Book Review: A Silent Stabbing by Alyssa Maxwell
By Janet WebbFebruary 20, 2020
The interplay between upstairs and downstairs, mistress and maid, never gets old, as fans of Downton Abbey will attest. Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her lady’s maid, Eva Huntford, make formidable investigators because of their access to every stratum of society. They don’t sugarcoat people’s foibles, but their inquiries are leavened by compassion and concern.
September 1920. They are in the Cotswolds, where Phoebe was raised by her grandparents after her parents’ death and Eva’s parents live near the village of Little Barlow. Phoebe and Eva crave the peace and familiarity of home, but some things are inalterably changed.
Mistress and maid work prepare for Phoebe’s “autumn charity drive for the Relief and Comfort of Veterans and Their Families” in the basement of the parish church, organizing donations of children’s clothing, “tinned and jarred goods,” and more. “Farmer and owner of a local brewery, Keenan Ripley” and his back-in-town brother Stephen carry in a large crate of pears.
“Morning, Lady Phoebe,” the one facing backward said. “I’ve got pears for you. They’re a little overripe for perry making, but perfectly edible, and there’s no use in letting them rot. Make excellent pies and turnovers, I expect.”
Perry is “an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears.” The villagers are justifiably proud of their “unique cider,” and “the Ripley perry was considered some of the Cotswolds’ best.”
After a stint at Foxwood Hall Stephen Ripley moved to Dorset. To Phoebe’s surprise, Stephen is not coming back as an assistant gardener.
Stephen Ripley’s self-satisfied grin revealed a row of well-formed if uneven teeth.
“No, my lady. I’m going to be your new head gardener.”
“Head gardener . . . ?” She trailed off, once again unwilling to reveal her thoughts. Alfred Peele had served in the capacity of head gardener at Foxwood Hall for nearly two decades. Yes, he was getting on, but the man still stood as straight as the hedges he kept trimmed to such perfection that, from a distance, they appeared to be solid walls of emerald and jade.
The brothers Ripley are at odds: Stephen wants to sell the family orchard to a brash American real-estate developer while Keenan is utterly opposed to selling their birthright. Eva asks why Stephen doesn’t want to work alongside his brother.
“I’ve never understood your leaving. The orchard is your birthright. The farm and brewery have been in your family for how many generations now?”
“Too many, if you ask me. There’s nothing particularly charming about picking pears and crushing them into pulp for cider. It’s backbreaking, boring work and I’ve no interest in it. I learned from one of the best gardeners in Dorset, before and after the war, and I’ve the chance now to use those skills.”
Eva is not convinced but her attention is distracted by her sister Alice, currently visiting their parents.
Coincidentally, both Phoebe and Eva are having a hard time with their older sisters. Phoebe’s relationship with her pregnant sister Julia, Lady Annondale, runs hot and cold. Julia’s aristocratic husband was murdered on their wedding day (A Murderous Marriage). She was accused of killing her older groom, but Phoebe and Eva proved her innocence. Julia is beset by financial fears. If her unborn child is a boy, she’s on easy street because he will inherit her late husband’s viscountcy. Not so much, given primogeniture, if she births a daughter. Eve’s sister Alice has come home for a visit without her husband and children. She won’t explain why, and she’s renewed her youthful more-than-a-friendship with Keenan Ripley.
Head gardener Alfred Peele leaves Foxwood Hall with nary a farewell while Stephen Ripley brusquely takes charge. He is less than collegial to his fellow-servants, but his reign is short-lived. Phoebe and her grandfather see, “in the deep green shadow of the lawn, a darker shadow.” A stepladder is sprawled beside a hedge: “Grampapa’s lumbering footsteps thudded through the grass. ‘Is he terribly hurt?’”
She was about to call out his name again, until she realized he wasn’t holding the clippers at all. The clippers were turned the wrong way around, the handles facing out and the sharp ends sunk—
Her hand went to her mouth. The clippers had been plunged into his torso. A pool of blood seeped out from under him to weave lurid, spidery patterns in the grass. A frigid numbness swept through Phoebe, and the world around her darkened and blurred.
Constable Miles Brannock arrests Keenan Ripley. Everyone knows the brothers were bitterly divided over the future of the family orchard; plus Keenan has no alibi. Brannock may be Eva’s beau but she and Phoebe are sure that Keenan is innocent. On the morning Stephen was killed, Keenan’s table was “set with two teacups and scones.” Eva is petrified that Alice was the visitor to Keenan’s bachelor establishment.
If Alice were to provide Keenan with an alibi, her reputation and marriage would be ruined. She denies being there but is clearly withholding secrets, much to Eva’s consternation.
Lady Phoebe and Eva are a well-oiled team, but their investigation is complicated by the involvement of their families. It doesn’t help when Grams, the Countess of Wroxly, bids Phoebe to draw Julia out of her despondent mood: perhaps they could go shopping? Phoebe is amazed to discover that Julia is “shopping” for advice from Miss Greenwood, a genteel medium. Miss Greenwood says that she “can connect with the souls of the deceased, and sometimes with the living as well.” Perhaps Phoebe and Eva should also consult with her.
The aftermath of the Great War impacts the relationship between Phoebe and Eva: women of every class face choices that they could not have anticipated in their youth. Alyssa Maxwell’s A Silent Stabbing brings the pastoral world of maid and mistress to vibrant life, with an elegantly elegiac tone to the narrative.