As a difficult 1918 draws to a close, there is much to celebrate for nineteen-year-old Phoebe Renshaw and her three siblings at their beloved family estate of Foxwood Hall. The dreadful war is finally over; eldest daughter Julia’s engagement to their houseguest, the Marquis of Allerton, appears imminent; and all have gathered to enjoy peace on earth, good will toward men.
But on the morning of Boxing Day, the Marquis goes missing. Not entirely missing, however, as macabre evidence of foul play turns up in gift boxes given to lady’s maid Eva Huntford and a handful of others. As the local constable suspects a footman at Foxwood Hall, Phoebe and Eva follow the clues to a different conclusion. But both young women will need to think outside the box to wrap up this case—before a cornered killer lashes out with ill will toward them . . .
“Entertaining . . . the characters and scenes are highly reminiscent of TV’s Downton Abbey, but Maxwell makes Phoebe and Eva distinctive personalities in their own right.” —Publishers Weekly
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Murder Most Malicious
By Alyssa Maxwell
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lisa Manuel
All rights reserved.
25 December, 1918
"Henry, don't you dare ignore me!" The shout burst from behind the drawing-room doors, a command nearly drowned out by staccato notes pounded on the grand piano. "Henry, I'm speaking to you!"
Stravinsky's discordant Firebird broke off with a resounding crescendo. Voices replaced them, one male, one female, both distinctly taut and decidedly angry. Phoebe Renshaw came to an uneasy halt. She had thought the rest of her family and the guests had all gone up to bed. Across the Grand Hall, light spilled from the dining room as the butler and footmen continued clearing away the remnants of Christmas dinner.
With an indrawn breath she moved closer to the thickly paneled, double pocket doors.
"I'm very sorry, Henry, but it isn't going to happen," came calmer, muffled words from inside, spoken by the feminine voice — a voice that sounded anything but sorry. Dismissive, disdainful, yes, but certainly not contrite. Phoebe sighed and rolled her eyes. As much as she had expected this, she shook her head that Julia had chosen Christmas night to break this news to her latest suitor. And this particular Christmas, too — the first peacetime holiday in nearly five years.
A paragon of tact and goodwill, that sister of hers.
"We are practically engaged, Julia. Why do you think your grandparents asked my family to spend Christmas here at Foxwood? Everyone is expecting us to wed. Our estates practically border each other." Incredulity lent an almost shrill quality to Henry's voice. "How could our union be any more perfect?"
"It isn't perfect to me," came the cool reply.
"No? How on earth do you think you'll avoid a scandal if you break it off now?"
Phoebe could almost see her sister's cavalier shrug. "A broken not-quite-engagement is hardly fodder for scandal. I'm sorry — how many times must I say it? This is my decision and you've no choice but to accept it."
Would they exit the drawing room now? Phoebe stepped backward intending to flee, perhaps dart behind the Christmas tree that dominated the center of the hall. Henry's voice, raised and freshly charged with ire, held her in place. "Do I? Do I really? You listen here, Julia Renshaw. Surely you don't believe you're the only one who knows a secret about someone."
Phoebe glanced over her shoulder and sure enough, the two footmen, Douglas and Vernon, met her gaze through the dining-room doorway before hurrying on with their chores. Inside the drawing room, a burst of snide laughter from Henry raised the hair at her nape.
"What secret?" her sister asked after a moment's hesitation.
"Your secret," Henry Leighton, Marquess of Allerton, said with a mean hiss that carried through the door.
"What ... do you believe you know?"
"Must I outline the sordid details of your little adventure last summer?"
"How on earth did you discover ...?" Julia's voice faded.
It registered in Phoebe's mind that her sister hadn't bothered to deny whatever it was.
"Let's just say I kept an eye on you while I was on furlough," Henry said, "and you aren't as clever as you think you are, not by half."
"That was most ungentlemanly of you, Henry."
"You had your chance to spend more time with me then, Julia, and you chose not to. I therefore chose to discover where you were spending your time."
"Oh! How unworthy, even of you, Henry. Still, it would be your word against mine, and whom do you think Grampapa will believe? Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed."
