“Death Sits Down to Dinner” by Tessa Arlen
For those who are going through “Downton Abbey” withdrawal, Tessa Arlen has produced just the pick-me-up. The Bainbridge Island author has penned her second Lady Montfort mystery, and it is an inspired combination of Edwardian manners and British detective fiction.
For starters, there is the inconvenient murder of a prominent philanthropist at a sparkling birthday celebration in London. The party was being hosted by society doyenne Hermione Kingsley for an up-and-coming political star named Winston Churchill. But when another of the guests, who happens to be the most generous benefactor for Miss Kingsley’s charity for orphans, is found after dessert with a knife between his ribs, it is devastating for the hostess.
Churchill advises everyone present to speak only with police about the affair, as loose gossip would compromise the success of Miss Kingsley’s upcoming fundraising event for her charity, the most highly-anticipated fete of the season.
But Lady Clementine Montfort, who recently helped detectives get to the bottom of a murder case at a weekend party of her own in “Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman,” believes she can quietly assist the investigation — after all, she is exceptionally well-connected to London society.
The inspectors politely but firmly discourage her from meddling — so does her husband — but that doesn’t keep Clementine from summoning her dependable housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, to London from the Montforts’ country estate.
In the last book, Clementine and Mrs. Jackson formed an unlikely upstairs-downstairs partnership as they sought clues in the killing of Clementine’s nephew. This happens again in “Death Sits Down to Dinner.” Although Mrs. Jackson initially is reluctant to get drawn into another one of her employer’s cloak-and-dagger schemes, there do seem to be bits and pieces of evidence that cry out for investigation.
The two women make discreet inquiries, each in her own circles, as they go about the business of assisting in preparations for Miss Kingsley’s charity event. Their sharp-eyed observations uncover secrets, scandals, alibis, and possible motives for murder. Then the plot thickens when another body turns up.
All the while, Arlen takes her readers on a delightful tour of extravagant soirees, luncheons, concerts and parties, while also noting the work that goes on below stairs and behind the scenes to make this social whirl possible. But class distinctions are beginning to soften in a number of ways, and she captures these shifting social conventions in small but deft indications.
The author has done her homework into the era. She references slang words and fashions and foods to create a world that seems to come alive on the page. She also knits in the real events and personalities of the time, from performances by the likes of Nijinsky, Nellie Melba and Sir Thomas Beecham, to the aviation pioneering of Thomas Sopwith, and the intensifying arms race between Germany and Britain.
“Death Sits Down to Dinner” is entertaining and enjoyable — from soup to nuts to red herrings. Let’s hope Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson return for another collaboration soon.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.