Jennifer Ashley: Speculations in Sin

Below Stairs #7

Why haven’t I heard of this series before? Though it’s the seventh book, I was completely taken in by it almost immediately, wanting to read the other six as soon as possible. Because it’s the seventh book there was a slight amount of catching up, but very slight. The main character, Mrs. Kat Holloway (the “Mrs” is an honorary title) is a cook for a wealthy London household in 1883. She has a 12 year old daughter her employers aren’t aware of, placed in a friend’s household.

As the book opens, she discovers that her friend’s husband, Sam, who is a bank clerk, is under suspicion for embezzling. It quickly becomes worse. Kat, on an investigative ruse with her employer’s daughter, has gained access to the bank to see if she can discover anything. While the two women are there, Sam is arrested for murder – a body has been found in one of the bank’s storage rooms. Kat is devastated, and rushes to her friend’s side.

She’s hampered by many factors. One, of course, is her job – being a cook for a large household is exhausting and she gets one afternoon out a week. Things are in a bit of an uproar in her own household as the butler has disappeared. And then she’s trying to figure out how she will investigate this crime, much less how her friend will be able to afford a lawyer – or will he simply be hanged?

As it turns out, Kat has plenty of allies, including a possible romantic partner, Daniel, who has very high up connections at Scotland Yard despite emerging from – as Sam has as well – the rough and tumble of the London Streets. Toughs are circling Sam’s wife Joanna offering “help” and Daniel is able to set up protection for both Joanna and Kat. It seems obvious to Kat that Sam is being set up by the bank to take the fall for both of the crimes, tying up both with a neat bow.

This is a really strong read for a couple of reasons. One is that Ashley is excellent with pacing, providing red herrings and plot twists at frequent intervals. I could not stop reading. The characters and set up are also really well done. Mrs. Holloway is an interesting woman with many shades – her work persona, her persona as a mother who misses her daughter, as a friend, and as an investigator. It’s unusual for an historical mystery to focus on the servants, as this novel does, but it’s certainly to the book’s advantage. It adds texture to the narrative and it’s interesting to read about the nuts and bolts functioning of a household.

The relationships within the book were also interesting and layered – the relationship of Mrs. Holloway to the butler is just one example, but all the relationships have the true to life quality of not being all one thing or another. There are good and bad things in each of her relationships. We’re with Kat as she figures out the solution to the crime and celebrate with her as well. She’s earned it! This was an incredibly fun read. — Robin Agnew