Scandal Above Stairs
Scandal Above Stairs, the second book in Jennifer Ashley’s series of historical mysteries featuring the no-nonsense cook, Kat Ashley, takes place a few months after the events of book one, Death Below Stairs, and sees our intrepid heroine once again embroiled in the search for a killer, aided by her love-interest – the enigmatic Daniel McAdam – his son James, and her new assistant, Tess Parsons. It’s a well-written ‘cosy’ mystery, and the reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive – but I have to confess to being a bit bored until about the last quarter of the book when the pacing, which is pretty pedestrian throughout, finally picks up as we head into the dénouement and resolution of the central plotline.
It’s been a couple of months since Kat helped Daniel to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen, and she’s just a little bit miffed that she hasn’t seen or heard from him in all that time. She still doesn’t know much about him other than that he’s a chameleon who can blend in with workmen, toffs and all the social spectrum in between, and that he must be working for the police or some other government agency. In Death Below Stairs, he promised that one day he’d tell her everything – but that time obviously hasn’t arrived yet. But Kat isn’t one to mope over a man – she knows Daniel must be alright because James would have told her if he wasn’t, and she goes about her normal business as usual – cooking for the Bywaters, now in residence at Lord Rankin’s Mayfair home (they are his cousins) and Lady Cynthia (his sister-in-law), who continues to wear men’s suits, smoke cheroots and, with her small group of like-minded friends, to infiltrate such bastions of masculine privilege as gentleman’s clubs and gaming houses whenever they can.
Well aware of Kat’s sleuthing talents, Lady Cynthia asks if Kat will help a friend of hers, whose husband has accused her of stealing some valuable paintings in order to pay off her gambling debts. On the pretext of visiting the house’s cook – most servants in grand houses knew each other –Kat accompanies Lady Cynthia to the home of Lady Clementine Godfrey to see what she can see – and it doesn’t take her long to work out exactly what’s going on and announce that Sir Evan Godfrey is selling the paintings himself because he’s in need of funds.
The mystery doesn’t end there, however. Before the visit, Kat had found Daniel again, this time working as the proprietor of a dingy pawnbrokers in the Strand where, he tells her, he’s been placed in order to investigate the recent thefts of a number artefacts and antiquities from museums that have never made it into exhibitions and have been put into storage and forgotten. Not long after this, a dead body is found in Daniel’s shop, and it doesn’t take long for Kat to realise that Daniel’s investigation and her previous observations about the Godfreys’ missing paintings are somehow linked.
I liked the way Ms. Ashley laid out her different plot elements and then gradually drew them together, and I was pleased to learn a little more about Daniel – although it is a very little and we’re no closer to knowing exactly who he’s working for and why. Kat continues to be an admirable heroine, a woman who’s worked hard to get where she is and who is determined to succeed in spite of the lousy hand life dealt her in the form of a bigamist ‘husband’, and I liked the new character of Tess, the young woman – a former thief – sent to her by Daniel when he learned Kat was short-handed in the kitchen. Tess is prickly to start with but soon proves to be a quick learner and a genuine help and support to Kat, both in the kitchen and in her investigating. The author does an excellent job of setting her story very firmly in late Victorian London, and her descriptions of the locations, whether a Mayfair mansion or the dingier London streets, are vivid.
There’s something (still) brewing between Lady Cynthia and Daniel’s good friend Elgin Thanos (a scholar and mathematical genius), but Kat and Daniel’s relationship here is pretty static. It’s clear they care deeply for one another, but neither of them is in a position – or hurry – to change anything at this stage, which, while it makes sense given their situations in life, is just a bit frustrating. I’m aware this is a mystery novel rather than a love story, but given the author has chosen to include a romance on the side, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of Daniel – and of him Kat together.
As I said at the beginning, I had issues with the slow pacing of the novel, which made it difficult for me to fully engage with the story for around half of the book. There’s also a fair bit of telling-not-showing going on; and while the descriptions of the food Kat prepares are mouthwatering, there are too many of them – as I said in my review of Death Below Stairs, I felt as though I was being hit over the head with reminders that Kat Is A Cook. The biggest problem, however, is that when I sat down to write this review a day or so after I finished reading, I found I could recall very little about the plot – not even the identity of the villain – and had to look at the notes on my Kindle to refresh my memory. The pace quickens in the final chapters and the eventual reveal is a good one, but it all came too late to save the book, which, ultimately, I found lacklustre and unmemorable.
Judging from the positive reactions to the novel elsewhere, it seems that perhaps this is one of those occasions when ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but I can only recommend Scandal Above Stairs to devotees of ‘cosy’ mysteries. If you like your mysteries served up with a little more tension and a little more romance, this is probably not for you.