Ashley Gardner aka Jennifer Ashley

Books: Mystery | Historical

Kat Holloway (Jennifer Ashley): A Soupçon of Poison (2015), Death Below Stairs (2018), Scandal Above Stairs (2018), Death in Kew Gardens (2019), Murder in the East End (2020), Death at the Crystal Palace (2021), The Secret of Bow Lane (2022), The Price of Lemon Cake (2023)

Captain Lacey (Ashley Gardner): A Regimental Murder (2004/2001), The Glass House (2004/2011), The Sudbury School Murders (2005/2011), A Body in Berkeley Square (2005/2011)

Kat Holloway

A Soupçon of Poison (2015)

A-Soupcon-of-PoisonSet in London in 1880

Kat Holloway is a cook for Sir Lionel Leigh-Bradbury, and although the position isn't ideal in pay, he agreed to her request for an unusual number of days out, so she stays, even when he begins to make unusual and ridiculous demands.

But she is a very good cook.

Late one night, after the other staff had gone to bed, I sat in the kitchen at the wide wooden table, sharpening my knives.

A cook's knives are her greatest asset, and if they go dull, they are no use at all and should be replaced. As decent knives are hideously expensive, I kept mine in good repair.

When she needs help, Daniel McAdam, a man of all work goes out of her way to assist, gaining her gratitude, but she knows little about him, and he does nothing to allay her suspicions.

I knew Daniel wasn't married because I'd asked him that, point blank. When a man flirts with a woman, she ought to know where things stand.

Daniel had dark hair and dark eyes and a tall, attractive body. He spoke with a fairly neutral accent— he hadn't been brought up on the streets, I could tell. He could read and write and was quite clever, though he never admitted to any schooling.

I concluded that he must be the son of a middle-class gentleman, possibly illegitimate, but he never spoke of his family.

I've been trying to read the first Captain Lacey mystery for about two years now. I just can't get into it. So I decided to try a novella, for a different taste of her writing.

I really liked this story, and very much want to read more about Kat Halloway. She firmly knows her place, and doesn't seek to rise above it.

I jumped to my feet, annoyed. The kitchen was my demesne. The master might own the house, but a good employer understood that not interfering in the kitchen made for a tranquil domestic situation. Sir Lionel had his rooms above stairs where I did not trespass, and he had no reason to trespass on me.

She wants to do her job, the best she can, but she's also smart and no-nonsense–delightful to spend time with.

Unfortunately, there are currently not any Kat Halloway books out, so I have to wait. Perhaps I'll try a different Captain Lacey book, because there are several series I love, where if I'd started with book one, I probably wouldn't have picked up another book, and that would have been a terrible loss.

And I'll keep my eye out for more Kat Halloway stories.

Published by JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 8.5/10

Death Below Stairs (2018)

Death Below StairsSet in London in 1881.

I read the novella A Soupçon of Poison awhile ago, and when I didn't find a novel immediately, forgot about it.

Kat Halloway has just taken a position as cook for Lord Rankin. She is relatively young for her position, but sought after for her skills.

The kitchen's range was neatly fitted into what had been a large fireplace, the stove high enough that I wouldn't have to stoop or kneel to cook. I'd had to kneel on hard stones at one house— where I hadn't stayed long— and it had taken some time for my knees and back to recover.

Her second day there, she literally stumbles over the body of the kitchen maid, and (after a small freak-out) tries to send for her friend Daniel, who helped her previously in unraveling a mystery.

The household is an odd one, with the Lord working at his business to make more money, his wife a pale and fragile thing, and the wife's sister and strange woman who goes about in men's clothes.

In addition to a murder, Kat continues to wonder about Daniel. He is definitely now who he first presented himself as, and she is unsure which of his guises is the true him. Kat also has decisions to make about her daughter–one that would be extremely difficult for any woman, but even harder for a woman of her position in that time period.

There was one thing I was slightly uneasy with, and that was Lady Cynthia. She dresses as a man, and it is relatively clear that she does so for the freedom her garments give her. What I'm unsure about is whether she'd actually have been able to get away with it at that time, and whether one of the reactions to her would have been correct.

“And to answer your question, no, I am not a hermaphrodite.”

“Oh.” Elgin looked disappointed. “Pity. I would have liked to learn all about being a hermaphrodite from one who actually practiced such things. One shouldn't rely on hearsay.”

“For God's sake, sit down,” Daniel growled at him. “The British Empire will fall by the time you finish talking. Have a look at this.”

