(Hodder and Stoughton 1996)
Julian Kestrel – Regency dandy, man-about-town and sometime sleuth – begins his third adventure in a churchyard in Hampstead, where Sir Malcolm Faulkland, eminent barrister, has asked for a meeting. Sir Malcolm wants Kestrel to investigate the circumstances of his son’s death: Alexander Faulkland was murdered at a party he and his wife were giving at their home, and so far no leads have been found, nor are the Bow Street Runners entirely happy to be conducting their enquiries amongst Alexander’s rich and titled friends. There seems, on the face of it, no reason why anyone would want to kill Alexander, who was popular, handsome, rich and lucky. Despite his misgivings, Julian agrees to investigate, but warns Sir Malcolm that the truth may not be palatable.
So he begins his investigation, using his social contacts to quiz the party guests, and finding some inconsistencies. As he delves deeper, he finds that Belinda, Alexander’s wife, Quentin Clare, a young barrister, and David Isaacs, a Jewish financier, are keeping secrets, and these secrets reveal the dead man to be quite different to the man his father thinks him.
Whom the Gods Love is a well-written period detective novel: Julian is an entertaining sleuth, and he has a nice working relationship with Peter Vance, one of the Bow Street Runners. Ross evokes the manners, mores and fashions of the time very nicely, though she explores the seamy underbelly of Regency London far more than, say, Heyer does, and doesn’t shy away from depicting real violence and exploitation. Julian is aided, as ever, by his valet, former pickpocket “Dipper” Stokes: one of his strengths as a detective is his ease in all sorts of social situations, which comes about through his own history, which Ross alludes to throughout the four novels which feature Kestrel.
One of the pleasures of the Kestrel books is their characterisation (as well as their clever plots) – the main characters are complex, individual people, with sound reasons for behaving in the way they do. Isaacs and Belinda are particularly interesting, though she, being a woman, is more constrained by the times in her behaviour and wishes – unable to overrule her husband’s decisions to keep Eugene, her half-brother, at home, and unable to prevent him spending her fortune – she’s a tragic figure.
Unfortunately, Ross’s early death cut short her writing career, and there are only four Julian Kestrel mysteries: Cut to the Quick, A Broken Vessel (which was the first one I read), Whom the Gods Love and The Devil in Music. All are excellent, serious in tone, though with moments of humour: The Devil in Music is set in Italy, and has a background of post-Napoleonic Europe, opera – and music and singing in general – and espionage. It helps to read them in order, since characters from earlier novels reappear or are referred to in later ones, but generally the books can be read as stand-alone novels. If you read them in order you can see Ross growing in confidence as a writer, too, more comfortable with her chosen milieu – but even the earlier books are excellent.
I’d recommend these to anyone who enjoys detective novels or historical novels.