Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jeff Woodman. Recorded Books, 2007. 9 hours, 41 minutes. Library copy.
Lord John Grey was first introduced in Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, as a young English soldier who attempts to save Claire from the wanted rebel Jamie Fraser. Jamie spares Grey’s life after he tricks the young boy into sharing information about the location of the English forces in the area.
Grey and Jamie would cross paths again in Voyager, the third book in the series, when Jamie is captured and sent to the prison Grey governs, Ardsmuir. Grey paroles Jamie to a country estate and maintains a correspondence with the former prisoner, although their relationship is complicated by Grey’s unrequited attraction to Jamie.
Lord John and the Hand of Devils is a collection of three short stories featuring Grey: “Lord John and the Hellfire Club”, “Lord John and the Succubus”, and “Lord John and the Haunted Soldier”. Gabaldon says in her introduction that the first story is set prior to the first full-length novel featuring Grey, Lord John and the Private Matter. The second and third stories in this collection bookend another novel in the series, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade.
That said, the timeline of these stories in the larger Outlander universe is a bit muddled. Grey has clearly met Jamie prior to the start of the collection; he makes mention to the man and his feelings for him in all three stories. But Gabaldon also says that the stories occur before a then-forthcoming third novel, The Scottish Prisoner, which is supposed to expand further on Grey and Jamie’s complicated relationship.
Regardless of the timeline, the three short stories in this collection afford the reader to learn more about Grey’s character and history as he attempts to solve a mystery and further his military career. In the first story, “Lord John and the Hellfire Club”, Grey is intrigued by a stranger at a gentlemen’s club as the man bears some resemblance to Jamie.
The man says he has a political problem and asks to meet Grey in private to discuss. However, the man is murdered before Grey can meet with him. Efforts to solve the man’s murder leads Grey to a gentlemen’s club known as the Hellfire Club.
In her introduction, Gabaldon says the second story in the collection, “Lord John and the Succubus”, was written by request for inclusion in a fantasy/science fiction anthology. Grey is fighting in Prussia – an area he erroneously and, therefore, humorously refers to as Germany – when an officer from the allied forces is found dead.
The men under his command begin to fear the murderer is a succubus, a female demon who visits men in the night and removes their appendages. Grey is determined to show the succubus is merely a mythical figure and to capture the real culprit. At the same him, Grey struggles to fight his attraction to a widower serving in the Austrian forces named Stephan Van Namtzen.
In the final story, “Lord John and the Haunted Solider”, Grey is still recovering from injuries sustained from an exploding cannon in battle. The British military is convinced the cannons were deliberately sabotaged, casting a suspicious eye on both Grey and his half-brother, Edgar DeVane. Grey must clear his family’s name and fulfill a promise to the father of the man who died in the blast while serving under Grey’s command.
I’ve often felt like Gabaldon focuses too much on Grey’s sexual orientation, and that continued to be the case with the first two stories in this collection. In the first story, Grey is disappointed that Jamie is still mourning over Claire, especially since Grey is willing and eager to commence a non-platonic relationship with him. These feelings have always left me a bit squeamish over Gabaldon’s books; it seems like she’s unable to write gay characters without turning them into sex-crazed (potential) rapists.
In the second story, Grey spends quite a bit of time wondering if Van Namtzen is also gay. It’s nice to see Grey interested in someone other than Jamie and respecting that person’s boundaries, even if it is more to preserve his own position in the military.
Unfortunately, there is a horrific moment where Grey recounts being raped after a battle as a young solider, and it is hinted at the culprit is the same man who raped Jamie, Captain Jack Randall. Which brings me back to my discomfort over Gabaldon’s go-to characteristics for her gay, male characters.
In the final story, though, Gabaldon shifts her focus from Grey’s sexual proclivities to the dynamics of his family and finally allows the reader to understand more about his character and how his past shaped him into the man and officer he is.
I also found the investigation into the mis-built cannons more intriguing than the murder in the first story or the existence of the succubus in the second. The first story is so short – about an hour on audio – that my interest started to mount just as it was coming to a close. The second story was the opposite; my interest waned well before the story came to a close. But the third story had just the right pacing for my taste.