It's pretty clear from the text that Lady Cynthia's friend is a lesbian and Cynthia is not, but the terminology used here isn't something I'd come across before, and would really like to know where it came from in this context.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 7.5/10

Scandal Above Stairs (2018)

Scandal Above StairsSet in London in 1881

Kat Holloway is still cook at Lord Rankin's house, even though he has retired to the country, Lady Cynthia remains, and to give her countenance, her aunt and uncle are living with her. Kat and the rest of the staff may be fond of Cynthia (despite her eccentricities)

(M)en do become titillated at the thought of females in gentlemen's clothing— do not tell me they do not.”

“I grant you that. But it does make me wonder, in that case, why you do it.”

Cynthia flashed me a sudden grin. “That is because you have no idea what it is like to stride around in perfect freedom, able to go where you please, purchase what you wish, and speak as you wish, because people believe you are a man.

But less so her parsimonious aunt and uncle, who keep putting off hiring another housekeeper and cook's assistant, leaving more work to Kat.

Lady Cynthia asks Kat to come talk to her friend–paintings have been stolen from Clemmie's house, and her husband is blaming her for the thefts.

But this case quickly becomes more complicated than it seems, and once again Kat and Daniel McAdams are working together.

This is a fun series, and I do love the cooking bits.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 7.5/10

Death in Kew Gardens (2019)

Death in Kew GardensSet in London in 1881

Kat Holloway and the rest of the staff have been working hard, since Lady Cynthia's aunt keeps refusing to hire a new housekeeper. Unfortunately, the woman she finally hires is a complete nightmare.

When the gentleman next door is murdered, everything is thrown into further chaos, as Kat looks into the murder as a favor to both Lady Cynthia and the staff next door.

There were some things I really liked about this story Such as how Kat's secrets are coming out, and everyone's reaction to those secrets.

“Why didn't you tell me about your daughter?” He sounded hurt.

“Fear, Mr. Davis. Pure and simple.”

Mr. Davis sighed. “Ah well, I know about that.

And I like that Cynthia and her friend Bobby have patched up their issues, and that neither Kat nor the rest of the staff seem to have problems with any of it.

Bobby is uncertain what to do with herself. She can't literally become a man, and she refuses to remain a woman— that is, marrying and setting up a nursery as her father wants her to. She's at a bit of a loose end.”

But there are several things I took issue with. First, the horrible housekeeper. She is awful. But it doesn't make any sense what she's doing. Mrs. Bywater may be in charge of hiring the staff, but if the horrible housekeeper got Lady Cynthia in enough trouble that she was sent back to her parents, then the Bywaters would also be out of the house. I kept thinking maybe she didn't know her presence was entirely dependent upon Lady Cynthia remaining in London, but, jeesh.

So it's another interesting story, but it did have some weaknesses.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 7.5/10

Murder in the East End (2020)

Murder in the East EndSet in London in 1882

Daniel has once again come to Kat Holloway seeing assistance in dealing with a problem–in this case a woman and several children are missing from a foundling house, and Daniel's brother (of a sort) came to him for assistance.

“Daniel and I were raised together, and he tells me you know under what circumstances. We refer to each other as brother, but we were no such thing, though as close as. After the man we called our father died, I eked a living on the streets.”

Also, Kat's friendship with Lady Cynthia causes her problems, and Lady Cynthia's aunt continues to try and marry her off.

“Ridiculous that a man can share his deepest secrets and best malt whisky with his valet, but I can't have a chat with the cook without endangering us both.”

I'm not sure if I just wasn't in the mood for this book or if little things kept bothering me. It was a library book I had on hold, so I had to read it if I didn't want to wait another month or two to read it. There was nothing particularly wrong, other than the fact that time feels like it passes strangely in the story–Kat's half days seem to last forever, considering all the things she does during them.

But, it was a nice escape.

Publisher : Berkley

Rating: 7.5/10

Death at the Crystal Palace (2021)

Death at the Crystal PalaceSet in England in 1882.

Kat is visiting the Crystal Palace on her day off with Lady Cynthia and her friends (as well as with her daughter), when a woman comes up to her and claims that she is being poisoned, and wants Kat to help her.

As she is trying to figure out how do manage that, Daniel is called away to work on another case, so she has to turn to her other friends for assistance.

As well as Daniel's brother.

“My dear woman, I am a master of discretion. I convinced the Church of England to let me take orders, didn't I?

Additionally, Lady Cynthia's parents have come to Town, and are threatening to take her back to the country with them.

“Papa has run through the last of the money already, has he? Only yesterday he was telling me he was in funds.”

