Death Below Stairs (Kat Holloway #1) by Jennifer Ashley

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Highly sought-after young cook Kat Holloway takes a position in a Mayfair mansion and soon finds herself immersed in the odd household of Lord Rankin. 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.

Intent on discovering who killed the helpless kitchen maid, Kat turns to the ever-capable Daniel McAdam, who is certainly much more than the charming delivery man he pretends to be. Along with the assistance of Lord Rankin’s unconventional sister-in-law and a mathematical genius, 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.

Rating: B-

Jennifer Ashley is the author of a number of very popular historical romances about the various members of the MacKenzie family as well as of the Captain Lacey series of historical mysteries, which she publishes as Ashley Gardner.  I confess that I haven’t read any of the Captain’s regency-set adventures, but as I enjoy historical mysteries, I was intrigued to see that Ms. Ashley is launching a new series set in Victorian England and that her heroine is a no-nonsense, twenty-nine year-old cook who is employed in some of London’s grandest households.

Death Below Stairs is actually the second book to feature Kat Holloway, as the author published a prequel novella (A Soupçon of Poison) a couple of years ago which introduces Kat and her friend/love-interest,  the mysterious Daniel McAdam, who helps Kat out of a potentially deadly situation and assists her in her sleuthing efforts. It’s not absolutely necessary to read this story, as its storyline is completely separate from this novel, BUT it is a very useful introduction to the characters – to Daniel, especially – who is not at all what he seems.  The novella also establishes the relationships between Kat, Daniel and his son, James, and some early reviews (of this book) have indicated that readers disliked the fact that these had been cemented in a prequel novella when this title is billed as the first in  series.  Because of such comments, I decided to read the novella before tackling Death Below Stairs, and would say I found it helpful to have done so.

Kat Holloway has just taken a new position as cook in the Mayfair home of Lord Rankin.  It’s a small household,

Up early the next morning to begin preparations for the day’s meals, Kat goes to the pantry to retrieve some ingredients – and is horrified to find Sinead’s bludgeoned body lying on the floor. Reluctant to allow the murder scene to be disturbed, Kat locks the pantry door with the intention of getting word to Daniel McAdam so that he can inspect the room before the police arrive and disturb everything, but alas, she doesn’t know where he is or how to find him and has to allow the police and the coroner access so they can begin their investigations. I can certainly understand that readers not familiar with the novella would wonder who on earth Daniel is and why Kat is so keen for him to inspect the scene of the crime.

Kat learns from Mrs. Barton that Sinead was stepping out with a young man who may have been involved with the Irish separatists (or Fenians, an organisation dedicated to securing Irish independence), and later, from Daniel, that he has been investigating links between the organisation and Lord Rankin, a skilled financier who has not only been engaged in some very dodgy financial deals, but is also actively involved in promoting transactions that help traitors to finance terrorist acts and their campaigns against the government.

Both Kat and Daniel are sure these connections have to be more than coincidence, and the discovery of a ripped page from a Bradshaw (a book containing timetables for every railway route in Britain) hidden away in a corner of the pantry indicate that there is definitely more at stake than the murder of a servant.  With the help of Lady Cynthia and a friend of Daniel’s (who happens to be a mathematical genius), Kat and Daniel begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle – and must race against time to foil an assassination plot directed at the Queen.

While I liked Kat very much – she’s a down-to-earth woman who, after ‘marriage’ to an abusive bigamist who left her with a young daughter, has worked hard to acquire her culinary skills and to become a sought-after cook  – it was something of a stretch of my credulity to believe that she could spend so much time away from the kitchen and retain her position.  I know at one point we’re told that a temporary cook was engaged while Kat travelled with Daniel and Lady Cynthia in order to pursue their investigations, but I still found it rather hard to swallow.  On the plus side, Ms. Ashley does a great job with the descriptions of the food Kat cooks – which all sounds  mouth-watering – but I did sometimes feel as though I was being hit over the head with reminders that Kat Is A Cook.

