Book Review: Murder in the East End by Jennifer Ashley

In the next installment of the Below Stairs Mystery series, cook and amateur sleuth Kat Holloway is back on the case when she learns that the children of London's Foundling Hospital are mysteriously disappearing and one of their nurses has been murdered.

The Below Stairs mystery series does not take place solely downstairs, the milieu of talented cook Mrs. Kat Holloway. She’s called missus out of respect for her position, which is on par with the butler and housekeeper. Scandal Above Stairs, the second Below Stairs mystery, called upon Kat and her enigmatic friend Daniel McAdam, to solve the “mystery of stolen antiquities.” Kat has relatively more freedom than other servants, allowing her to hone her talent for sleuthing. Unlike scullery maids or footmen, cooks move freely between their kitchens and the world outside (as long as upstairs gets their meals on time!).

Kat’s co-workers and the family she serves have a roof over their head and food to eat. Not everyone in Victorian London is so fortunate. Murder in the East End addresses the sad and circumscribed lives of foundlings.  

When young cook Kat Holloway learns that the children of London’s Foundling Hospital are mysteriously disappearing and one of their nurses has been murdered, she can’t turn away.

Kat’s daughter Grace is the apple of her eye. Her earnings go to pay for Grace’s contented and safe existence with the Milburn Family. Kat knows if not for her profession, Grace might be one of the foundlings.  

In the end, I was grateful to the gray brick building and its frowning windows, and the equally gray children I’d seen in the courtyard, dressed all alike, marching along under the guide of a matron or rector. It made me decide to work my fingers to the bone to raise my daughter myself, to never give her up, to hold her in my arms and keep her safe.

It’s Daniel who tells Kat about the missing children and their nurse. He introduces her to his brother, Mr. Fielding, the improbable vicar of a parish in the East End, who’s on the board of directors at the Foundling Hospital. Nurse Betts, a friend of the vicar, told him about the missing children but now she too has disappeared. Were the children taken so criminals can sell them to brothels for “prostitution purposes?” Daniel, Mr. Fielding, and Kat fear the worst.

How can Kat gain access to the hospital? Does Elsie, her scullery maid, who grew up a foundling, have any ideas? Elsie says that Lady Cynthia “could pretend to be a charity lady and you could visit with her. Or she could go on a Sunday afternoon to watch Sunday dinner.” Watch Sunday dinner—how odd that sounds. Elsie elaborates.

“It’s a fine thing for ladies and gentlemen, innit? To pay a shilling or tuppence, or whatever it is, to view the foundling boys and girls eating their charity food. All in a row we’d sit, all in our same frocks, happy to have our grub. They’d file in and watch us like we were animals in a menagerie, they would. Talking all about us as they did.”

One of the delights of an evolving mystery series is the introduction of new characters. Cynthia, the pants-wearing niece of the Bywater household, leads an uncomfortable existence. Her aunt’s “insistence that Cynthia marry so she’d be out from underfoot,” means Cynthia is frequently subject to soirées where her aunt dangles boring suitors in front of her. After a dinner ball, Mrs. Holloway is sent for so the guests can applaud her culinary efforts. Cynthia’s friend Miss Townsend, praises the excellence of Kat’s lobster rissoles. The next day, Cynthia beards Kat in the kitchen to ask if Miss Townsend, an artist, has Kat’s blessing to paint her at work. 

“I return to my original question,” I said. “Why does Miss Townsend wish to paint me? And how exactly does she mean too?”

Tess, Kat’s assistant, listens avidly to the conversation: “‘Artists’ models are dreadful wicked women, ain’t they?’ She sounded more eager than appalled.” But Cynthia reassures them—Townsend paints domestic scenes. Kat’s kitchen is cramped, hot, and dirty, so how is an artist from a genteel background going to blend into the background while she sketches?

“Miss Townsend is quite sturdy. The stories she tells me of places she’s lived and things she’s done in pursuit of her art would make your skin prickle. It did mine.” Cynthia rubbed her arms as though feeling the prickle still. “If it is too much trouble for you, I’ll put her off.”

It’s rather ironic that the foundling children are put on display weekly and Mrs. Holloway agrees for her person and her domain to be surveilled and sketched. Miss Townsend lives up to Cynthia’s description of her. She is not only sturdy, she’s preternaturally skillful at bending others to her will. She rescues Kat from a cruel and petulant display of cruelty by Mrs. Bywater. Mysteriously, Townsend has worked with Daniel in the past—and as is his wont, Daniel says he can’t explain the circumstances. It’s all hands on deck to find the children, a task that becomes more urgent when Nurse Betts is found murdered. 

Two aspects of Jennifer Ashley’s books are gifts to her readers. First, obviously, the delicious meals. How’s this for a sumptuous repast?

I gave them cod in cream and butter sauce, a stuffed veal roast, a fresh green salad with plenty of Miss Townsend’s herbs, slices of ham, rhubarb tartlets, Tess’s cauliflower with mushrooms and dill, and finished with my apple tarts served with cream, and a vanilla custard with raspberry jam.

Secondly, Kat has a gift for friendship. Working side-by-side with Daniel solving crimes has greatly enlarged her circle of acquaintances. Miss Townsend is an intriguing addition to the cast—a woman of means who prefers a bohemian lifestyle and has no interest in marriage. 

Murder in the East End is another winning entrée in an enthralling historical mystery series.

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