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Crescent Blues Book ViewsPenguin Books (Paperback), ISBN 0140233946
In Cut to the Quick, Kate Ross introduces London dandy Julian Kestrel as the unlikely protagonist of an historical mystery series. Well-born but without land, untrained for a profession, Julian spends his time and energy pursuing the latest fashions and fads of the 1820s. A kind man, Julian helps a young gentleman "in his cups" at a gambling house one evening. Grateful for the assistance, Hugh Fontclair, the young scion of a family of the "Quality," invites Julian to act as best man at his upcoming wedding.

Book: Kate Ross, cut to the quick
Not one to turn down a holiday, Julian accepts and finds himself an unwelcome guest at Bellegarde, the family's country estate. Tensions brew as the Fontclairs prepare to marry their heir to the daughter of a tradesman far beneath their station. A former servant at Bellegarde, Mark Craddock blackmailed the Fontclairs to accept his daughter as Hugh's bride to preserve the family's honor. To make an unpleasant situation worse, a young woman turns up dead -- in Julian's bed.

What can an indolent coxcomb do but jump into the fray? When suspicion falls on Julian's cockney manservant, Dipper, Julian insists on joining the investigation. He proceeds to irritate his hosts by relentlessly questioning their alibis and motives. No police authority exists in the Fontclairs' neck of the woods, except for a magistrate (Sir Robert Fontclair himself), and Senderby, a villager unwillingly appointed to the position of constable. They grant Julian free reign to snoop, and he alternately charms and bullies his way to the truth. With the aid of Dipper, who is good with his hands, Julian uncovers the identity of the murdered girl as well as all of the skeletons in the Fontclairs' attic.

Kate Ross tells a capable, if formulaic whodunnit, but Cut to the Quick delivers few period details. The story could take place in the 20th century with only minor changes. One can imagine Julian and Dipper making a charming detective duo in a film where the opulence of the mansion and their Regency era costumes would be more apparent. The story propels itself along pleasantly, not so much building as maintaining suspense. The ultimate solution to the mystery rings a bit hollow, with a plot twist that seems contrived. The murderer's reaction to Julian's accusation falls well outside the bounds of believability. But Julian proves a likeable hero and carries the story on his perfectly dressed shoulders. A fast, enjoyable read, Cut to the Quick would be perfect for an airplane trip.

Three Julian Kestrel novels followed Cut to the Quick. A Broken Vessel won the 1994 Gargoyle award for Best Historical Mystery. Whom the Gods Loved appeared in 1995. The Devil in Music received a nomination for the Agatha Award in 1997. Kate Ross died in 1998, and with her died a vibrant character.

Jodi Forschmiedt

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