Reviewed by Tori
Favorite Quote: “I often pity the upper classes. I have the option to take a job to keep myself fed, no matter how menial the position. Lady Cynthia has no prospects unless she marries and no inheritance unless some benefactor provides it for her. She must beg for room and board from her friends and family, be the poor relation, the spinster no one wants. No wonder she puts on trousers and behaves boorishly. I might do the same.”
Kat Holloway, a talented cook, has been hired on by the Mayfair residence after leaving her former position due to a small matter of her employer dying. Formally trained and hiding a few secrets of her own, Kat has no qualms in dealing with the reclusive Lady Rankin, the authoritarian Lord Rankin, or any member of the particular household as long as they stay out of her way and allow her to do her job. When the scullery maid/kitchen assistant is bludgeoned to death in the pantry, Kat is determined to discover who killed this bright young woman and why. With the help of the elusive Daniel McAdams, his son James, Lady Rankin’s cross-dressing sister Lady Cynthia, and a math genius, Kat and her friends soon discover a treasonous plot that threatens life, limb, and liberty.
Death Below Stairs is the first in Jennifer Ashley’s historical mystery series featuring a young, single, intelligent working woman to whom trouble seems to actively seek out. Set in the Victorian era, Ashley focuses her story on those who live beneath the stairs, taking a considerable amount of time to describing this world while paying special attention to the kitchen, the menus, and the effort involved in feeding a large household. I enjoy historicals that build around the working class. Not everyone can be nobility and not everyone’s HEA is found by marrying into it.
Kat Holloway and Daniel McAdams were first introduced in the prequel novella-A Soupcon of Poison. I didn’t read the novella beforehand and was not put out by any means. Ashley does a mild recap that brings you up to speed through the novella does give some insight into the heroine’s history with Mr. McAdams. The story starts out slow and garrulous as Ashley uses a heavy hand to build the world and character base while setting up the main conflict. Regardless, I found myself instantly smitten by the women of this household. From the housekeeper’s relationship with the mistress of the house to the sister in law’s attempts to live her life on her own terms to Kat’s own personal demons, each woman has chosen to deal with the constraints of their gender through various means.
Kat starts out strong and sure of herself and her role in the world. Trained professionally to be a cook, Kat’s mother was determined her daughter would have a career and as much independence as allowed by society. As we get to know more about Kat, we see beyond her professional persona and we learn of her past and the lengths she goes to protect it. It’s because of that past that Kat keeps from getting too close to anyone; especially Daniel McAdams.
Daniel is a bit of an enigma. A supposed jack of all trades, he is a chameleon whose origins and current occupation are unknown. He pops up when Kat seems to need him most, only to disappear without a word. A few shared kisses don’t inspire her confidence and she remains wary of his intentions. We learn a bit more about him through his son James though Ashley keeps him a man of mystery for the time being. While there is a romantic attraction between he and Kat with the potential of more, it is not the base on which this story is built upon.
An eclectic cast of secondary characters only adds to the suspense, intrigue, and humor as the original one mystery slowly merges into a second mystery. The story’s pacing picks up considerably in the second half with more action and engaging dialogue as we follow the hints and clues to the end. The conclusion is rather convoluted as we learn how the assistant’s murder ties into a plot against the Queen. Fast and furious, the storyline and subsequent subplots resolve in a clear and concise manner, placing the final piece in the puzzle, showing us the big picture. There is an epilogue and a small passage from book two-Scandal Above Stairs.
Ashley’s latest venture is entertaining despite some issues that I’m sure will fade as the series matures. Fans of historical mysteries with strong female protagonist and handsome mysterious sidekicks will feel right at home in this world. I look forward to reading book two.