours in order to meet deadlines.  Much of the inspiration for her dark psychological thrillers comes from the histories and atmospheres of old buildings, a fact that is strongly apparent in many of her settings - Mortmain House in A Dark Dividing, Twygrist Mill in Spider Light, and the Tarleton Theatre in Ghost Song. She has written more than 25 books to date, and her work has met with considerable acclaim. Her books are also published in America, as well as having been translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Turkish.  In 2011, she published the first of a series of ghost-themed books, featuring the Oxford don, Michael Flint, and the antiques dealer, Nell West, who made their debut in Property of a Lady. Several years ago Sarah also wrote six contemporary horror books, originally under the pen-name of Frances Gordon. Her most recent series features music researcher Phineas Fox. There are five books in the series.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.

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