Julian Kestrel is back in this third Kate Ross mystery, Whom the Gods Love [Viking 1995], again faced with a murder the authorities cannot solve. The larger than life Alexander Falkland, one of the leaders of The Quality, young, handsome, with a beautiful wife, elegant home and many admirers, is found murdered in his study, bludgeoned with a fireplace poker during a house party. Falkland’s father, Sir Malcolm, so frustrated by the dead-end investigations of the Bow Street Runners, turns to Kestrel to find his son’s killer. Faced with a good number of suspects among family, friends and servants (so many in fact, that Ross prefaces the work with a listing of the cast of characters!), Kestrel falls whole-heartedly into his role as amateur sleuth. A dandified man of fashion [but we the reader know him to be so much more], Kestrel knows many of Falkland’s set and embarks on his questioning of all suspects in his charming way, all the while wondering if Alexander Falkland may not be all that he seems.
Ross is a master of plot and character – even the minor parts are well-fleshed out, and as the story turns and clues are uncovered with each chapter (Ross’s chapter headings alone are perfectly tuned), the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the complicated mystery surrounding Falkland’s death. Kestrel stumbles upon another murder, and as in Ross’s previous two mysteries, Cut to the Quick and A Broken Vessel, Kestrel needs to identify an unknown woman as well as unravel the mystery of who had reason to kill her.
We are again transported into Regency London, with all the social life at Almacks, Tattersalls, Cornhill, Rotten Row, the Grand Strut in Hyde Park, and various outlying Inns, all portrayed as it would have been. The language of the lower classes and the “Beau Monde” is spot-on [blue-deviled, missish], the carriages: gigs, cabriolets, hackneys, etc.; architectural details abound; fashion description is so exact, you feel you are there, sitting in the room: in this passage, one of the “Quality” suspects is thusly described:
Felix was about Julian’s age, the son of an autocratic peer from the bleak northeastern counties. Julian suspected that the grey, barren landscapes of his childhood accounted for his taste in clothes, which certainly needed excusing. Today he was wearing a canary-yellow tailcoat, white trousers, and two waistcoats, the inner of scarlet satin, the outer with black and white stripes. His neckcloth was a cherry-coloured India print, splashed with blue and yellow flowers. A bunch of gold seals, all shaped like chessmen, dangled from his watch-chain. He had an amiable rangy figure and curly brown hair that tended to stand on end. [p. 132]
[from The Regency Fashion Page]
Ross depicts the legal system in England at the time – Lincoln’s Inn figures prominently, and Kestrel is often critical of the lack of a strong police force and the present state of law enforcement [the magistrate system and the Bow Street Runners]. There is much scholarly discussion between the characters, with references to Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and the state of the woman’s position in society; there is even a bit of phrenology thrown in!
But it is Julian Kestrel who pulls all these diverse goings-on together. He is witty [“I’m afraid I’m obliged to trample on your sensibilities”], with a ready retort always at hand to put one on edge, but also sensitive and sympathetic, always with a kind word or deed to put one at ease. And, as in the previous two books, Ross gives us fleeting glimpses of Kestrel’s own past, his background as mystifying to the other characters and to us readers as the mystery he is set on solving. In this book, we hear only a faint mention of Sally from A Broken Vessel; we learn that he and his father went to London plays; that he gained his wide knowledge from his own stay on the Continent where he read the controversial Wollstonecraft in French translation; and we learn more about his actress mother and his disinherited father. Kestrel remains the most loveable enigma, with all his shadowy past life, his apparent shallow present life of leader of fashion extraordinaire:
In the afternoon, Julian went home for a session with his tailor. His hobby of detection could not be allowed to interfere with his profession of dress. The tailor measured him for some sporting garments for the autumn and made yet another attempt to persuade him to pad his coats. ‘The very latest fashion, Mr. Kestrel!’ he pleaded.
‘My dear man, if I followed the fashions, I should lose any power to lead them. And not for you nor anyone else will I consent to look like a pincushion with legs.’ [p. 169]
With all this, Kestrel masterfully guides us along in solving the murders, feeling at home in the halls of the Quality, as well as in the environs of the poorer classes. I will tell no more of the plot – it is a fabulous journey, and leaves me quite anxious to get on to the next book!
5 full inkwells