Book Review ~ ‘Whom the Gods Love’

book-cover-whom-gods-loveJulian 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

 See my reviews of Cut to the Quick and A Broken Vessel

Book Review ~ “A Broken Vessel”

ross-broken-vessel-coverJulian Kestrel returns in this second mystery by Kate Ross [Viking 1994], A Broken Vessel.  Several months after his amateur but superior sleuthing at Bellegarde, home of the Fontclairs, [see Ross’s first book, Cut to the Quick, and my review] Kestrel is again thrown into the mix of murder and mayhem when the sister of his manservant, Dipper, shows up in her brother’s life after a two-year absence.  Sally Stokes is a prostitute and a thief, made of the same cloth as her now-reformed [hopefully] pick-pocket brother. After an evening of turning tricks with three very different “coves,” from each of whom she steals a handkerchief,  she discovers a letter written by an unknown woman, mysteriously locked up in an unnamed place, begging forgiveness and help from her family.  But whose pocket did Sally lift the letter from? – Bristles, the middle-aged skittish man; Blue Eyes, the elegant and handsome gentleman of the “Quality”; or Blinkers, the be-speckled young man who played all too rough with Sally, leaving her sore, battered and frightened. 

Here is how we first see Sally: 

She pulled the pins out of her hair and put them on the washstand for safe-keeping; she was always losing hairpins.  Her nut-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders: long at the back, but curling at the front and sides, in imitation of the fashion plates in shop windows.  Not that she would ever look like one of them, with their fair skins, straight noses, and daintily pursed lips.  She had a brown complexion, a snub nose and a wide mouth, with a missing tooth just visible when she smiled.  Still, she was satisfied with her face.  There was not much an enterprising girl could not do with a little cunning and a pair of liquid brown eyes.

So Dipper brings Sally to his apartment to get her off the street and give her a chance to heal.  He shares this apartment with his employer, Julian Kestrel, the Regency dandy, known far and wide for his fashion and manners, the man everyone emulates in all things dress and gentlemanly behavior.  We have already learned in Ross’s first book that there is so much more to Kestrel than this dandified appearance – his growing friendship with Dr. MacGregor serves as a foil for the reader to see Kestrel in more human terms, and MacGregor’s unasked questions become ours: all we know is that Kestrel’s father was a gentleman, disinherited upon marrying an actress, and that Kestrel has been an orphan for a good many years.  Although he appears to have money and is viewed as such by his cohorts, we, the reader, and Dipper know this not to be the case – but where DOES he get the funds to lead this gentleman’s life, buy these fine clothes, live in France and Italy for years before settling in London?  We learn a bit more in this book…but not much!

 Here is Dr. MacGregor, not of London and critical of all the goings-on there, learning about the gentlemanly art of duelling:

 ‘If you thought he was lying or hiding something. Why didn’t you tax him with it?’ asks MacGregor.

[Kestrel]  ‘If I called him a liar point-blank, I should have had to stand up with him, which would have been deuced inconvenient, and not at all part of my plans.’

‘Do you mean to say you’d have exchanged pistol shots with him over a mere matter of words?’

‘Not if there were any honourable way to avoid it.  But accusing a gentleman of lying is the deadliest of insults. If he’d insisted on receiving satisfaction, I should have had no choice but to give it to him.”

‘But that’s preposterous! It’s criminal!  I don’t understand you at all.  One minute you’re investigating a possible murder with all the seriousness it deserves – and the next minute you say you’d stand up and shoot at a man because he took offence at something you said!’

‘Duelling isn’t murder, whatever the press and pulpit say about it.  If one gentleman insults another, he knows what the consequences will be: they’ll fight according to the laws of honour, as nations fight according to the laws of war.  Killing an unarmed man, or -God forbid!- a woman, is completely different.’

‘Well, I suppose you can’t help those wrong-eaded notions.  You probably learned them at your father’s knee before you were old enough to know better.’

‘Oddly enough, my father had much the same view of duelling as you do.  But then, my father was too good to live.’ He added quietly,  ‘And he didn’t.’


 The discovery of the letter wrapped up in one of Sally’s stolen handkerchiefs sets the plot in motion – they must find which of the three men carried the letter, who the woman is, and where she is being held.  Many plot twists, many characters appearing, each with a tale to tell – are they all connected in some way, or are they all separate unrelated but oh so interesting mysteries of their own?  When Sally finally discovers that the woman who wrote the letter was an “inmate” of the Reclamation Society’s prison-like home for recovering prostitutes and has been found dead from an apparent suicide, Kestrel’s shackles are raised, his detective skills in high gear, and he, Sally and Dipper pursue the three men to find out the truth.  And along the way, we see Dr. MacGregor’s astute eye upon Sally and her effect on Kestrel – can this street-wise, sharp little spitfire possibly soften the edges of the leader of the ton?  Or is Kestrel immune to such feminine wiles? (and those “liquid brown eyes!) 

Ross writes a compelling tale, her research into Regency England, its language (she is adept at presenting the dialect of the streets and the Regency-speak of the “Quality”), the manners and mores, evident on every page; her knowledge of the underside of London life makes the telling very graphic and realistic – you will learn much about prostitution on the streets of London, the religious zealots who acted against it (indeed, the title is from a Psalm), the Bow Street Runners and the all too-ineffective police forces of the time, and best of all, the mystery is excellent!  and while I often “figure” these things out, I was most pleased to have the various side stories pull together with a few surprises along the way.  All in all, a fine mystery, with wonderfully drawn characters, and enough tidbits about Kestrel’s background to more than gently coax this reader into the third book in the series, Whom the Gods Love.

 4 1/2 full inkwells (out of 5)

Book Review ~ “Cut to the Quick”

cut_to_the_quickI 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)