Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical mysteries are a very popular sub-genre of crime fiction; I enjoy them, myself. So when I got a request to turn the spotlight on Emily Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries series, I was happy to do so. I was all the more pleased because I truly enjoy hearing from those of you who are kind enough to read this feature, and getting your ideas for books to spotlight (Hint, hint!). So today, let’s take a closer look at Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead, the most recent of Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries novels, and thanks for the suggestion.
The novel begins on the night of the Banfield family’s annual Ball. The Banfields are one of the “best” families in the area, so invitations to the event are much in demand. The guests have begun to arrive and wine and other drinks are being served. All of a sudden, without warning, Arlette Montrose Banfield, the young and beautiful mistress of the house and hostess of the party, suddenly dies. Inspector Gerald Witherspoon and his team are called in and begin to investigate.
The investigation team has plenty of suspects, too. Arlette Montrose Banfield was a beautiful sculptor’s model and artist; several of the eligible young ladies from the “better” families are bitter at having lost their chance at her wealthy husband Lewis. And then there are the members of the Banfield family who feel that Lewis Banfield married beneath him. They look down on the Montrose family as a group of bohemian artists and musicians with no breeding. Even Arlette’s own family comes under suspicion. She’d had a bitter argument with her mother about a decision she’d made, and there’s no real proof the argument was settled. What’s more, the Montroses are not happy about Arlette’s marriage. They regard the Banfields as a group of philistines with no sense of culture whatsoever. Even Arlette’s husband Lewis comes under suspicion when it’s revealed he stood to inherit some very valuable artwork at her death. It doesn’t help matters that Arlette was an outspoken, free-thinking, very modern young woman. Her habit of saying what she thought and doing as she pleased grated on more than one person.
Witherspoon and his team soon run up against a major challenge. The murder was committed by poisoning the victim’s champagne. The problem is that the only people who had the opportunity to poison the champagne were friends of Arlette and had absolutely no motive for murder. The suspects with the best motives were across a crowded room, and wouldn’t have been able to commit the crime without being noticed. So the team has its proverbial work cut out for it. Witherspoon’s capable and efficient housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries alerts her staff to the murder and as a group, they begin to investigate, too. Along with the household staff, a few other people are also part of Mrs. Jeffries’ “investigation group.” For instance, Witherspoon’s assistant, Constable Barnes and his friend Lady Ruth Cannonberry are members, as is wealthy Luty Belle Crookshank, a transplanted American, and her butler Hatchet. Mrs. Jeffries and her team get to work on the case and bit by bit, they uncover the truth about who killed Arlette Banfield and why.
The mystery itself – how someone was able to poison champagne in the middle of a crowded room – is interesting, and the motive for the murder is believable. It’s also a very sad motive, all the more so because it’s authentic given the context. What’s also believable is the way in which Witherspoon and his team and Mrs. Jeffries and her team go about solving the mystery. They sift through clues, interview witnesses and put the pieces together in a logical way. In that way, it has a touch of the police procedural about it, although this isn’t really in that sub-genre.
There are also some interesting hidden secrets that are revealed in this novel. Lots of proverbial closets have skeletons. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t be specific. But old rivalries and love affairs, personal and family secrets and more figure into the story. Those who enjoy those connections will enjoy these sub-plots.
Another element that runs through this novel is the cast of characters. This is the latest in a long-running series, so fans of the novels will enjoy re-uniting with Mrs. Jeffries, Mrs. Goodge the cook, Wiggins the footman, Smythe the coachman and Betsy the maid as well as the other “regulars.” In this novel, we also meet Phyllis, a recently-hired maid. One of the most important rules this group lives by is that every effort is made to keep what they do from Inspector Witherspoon. Even Constable Barnes doesn’t let on that he and Witherspoon get help from Mrs. Jeffries and her staff and friends. That said, though, each of Mrs. Jeffries’ team members adds something unique to the mix of information they get; each has a special value. For instance, Mrs. Goodge gets some important old gossip from a friend who used to work at another home with her. Lady Ruth and Luty get quite a lot of information from their “upper crust” friends (and from Luty’s banker). While each character is interesting, it’s the teamwork that solves the case and keeps the reader’s interest. It’s also worth noting that although this is a long-running series, it’s not hard to pick up on the characters even if one starts the series with this novel. There’s enough information about them so the new reader won’t be “left out,” and yet regular readers aren’t overburdened with backstory.
Arlette Banfield herself is also a very interesting character. We only meet her briefly at the beginning of the novel, but as the sleuths learn more and more about her, we do, too. She’s got interesting depths and layers, and although she’s not perfect, she’s a likeable character. In fact, at the end of the novel Witherspoon says,
“I have a feeling I’d have liked Arlette Banfield. If she’d lived she might have made the world a better place.”
This is an historical cosy that takes place during the Victorian Era, and the novel captures the flavour of that time period. Here, for instance, is a description of the Banfields’ morning room:
“The walls of the morning room were papered in a cream color with a pattern of pink and green climbing roses. Pink silk curtains hung at the two windows and a carpet in various shades of green was on the floor. Margaret Bickleton sat on a chair upholstered in pink stain while Inspector Witherspoon was perched on the edge of a matching chaise.”
Clothes, meals, daily life and other aspects of the Victorian lifestyle also run through the novel. The era is also captured in the social structure described in the novel. Divisions among classes are clearly defined and the roles the members of each class play are authentic. Since this is a cosy, the daily lives of, especially the working and serving classes, aren’t depicted as starkly as they are in other kinds of mysteries, but it’s obvious that those who have live well. Those who do not…don’t. Interestingly these class differences do have one advantage for Mrs. Jeffries and her team. Since many members of the upper class don’t really acknowledge members of the serving and working classes as real people, certainly not as equals, household staff members often get to hear things they wouldn’t hear if they were regarded as equals.
There are some larger themes that run subtly through this novel, too. Arlette Banfield was an ardent believer that women were the equals of men and should not be restricted by the “rules” of Victorian society. So there is some discussion of what the roles of men and women should be. She was also beloved by the members of the Banfield household staff, whom she treated as human beings with their own skills, plans and so on. So there’s also a discussion of class differences and what they mean. However, those themes are only undertones; they really aren’t the major points of the novel. Still, those discussions add layers to the novel.
An historical cosy with a solid mystery and interesting characters, Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead has some solid depth, too. There are some important themes and questions addressed as well. But what’s your view? Have you read Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight:
Monday 11 July/Tuesday 12 July – McGarr and The PM of Belgrave Square – Bartholomew Gill
Monday 18 July/Tuesday 19 July – Indemnity Only – Sara Paretsky
Monday 25 July/Tuesday 26 July – The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett