“Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman”
If you’re already dreading the conclusion of another season of Downton Abbey, perhaps I can suggest a way to lessen the pain — search out Bainbridge Islander Tessa Arlen’s debut novel.
“Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman” combines upper crust savoir faire with working class pragmatism in this upstairs-downstairs murder mystery, set on an English estate during Edwardian times.
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The morning after Lord and Lady Montfort’s annual summer costume ball, a gruesome murder is discovered in the woods of their estate. The victim is their nephew Teddy, whose debauched lifestyle has apparently caught up with him in the most conclusive way. In an additional development, two women have gone missing overnight — one is a maid from below stairs, the other is the daughter of one of the visiting aristocratic families.
The local constable instructs all the revelers to remain on the estate while officials conduct their investigation.
Lady Montfort had seen her normally even-keeled son quarrel violently with Teddy the day before, so she wants to do what she can to focus the official enquiry away from her son. Confined to the estate, nervous and restless, she decides to do a little private sleuthing of her own, and she breaks with protocol to solicit the assistance of her trusty housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson.
Gossip is confined to no particular class, so while the Countess mines the palaver in her drawing room for any clues or insights, Jackson — reluctantly at first — undertakes to do the same with the chatter amongst the downstairs staff.
Given Teddy’s dubious dealings, there is plenty of conjecture going around — one possible suspect shrugs off the suggestion that she might have been the young man’s killer, noting that, “There were plenty of other people who wanted to do that. They were practically lining up.”
In contrast, the disappearance of the two young women seems to generate relatively mild concern amongst either the houseguests or the police.
In addition to creating a maze of clues, the author populates this story with colorful suspects, from rustic farmers to touchy parvenus to “stiff and sniffish” men with pedigrees. She offers some indelible images, such as the one of the party guest dressed as Britannia, “a gleaming bronze Corinthian helmet clamped firmly down over her eyes, champing slowly and deliberately through a generous plate of lobster salad.”
Arlen also explores the context of the times. Lord Montfort frets about the end of rural life in England as his family has known it for generations. Meantime, suffragettes in London are agitating for the vote while young men enthuse about the advent of aeroplanes and war brews with Germany.
“Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman” is a romp through England’s estate rose gardens and great halls, village pubs, and underground train stations. Arlen invests this tale with cosmopolitan details and desperate actions — and manners that range from naughty to exquisite — upstairs, downstairs and behind doors.
So I repeat my prescription: to stave off the onset of Downton withdrawal, this book may be just the thing.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com