Friday, February 9, 2018

Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

First Sentence: I had not been long at my post in Mount Street, Mayfair, when my employer’s sister came to some calamity.

Cook Kat Holloway has a new position in the home of Lord Rankin. He’s not a man you’d trust with the young maids, but would he really have killed a young Irish kitchen maid? With the help of Daniel McAdam, who is far more than he appears to be, and his son James, a plot is uncovered that extends far beyond the household.

Ashley creates a very strong sense of place, down to things as basic as a description of –“London was always a town on the move. Mud flew as carriage wheels and horses churned it up, droplets becoming dark rain to meld with the fog.”—and the layout of the house. 

One cannot have a protagonist who is a cook without many mentions of food and tempting-sounding meals—“…the cream of carrot soup…, the fish pale in its butter sauce, the beef proudly browned and crackling with heat, its sauce of wine, demi-glace, and shallots poured around its base, the potatoes crisp…” These descriptions represent more than the food itself. The quality of the cook represented the wealth of the family, the prestige of the cook, and the work involved in buying for, and preparing such meals.

Kat is an excellent character. She knows her worth and doesn’t stand for any nonsense. She has a life outside the kitchen but keeps that life very much to herself. There is a strength and intelligence to her which would have been important for her role during the period. Kat exemplifies so many women, both then and today, who deal with life’s disappointments and tragedies yet take care of others and their own daily tasks. 

Using a first-person POV is cleverly done and demonstrates the quality of Ashley’s voice. Our protagonist is well aware that she is telling the story, but it again clarifies who she is—“I’d read nonsensical tales in popular magazines in which maids, when stumbling upon an inert member of mankind, dropped entire trays full of the household’s best porcelain. I’d always consider the maids in these stories to be fools—a dead body is no reason to destroy so much crockery.”
Ashley’s observations are fascinating and make one think. Her pragmatism makes her the type of person one should like to know.

Daniel is a character who adds just the right element to the plot. He has the connections, physical strength, and ability to move about the city in ways Kat does not. And a bit of romance never hurts, either.

Death Below Stairs” has a plot that is a bit convoluted and feels as though it takes a back seat to Kat's activities in the kitchen. Although it truly is the characters who are the book’s strength, as well as a look at life below stairs, there’s enough suspense to make this a very worthwhile read.

DEATH BELOW STAIRS (Hist Mys-Kat Holloway-London-1881/Victorian) - Good
Ashley, Jennifer – 2nd in series
Berkeley, Jan 2018

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