Couple of weeks back, as part of Penguin’s First To Read program, I had the good luck to get a copy of Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley. The book is expected to come out next year and I was glad to get a copy of what seemed like a good, old fashioned crime thriller to take my mind off the unnecessary and pointless events happening around me!
The novel is set in Victorian England, and opens with Cook Kat Holloway, starting her first day as the cook at the Rankin household at Mayfair, London. Lord Rankin is in some kind of stock brokering business, through which he has resurrected the family’s tottering fortune. He is married to Lady Emily, and resides in the Mayfair house, with her and her elder sister, Lady Cynthia. Lady Cynthia and Lady Emily are the daughter’s of the colorful Lord Clifford, who has done away with most of his inherited fortune, by a wild living and has no money for his surviving daughters. Lady Cynthia, is a bit of an eccentric, dressing up in gentleman’s clothes and doing all kinds of activities, considered to be the domain of men! The household servants are under the tutelage of Mr. Davis, a sleek but kind, efficient and gossipy butler, Mrs, Bowen, reticent but effective housekeeper, several other maids and footman and Ellen who is the assistant cook to Kat. Kat’s first day turns out to be way more than she bargained for; first she has to help Lady Cynthia take care of an injured man, whom she accidentally hurt with her carriage. Then she decides to take up the coffee to Lord Rankin, when the latter asks for the same to be sent up by Ellen, after realizing that Lord Rankin is in a habit of getting sexually free with the maids. Deciding to put a stop to such activities with the servants under her purview, Kat takes up the coffee to Lord Rankin’s library, only to discover an angry master and his guest – the mysterious Daniel McAdams. Daniel McAdams, is a friend of Kat’s who has helped her out in past from sticky situations and is a mystery man , associated in some capacity with the Legal arm of the government, and who usually moves around the city of the London, under the guise of a delivery man and man on hire. Seeing Daniel at Lord Rankin in formal attire, surprises Kat though, she does not give away her knowledge of Daniel to her employer and makes her suspect, that there is more to things in the household than meets the eyes. Things come to a head next morning, when going to the larder, Kat finds the dead body of poor Ellen. It is now up to her and Daniel to figure who is involved and why, before more violence is committed!
The premises of the books of course intrigued me from the go – Victorian England, a Cook and a murder mystery; what is there not to like. The characters developed by the author are quite enjoyable. Kat is an exceptionally kind, but firm and efficient heroine, who lays no tuck with nonsense or sentimentality. She does good work and takes care of people she loves and cares. The Lord and Lady Rankin are typical of their position, rich and bored and with minimal interest in the lives whose very livelihood and existence depends on them and whose safety and security are their responsibility! In Lady Cynthia, we find a character who must have seemed at odd with the norms of the then prudish Victorian Society and she seemed capable of understanding and empathizing with the lesser fortunate, despite the difficult situation that life had placed her in. I wish Ms. Ashley had focused a little more into this very interesting character and evolved her a bit more! Daniel McAdam was ….well, Daniel McAdam. Much later in the series I realized why I was not finding much to root for the hero; Ms. Ashley is a RITA Award winning author of several best selling historical romance, and Daniel McAdam seems to have come out of those novels. He is good looking, brave, smart with smoldering attraction for Kat and yet seems to hold back some mystery and yada yada yada! Nope, he seemed to be there to add romance and I would have much preferred a tobacco chewing, fat, married Inspector with a paternal interest or something like that helping Kat out, instead of a hero out of one of Harlequin Romances! This brings me to the part of the novel that I did not like – the writing! Kat’s heart throbs or beats wildly or some such boring cliche. I could not glean any originality of thought or emotions from the novel, and once again I felt, the romantic themes of a historical romance were transplanted into this book, making some of writing, just plain, incongruous with the plot and the setting. The plot however is good and Ms. Ashley had done extensive research to get the finer details right! One of few books, where the protagonist not only investigates, but also does his/her day job; Kat plans and cooks meals for the Upstairs and we get a very interesting insight into the food and eating habits of the Victorian England. The politics and social structure while not explored in detail, however came across as accurate and adds a fine layer, to the novel setting! The ending seemed a tad bit improbable, but I must confess, this was one of the very few modern whodunit variety, where I could not guess, who actually did it, till the very end!
Finally, to end, I would only say, it a good read, for those nights, when you need a blanket, a bowl of soup/mug of coffee or any other beverage of your choice and curl up with a book, where you do not stress your intellect, and are simply looking for entertainment and an temporary exit from the real world!