Hmmm, it looks like my favourite Below Stairs mystery, Death In Kew Gardens, has a rival in The Secret of Bow Lane. While I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the “ensemble cast” of characters, especially the butler Mr. Davies and assistant cook, Tess, The Secret of Bow Lane gave us more of Kat Holloway’s and Daniel McAdam’s backstories and brought them closer together. It was most pleasurable to read. In contrast to A Death at the Crystal Palace, the mystery held together, with a consistent, cohesive sequence of revelations leading to the resolution.
The Secret of Bow Lane refers to Kat’s childhood home, as well as where she was bamboozled by her bigamist husband and where she had her lovely baby, Grace, now baby no longer, but a perspicacious lady of eleven. She and Daniel McAdam call on Kat’s closely-held heartstrings and, at least in this latest volume and to the reader’s great delight, loosen them. But first, the back-cover blurb for clarity:
In Victorian-era London, amateur sleuth and cook Kat Holloway must solve a murder to claim an inheritance she didn’t know she had…
A stranger who appears on Kat’s doorstep turns out to be one Charlotte Bristow, legal wife of Joe Bristow, the man Kat once believed herself married to—who she thought died at sea twelve years ago. Kat is jolted by Charlotte’s claims that not only was Joe murdered, but he had amassed a small fortune before he died. Charlotte makes the cook an offer she cannot refuse—if Kat can discover the identity of Joe’s murderer, Charlotte will give her a share of the fortune Joe left behind.
With the help of Daniel McAdam, her attractive and charismatic confidante, Kat plunges into her own past to investigate. When it becomes apparent that the case of Joe’s death goes far deeper than simple, opportunistic theft, Kat and Daniel’s relationship is put to the test, and Kat herself comes under scrutiny as her connection to Joe is uncovered. She must race to catch the real killer before she loses her job and possibly her life.
One of the series’ aspects I initially found off-putting and which I’ve come to enjoy is Kat’s matter-of-fact voice and manner. Now that Ashley has developped her backstory sufficiently, Kat’s reticence is nicely balanced with her need to help those who come to her cook’s backdoor and a desire to seek justice. (Daniel beautifully plays into this and this volume gives us even more of his backstory, making him as rounded and interesting a character as Kat.) Kat’s personality and voice are evident from the opening scene, when Mrs. Bristow seeks her help:
But these days, as an acquaintance of Daniel McAdam, who had the habit of sending all sorts to me for my help, I felt an obligation to discover what this person needed…It was her. Charlotte. Mrs. Joseph Bristow. The woman who’d been married to my husband in the years I believed I’d been his wife.
Kat has reason to be cautious and frightened, given what the punishment, social and legal, would be for bigamy. Whether she is the injured party or not, Victorian society was not forgiving to a working-class woman, no matter how wonderful her cooking skills, who was also the mother of an illegitimate child. I’m glad Ashley brought this aspect of Kat’s life to a closure in this novel and opened the way for Kat and Daniel to be more to each other than friends. It is a deliciously slow-burning romance that adds to the mystery at the heart of each novel.
Given Joe Bristow’s abusive and negligent treatment of Kat (he was long dead by the time Grace was born, thank goodness), Ashley has skillfully developped Kat’s character with a going-towards-pulling-away-from friendship and intimacy. It is a joy to read about the good people who surround Kat; to start, Daniel, love-interest and friend:
Daniel laid his hands on mine again, the comfort of his touch too beguiling. “You begin at the beginning,” he said. “Where it all began for you, and for him. Bow Lane.”…This first step, he’d said, I must make on my own. I expect he wanted to give me time to settle my nerves without him watching every emotion that crossed my face.
Kat’s “upstairs” friend, Lady Cynthia:
Cynthia lounged back in the chair, crossing her well-made boots…”Beatrice and Benedick had much to work through before they declared their undying love at the end of act five. but they suited well, as do you and McAdam. Perhaps you are only in act four, when everything seems lost.”
Lovable butler, Mr. Davies, who often champions Kat, especially when Kat’s snooty employer, Mrs. Bywater, threatens her livelihood:
“If you decide to tell me any more of it, you are welcome to. I can be discretion itself.” Mr. Davis sent me a wise look, then continued out on silent feet. I finished straightening the newspapers, wondering if Mr. Davis knew more than he let on. He’d come to my defense several times when I’d clashed with Mrs. Bywater, and I’d be forever grateful to him for that. But I wondered now if he knew my secrets and had chosen to help keep them hidden rather than expose me. It gave me a warm feeling, a realization of friendship, but also a worry that I’d opened myself to far too many people.
(Let’s not forget: absent-minded mathematical genius, Mr. Thanos; Daniel’s sly, droll foster-brother, the vicar Errol Fielding; cook’s assistant, Tess, and boyfriend, Constable Caleb; the aristocrat-artist, Miss Townsend; even the Scotland Yard Inspector McGregor!)
This particular passage, in a nutshell, will tell you if you’d enjoy Ashley’s series (and while you can read this as a standalone, you’d enjoy it even more if you followed Kat’s growth over the previous books): clear, straightforward prose, a strong heroine-voice, and an ensemble cast of loving friends seeking truth and justice, living lives of purpose. And frankly, my favourite kind of romance too: slow-moving and slow-burning, based on friendship and compatibility, affection and humour, attraction and tenderness. With this latest volume, releasing today, Ashley has penned, as Miss Austen wrote, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Jennifer Ashley’s The Secret of Bow Lane is published by Berkley Crime and releases today, August 2nd. I am grateful to Berkley Crime for an e-galley (for the purpose of reading and writing this review) via Netgalley.