Death In Kew Gardens, number three in Ashley’s Kat Holloway Below Stairs mysteries and, at least in its first half, the best one yet (I’d still recommend you read the first two, I loved’em). As you know, I don’t read mysteries for the “puzzle-mystery-solution”, or for the criminal’s motive or psychology, but the detecting main character and, in Ashley’s series’ case, her marvelous detecting team of “below stairs” maids, butlers, housekeepers, and mysterious policeman/detective/government agent Daniel McAdam (man of many roles and disguises) and his friends. Of all the mystery series I read, I love Ashley’s for her protagonists and friends, who help Kat Holloway, an inspired cook by profession, solve crimes and bring justice. Kat is talented, smart, beautiful, and kind. In Death In Kew Gardens, Kat’s kindness sets off the novel’s mystery. As Kat shops with her mercurial, temperamental, and hilarious cook’s assistant, Tess (I loved her!), she accidentally knocks over a passerby, Mr. Li, whom she then helps up. That night, Mr. Li knocks on the Rankin house kitchen door, where Kat cooks for the Bywaters and their niece and her friend, Lady Cynthia, and gifts Kat with a box of aromatic tea.
Unfortunately, also that night, the Bywaters and Lady Cynthia’s neighbour, Sir Jacob Harkness, a man who made his fortune in China and whose home is full of priceless Chinese treasures, is murdered. Moreover, that night, Sir Jacob was seen in Kew Gardens with other botanical specialist-types because Sir Jacob is an expert on all things Chinese plants. Suspicion immediately falls on Mr. Li for no other reasons than he was in the vicinity and is “a stranger in a strange land”. I thought Ashley did an excellent job of portraying the prejudices that would lead the police and public to suspect a “foreigner” in Victorian England. But she balanced this beautifully with Kat’s kind nature, as well as those around her, who support Mr. Li. Mr. Li’s own story, as he reveals it to Kat, his reasons for being in England, etc., make for a compelling narrative and are in keeping with the themes of colonialism and exploitation that Ashley explores. The mystery itself, as the body count rises, is lost in Mr. Li’s story and Kat and Co.’s wonderful relationships. It makes for a skewed narrative, but this reader didn’t miss it (the sheer action of the resolution, however, was terrific, though I’d guessed the culprit ages ago).
On the other hand, the relationships and interactions of Kat with her fellow “below stairs” servants, as well as Lady Cynthia and other friends, especially Daniel McAdam, his friend Mr. Thanos, and son James, make for a great read. Tess who’s kind, generous, and has a big, truth-telling mouth and fiery temper, is a hoot! Mr. Davis, the butler, ever fastidious and exacting in his work, is as kind, in his fashioin, as Kat. And then there’s the villainess new-housekeeper, Mrs. Daley, and her foiling — cackling-laughter dee-light-ful! But my heart belongs to Kat and Daniel’s growing love; here’s a snippet that says you don’t want to miss this series:
“You have no need to look out for me,” I said in surprise. “If I draw the wrong conclusions, then it is my fault.” Daniel’s fingers tightened.
“I do have need. To look out for you, I mean.” Wind stirred his hair around the edges of his cap.
“Really,” I said faintly. “I look out for myself.”
“I don’t agree. You have murders in your house and next door, you give aid to fugitives — I include myself in this number — and you put yourself in danger. You need a guardian angel. Or maybe you have one, a very good one, seeing as you’re still alive.”
“Quite amusing, Mr. McAdam.”
Banter, affection, friendship, camaraderie, esprit de corps, loyalty, conviviality: these characters share and it makes for a warm and wonderful read. With Miss Austen, we find in Ashley’s third Below Stairs mystery “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Jennifer Ashley’s Death In Kew Gardens is published by Berkley Prime Crime. It was released on June 4th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Berkley, via Netgalley.