"You are not walking away from this, Julia!" Henry's voice next plunged to a murmur Phoebe could no longer make out, but like a mongrel's growl it showered her arms with goose bumps.
The sound of shuffling feet was followed by a sharp "Oh!" from Julia. Phoebe's hands shot instinctively toward the recessed finger pulls on the doors, but she froze at the marquess's next words. "This is how it is going to be, my dear. You and I are going to announce our engagement to our families tomorrow morning, and shortly thereafter to the world. There will be parties and planning and yes, there will be a wedding. You will marry me, or you'll marry no one. Ever. I'll see to that."
"You don't even know whether or not anything untoward happened last summer," Julia said with all the condescension of which Phoebe knew she was capable, yet with a brittle quality that threatened her tenuous composure. "You're bluffing, Henry."
"Am I? Are you willing to risk it? What would Grampapa think of his darling girl if he only knew the truth?"
Phoebe's breath caught in her throat at the thud of something hitting the rug inside. She gripped the bronze finger pulls just as Julia cried out.
"Let go of me!"
Phoebe thrust both doors wide, perfectly framing the scene inside. Julia, in her pale rose Poiret gown with its silver-beaded trim, stood with her back bowed in an obvious attempt to pull free of Henry's hold. A spiraling lock of blond hair had slipped from its pins on one side to stream past her shoulder. At her feet, a vase lay on its side, thankfully unbroken, the flowers and water it held now blending with the Persian weave. Four empty indentations in the rug testified to the side table having been rudely knocked askew. Meanwhile, Henry's dark hair stood on end, no doubt from raking his fingers through it. His brown eyes smoldering and his cheeks ruddy with drink, he had his hands on her — on her! His fingers were wrapped so tightly around Julia's upper arms they were sure to leave bruises.
For a moment no one moved. Phoebe stared. They stared back. Henry's bowtie hung loose on either side of his neck, his tailcoat and waistcoat unbuttoned with all the familiarity of a husband in his own home, his garnet shirt studs gleaming like drops of blood upon snow. Anger twisted his features. Then recognition dawned — of Phoebe, of the impropriety of the scene she had walked in on — and a measure of the ire smoothed from his features. He released Julia as though she were made of hot coals, turned away, and put several feet between them.
Phoebe steeled herself with a breath and forced a smile. "Oh, hullo there, you two. Sorry to barge in like this. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Don't mind me, I only came for a book, one I couldn't find in the library. Julia, do you remember where Grampapa stashed that American novel he didn't want Grams to know he was reading? You know, the one about the boy floating up that large river to help his African friend."
"I don't know...." Julia looked from Phoebe to Henry and back again. She brushed the errant lock behind her ear before hugging her arms around her middle. "I'll help you look. G-good night, Henry."
"Were you just going up?" Without letting her smile slip, Phoebe glared at Henry and put emphasis on going up.
A muscle bounced in the hard line of his jaw. His eyes narrowed, but he bobbed his head. "Good night, ladies. Julia, we'll talk more in the morning."
He strode past Phoebe without a glance. Several long seconds later, his footfalls thudded on the carpeted stairs. Phoebe let go a breath of relief. She turned to slide the pocket doors closed, and as she did so two black-clad figures lingering in the dining-room doorway scurried out of sight.
There would be gossip below stairs come morning. Phoebe would worry about that later. She went to her sister and clasped her hands. "Are you all right?"
Julia whisked free and backed up a stride. "Of course I'm all right."
"You didn't look all right when I came in. You still don't. What was that about?"
Julia twitched her eyebrows and turned slightly away, showing Phoebe her shoulder. Yes, the light pink weal visible against her pale upper arm confirmed tomorrow's bruises. "What was what about?"
"Don't play coy with me. What was Henry talking about? What secret —"
"Were you listening at the door?"
"I could hear you from the middle of the hall, and I think the servants in the dining room heard you as well. Lucky for you Grams and Grampapa retired half an hour ago. Or perhaps it isn't lucky. Perhaps this is something they should know about."
"They don't need to know anything."
"Why are you always so stubborn?"
