Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen is set at a country estate, Iyntwood, located outside London, a few years prior to the outbreak of WWI (1913) during the Edwardian period of British history.
Our story starts with Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Montfort, overseeing the finishing touches for her annual costume ball with the help of her competent housekeeper, Edith Jackson. First to arrive is her son, home for the summer, shortly followed by her wayward nephew, Teddy Mallory, the dishonorable gentleman referred to in the title. After that, a progression of house guests arrive who plan to spend the night at the lavish estate. Part of the problem with this novel is the numerous characters thrown at the readers in a short space of time. Perhaps a flow chart of guests and servants names would help us keep them all straight. Even by the end of the story, I had only a vague idea of who was who. However, it appears that this book is the first in a series of mysteries involving the same individuals, so perhaps it is worth the effort to get to know the “players”. Teddy is a nasty young man, involved in all sorts of nefarious activities. It’s difficult to comprehend the depths of his depravity, so when he is brutally murdered, the whole incident is more of an inconvenience where nobody truly mourns his loss.
In order to discover who killed Teddy, the mistress of the house decides to work with her housekeeper over riding the usual 20th century class distinctions. Whereas the authorities question the guests and the staff separately, the truth requires the cohesiveness of both. Even though it is an uncomfortable alliance, without the clues garnered and shared by Lady Montfort and Mrs Jackson, the solution would never be obtained. In the end, it is Lord Montfort who calls the constable and confronts the culprit, after his wife shares what they have discerned. He cannot approve of his wife’s actions, even if it brought a successful conclusion to the case. The aristocrats must keep their distance from the house staff at ALL costs. Although he loves his wife and admires her intelligence, his views reflect those of the times, and he prefers her to keep her talents focused on hearth and home.
And this attitude is pervasive throughout the novel. The times play a role, especially with the suffragette movement as a backstory, where one of the couples’ daughter goes missing and turns up on the front page news after causing a disturbance. There is an immediate disapproval since the gentlemen, and even some of their wives, vehemently oppose the idea of Women’s Rights. (Ironically, even today – 100 years later, too many men still hold this belief). Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman reflects a curious time period where the aristocracy is trying to maintain their stronghold on the old ways while the new order keeps moving forward. This is reflected in the mannerisms of the Scotland Yard investigator who is brash and shows a disdain for their station in life. In fact, he takes offense at their peerage and treats them with a total disrespect. In sharp contrast is the behavior of the gentrified local constable who is mindful of the proper deference due the nobility. So, although the main plot is about a murder, the subplot is the battle between the classes. The advance of the future, including cars, trains, escalators, subways, telephones, electricity, and even the advent of the airplane, is a backdrop to aristocratic parents trying to maintain the old traditions, while their children look forward to breaking down the barriers.
Although the story is well written, I felt the plot meandered a little trying to keep the reader from discovering the guilty party. Also, the portrayed attitude and behaviors of the indulgent rich led to some antipathy on my part. Perhaps if the characters had been more endearing, I would have liked the book better. Hopefully the sequels will provide some depth to the household members, both the gentry and the servants, so I am more sympathetic to their plight. I give this book three and a half stars.
I would like to thank Minotaur Books and Netgalley for allowing me a free preview of this book in exchange for an unbiased evaluation.