I spent a good part of the December holidays making the acquaintance of Julian Kestrel – Regency dandy, amateur sleuth, and main character in a series of mysteries by Kate Ross [alas! not unlike Jane Austen, Ms. Ross died of cancer at a young age and we have only four of these Kestrel novels to read, and re-read, and likely read again.] I highly recommend you head immediately to your local library or local bookstore and start the first book, RIGHT NOW. You are in for a most fabulous journey!
Cut to the Quick [Viking 1993] is sort of an Agatha Christie whodunit – all the characters together in a large cavernous country house named Bellegarde, partly built in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, with winding staircases and secret passageways; an unknown woman is found dead, everyone in the house has a back story and the plot unfolds….
The novel begins with Julian Kestrel rescuing a very “in his cups” Hugh Fontclair from a game of hazard at a London gaming establishment. In gratitude Fontclair asks Kestrel to be best man at his wedding, though they have only just met, and as Kestrel has no idea why he is being asked, he decides to head to the country to find out why.
Enter the characters: Hugh Fontclair, just 21, forced into a marriage with a woman he does not know; Sir Robert and Lady Fontclair, Hugh’s parents, agreeing to the marriage but obviously hiding something; Lady Tarleton, Sir Robert’s sharp-tongued, very angry sister; Colonel Fontclair, Sir Robert’s brother, a war hero; Guy, the Colonel’s son, a likeable, ne’er do-well, often drunk rake; Philippa Fontclair, Hugh’s eleven-year old sister, immediately smitten with Kestrel; Isabelle, the orphaned cousin with hopeless feelings for Hugh; Maud Craddock, Hugh’s wife-to-be, a pawn in her father’s plans, who befriends Kestrel; Mark Craddock, Maud’s father, a wealthy tradesman shunned by the Fontclairs – but he holds all the cards; Dr. MacGregor, summoned to the house to deal with the dead body – he becomes Kestrel’s confidante and friend; Dipper, Kestrel’s manservant; and of course, the unidentified corpse … WHO is found dead in Kestrel’s bed. As they are the unknown house quests, both Kestrel and Dipper are the prime suspects, and Kestrel is drawn into solving the crime, at first to prove his own and Dipper’s innocence and then because his sleuthing skills are far superior to anyone else’s, including the local magistrates and London’s Bow Street Runners. Not all is as it seems at Bellegarde.
And so we are introduced to Ross’s alter ego, her young Regency dandy, the “top of the tree,” the fashionista of London’s “Quality”, where what Kestrel does (or doesn’t do) is copied by one and all:
Kestrel had first appeared in London society a year or two ago, and hardly anything was known about him, though he was said to be related in some dubious way to a landed family in the north. If he had been anything but a dandy, such vagueness about his pedigree would have been fatal, but of course the most spectacular of the dandies was absolved from society’s usual inquisition into breeding and birth.
‘He always wears black in the evening – it’s all the crack in the dandy set, and of course Kestrel, being such a howling swell, was one of the first to take it up…’
And we learn more about his appearance through the eyes of 11-year old Philippa when she first sees him:
She looked at him approvingly, liking him much better that the dull, handsome men [her sister] Joanna admired. He had a dark, irregular face and hair of a rich brown, like mahogany. His eyes were brown too, but with a green gleam about them, especially when he smiled, or was looking at you very intently. He was slender and spare and not above medium height, but he had presence – the way royalty probably did in the old days, before it was fat and fussy and came from Germany. He looked splendid in his clothes, and yet there was nothing showy or striking about them, except that his linen was so spotless, and everything fit him so well. Being a dandy was not so much what you wore, Philippa decided, but how you wore it.
But we quickly learn that Kestrel too is not what he seems – he has a past we only see glimpses of, his present life of apparent wealth not quite the case; he has a thief for a manservant; and he has a charm and a wit that disarms most every woman he encounters, and many of the men as well. His integrity is never in doubt – he is honest and true, and he can read others with little fuss – in short, the perfect objective detective [even his name is telling!] – he is another Peter Wimsey, Adam Dalgliesh, Alan Grant, Roderick Alleyn – all themselves a mystery to draw the reader in, but here with the setting of Regency England. And in each book, Ross gives out a few tidbits of information about him: see how much we discover about him from this description of his home:
Julian Kestrel lived in a first-floor flat in Clarges Street. The ceilings were high, and the windows large. The walls were painted ivory. The mahogany furniture was handsome but not too plentiful; Julian hated clutter. Here and there were keepsakes he had picked up on his travels: a Venetian glass decanter, a Moorish prayer rug, a marble head of a Roman goddess, an oil painting of the Tuscan hills. Crossed rapiers hung over the mantelpiece; they looked ornamental, but closer inspection revealed they had seen a good deal of use. A small bust of Mozart occupied a place of honor by the pianoforte. Under the piano was a canterbury full of well-worn sheets of music.
And Ross showcases the Regency in all its glories – it helps to know something of the period (the Regency Lexicon is most useful!), as she weaves her story through country roads, in carriages and coaches, in London’s streets, the architecture of the houses, the description of the fashions, the elegant social life – it is all here. And did I mention that this is a MYSTERY?? – it is deftly drawn, Ross a master of characterization and plot. No more on that score, as you must just read the book! But as for me, I am on to the next, Broken Vessel, another mystery with hopefully a few more facts about Kestrel and I will continue my reviewing henceforth!
4 1/2 full inkwells (out of 5)