Monday, April 04, 2016

Book review: Death Sits Down to Dinner, by Tessa Arlen

Amid the high-ranking aristocracy of early 20th-century England, investigating a murder isn’t just mentally invigorating and quite possibly dangerous – it’s socially improper. Still, Clementine Talbot, Countess of Montfort, refuses to temper her curiosity.

Events from the first novel in the series, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, proved that she and her housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, made a good sleuthing team, despite the latter’s traditionalist views about crossing class boundaries. Now, when Clementine’s longtime friend Hermione Kingsley hosts a party in honor of Winston Churchill’s 39th birthday, and one of the guests is found face down at the table after dinner, Clementine knows who to ask for help. Even if it means interrupting Mrs. Jackson’s pleasant Christmas holiday in the country and whisking her to London.

The women’s efforts complement one another, for each can operate within her social circle – that is, upstairs and below – and then compare notes on what they discover. With her paid companion ill and confined to her rooms, Miss Kingsley accepts Mrs. Jackson’s assistance in organizing an event for her favorite charity, a home for orphaned boys.  This gives Mrs. Jackson plenty of opportunity to check things out for herself at the murder scene. If, that is, she agrees to join forces with Clementine again.

Solving the “why” is the first puzzle. The victim is a pretentious middle-aged bore, but nobody knows a motive for killing him. Neither does the reader, at first, but Mrs. Jackson, proceeding discreetly, turns up some suspicious goings-on.

The lightness of the tone, and the amusing circumstances the characters find themselves in, counterbalance the serious issues that ground the novel historically. While this entry stands alone, readers continuing from the earlier story will notice a deepening of character development, for Mrs. Jackson in particular. Given her early background, some of the situations she encounters while investigating hold great personal meaning.

Arlen takes care to provide social and political context for her characters’ life choices and behavior. “Underneath the bright chatter at dinner parties,” realizes Clementine, “there was an undercurrent of unease that belied the swaggering conviction that Britain held center stage in world affairs.”  As readers of WWI-era fiction know, the times are a-changing. The Montforts’ heir has a passion for flying, which worries them both, and war looms on the horizon, though not everyone foresees it.

And as social barriers start to crumble, the protagonists’ partnership grows stronger. As the novel wraps up, Lord Montfort may still be embarrassed by his wife’s detective talents, but one can guess that if Clementine ever gets the chance to solve another murder, Mrs. Jackson won’t hesitate to join her.

Death Sits Down to Dinner is published by Minotaur this month (hb, 320pp).  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a NetGalley copy.  This review is part of the blog tour with HFVBT.   See also my review of the first book, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.


  1. I love your reviews Sarah they are often thoughtful and always convey the fullness of the story!

    1. Thanks, Tessa! Really enjoyed this one, as I had the previous book. I'm glad to see there will be more in the series to look forward to.