Death Below Stairs
Jennifer Ashley is the author of a number of very popular historical romances about the various members of the MacKenzie family as well as of the Captain Lacey series of historical mysteries, which she publishes as Ashley Gardner. I confess that I haven’t read any of the Captain’s regency-set adventures, but as I enjoy historical mysteries, I was intrigued to see that Ms. Ashley is launching a new series set in Victorian England and that her heroine is a no-nonsense, twenty-nine year-old cook who is employed in some of London’s grandest households.
Death Below Stairs is actually the second book to feature Kat Holloway, as the author published a prequel novella (A Soupçon of Poison) a couple of years ago which introduces Kat and her friend/love-interest, the mysterious Daniel McAdam, who helps Kat out of a potentially deadly situation and assists her in her sleuthing efforts. It’s not absolutely necessary to read this story, as its storyline is completely separate from this novel, BUT it is a very useful introduction to the characters – to Daniel, especially – who is not at all what he seems. The novella also establishes the relationships between Kat, Daniel and his son, James, and some early reviews (of this book) have indicated that readers disliked the fact that these had been cemented in a prequel novella when this title is billed as the first in series. Because of such comments, I decided to read the novella before tackling Death Below Stairs, and would say I found it helpful to have done so.
Kat Holloway has just taken a new position as cook in the Mayfair home of Lord Rankin. It’s a small household, consisting of his lordship, his somewhat lethargical wife, Lady Emily, and her older sister Lady Cynthia who dresses in mens’ suits, smokes cheroots and chafes at the fact she is stuck under her unpleasant brother-in-law’s roof. Kat very quickly assumes command of the kitchen and just as quickly sums up her colleagues who include Mr. Davies, the butler (affable but a bit lazy), Mrs. Barton, the housekeeper (very proper, runs a tight ship) and the maid assigned as cook’s assistant, Sinead, who is a bright girl and a fast learner whom Kat believes will do very well.
Up early the next morning to begin preparations for the day’s meals, Kat goes to the pantry to retrieve some ingredients – and is horrified to find Sinead’s bludgeoned body lying on the floor. Reluctant to allow the murder scene to be disturbed, Kat locks the pantry door with the intention of getting word to Daniel McAdam so that he can inspect the room before the police arrive and disturb everything, but alas, she doesn’t know where he is or how to find him and has to allow the police and the coroner access so they can begin their investigations. I can certainly understand that readers not familiar with the novella would wonder who on earth Daniel is and why Kat is so keen for him to inspect the scene of the crime.
Kat learns from Mrs. Barton that Sinead was stepping out with a young man who may have been involved with the Irish separatists (or Fenians, an organisation dedicated to securing Irish independence), and later, from Daniel, that he has been investigating links between the organisation and Lord Rankin, a skilled financier who has not only been engaged in some very dodgy financial deals, but is also actively involved in promoting transactions that help traitors to finance terrorist acts and their campaigns against the government.
Both Kat and Daniel are sure these connections have to be more than coincidence, and the discovery of a ripped page from a Bradshaw (a book containing timetables for every railway route in Britain) hidden away in a corner of the pantry indicate that there is definitely more at stake than the murder of a servant. With the help of Lady Cynthia and a friend of Daniel’s (who happens to be a mathematical genius), Kat and Daniel begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle – and must race against time to foil an assassination plot directed at the Queen.
While I liked Kat very much – she’s a down-to-earth woman who, after ‘marriage’ to an abusive bigamist who left her with a young daughter, has worked hard to acquire her culinary skills and to become a sought-after cook – it was something of a stretch of my credulity to believe that she could spend so much time away from the kitchen and retain her position. I know at one point we’re told that a temporary cook was engaged while Kat travelled with Daniel and Lady Cynthia in order to pursue their investigations, but I still found it rather hard to swallow. On the plus side, Ms. Ashley does a great job with the descriptions of the food Kat cooks – which all sounds mouth-watering – but I did sometimes feel as though I was being hit over the head with reminders that Kat Is A Cook.
Daniel McAdam is fascinating and, if I’m honest, quickly became my main reason for reading the book; indeed, if I continue with the series, it’ll be solely on his account! He first appeared in Soupçon as an affable, scruffy delivery man, but it quickly became apparent he was nothing of the sort, an impression solidified when Kat saw him one evening dressed in formal attire and handing a lady into a carriage, very comfortably mingling with a group of ‘toffs’. He’s a chameleon, able to change his mode of dress, his bearing and his manner of speech to suit whatever situation he is in, and although he denies association with the police, it’s obvious he’s some sort of government agent or spy … or something of that ilk. Whatever it is, his work is dangerous and top secret; all he can tell Kat is that he can’t tell her the truth – yet – and ask her to wait and accept his friendship in the meantime.
There’s a strong romantic thread running through the story which, again, commenced in the prequel. By the time Death Below Stairs opens, Kat and Daniel have already kissed a few times and their attraction to each other is evident, so the tension in the romance is generated by the fact that Kat doesn’t know who or what Daniel really is, and that while she knows she can trust him with her life… she’s not so sure she can trust him with her heart.
Ms. Ashley has captured the ‘downstairs’ world of the servant class very well, the writing is solid and the story is easy to follow, although, as happened in Soupçon, the solution to the whodunnit – who killed Sinead? – comes a little out of left-field. Ultimately, however, I found the novel a little too pedestrian for my taste. Writers like Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris have set the bar for historical mysteries incredibly high, and I like a little more challenge and complexity than is on display here. I’d put Death Below Stairs into the category of a ‘cosy’ mystery; the pacing is leisurely, the main characters are likeable and easy to root for, and the mystery is intriguing – but I had no problems setting the book aside, even in the last couple of chapters when all is being revealed. I’d recommend the novel to fans of cosy mysteries, but I don’t really count myself among their number; and to anyone looking for a mystery with a bit more bite and sophistication, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.