A Death by Any Other Name is a delightful Edwardian mystery set in the English countryside. Building on the success of her last two mysteries in the same series, Tessa Arlen returns us to the same universe full of secrets, intrigue, and, this time, roses.
The elegant Lady Montfort and her redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson's services are called upon after a cook is framed and dismissed for poisoning a guest of the Hyde Rose Society. Promising to help her regain her job and her dignity, the pair trek out to the countryside to investigate a murder of concealed passions and secret desires. There, they are to discover a villain of audacious cunning among a group of mild-mannered, amateur rose-breeders. While they investigate, the rumor mill fills with talk about a conflict over in Prussia where someone quite important was shot. There is talk of war and they must race the clock to solve the mystery as the idyllic English summer days count down to the start of WWI.
Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's latest does not disappoint.
About the Author
TESSA ARLEN is the author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman and Death Sits Down to Dinner. She is the daughter of a British diplomat, and had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the US in 1980 and worked as an HR recruiter for the LA Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Read an Excerpt
A Death by Any Other Name
By Tessa Arlen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Tessa Arlen
All rights reserved.
Coming home after a holiday is almost as enjoyable as the holiday itself, Edith Jackson thought as she surveyed the familiar comfort of her bedroom and parlor, her eyes lingering over beloved objects that she had collected over the years. Here it all was, just as she had left it: her small library in one corner, a pretty writing bureau by the window that she had been given by Mr. Hollyoak, the butler, to celebrate her appointment from first housemaid to housekeeper ten years ago. She sat down in a deeply cushioned wing chair, a present to herself four years ago: a fireside chair that offered deep comfort for long winter afternoons with a good book. However humble or simple these simple objects appeared to be, they nevertheless made her homecoming a welcome one.
She pulled her canvas rucksack across the carpet toward her and carefully took from its place, between her nightie and a pair of heavy woolen stockings, a slightly creased watercolor of the magnificent view from Stanage Edge in Derbyshire painted by her friend Emily Biggs. She propped the painting up on the mantelpiece, tilting it so it would be visible from her armchair and then sat back down to enjoy it. Considering that there had been a stiff breeze blowing when she had set up her easel, Emily had done quite a good job of capturing the immensity of the peak district in northern England with its gritstone cliffs, outcrops of boulders and wide, ever-changing skies.
As Mrs. Jackson gazed at Emily's painting she realized how much she would miss her friend's outgoing company and good-natured disposition. Their walking holiday of the hills and dales of Derbyshire, with its open prospects, had given each day a sense of endless liberty — a pleasant contrast to the often claustrophobic life they led in service to families of consequence. Emily Biggs, the niece of the Talbot family's old nanny, worked as a governess to Sir Stanley Pritchard's three youngest daughters at neighboring Northwood. Mrs. Jackson felt more than a little sympathy for Emily, as Sir Stanley ruled his household with a rod of iron and had an unpredictable temper; a man wholly unlike the Earl of Montfort, whose grand Elizabethan house, Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson was proud to call home as its housekeeper.
But however placid the atmosphere at Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson's holiday in the north of England had been a particularly welcome break; she rarely strayed from the earl's principal country seat, unless she was required to make the occasional trip up to the Talbot family's London house if her ladyship had need of her particular help. She sighed as she got up from the chair to finish her packing. Lady Montfort in the last two years had developed what could only be described as a rather intrusive desire to involve herself in other people's problems. Not the usual sort of problems that beset gently bred women of the aristocracy, such as whom their daughters should marry or whether their sons should be discouraged from indulging their passion for aeroplanes and fast motorcars. Mrs. Jackson's expression became somber as she remembered the last two rather unorthodox demands made on her time in what she privately referred to as "plain old interfering" in matters best left to the police.
She stowed her walking boots and empty rucksack at the back of the wardrobe. Lady Montfort's investigation last winter into the murder of a guest at a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill, had certainly started out as a polite "inquiry," as her ladyship liked to refer to their interfering. But it had almost backfired on them, quite dangerously for her ladyship, before they had pieced together the identity of the murderer.
Ah well, the English aristocracy are not without their eccentricities, she thought as she closed the wardrobe door. At least Lady Montfort did not involve herself in the outrageous antics of the suffragette movement like the assertively outspoken Lady Constance Lytton, the middle-aged, unmarried daughter of the Earl of Lytton who had spent the last five years escalating her fight for the franchise from setting light to the occasional post-box to instigating a one-hundred-woman-strong hunger strike in Liverpool Prison, which had brought untold humiliation to her family. And neither did Lady Montfort design highly unsuitable underclothing like that embarrassing Lady Duff-Gordon with her fancy London salon, Madame Lucile, in Hanover Square. Everyone knew it was unsuitable for the wife of an aristocrat to earn her own living — a fact made quite clear by the Court of St. James when Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon was informed that he would not be permitted to present his entrepreneurial wife at court. Mrs. Jackson gave her mackintosh a good shake before hanging it up on a peg by her parlor door. No, there were never any unconventional and awkward displays from Lady Montfort, she had that at least to be thankful for. Her ladyship conducted her inquires with tact and quiet good manners as befitted her place in society.