“For important things,” Lady Clifford said. “Not for paying the bills of a girl-child.”

The mystery was interesting, and we continue to learn dribs and drabs about Daniel, and why he is indebetted to Mr. Monaghan.

We also see both Grace and James growing up.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 8/10

The Secret of Bow Lane (2022)

The Secret of Bow LaneSet in England in 1882

The Sixth Book in the Below Stairs mystery series finds Kat embroiled in her own mystery. Her husband's actual wife has come to Kat demanding assistance in discovering treasure Joe supposedly had before he died. Kat has little interest, but is inexorably drawn in, discovering even more unpleasant truths about the man who married her–despite already having a wife.

The two men spoke of a man I barely recognized. A man who stood drinks for his friends, had ambitions of wealth that he thought going to sea would bring. Not through hard work, but by meeting the right people who would boost him up.

She is also getting subtle pressure from all sides to marry Daniel.

“Mr. McAdam should marry,” she announced. “He is very unsettled, and should have a wife to look after him and James.”

I paused, my teacup hovering at my lips. “James is nearly grown. He might object to a new mother who admonishes him to eat his vegetables and put on clean clothes.” I sipped.

“Not if that mother was you.”

I nearly spit my tea.

And Cynthia as well.

“I doubt Mr. Thanos would instigate any goings-on,” I said. “But very well, I take your point. If Mrs. Bywater heard they met alone in her house, she'd be incensed.”

“Maybe he'd have to marry her,” Tess put in happily. “That would be wonderful. Stay downstairs, Mrs. H., and let them kiss if they like.”

The mystery was good, and I am enjoying the relationship Kat and Daniel are building. Kat has been rightfully leery of him, but here you see her starting to reason out whether her fears are sound or not.

If this series is going to end with Kat's marriage to Daniel, then I foresee it ending relatively soon. But perhaps it won't because I never much enjoy spending time with these characters.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 8/10

The Price of Lemon Cake (2023)

The Price of Lemon CakeSet in London in 1882.

Although Kat Holloway makes an appearance in this story, it is about Lady Bobby Perry and told from her point of view.

Bobby is in love with Judith, and in this story we learn more about both Bobby’s history, her relationship with Judith, and how she interacts with the world.

“You’d be astounded how much people see only what they wish to see. And anyway, I look so much like a bloke, no one has ever tumbled to me no matter where I go.”

Kat comes with Bobby with a request for help–to see if they can get a young man out of trouble.

In doing so, Bobby learns more about Judith and her past, and meets up with some of the shadier characters in Kat’s orbit.

“I said, you ain’t police,” (the man) snarled. “Who are you? Your gents only told me you knew something to my advantage. What is it?”

“That it would be to your advantage to not linger in London,” Mr. Fielding said without changing expression.

And now I want lemon cake. Even though I don’t much care for cake, and have never found a lemon cake recipe that was everything I feel lemon cake should be.

Publisher: JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 7.5/10

Captain Lacey

A Regimental Murder (2004/2001)

A-Regimental-MurderSet in London in 1816

Captain Gabriel Lacey is a half-pay captain from the cavalry, no longer fit for service after his right knee and leg were terribly injured in Spain, during the war.

“India, and the Dutch campaign,” I replied. “Then the Peninsula. Not Waterloo, I am afraid.” They'd be disappointed. Waterloo made one a hero, even if one had remained behind in camp guarding the water sacks. The Derwents did not seem to mind this, however.

One summer night as he wanders the streets, unable to sleep, he comes across an upper-class woman near the as-yet-unfinished London Bridge, and saves her from a man with a knife. He soon discovers that she is in disgrace, for his husband was saved from trial for murdering another soldier in Spain (Portugal?) by his death–a death that his widow reveals was a murder.

“My husband was a moral man, Captain. Moral in the real sense of the word, not in the manner in which some preach morality while beating their servants black and blue with the other hand. He no more would have shot Captain Spencer than the Thames would flow backward. He abhorred violence and violent acts.”

I tried several times to read the first Captain Lacey mystery, and just could not get into it. After reading a novella about a different character, I decided to skip to the second book, and see how I felt about that. (After all, there are many series I'd never have read if I'd started with the first book.)

These are decent historical mysteries. Captain Lacey is a very interesting character, although I still have not decided whether I actually like him or not. Because of the war he suffers from melancholia and has a very bad temper (modern diagnosis: PTSD) which is what makes him so interesting, because he is quite frequently not very likable.