Daniel McAdam is fascinating and, if I’m honest, quickly became my main reason for reading the book; indeed, if I continue with the series, it’ll be solely on his account!  He first appeared in Soupçon as an affable, scruffy delivery man, but it quickly became apparent he was nothing of the sort, an impression solidified when Kat saw him one evening dressed in formal attire and handing a lady into a carriage, very comfortably mingling with a group of ‘toffs’.  He’s a chameleon, able to change his mode of dress, his bearing and his manner of speech to suit whatever situation he is in, and although he denies association with the police, it’s obvious he’s some sort of government agent or spy … or something of that ilk.  Whatever it is, his work is dangerous and top secret; all he can tell Kat is that he can’t tell her the truth – yet – and ask her to wait and accept his friendship in the meantime.

There’s a strong romantic thread running through the story which, again, commenced in the prequel.  By the time Death Below Stairs opens, Kat and Daniel have already kissed a few times and their attraction to each other is evident, so the tension in the romance is generated by the fact that Kat doesn’t know who or what Daniel really is, and that while she knows she can trust him with her life… she’s not so sure she can trust him with her heart.

Ms. Ashley has captured the ‘downstairs’ world of the servant class very well, the writing is solid and the story is easy to follow, although, as happened in Soupçon, the solution to the whodunnit – who killed Sinead? – comes a little out of left-field.  Ultimately, however, I found the novel a little too pedestrian for my taste.  Writers like Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris have set the bar for historical mysteries incredibly high, and I like a little more challenge and complexity than is on display here.  I’d put Death Below Stairs into the category of a ‘cosy’ mystery; the pacing is leisurely, the main characters are likeable and easy to root for, and the mystery is intriguing – but I had no problems setting the book aside, even in the last couple of chapters when all is being revealed.  I’d recommend the novel to fans of cosy mysteries, but I don’t really count myself among their number;  and to anyone looking for a mystery with a bit more bite and sophistication,  I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

consisting of his lordship, his somewhat lethargical wife, Lady Emily, and her older sister Lady Cynthia who dresses in mens’ suits, smokes cheroots and chafes at the fact she is stuck under her unpleasant brother-in-law’s roof.  Kat very quickly assumes command of the kitchen and just as quickly sums up her colleagues who include Mr. Davies, the butler (affable but a bit lazy), Mrs. Barton, the housekeeper (very proper, runs a tight ship) and the maid assigned as cook’s assistant, Sinead, who is a bright girl and a fast learner whom Kat believes will do very well.

 

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REVISED REVIEW: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley (audiobook) – narrated by Angela Dawe

mad

It was whispered all through London society that he was a murderer, that he’d spent his youth in an asylum and was not to be trusted-especially with a lady. Any woman caught in his presence was immediately ruined. Yet Beth found herself inexorably drawn to the Scottish lord whose hint of a brogue wrapped around her like silk and whose touch could draw her into a world of ecstasy. Despite his decadence and intimidating intelligence, she could see he needed help. Her help. Because suddenly the only thing that made sense to her was the madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie

Rating: B

Review revised, 16 May 2015.

I don’t often revise reviews, but felt compelled to come back to this one because my opinion of the narration has changed so drastically in the two years since I originally wrote the review. The revisions are all to be found in the portion of the review that concerns the narration, and are marked **.

Rating: C for narration; B+ for content

This is one of those books that’s been on my TBR mountain for ages, and for which I’ve seen so many enthusiastic and glowing reviews that made me determined to get round to reading it sooner rather than later. But things never work out the way you want and it’s still languishing on the mountain. So instead, I got hold of the unabridged audiobook narrated by Angela Dawe.

I thought the story was terrific and the characterisation was excellent. I can see why so many readers have fallen in love with Ian – he’s all the things you’d expect from a traditional romantic hero; rich, titled and handsome – but so much more. He suffers from what I imagine is a mild form of autism. He’s got practically a photographic memory, is a mathematical genius and can play any piece of music from memory once he’s heard it (being a musician myself, I always like a musical hero!). But he finds it hard to really connect with people – he takes everything literally and doesn’t understand the concept of jokes or irony; he is apt to disappear off into his own world when he is intrigued by something (such as the patterns of light through a cut crystal glass) and he is unable to look directly into anyone’s eyes.

