Monday, January 05, 2015

Book review: Tessa Arlen's Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

Combining the pleasurable dramas of the English country house novel and the richly detailed, tense atmosphere of a historical mystery, this involving debut features the unusual detective partnership between an aristocrat and her housekeeper. That said, the Countess of Montfort and Mrs. Jackson are not exactly BFFs. Tessa Arlen is too attuned to early 20th-century class distinctions to let that happen. When asked by her desperate employer to observe conversations below stairs at Iyntwood and report back, Mrs. Jackson is appalled, but her allegiance to the family she serves prods her along.

The murder victim of the title is Teddy Mallory, the spoiled only son of Lord Montfort’s sister. While everyone is horrified by the circumstances of his death (he’s found hanging from a gamekeeper’s gibbet the morning after the Montforts’ renowned summer party), he wasn’t well-liked. The mostly-unlamented Teddy has a long history of disreputable behavior, some of which is yet undiscovered. Even more curiously, two women, one a houseguest and one a new maid named Violet, vanished the same day.

The arrival of an aggressive Scotland Yard investigator with no respect for his betters throws the household into even more disarray. Because the Montforts’ heir, Harry, was seen having a vicious argument with Teddy, he appears guilty at first. However, his mother, Clementine, believes in his innocence and enlists Mrs Jackson to keep her ears to the ground.

Among the houseguests are a dizzying bevy of socialites, introduced for the most part all at once. The characters have the advantage here, since they know who’s who better than readers will, but over the course of the novel, their distinctive personalities sort themselves out.

The shifting rapport between the central pair of allies – an unconventional yet privileged noblewoman and an upper servant whose brusque efficiency and “hierarchical cast of mind” belie her relative youth – is one of the novel’s high points. Arlen has a firm grasp on period mindsets and, as expected of any novel set in England in 1913, she inserts relevant details on the changes sweeping the country, such as women’s suffrage – a movement many female characters resist.

The lovely descriptions of the rolling green countryside around Iyntwood place us right into that glorious setting. Through its master’s thoughtful reflections on his “still-feudal way of life” while on a morning’s ride around his estates, we also get a solid sense of his family’s long-entrenched relationship with the land and his protectiveness toward his servants – even though, he admits, he “wasn’t terribly sure what Violet looked like.” The book is full of these small but telling details.

In this not-quite cozy mystery, the resolution to the crime unfolds in a logical manner. Sufficient clues are planted to let readers guess the culprit a bit early. Since they make an impressive and successful team, I hope Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson will join their wits again in future volumes – in particular, it should be interesting to see how much the characters relax their social attitudes as World War I gets underway.

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Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman will be published by Minotaur/St. Martin's Press tomorrow in hardcover ($25.99, 320pp).  This post is among the first out of the gate for the blog tour hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley copy.


8 comments:

  1. Nice review, Sarah. Gotta love a good manor house mystery, even if it is a bit too easy to figure out.

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    1. I figured it out a couple of chapters ahead, but (without giving anything away) I didn't know all of the details involved. Looking back, though, there were some clues provided the whole time. I think all good mysteries should do the same - since what I really dislike are mysteries in which the solution comes out of left field and makes no sense given what's happened beforehand.

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  2. Sounds delish: all the elements that I love: pre-WWI, England, country manor house, murder mystery. YUM!

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    1. it's all a very enjoyable mix - and country house sagas, whether mystery or not, are the type of book I enjoy most of all.

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  3. Way to go, Sarah. Your review has me adding yet another book to my never ending TBR pile :-)

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    1. Adding books to people's TBRs is my secret goal ;-) It really was a lot of fun, and I liked that the class distinctions were front and center (and not brushed aside, like I've seen in other mysteries).

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  4. The intersection of the classes with this sleuth combo is what calls to me, especially with the approach of WWI. Thanks for that insight, in particular.

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    1. Yes, the class differences add to the level of tension in this mystery - one reason I thought it was especially well done.

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