"I'm done in, Phoebe. I'm going to bed." Her perfectly sloping nose in the air, she started to move past Phoebe, but Phoebe reached out and caught her wrist. Julia stopped, still facing the paneled walnut doors, her gaze boring into them. "Release me at once."
"Not until you tell me what you and Henry were arguing about. I mean, besides your breaking off your would-be engagement. That comes as no great surprise. But the rest ... Are you in some sort of trouble?"
Julia snapped her head around to pin Phoebe with eyes so deeply blue as to appear black. "It's none of your business and I'll thank you to mind your own. Now let me go. I'm going to bed, and if you know what's good for you, you'll do the same."
Stunned, her throat stinging from the rebuke, Phoebe let her hand fall away. She watched Julia go, the beaded train of her gown whooshing over the floor like water over rocks.
"I care about you," Phoebe said in a barely audible whisper, something neither Julia, nor the footmen, nor anyone else in the house could possibly hear. She wished she could say it louder, say it directly to her prideful sister's beautiful face. And then what — be met with a repeat of the disdain Julia had just shown her? No. Phoebe had her pride, too.
Eva Huntford made her way past the main kitchen and into the servants' dining hall with a gown slung over each arm. Lady Amelia had spilled a spoonful of trifle down the front of her green velvet at dinner last night, while Lady Julia's mauve and silver beaded gown sported an odd rent near the left shoulder strap. It almost physically pained her to see such damage to the clothing she took such loving care of, and she briefly wondered what holiday activities could possibly result in such a tear. She dismissed the thought. Today was Boxing Day, but she had work to do before enjoying her own brief holiday later that afternoon.
"Mrs. Ellison, have you any bicarbonate of soda on hand? Lady Amelia spilled trifle — oh!" A man sat at the far end of the rectangular oak table, reading a newspaper. A cup of coffee sat steaming at his elbow. She draped the gowns over the back of a chair. "Good morning, Mr. Hensley. You're up early."
"Evie, won't you call me Nick? How long have we known each other, after all?"
It was true, she and Nicolas Hensley had known each other as children, but they were adults now, she lady's maid to the Earl of Wroxly's three granddaughters, and he valet to their houseguest, the Marquess of Allerton. Propriety was, after all, of the utmost importance in a manor such as Foxwood Hall. Familiarity between herself and a manservant would hardly be considered proper. "A long time, yes," she replied with a lift of her eyebrow, "but it's also been a long time since we've seen each other."
He smiled faintly. "I saw you yesterday. And the day before that."
"You know what I mean. We've been surrounded by the others, or have passed each other in the corridors as we've gone about our tasks." She turned to go. "In fact, I should —"
"Evie, do stay. I've craved a moment alone with you. Don't look like that. I only wish to ... to express my deepest condolences about Danny. My very deepest, Evie. A sad business, that."
Her throat squeezed and the backs of her eyes stung. Danny, her brother ... She swallowed. "Yes, thank you. A good many men did not come home from the war. They are heroes, all."
Hang it all, this would never do, not on Boxing Day. In a couple of hours she would be free to trudge home through last night's dusting of snow to spend the afternoon with her parents, and they must not glimpse her sadness. She gave a little sniff, a slight toss of her head. There, better now. She smiled at Mr. Hensley. "Tell me, what are you doing down here at this time of the morning? Won't his lordship be abed for hours yet?"
"My employer is already up and out, actually."
"On such a cold morning?" Shivering, she glanced up at the high windows, frosted over and sprinkled with last night's flurries.
Mrs. Ellison turned the corner into the room, her plump hand extended. Eva's requested soda fizzed away in the measuring cup she held. She handed Eva a clean rag as well. "Who's up and out on this frigid morning?"
Eva moved a place setting aside and spread the velvet gown's bodice open on the table. She dipped the rag in the soda. "Lord Allerton, apparently." She looked quizzically over at Mr. Hensley.
He set down his newspaper. "At any rate, his lordship isn't in his room. I inquired with the staff setting up in the morning room and no one's yet seen him today."
