Review: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

In Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley, Victorian class lines are crossed as cook Kat Holloway is drawn into a murder that reaches all the way to the throne.

Death Below Stairs is the first full entry in Jennifer Ashley’s Kat Halloway series, following A Soupçon of Poison (Kat Holloway Mysteries, #0.5). Mrs. Halloway is a talented cook, highly sought-after for her culinary expertise. Cooks held a special status in the hierarchy of Victorian households. They operated independently, working in concert with the butler and housekeeper but answering only to their mistress. As a mark of respect, all cooks went by the courtesy title of Missus, be they married or not. Their undisputed queen, particularly below-stairs, was Mrs. Isabella Mary Beeton (1836-1865). Her famous cookery book was “a household guide all about cookery, household work, marketing, prices, provisions, trussing, serving, carving, menus,” to name just a few subjects.

Kat’s independence and intelligence combine to make her a keen observer of life above and below stairs in the Lord Rankin’s Mayfair mansion. It’s an “odd household”; Lord Rankin is an earl heavily immersed in financial matters, his titled wife affects die-away airs, and his sister-in-law chooses to dress as a man and indulge in a bohemian lifestyle.

Kat is unbothered by the family’s eccentricities as long as they stay away from her kitchen, but trouble finds its way below stairs when her young Irish assistant is murdered.

It is Kat who discovers Sinead’s body in the larder, early in the morning, before anyone is awake. Kat’s task each morning is to put a bowl of dough out on the kitchen table for a final rise before preparing the bread for the household. Kat is furious at the man who killed her, for she believes only a man could have made the young assistant’s face so “bruised and bloodied.” The young cook knows she’ll need help to discover Sinead’s murderer.

There was one person I wanted to have come and look at this crime, who would know what to do better than most. The trouble was, finding the bloody man would be a daunting task.

Kat refers to “the ever-capable Daniel McAdam, who is certainly much more than the charming delivery man he pretends to be.” But even during tragedy, the show must go on and meals must be prepared, lest the staff be sacked. Kat certainly rises to the occasion.

At last the meal was ready to go up, the cream of carrot soup resting in its tureen; 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; the greens resting in a bowl with a light sprinkling of a wine and lemon sauce; the lemon tart to be set on the sideboard for after.

It is noteworthy that Kat’s skill and precision as a cook and the original techniques she employs are put at the service of Daniel McAdam as he turns to sleuthing for, “Kat and Daniel discover that the household murder was the barest tip of a plot rife with danger and treason—one that’s a threat to Queen Victoria herself.” The tip-off to the plot to assassinate the Queen was the discovery of a ripped piece of paper. Like all good cooks, Kat can read, something she learned at grammar school and later from the “first cook who’d apprenticed” her. How else could she understand, “the nuances of recipes or read them out correctly?” The paper had letters and numbers but no words. Eventually, the couple determines the paper is a copy of a train schedule. Why a train schedule? What could it mean, Kat wonders?

“Am I correct?” I asked Daniel. “These are times for trains passing through stations? That Fenians are marking as potential for dynamiting?”

“Possibly.” Daniel glanced up at me, his interest and worry evident. “Or that someone simply wishes to take to reach a destination. The trouble is, there’s no way to tell what these times mean—which stations?”

And the race is on to discover where and when the assassination attempt is to be made. What a likable couple our sleuths Kat Holloway and Daniel McAdam make—after you’ve enjoyed Death Below Stairs, make room on your reading calendar for Scandal Above Stairs, coming in July 2018.

 

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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!

 

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