Death on a Silver Tray
by Rosemary Stevens
(Prime Crime, $21.95, NV) ISBN 0-425-17468-9
****
There is a recent trend in historical mysteries to employ a famous person as the detective. While I find this a bit perplexing -- I have a hard time imagining Jane Austen wandering about the English countryside solving murders -- Rosemary Stevens’ decision to make Beau Brummell the hero of her Regency murder mysteries makes a good deal of sense. Brummell was a man of keen intelligence who might well have had the knowledge and the contacts to solve murders among the English haut ton.

Death on a Silver Tray is the inaugural book in what, I imagine, will be a series of Beau Brummell mysteries. As such, it undoubtedly contains more background information for the uninitiated than will be the case in the future. However, the mystery is well done; the suspects are all well developed; and the way in which the murderer is found out is nicely done. All in all, this is a most promising entry into the growing field of historical mysteries.

For those who are unfamiliar with Regency England, George “Beau” Brummell was the foremost leader of high society for over a decade at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although himself not of the nobility, he parlayed his friendship with the Prince of Wales, his own impeccable sense of style, and his keen wit into the position of fashion leader and arbiter. Indeed, it is to Brummell that men owe the more restrained styles that came to characterize their dress in the nineteenth century.

Stevens has chosen to write her story in the first person. This can be a difficult stylistic device, but I must say that the author succeeds admirably, perhaps because her protagonist is such an interesting character and because Stevens has clearly worked hard to capture his personality.

The murder victim, as is so often the case, is a thoroughly unpleasant woman, the Countess of Wrayburn. A domestic tyrant of the first order, the countess is introduced berating her paid companion publicly. When the Countess is found dead in her bed the next morning and when it becomes clear that she there was poison in the milk that her companion brought to her every night, suspicion immediately falls on her lovely young companion, Miss Ashton.

Miss Ashton is one of those unfortunate women forced to earn her living in a society where employment respectable employment opportunities for females were few and far between. Although the daughter of a viscount, Miss Ashton was left penniless at her father’s death. Brummell becomes involved in the case because his dear friend, the Duchess of York, had recommended Miss Ashton to Lady Wrayburn as a companion. If indeed, Miss Ashton is charged with the murder, Brummell’s “dear Freddie” will suffer.

After talking to Miss Ashton, Brummell is convinced that she did not murder her employer. But proving this requires him to find a more likely candidate. Stevens provides a likely enough group: the victim’s hapless son, her grasping daughter-in-law; her unpleasant nephew. Before the guilty party is unmasked, Brummell finds himself with an even stronger motive to solve the mystery: as society discovers that he is championing Miss Ashton, his credit will be destroyed if she is found guilty.

My own preference in historical mysteries lies with those which truly recreate a past time. In this, Stevens has succeeded admirably. The author of four well done Regency romances, Stevens knows the era and its denizens very well. She interweaves real characters like Brummell himself and the Duchess of York, and other famous folk with her fictional creations. She does succeed in bringing the era to life. Even if readers like myself who have been reading books set in this time period for decades will find little new, we will likewise find little wrong.

Death on a Silver Tray is a clever and well written historical mystery. The idea of making Beau Brummell her detective is simply inspired. The book has, in addition to the mystery, some nice bits of humor mostly relating to Brummell, his valet and a cat. I shall look for the next book in the series to discover just what happens in Brighton to require the Beau’s newly discovered detective abilities.

--Jean Mason


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