Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mrs. Jeffries and the Feast of St. Stephen by Emily Brightwell: A review

The first of the Mrs. Jeffries Victorian mysteries series was published in 1997 and Emily Brightwell has churned one out every few months since then. Twenty-two of the books had preceded Mrs. Jeffries and the Feast of St. Stephen, (published 2007) the one that I just read, and there have been at least a half-dozen written since then! Yes, Ms. Brightwell is quite prolific. Not particularly original or interesting, but certainly prolific. 

This is the first of the series that I have read, and, obviously, a lot of exposition and water have flowed under the bridge since the beginning. This entry somewhat supposes that the reader has a familiarity with the characters and is invested in their stories. I wasn't, and that made the book less enthralling than it might have been. It is the selection of my local Mystery Book Club for the month of December and that was my excuse for reading it. 

Mrs. Jeffries is the housekeeper for Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard. The unmarried inspector has a household staff of five people to take care of his needs! (Seems a bit excessive, doesn't it? Oh, well...) The thing is, this household staff - unbeknownst to the inspector - investigate all of his murder cases right along with him and they solve the cases and then manage to pass the solution along to him so that he can shine before Scotland Yard's brass. As a result, Witherspoon has a reputation as one of the most successful investigators in Scotland Yard. 

As we meet the characters in this particular entry of the series, it is nearing Christmas and the household is getting ready for the season when their inspector is suddenly presented with a murder to solve. It turns out to be an upper class twit who has died. He died at a dinner party in his own home after drinking some wine that had been brought by a couple who were among his guests for the evening. The investigation quickly reveals that the twit, Stephen Whitfield, was not much loved by any of his guests, but did any of them actually have sufficient motive to do him in? 

The household staff jump into action and parallel the investigation by the inspector and his constable. This inspector, it turns out, needs all the help he can get and he gets plenty, from his staff, his constable, the doctor who is called to the death scene. They all seem extremely devoted to the man and eager to make sure he succeeds. I have no idea what the impetus of all these warm feelings might be. 

The situation reminded me of Upstairs, Downstairs or even of Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt or William and Hester Monk. Unfortunately for Brightwell, her writing suffers from such comparisons. 

Brightwell strews clues and red herrings plentifully throughout the book and I found that I was able to sort through them and solve the mystery long before both the professional and amateur investigators in the book. There's a certain satisfaction in that, but actually, I like my mysteries to be a bit more challenging. 

This is very light reading and will not tie the reader down for very long at all. It's the sort of thing that might be good for a plane trip, but not something that one really wants to burrow into and think about overly much.

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