Although ASD is a clearly recognised condition these days, back at the time in which the book is set, Ian’s behaviour was classified as at best “eccentric” and at worst “madness”. He was shut up in an asylum at a young age and subjected to all manner of “treatments” – ice-baths, beatings, electric shocks – until his eldest brother Hart inherited to the dukedom on the death of their father, and had Ian brought home.

His brothers are incredibly protective of him, although Hart is not above using Ian’s talents in his political dealings by having him commit entire and complex documents to memory.

One of the things that is so refreshing about Ian is his directness. He doesn’t understand the concept of lying or see the necessity for it; if he sees something he wants, he doesn’t vacillate, he just goes after it, and that’s one of the things I enjoyed so much about his relationship with Beth. The romance between them is well done – tender and very sexy – as Ian, having believed himself incapable of love, gradually discovers feelings for Beth which both confuse and scare him.

Beth Ackerley is the widow of an East End vicar who, for the past seven or eight years acted as companion to a wealthy woman who has recently died and left Beth her considerable fortune. At the beginning of the book, Beth is engaged to a man Ian doesn’t think is good enough for her, and he immediately sets about getting Beth to break the engagement. He is completely truthful with her, telling her some sordid details about her fiancé and also making no bones about the fact that he wants to sleep with her.

Beth is a terrific heroine. She’s not missish or easily shocked; she doesn’t shy away from her physical desire for Ian, and is not at all embarrassed by her enjoyment of the sexual act and Ian’s “bawdy talk”. She’s got the balls to stand up to Hart, she refuses to be cowed into dropping her inquiries into the events long ago which resulted in the suspicion of murder hanging over Ian; but more importantly than that, she loves and understands him.

“I do not think of him as Lord Ian Mackenzie, aristocratic brother of a duke and well beyond my reach; not as the Mad Mackenzie, an eccentric people stare at and whisper about.
To me, he is simply Ian.”

This is the first of four books about the Mackenzie family, and in it we meet Ian’s older brothers and his sister-in-law and the author skilfully plants the seeds of the plotlines for each family member and their subsequent stories.

Running alongside the romance between Ian and Beth is the story of two murders – one recent, one years ago – and the fanatical detective who is convinced of Ian’s guilt and his determination to have him imprisoned or returned to the asylum.

This is probably the weaker element of the book, although it does serve to give us a good look at the relationship between Ian and Hart, as it seems that each brother has sought to cover up for the other, unnecessarily as it turns out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story – the pacing and writing were good, the characterisation excellent, and I can tell I’m going to enjoy spending more time with the Mackenzie family in the rest of the series.

*In terms of the narration, I’ve not heard Angela Dawe before, and it took me a while to get used to her. Her English and Scottish accents are very hit and miss, although I did like the soft quality she brought to Ian’s speech; he’s often described as being hard – hard body, hard eyes – and the softness to his voice was a nice counterpoint to that. Her interpretation of Beth (apart from the inconsistency of the accent) is good – she captures her quick intelligence and sense of humour. There were certain of Ms Dawe’s vocal inflections that I found repetitive and somewhat irritating, but I suspect those are more to do with the fact that she isn’t British, and she clearly has problems sustaining the accent. One obvious giveaway is the fact that the cockney servants sound more as though they are from the Southern Hemisphere than from the East End! (This can be a common issue with American narrators trying to sustain an English accent – they go too far East and end up in Australia.)

At the time I first wrote this review (in March 2013), I hadn’t been listening to audiobooks all that long, and found Ms Dawe’s performance to be satisfactory overall. I tried listening to another book in the series more recently which has led to my revising this review, because the narration made me wince and I ended up switching it off – and don’t plan to return to it. I know that Ms Dawe has many fans when it comes to her narration of this particular series, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them and I’ll be sticking to the print versions from now on.*