Her unpacking complete, Mrs. Jackson washed her face and hands and walked through into her comfortable and well-furnished parlor where a tea tray had been left ready for her by the third housemaid. She had the rest of the afternoon to settle herself before she tackled whatever situations had blown up in her absence belowstairs — perhaps she might run over the household accounts after she finished her tea.
It took disciplined organization and considerable forethought to maintain a house as grand as Iyntwood and Mrs. Jackson was curious and a little nervous as to how the butler had managed without her. Mr. Hollyoak was without doubt their leader in the servants' hall, but it was the housekeeper's industrious and conscientious attention to the many details that an establishment of this size and importance required that made her an invaluable second-in-command, and she had a particular flair for organizing important occasions.
She opened her parlor window to the warm afternoon air and, hungry from her long railway journey home, sat down at the table in anticipation of a nice cup of tea and some hot buttered toast. But no sooner had she lifted the teapot than there came a knock on her parlor door. Before she could call out a reluctant summons to enter, it opened and Iyntwood's cook put her head around it into the room. But I've only been back for less than an hour, Mrs. Jackson thought with exasperation as she noticed that Mrs. Thwaite's long face was wearing a particularly peevish expression. Any expectation that she might have an hour or two to herself, to savor her homecoming, evaporated with the steam of the teakettle. In Mrs. Jackson's experience, Mrs. Thwaite liked to get her version of any unpleasant event in first — usually because she was responsible for most of the tiffs that took place belowstairs at Iyntwood. And true to form, Mrs. Thwaite waded in with her usual asperity.
"So you're back then and not before time," the cook said, as if Mrs. Jackson had escaped from Iyntwood, been tracked down, and marched home in disgrace. "I hope you enjoyed yourself up there in Derbyshire, climbing up and down them hills all day." Her curious eyes came to rest on Mrs. Jackson's rosy cheeks and lightly sunburned nose, which gave her large gray eyes an even greater clarity and depth of color. "Looks like you had good weather for it then." This was said with marked criticism to one who had been self-indulgent enough to enjoy the luxury of sunshine.
"It was a most enjoyable interlude, thank you, Mrs. Thwaite, but I am glad to be back." She politely waited for what was coming next as she poured herself a cup of tea.
"You've no idea what's been going on here while you were away, have you? Well, I am here to tell you it's been quite a to-do." Cook's tone became more conciliatory as she sidled into the room with her head tilted to one side like a sly parrot scuttling along its perch. "I think Mr. Hollyoak is losing his marbles, I really do."
The housekeeper did not respond to this disrespectful description of the state of the butler's mental health as it was apparent that she was about to be caught up in one of the many power struggles between Iyntwood's cook and its butler. It was an unequal struggle since the butler held complete sway over his dominions belowstairs, but Mrs. Thwaite was by nature a woman of considerable thrust and was not afraid to provoke a minor border skirmish now and then.
Uninvited, she sat her bony bottom down on a chair and folded her arms expectantly under her nonexistent bosom, and Mrs. Jackson understood that she was being invited to adjudicate in the age-old feud between cook and butler, which was dormant if she was vigilant but had obviously flared up in her absence. She fixed her tranquil gaze on Mrs. Thwaite's face as she sipped her tea. To invite further information from Cook was unnecessary, as it would be forthcoming anyway, but she would not encourage her in the mistaken belief that she was her confederate in whatever state of affairs now existed in the servants' hall.
"Frustration doesn't begin to describe the last week in this house, Mrs. Jackson. All caused by a certain person who is determined to undermine my status, causing me great embarrassment in front of my staff." She was referring to three kitchen maids and one scullery maid, all of whom worked directly under, what she often referred to as, her purview. The cook guarded her lofty status belowstairs — no one crossed her without thinking twice about it. No one except the housekeeper, and from long experience Mrs. Jackson picked her battles where the cook was concerned.
She guessed at the cause of the disagreement that must have raged throughout the servants' hall. Mr. Hollyoak had probably refused to allow Cook to use the telephone to place her orders with local tradesmen, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, and the Billingsgate fishmonger in London. It was an old battle that had been fought many times over the past two years. The instrument was in the butler's pantry and might be used only by Mr. Hollyoak and Mrs. Jackson. It was a simple enough rule and understood by all as immutable. No doubt in the housekeeper's absence Mrs. Thwaite had assumed that as acting second-in-command belowstairs, with temporary authority over the pantries and larders, she would also have access to the thrilling power of the telephone and its sophisticated place in their domestic world.
She listened in impassive silence to complaints and threats, which ended with the cook lifting her large red hands to her face in what Mrs. Jackson recognized as pretended despair. She noticed Mrs. Thwaite's bright little eyes regarding her through her fingers to judge the effect of her suffering at the hands of the butler and felt a wave of sympathy for her old comrade Mr. Hollyoak. She could only imagine how draining her time away had been for him.
