|Rosemary Stevens: Death on a Silver Tray|
Prime Crime (Hardcover), ISBN 0425174689
At a fashionable auction of fine arts and collectibles, Regency dandy Beau Brummell inadvertently witnesses a scene between the foul-tempered Dowager Countess of Wrayburn and her put-upon companion, Rebecca Ashton. When the countess succumbs to poison shortly afterwards, the Duchess of York asks Beau's help in saving Miss Ashton's good name and, by extension, the duchess's own.
The Countess of Wrayburn employed Miss Ashton based on a reference from Frederica, the Duchess of York. If Miss Ashton were convicted of murdering her employer, the scandal would worsen the duchess's tenuous position in the royal household. (During this period, the Duke of York lived openly with his mistress and publicly snubbed his wife whenever they met in the shark tank known as London Society.)
Fortunately, Beau cannot refuse his darling "Freddie" anything. Despite grave misgivings about his sleuthing abilities and the risk to his reputation as an arbiter of public opinion, Beau applies all his resources to the task. At least, he commits all the resources not applied to securing London's most fashionable sedan chair, tying the perfect cravat, mollifying his valet…
A Regency scholar as well as a writer of Regency romances, Stevens can talk the talk better than anyone since Georgette Heyer. She balances her formidable command of period language and detail with a reader-friendly style that never overwhelms. Beau Brummel and his set spring to life, along with all the uncommon common folk who made era's high style possible. Naturally, Stevens adds one of her signature felines to the mix -- a Siamese named Chakkri who invariably manages to remain one dark paw ahead of his humans every step of the way.
While always amusing, Stevens does not try to match Heyer's dizzy hilarity. The apex of Regency society, like today's Royals, always teetered on the brink of self-parody. Stevens also must work within the strictures imposed by history. Beau Brummel was not the brightest spark of his day. True to form, his fictional pursuit of the countess's killer more often resembles the stumbling progress of Inspector Lestrade than the incisive brilliance of Sherlock Holmes.
Nevertheless, Stevens adroitly avoids tipping the murderer's hand until Beau himself identifies the culprit. She charms you into complete sympathy with her cast's quirks and foibles -- including those of the Beau himself. You'll cheer Inspector Lavender's sly jabs at Beau's sartorial authority even as you find yourself sharing Beau's desire to comfort sad, sweet Freddie of the Hundred Dogs.
Unlike a romance finished with a happy ending, a cozy mystery series depends on characters that stay with you long after you close the book. Death on a Silver Tray boasts several, while remaining true to both its Regency and cozy roots. Other than chocolate, who could ask for more?
Jean Marie Ward
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