There are also lots of historical tidbits that add versimilitude to the story, like the following:

His note was short, only four lines on an entire sheet of heavy white paper.

Did I envy a man who could afford to throw away an expensive piece of paper on a short note, or think him a fool? In any case, I carefully tore the clean end of the sheet from the written area and tucked it into my drawer to save for my own letters.

With such amazing technology available today, it's hard to remember that in the past even paper was dear, with scraps being saved for later use.

And of course, the treatment of women.

(B)y law, sons were not related to their mothers, and had no legal obligation to care for them.

It's an interesting series, and I'm glad I skipped to the second book, to give it a chance.

Published by JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 7/10

The Glass House (2004/2011)

The-Glass-HouseLondon, January 1817

The third Captain Lacey mystery finds him again embroiled in mystery, when a young blonde is found in the river, and the Bow Street runner called to the scene wants Lacey to see if she is his upstairs neighbor.

Again, I cannot decide if I like Captain Lacey or not. He is brusque and picks fights where he needn't, but he is also in almost constant pain, and suffers melancholia from the war. So it's hard not to excuse him for his temper, since he mostly manages to control it.

I had seen more than one corpse of a suicide in the Army; once, of a man in my own company. Most of us in the Army had been very stoic about the fact that every time we rode into battle, we would likely not return. We agreed that death fighting the pesky French was more honorable than death by the infections that regularly swept through the camps. We even joked about it.

But there were those for whom the horrors of war had come as a shock. Some men could not face shooting and killing others and were terrified by the thought of death by bayonet or musket ball. In the quiet hours of dawn, these gentlemen would creep away by themselves and end their lives quickly with a bullet in the head, as I described.

No one stopped them. A man had to find honor where he could. We buried them, sent their effects back to their families, and marched on.

I (of course) liked the elements reminding us what life was really like in the past.

“I've been wondering why she married Chapman at all,” I said. “Lord Barbury gave her money and gifts and loved her desperately. She seemed equally besotted with him. Surely she was happy, even without marriage.”

Marianne gave me a dark look. “You are a man, Lacey. You cannot begin to understand. A gentleman who is not your husband can be wild about you one day, weary of you the next. And, once he is weary . . .” She opened her hand, as though dropping something to the carpet. “If the lady has saved no money, if he takes back everything he has given her, she is destitute, her character ruined. Marriage is much safer by far for a woman, even if it is not the happiest state.”

Quite fascinating was the description of “magical gas” or what we'd refer to as laughing gas. When Lacey first experiences it, I thought he might be likely to return to it, after it eased the pain of his knee, but luckily, he's made of sterner stuff, and recognized that the come down wasn't worth the relief.

I was also glad to see that the Derwent's were back. They're quite lovely, and it's nice to remember that such people do exist. I also liked that Grenville is complicated.

It's an interesting series, and at $2.99 a book, I'll keep reading.

Published by JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 7/10

The Sudbury School Murders (2005/2011)

The Sudbury School MurdersSet in England in March 1817

The 4th Captain Lacey mystery finds Gabriel Lacey working as a secretary for Everard Rutledge at the Sudsbury School–a school for the sounds of the wealthy–but not titled.

Lacey is somewhat distressed to discover he was hired because of his ability to unravel mysteries, because the school had a rather vicious practical joker. Unfortunately, things become serious when the groom is found murdered–a groom that Lacey recognized from London.

I like Lacey better in this story than I did in the previous two. He's still occasionally an asshole, but far less of one.

And there are some lovely passages.

Hungerford had once been used by Charles I as a base from which he fought battles with Cromwell's army. One could picnic now at the battle sites, as I imagined that one day Spanish ladies and gentlemen would picnic at the sites of Talavera and Abuerra and other gruesome chapters in the war against Bonaparte.

The mystery wasn't especially compelling, but the characters were, and I liked finally learning Marianne Simmons' secret.

Published by JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 7/10

A Body in Berkeley Square (2005/2011)

A Body in Berkeley SquareSet in London in April 1817

The 5th Captain Lacey mystery finds Gabriel Lacey investigating the murder of a young man with whom his former colonel was seen arguing at a ball.

Because Lacey has been at odds with Brandon ever since Brandon attempted to have Lacey murdered, and because Lacey is good friends with Brandon's wife, this makes for a delicate situation.

Or had he simply been moral because he'd never been tempted? It is easy to reject sin when one has no interest in it.

I rather liked the mystery in this one, and that the characters around Lacey only slowly reveal their secrets.

Published by JA / AG Publishing

Rating: 7/10