"One supposes he's gone out for a walk despite the weather, then." Eva dabbed the dampened cloth lightly at the stain on Lady Amelia's bodice, careful of the embroidery and the tiny seed pearl buttons.
"Or perhaps a ride in that lovely motorcar of his?" Mrs. Ellison sighed longingly.
"No, I called down to the carriage house and his Silver Ghost is still there." Mr. Hensley frowned in thought, a gesture that did not diminish his distinguished good looks. He was several years older than Eva and had briefly courted her sister before entering into service as an under footman here at Foxwood. The years had been more than kind to him, she couldn't help admitting. The slightest touch of silver at his temples might be premature for a man of thirty, but on Nick Hensley the effect was both elegant and charming.
Perhaps more so than a valet needed, she added with a silent chuckle.
"Wouldn't I relish a ride in that heavenly motorcar!" Mrs. Ellison took on a dreamy expression, but only for an instant. "Ah well, back to work."
"I'm sure he'll turn up." Eva dabbed one last time at Amelia's frock and gave a satisfied nod. Voices sounded in the corridor.
"That was some show last night."
"You can say that again. They were like a couple of —"
"Good morning, Vernon, Douglas." Eva injected an implied reprimand into the tone of her greeting. She didn't know whom the head footman and under footman were discussing, but the gossipy nature of their observations didn't escape her. The pair had the good grace to blush guiltily as they clamped their lips. Mr. Giles had strict rules about gossip-mongering, and had he overheard them they'd have suffered a hearty tongue-lashing, as would everyone else within hearing range.
Other staff members arrived for breakfast, having completed their morning chores of laying fires, sweeping floors, and setting up the breakfast buffet. Connie, the new housemaid, came barreling into the doorway and skidded to a halt with a visible effort to catch her breath. She regarded Eva with large, worried eyes. "Did Mrs. Sanders notice my late start this morning?"
"Were you late? Well, no matter," Eva assured her. She hoped she was correct, and that Connie wouldn't be facing a scolding later from the housekeeper. "It's Boxing Day and I suppose we're allowed a bit of leeway. Is everyone ready for their holiday later?"
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was a rare treat for the manor staff. Some visited their families if they lived locally, while others attended the cinema or shopped or simply spent private time in their rooms reading. Eva planned to spend the afternoon at her parents' farm outside the village, but first she needed to set her ladyships' gowns to rights. After a final inspection of the now nearly invisible stain, she moved Amelia's velvet off the table to make way as more staff gathered round.
She was on her way to deliver the gown to Mable, the laundress, before settling in with needle and thread to mend the beaded strap on Lady Julia's frock. Suddenly Lady Amelia bounded down the back staircase and launched herself from the bottom step. She landed with an unladylike thwack mere inches away from Eva.
"Good heavens, my lady!" Eva sidestepped in time to avoid being knocked off her feet and spilling her burdens to the floor. She hugged the gowns to her. "Is there a fire?"
"I'm terribly sorry, Eva. I didn't mean to give you a fright." Lady Amelia's long curls danced loose down her back, and in her haste to dress herself she'd left the sleeves on her crepe de chine shirtwaist undone. "I was looking for you."
Excerpted from Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Manuel. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A new series, but still written and conceived with a deft mind. Sharp characters, both upstairs and down. Plenty of suspects. But why? And where on earth (or, at least, the estate) is the body? The sister Julia is a bit of a cipher. What is she about?
An elegant mystery, where things are not always what they seem. Alyssa Maxwell deftly weaves a tale of a gruesome murder among the nobility. Her protagonists, Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her maid, Eva Huntford, are a perfect match in intellect, charm and sheer plucky determination to see that a ruthless killer is brought to justice. Through Phoebe and Eva's relationship, Maxwell skillfully shows how England emerged from the dark shadows of World War I and into a world where class distinctions were changing and people were given new opportunities.
