After Not the Girl You Marry‘s cynicism, it was refreshing to discover a cozy, well-written historical mystery with an engaging, likeable heroine, her “downstairs” sidekick, A CAT NAMED JACK (who saves the day), a Yorkshire setting (one of my favourite places in the world), and a Christie-esque closed-manor murder. Our heroine is nineteen-year-old Lady Cecilia Bates of Danby Hall; her mother, the Duchess, determined to save the crumbling manor and family’s waning finances by arranging a lucrative marriage for her son; the Duke, urbane and warm, sells off the family treasures, piece by piece, to keep staff, grounds, tenants, and family; the heir, Patrick, handsome, but distracted and solely focussed on his botanical experiments. When the novel opens, Danby Hall awaits the arrival of Miss Annabel Clarke, the swimming-in-money American bride-to-be, whose fortune will save Danby Hall in exchange for a Duchess’s title. Lady Avebury has rallied the staff and her family to welcome Annabel with balls, masquerades, garden parties, and picnics. To that end, she has invited neighbouring aristos, as well as interesting London-based guests, one of whom, Richard Hayes, famous explorer, expires of strychnine poisoning at the first grand dinner. The spoiled, mercurial heiress believes the poison was meant for her, but Lady Cecilia Bates and the heiress’s New-Jersey-born lady’s maid, Jane, with Jack’s help, are on the case.
Like the wonderful Poppy Redfern I read a while ago, what gives Lady Takes the Case its charm is the character ensemble and loveable figure of Cecilia Bates. While Cecilia, maid Jane, and cat Jack, question, prod, and sneak into secret hidey-holes to discover who killed Hayes, the novel is permeated with the atmosphere of the old manor and its denizens, which spill out, delightfully, into a great group of villagers. At nineteen, Cecilia possesses a lovely ingenue quality, but she’s also smart, kind, and warm. She reads sensational and sentimental novels, knows and loves every nook and cranny of Danby Hall, and, most astutely, realizes the world is changing.
Many a moment arrives when Cecilia will muse about the changes coming to society, the possibilities, especially for women, of a life beyond hearth and home. Cecilia, though she had her come-out in last year’s London season, isn’t husband-hunting: “Cecilia sighed. No wonder she was so reluctant to get married herself.” Cecilia’s sentiments are echoed in the American lady’s maid’s, Jane’s, thoughts: “Jane didn’t want to marry. Not yet. She was sure there were adventures to be had first.” In two of the unlikeliest of young woman, one, an aristocrat; the other, a maid, we see a desire in young women for a life other than of marriage, though they both have an attraction to a nearby young man; their first thoughts are of attraction, not marriage. Cecilia muses about the necessity even for her brother to marry to save the family estate: ” … even if Cecilia chafed to be free, she did understand her mother’s worries. Understood what drove her. Cecilia loved that land, too, loved their home and the history of it all. But surely, there had to be another way to save it all, without sacrificing the Bates children’s happiness?” Cecilia’s understanding of this tension between the value and beauty of the land and manor with the urge to make choices for herself is one of the themes that makes this closed-manor murder mystery all the more compelling and deep.
The mystery too is part of the changing landscape of England’s Edwardian history. Cecilia’s father, a charming, kind man presides over a crumbling manor, no matter its beauty and tradition, maybe because of it. Cecilia’s mother, like Mrs. Bennett, desperate for decent marriages for her children, under her command, her heart is in the right place: to ensure their home and future. With Annabel’s arrival, that new element, the brash, wealthy American enters the ancient house. And with the murder, the changing outside world makes for an invasion (and it’s seen a few) that Danby Hall has yet to experience. Cecilia is very much aware of this: “Cecilia … knew how things had changed in the last few years. The old ways, when families at Danby ruled their fiefdoms and were not questioned, were allowed to run their own affairs as they saw fit, were gone. She wasn’t sure her parents would ever see that.” Though I had long-guessed the mystery’s resolution, the reasons behind and the machinations around it were way more interesting: sexual harassment, greed, manipulation.
Lest you think that Lady Takes the Case is humourless, I will give you a hint of some of its delights. A village of adorables, a cat with a propensity for pouncing on ribbons and solving crimes, witty dialogue, two sleuthing friends, Jane and Cecilia, with a shared love of books, especially romantic and sensational ones. And lest you think it is romance-void, I will hint at one cross-class tall, handsome Viking of a young man for Cecilia, who is kind, funny, and protective. And yes, another one for Jane too. I enjoyed every moment of Casey’s first-in-series and urge lovers of cozy mystery, cats, and a dab of romance to read it too. Also, I am eagerly awaiting the second in the series, out in June, where our Cecilia ventures forth and meets some suffragettes! With Miss Austen, we deem Lady Takes the Case possessed of “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Eliza Casey’s Lady Takes the Case is published by Berkley Prime Crime. It was released in November 2019 and may be procured at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Berkley Prime Crime, via Netgalley.