Book Review: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley


Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

The first book in the Kat Holloway mystery series introduces us to our heroine; a Victorian-era cook with secrets in her past that leave her teetering on the fine edge of respectability. After starting a new position as cook for a wealthy and influential London family, Kat’s professional life takes a blow when her young assistant is brutally murdered. With the help of her long-time friend (and mysterious the secret-agent type), Daniel McAdam, Kat vows to uncover the truth about what happened to the young woman. As the plot thickens, the scope of the crime continues to grow, until even Queen Victoria placed at risk.

I love a good period mystery. Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series is a perennial favorite. Seeing the typical Victorian mystery through the eyes of a cook (generally depicted as tyrants or foils) also promised to be interesting and novel. And in general, Death Below Stairs delivered on its 19th century promises. Kat Holloway is intelligent but not perfect, Daniel McAdam is mysterious and reserved, and the supporting cast of characters is eccentric and entertaining.

However, I do have to say that this book doesn’t read like the first in a series. There is a lot of backstory, especially with Kat and McAdam, that is mentioned but not explained. Past events are referenced obliquely and little detail is given. I assume that a lot of this will be fleshed out in future books, so no harm done, but the book feels more like jumping in at book four or five than starting fresh. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I’m glad the author has fleshed out her characters to this extent, but I did have to check multiple times that this was indeed the start of a series. 

Nevertheless, fans of period mysteries, especially Victoeian-era mysteries, will probably enjoy this book a great deal. This a well-crafted mystery, perfect for consuming over the course of a chilly gray afternoon.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson


Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

This is the seventh book in the Josephine Tey mystery series. There’s probably going to be spoilers in this review for the previous books in the series.

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Detective Archie Penrose is called to the scene of a most unusual murder. A man has been found buried alive in a crypt in Hampstead Heath. The look of terror and the ravaged fingers of the dead man speak to hours, if not days, of torment trying to escape the crypt. Tracing a clue about the murder to Cambridge, where writer and friend Josephine Tey has recently taken up residence, Penrose finds the local constabulary overwhelmed trying to stop a series of increasingly violent rapes in the small town. When a second body is discovered, Penrose realizes that he is dealing with an incredibly intelligent, and unspeakably ruthless murderer, and his list of victims is only going to grow.

I have not read the previous books in the series, but fortunately, for the most part the book is able to stand on its own merits. There were a few instances where I felt like a reference was passing me by, or that I had missed some subtle reference, but all in all the back story is well explained without becoming laborious.

This is an interesting (and frankly creepy) mystery. The gothic elements of the main murder series, and the more visceral horror of the serial rapist combine to make the town of Cambridge feel distinctly unsettling. Upson deftly keeps the suspense high with atmospheric writing. Her portrayal of a idyllic small town in the grip of an unknown monster is well done.

The literary aspects of the mystery were especially intriguing. I had never read anything by M.R. James, but after his inclusion in the plot, I found myself a collection of his ghost stories and am looking forward to reading them now that autumn is at hand.

Fans of period mysteries (and, I’m presuming, fans of the series thus far) will find a lot to like in this book. I was surprised that a book in a series featuring a female protagonist is told mostly from the male detective’s point of view, I’m not sure if this is a departure from the regular tone of the series or not. Either way, Upson is able to craft a compelling mystery, one that will keep the reader on his or her toes.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.