It's amazing how much work authors put into a book, a story. As the reader we never realize it while we are reading it. We just pick up the book and read it. We just read and enjoy the story. I thoroughly enjoy all of Alyssa Maxwell's historical mystery books. So much thought and research is put in them that you actually learn things while you read. In Murder Most Malicious, Maxwell's first book in her A Lady and Lady's Maid mystery series, I felt like I was right there along side Phoebe and Eva as they gathered clues as to the whereabouts of the Marquis of Allerton, Lord Henry. Lord Henry and Lady Julia, the oldest granddaughter of the Earl of Wroxly, are overheard arguing on Christmas night by Phoebe and a few servants. The next morning Lord Henry is no where to be found. Is Lady Julia to blame for his disappearance ? When some of the Christmas boxes are opened the next day, Boxing Day, some of the receivers are "gifted" with something of Lord Henry's causing the police to be summoned. While Constable Brannock and Inspector Perkins search the estate property of Foxwood Hall, Phoebe and Eva do their own investigating to prove the innocence of employed Footman George Vernon. Who will solve the case first and at what cost ?
I loved the Gilded Newport series and was very much looking forward to this new series by author Alyssa Maxwell. I found this story to be a bit "slow" but I can see lots of room for the series to grow. I loved the period in which it was set - it starts off on Christmas Day, 1918 just after WWI has ended. It has elements of Upstairs/Downstairs and/or Downton Abbey aristocratic England, too. I will definitely read the next book in the series.
Dollycas’s Thoughts Alyssa Maxwell has brought us a new team of sleuths, Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her maid, Eva Huntford. Christmas at Foxwood Hall has brought several guests to the hall including the Marquis of Allerton and his family. He has asked Lady Phoebe’s sister, Julia to be his wife. Phoebe happens to hear the argument that ensues when he gets a very unexpected answer. The next morning the Marquis is missing and foul play is suspected. Phoebe enlists Eva’s help when she notices the police go after an easy suspect, not necessarily the right suspect. In this story we are given fantastic characters to love and fantastic characters to hate. Inspector Perkins is an incompetent twit. A man with a small mind who drove me crazy. Thank goodness for Constable Brannock. He was not so sure of the inspector’s findings and was open to listen to other theories. Henry Leighton, Marquess of Allenton, was a really gem, I say that very sarcastically. He has quite a checkered past that visited his present and could be the reason he ended up dead. I really enjoyed the other characters, both those upstairs and down. Lady Phoebe is strong willed and a great protagonist. Her lady’s maid Eva, treads lightly when necessary but she has the trust of Phoebe and the rest of the family. Phoebe, her sisters, Julia and Amelia and their brother Fox, have been raised by their grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Wroxly. Grams and Grampapa are devoted to these children/young adults and want the very best for them. There are quite a bit of staff, shopkeepers, Eva’s family and the Allenton family as well. A big number of characters to keep straight but the author makes it easy because they all bring important qualities to the story as a whole. The story itself is created with immense precision and flowed so perfectly. I was surprised at how quickly I reached the end. It has the expected twists and turns but that final one just caught me by total surprise. The grounds of Foxwood Hall sounded so beautiful all covered in snow. I bet the place is gorgeous in the spring, summer and fall too. The hall seemed to be a complex place with so many rooms and hallways. Plenty of places to hide for a bit a eavesdropping. I would enjoy actually visiting a place like that. I have loved this author’s Gilded Newport Mysteries. She takes us back in time so effortlessly. I know it takes so much time for her to research each story, and it clearly shows in her writing. I am so pleased she has traveled across the pond to bring us a new captivating series.
Loved the characters and the red herrings. Great new series! Looking forward to the next installmeny.