"Now, Mrs. Thwaite, it is a shame that you have upset yourself over this business. But, as you know, it is Mr. Hollyoak's responsibility to order grocery items and other food supplies when I am not here to do it for him. I hope you have not made things difficult between you, because ..." she lifted a hand to halt the flow of explanations that started to spill from the cook's lips, "I was particularly banking on your being Mr. Hollyoak's right hand whilst I was away and not —"
"He wouldn't let me be his right hand, Mrs. Jackson." Mrs. Thwaite could barely contain her indignation. "Wouldn't even let me lift the earpiece of the tele —"
"And being his right hand meant that you also followed his orders, just as you would if I were here, don't you see? Now, I will talk to Mr. Hollyoak and explain to him that your intention was only to help him, and I am sure everything will sort itself out in the next day or two." If you will only let it, she added to herself.
With this she got up and went to the door, opening it wide for the cook to pass through ahead of her. "I have yet to meet with her ladyship."
"She is presently taking her tea with that Miss Jekyll, the gardening woman, in the rose garden," Mrs. Thwaite informed her as she stumped ahead of her down the back stairs to the servants' hall.
"So, we have just the one guest then. What are you planning for their dinner?" And she respectfully listened to the cook's menu for six courses, all of which sounded quite delectable and made her only too conscious that she was more than ready for her supper.
* * *
Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, was seated under a bower of fragrant, white climbing roses. An illustrated book, Roses for English Gardens, by the renowned horticulturist and plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll, lay open on her lap, and a pencil and notebook were on the table in front of her. She lifted her head to observe a majestic procession coming across the terrace toward her. Hollyoak was proceeding at a measured pace followed by his under-butler, Wilson, and first footman, James, each bearing the wherewithal for afternoon tea. She slipped a letter from their middle daughter, Althea, to mark her place in a chapter titled "Roses for Converting Ugliness to Beauty" and sat back in her chair with her eyes closed.
What are we to do about a young woman whose only interest in life is to travel? Althea's letter was full of enthusiastic descriptions of her sailing expedition with her uncle Clarendon and older married cousin Betsy Twickenham around the fjords of Norway. Clementine had noted with resignation from her letter that Althea was hoping to sail on to the Baltic with them before returning home: "Well in time, Mama, I promise you, to come with you and Papa to Wethergill for the start of the grouse-shooting season on the twelfth of August." Althea was already a month overdue for her return home. Why are young women these days so determinedly independent? she asked herself with more than just a little irritation. I was married and a mother by the time I was nineteen.
Clementine was anticipating with pleasure the gathering of her three adult children for the Talbots' annual trip to Inverness for the start of the Glorious Twelfth. Their elder daughter, Verity, would be joining them from her home in Paris and bringing her two little boys. Clementine smiled at the thought of her grandsons, it had been nearly six months since she had last seen them. Lord Montfort and their son, Harry, would take off to spend long hours with their guests on the grouse moors, leaving Clementine, her two daughters, and her grandchildren to spend long, uninterrupted, happy days with close friends away from the obligations of the estate.
The warm summer air carrying the drowsy and hypnotic sound of late-afternoon birdsong was now accompanied by the soft chink of china and the rattle of teaspoons as Hollyoak and his attendants set about laying the table with the reverence that such ceremonies required.
Clementine opened her eyes and observed a short, rounded figure whose shape somewhat resembled a large onion, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, approaching at an energetic pace. She closed the book on Althea's letter and laid aside her plans for the family visit to the Highlands of Scotland.
"Ah, tea," Miss Jekyll said. "Gardening on a warm afternoon is such thirsty work." She peeled off a pair of heavy leather gardening gloves and dropped them onto the lawn beside her chair. "I am glad to say that Mr. Thrower's valiant fight to save the rose garden has been victorious, Lady Montfort. Not a sign of black spot anywhere; everything is thriving and quite healthy. He must be careful to spray again in autumn and again, to be on the safe side, early next year, before things start to sprout. But a capital job though, you have to admit it all looks quite splendid." She turned to survey the immaculate rose garden stretching before them in formal beds that spilled a profusion of blooms in ivory, buffs, golds, reds, carmines, and pinks onto the smooth grass pathways intersecting each parterre.
"When Thrower appeared at the end of April holding a leafless rose stem in one hand and a handful of black-and-yellow leaves in the other, I must admit I was close to panic." Clementine would not forget the shock of seeing leaves that had unfurled in the first warm days of spring with the glossy gleam of vigorous health, curled and discolored two weeks later with a virulent case of black spot. Without hesitation she had written to Gertrude Jekyll begging for her help. "I can't thank you enough, Miss Jekyll, for coming to our rescue. Once one rose goes down with the disease, you live in dread that it will spread to the others before you have a chance to treat them." And knowing what was expected of her, Clementine did not keep her guest waiting but sat forward on the edge of her lawn chair to pour tea.
Excerpted from A Death by Any Other Name by Tessa Arlen. Copyright © 2017 Tessa Arlen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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