The altruistic Lady Emily Hargreaves finds murder close to home in this tale of mayhem that takes place both upstairs and downstairs in Anglemore Park. Set against a bucolic background, the Hargreaves’ grand estate and its neighbor Montagu Manor are appropriate places for a colorful mystery that includes a beautiful, innocent servant and a wealthy Lord searching for a new lease on love.
Throughout the years, Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband, Colin, have earned themselves a reputation as solid investigators. Though they make an excellent team, they couldn’t think of less propitious circumstances to find themselves in when they are thrust into yet another mystery. A house that has sheltered the same family for more than four centuries is perhaps the least likely place for murder. When neighbor Archibold Scolfield walks through Anglemore Library’s French doors then falls dead on the floor, the grievous event tumbles the Hargreaves into a complex web of the macabre as Emily begins to discover the odd relationships that Archibold had with a number of paramours he had been courting.
Apparently, on the night before the murder, a festive atmosphere filled Montagu Manor as Archibold and his cousin Matilda hosted a lavish party. Colin focuses on Matilda as the prime suspect because it is she who will benefit most from Archibald’s death. While Matilda's shock gives away to raw grief, Emily and Colin realize it would be a mistake to underestimate the desire most people have to rise in the ranks of society. Still, no one stands out as the obvious suspect—apart from Matilda and frail-looking Cora Fitzgerald, the daughter of a vicar who at some point expected to marry Archibald.
Determined not to let the restrictions on her sex get her down, Emily starts issuing orders, procuring help from loyal Colin, who is forced to rely on his skill and discretion in handling “difficult matters.” Things get a little complicated when Matilda’s far distant cousin Rodney Scolfield arrives to take up residence. Purporting to have a legitimate claim to Matilda’s fortune. Rodney is considered the rightful heir courtesy of the entail, but he sounds like an absolute reprobate and is thought to be some sort of fortune hunter. With his Oxbridge English and “just a touch of the American,” deeply-tanned Rodney begins to woo Matilda while Colin and Emily investigate whether Rodney does in fact have a motive and a greater role in murder.
Although the tale depicts a somewhat rose-colored account of the upper classes and the opinions of their servants, the story does give us an insider’s glimpse into the Victorian period, even if it is a bit watered-down. Much of what takes place in Alexander’s novel is ridiculous and improbable considering the time in which it is set. Yet the main appeal is learning how Lady Emily’s kindly, maternal ways steadily become an asset as she fights to find justice for Archibald Scholfield, even when she learns he may have been a cad and an abuser of women.
I do love Alexander’s ability to capture this setting and time period. And what a master she is at capturing the sights, tastes, and sounds of the worlds her characters inhabit. The descriptions of everything from the scrumptious clothes to the sweeping landscapes of Anglemore Estate positively drip with vibrancy. In this episode, she adds the machinations of the servant class, the tedium of chores and the reflections of conscientious Lily as she relates from a third-person perspective her friend Sarah and the Hargreaves, who continue to value her position as housemaid. Although the romance between Lily and stereotypical alpha male Lord Simon Flyte (who takes a shine to the maid’s artistic sensibilities) is predictable, there is much pleasure to be had in the way their courtship is warily approved by Lily’s “betters.”
The author does a nice job with the murder, adding clever twists and turns and red herrings which keep the momentum of the story moving along as a variety of disturbing incidents flesh out the characters of Lily and her arch-nemesis, Prudence. The reveal at the end is surprisingly climactic as Alexander continues to endow her beloved Lady Emily with joy and a feisty nature that does not belittle her circumstances as “kept” wife, even though she continues to hang on the arm of her beloved Colin.