I’m glad to be caught up with Ashley’s Below Stairs mysteries with Death At the Crystal Palace in anticipation of #6, The Secret Of Bow Lane, whose premise sounds most intriguing and is set to be out next week. As always, Ashley’s amateur-sleuth-below-stairs-cook, Kat Holloway, is a wonderful heroine, but as with most mystery series I follow, it’s also the ensemble of characters around the central figure I love. This is no less true of Kat and her crew of sleuthing “aides”.
In this latest volume, there are two mysteries, tenuously connected, and somewhat half-baked, both of them. In Death at the Crystal Palace, Kat is tasked with discovering who is poisoning Lady Covington, the Bywaters’ neighbour where Kat is cook, all the while becoming embroiled in Daniel McAdam’s “police work” trying to bring to light who is bankrolling Irish rebel assassins. But it’s the friendships and potential love interests that see me love and follow the series, and especially because Kat’s “crew” are all infused with goodness, care, and the desire to bring justice (Kat, who never sees a wrong she doesn’t want to redress, address, or redeem). (They’re also quite funny.) Kat always finds the good in others, even when they’ve committed evil deeds and, were is just for that, Ashley has penned a wonderful heroine.
The two Crystal Palace mysteries come together in a scheme implicating secondary characters, Daniel and Kat donning aristocratic disguises, and a plot involving a “paste” diamond necklace reminiscent of de Maupassant’s famous short story. I can’t say they held together very well, but that didn’t deter from my enjoyment because I never read for “the mystery,” but character, voice, setting, and mood.
The novel opens with the ensemble cast at the Crystal Palace where Mrs. Covington pleads with Kat to find her slow-moving poisoner. Kat pursues the trail to the poison (its source is one of the cool aspects of the plot) in an on-again-off-again fashion, seeking answers to Mrs. Covington’s near-poisoning and her step-daughter’s, Erica’s, sadly successful one, taking time off from her sleuthing to don disguises to help Daniel McAdam (disguised as an aristocratic fop and his fiancée). It was nice to see Kat, who’s quite beautiful, with the help of her friends, Lady Cynthia and artist Miss Townsend, dress up, but what I loved even more is Kat’s contentment with her actual life, cooking, seeing her daughter, earning her own living (no matter how hard and not terribly generous), creating recipes, and falling in love with Daniel. It’s been a hard-won battle for Kat, over five volumes, and it was satisfactory to read about it.
A bit of a hodge-podge with the mystery, but with the re-appearance of Kat, Daniel, the rascally vicar, Errol Fielding, Lady Cynthia, her shy love interest, Mr. Thanos, and the irrepressible downstairs staff, Mr. Davis, Tess, and James are always a delight. Onwards to Bow Lane and Kat’s, Daniel’s, et. al.’s further adventures.