“Simon Taggart’s plunge into the abyss happened in an instant.
Col. Moran, seated at the dining table on Simon’s left, had said something to the Duke of Falsworth about a fellow hunter Moran had known in India committing suicide. Falsworth snidely observed that given the man’s debts, hanging himself had been the only possible solution.
And suddenly Simon was standing in the drawing room again. Staring up at Agnes in her white nightgown, hanging from the ceiling with her tongue protruding, her face blackened. Rage consumed him at the memory, rage at the men who’d brought about his wife’s death. Pearson Bartlett, mesmerist. The Guvnor, who’d given Bartlett his orders. And behind them, the unknown man who’d paid to have Agnes slain.”
So Questionable Minds opens. As you can tell, Simon is not a happy man.
Up until Agnes’ death, Simon’s life was good. The Taggarts are baronets, which is very low-raked as aristocrats go, below even earls. The Taggart baronetcy is old, however, which gives Simon confidence. So does his wealth: the Taggarts are good at marrying rich and Simon’s American mother was a particularly wealthy heiress. Life peers (the title can’t be passed on to the next generation) are often insecure in their new status; a Taggart is never insecure.
Simon’s marriage to Agnes was to further the family fortune. Like so many aristocratic marriages in that era, it was understood that once Agnes provided a male heir “and a spare” she’d be free to take other lovers; he, of course, could take them a lot sooner. It never sunk in that Agnes was in love with him. Finally she took drastic steps to make him aware of it (no details, they involve a major spoiler). This didn’t change his feelings towards her but he did restrain himself from sleeping around. He was still a bit of a flirt, though, so when he came home one night and saw Agnes had apparently killed herself, Simon blamed himself. Clearly he’d given her the wrong idea; in despair she’d committed suicide.
Fortunately Inspector Hudnall of Scotland Yard spotted the signs that she hadn’t acted of her own free will. Bartlett had compelled her to do it. Why? He’d been paid a sizable sum, funneled through the Guv’nor, the mysterious overlord of London crime. Nobody besides the Guv’nor could say who’d put up the money.
From that moment on, Simon has had two goals. One is to find the Guv’nor and learn who had Agnes murdered. It’s not easy: the Guv’nor is Professor Moriarty and even Sherlock Holmes took years to learn that. In my world, Moriarty is ten times as cautious, setting up his organization so that even human telegraphs (i.e., mind readers) can’t learn who he is.
Simon’s second goal, although he doesn’t really think of it as such, is to be a better person. He gives generously to charity, helps investigate crimes even when they don’t involve the Guv’nor and if he ever marries, he intends to marry for love. Though as his mother reminds him, that may not be practical: the Taggart estate and title pass to sons only, and Agnes’ only child is young Ann. If Simon doesn’t beget an heir, his obnoxious, idiot cousin becomes the next baronet and probably spends Hollowcroft, the family estate, into bankruptcy.
Simon’s biggest asset in fighting crime — the reason Scotland Yard puts up with him — is that he has something unique: mental shields. Telegraphs can’t read his mind. Mesmerists can’t control him. Clairvoyants don’t see him. Vampires, mentalists who drain mental energy from other, can’t affect Simon. That’s how he discovered his strange gift: fighting the vampire Asquith Varney, he survived the latter’s attack, then eventually learned why.
The reaction to his gift is mixed. Scotland Yard respects it but many people think of it as a deformity. Mental power is clearly the next great step in human evolution; sure, not everyone has powers yet but to be completely cut off from the evolutionary advance? What did Simon do in his past life that he deserved this curse? He gets several letters a week from spiritualists and others offering to “cure” his condition. But from his point of view, it’s a blessing.
His biggest weakness is that his trauma over finding Agnes hanging manifests in extreme anger. He’s violently assaulted members of the Guv’nor’s organization in hopes of beating information out of them. When the bad guy threatens Ann in Questionable Minds, Simon’s response is not a rational one.
Simon’s biggest fear is that his anger and his urge for revenge are consuming him: if he had to choose between capturing the Guv’nor and saving Ann or his mother, he worries that he’d let them die to bring himself peace. Dealing with his trauma and his fear is the emotional arc of Questionable Minds, just as stopping Jack the Ripper is the plot arc.
Next week: the women of the book.
#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins.