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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch

First Sentence: The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing. 

Lt. Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards has disappeared. Charles Lenox is trying to establish his detective agency, the first of its kind, but having little luck. Even Scotland Yard is so baffled, they’ve agreed to have Lenox consult. Solving this case would give him credibility and recognition. But can he solve it? 

One of the many things to love about Finch’s writing is his use of humor, whether it’s about life, death—“Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things mush lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear or anger.”--or Christmas trees--"Well," said Charles, signing, "I hope it may last the next three days, anyhow." "Until Christmas morning." "Yes, then it can slink off to some corner and die.".

It is always interesting learning about the customs of a period, and that they relate to Christmas makes them even more so. The tradition of Lenox; father, is quite progressive for the time. Yet one of the best things about a prequel is to learn more about the protagonists and their history. 

Finch creates wonderful analogies—“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.” His descriptions are evocative—“There was evidence all over it of wealth, and ancient lineage—tapestries on the walls, enormous hunting scenes in oils, tables of marble…”. His use of language is a treat—“…he discovered that the next train was in ninety minutes. He set out to see the wonders of Ipswich for himself. When that was finished, he had eighty-seven minutes left…” It is elements such as these, along with learning bits of information such as how the term “butler” came to be, that makes reading Finch such a pleasure.

Gone Before Christmas” is a lovely story for the holidays with just the right balance of seriousness and sentimentality. 

GONE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Hist Mys-Charles and Edmund Lenox-London-1887) – VG+
Finch, Charles (eBook Novelette)
Minotaur Books – Dec 2017