Changing times and changing social mores Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell The First Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery It's December 1918, just after Christmas in England. Everyone is still feeling the effects of the war, those above as well as below stairs. When Henry, the Marquess of Allerton, and houseguest at Foxwood Hall doesn't arrive for breakfast on Boxing Day the rest of the household is surprised. However, several of the servants receive an even bigger surprise when they open presents from their employer. Lady Phoebe and her maid Eva are not convinced the police will investigate properly and start looking into the situation themselves. Could Pheobe's elder sister Julia have something to do with it? Or Henry's younger brother? Changing times and changing social mores are crucial aspects to Murder Most Malicious, indeed to the whole concept of the Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery series. Upstairs and Downstairs, each has its own perception and its own reality. Lady Phoebe and her maid, Eva, are able to bring these two frames of reference together to solve the mystery. At this time in history class structure is starting to blur and Lady Phoebe is young enough, dare I say modern enough, to want to work together with the person she's closest with, her maid. Eva, slightly older and, being from the "lower" class less inclined to trust equality is still willing to confide and help her charge...if only to keep her out of more trouble. I really enjoy historical mysteries and the Lady and Lady’s Maid Mysteries is a great addition to this subgenre. I was transported back to a time with which I was not too familiar and made to feel at home. While the times may be a changin' in England in 1918, there are still class and workplace distinctions creating a challenging atmosphere above, below, and between stairs. Characters and their motives are intriguing and full of surprises. Maxwell is able to combine historical fact with interesting characters to create a captivating mystery in Murder Most Malicious. FTC Disclosure – The publisher sent me a digital ARC provided through NetGalley, in the hopes I would review it.
I love the world Alyssa Maxwell creates for us in Murder Most Malicious. How does the genteel world of manners and appearances deal with someone who is utterly despicable? The Marquis of Allerton has let his ego get in the way of following orders during WWI, causing the death and maiming of many of the soldiers under his command. That apparently is covered up because the only ones who seem to know are the few remaining men with whom he served. He also abuses women - physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually, this last apparently reserved for those women 'below stairs'. And he swindles people left and right, regardless of class, as if what's his is his and what's anyone else's is his. No wonder he found up dead. The manner of this is somewhat unique as well. People don't stumble across his body...but someone has left Allerton's amputated fingers in the servants' Christmas boxes, along with an item of value that had belonged to the Marquis. So you see, various body parts show up, but nothing that would conclusively lead people to believe that he was dead. Almost as irritating as Allerton was the police Inspector Perkins. How he got promoted from Constable is beyond me. A little too eager to appear to solve the case quickly rather than do a thorough investigation. A little too eager to pin the blame on a servant that anyone 'above stairs'. And not one to brook ideas that differ from his own. That whole social class thing just ticks me off royally (!), which again leads me to believe that I would not survive very long during that time period and in that location. Certainly not 'below stairs' anyway...I'd be sacked within a week or less. Ah, but that's another post worth (at least) for another day. It is a testament to Ms. Maxwell's descriptive skill that Murder Most Malicious evoked such strong emotions in me. Thank goodness that this is only the beginning for Phoebe and Eva. I can't wait to see how they navigate solving crimes with what was considered 'proper behavior' for women of their respective 'stations'. (Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review.)
Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell is the first book in Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery series. It is Christmas Day at Foxwood Hall in Little Barlow, England (1918). Phoebe Renshaw, granddaughter to the Earl of Wroxley, is nineteen years old. Phoebe is inquisitive and likes to be busy. Now that the war is over, Phoebe is a bit bored. That evening Phoebe overhears an argument between her elder sister, Julia and her beau, Henry Leighton, the Marquis of Allerton. Everyone is hoping an engagement is going to be announced soon between these two (it would be a good match). However, Julia has other ideas. The next day the staff is given time off for Boxing Day. The staff are given their presents from the Renshaw family before they leave to enjoy their afternoon off. When Eva Huntford, lady’s maid to Phoebe and her sisters, opens her box she finds a finger with a ring attached. The ring looks just like the one Henry Leighton wears. Other people find similar discoveries in their gift boxes from the Renshaw’s (fingers with baubles inside). Why did just these people receive the body parts along with something valuable? And where is Henry Leighton? The Marquis of Allerton has not been seen all day. When the local constable suspects George Vernon, the head footman, Phoebe and Eva start investigating. Phoebe is concerned her sister, Julia may be involved. Murder Most Malicious sounded like such a good book. I found it to be just satisfactory. It is a very superficial book. We are not given much information on any of the characters. I also did not like that the murder occurred so early in book (no build up). Murder Most Malicious is written is a nice, easy style and the author provided good clues to help the reader solve the mystery. I received a complimentary copy of Murder Most Malicious from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.