Julian Kestrel returns in this second mystery by Kate Ross [Viking 1994], A Broken Vessel. Several months after his amateur but superior sleuthing at Bellegarde, home of the Fontclairs, [see Ross's first book, Cut to the Quick, and my review] Kestrel is again thrown into the mix of murder and mayhem when the sister of his manservant, Dipper, shows up in her brother’s life after a two-year absence. Sally Stokes is a prostitute and a thief, made of the same cloth as her now-reformed [hopefully] pick-pocket brother. After an evening of turning tricks with three very different “coves,” from each of whom she steals a handkerchief, she discovers a letter written by an unknown woman, mysteriously locked up in an unnamed place, begging forgiveness and help from her family. But whose pocket did Sally lift the letter from? – Bristles, the middle-aged skittish man; Blue Eyes, the elegant and handsome gentleman of the “Quality”; or Blinkers, the be-speckled young man who played all too rough with Sally, leaving her sore, battered and frightened.
Here is how we first see Sally:
She pulled the pins out of her hair and put them on the washstand for safe-keeping; she was always losing hairpins. Her nut-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders: long at the back, but curling at the front and sides, in imitation of the fashion plates in shop windows. Not that she would ever look like one of them, with their fair skins, straight noses, and daintily pursed lips. She had a brown complexion, a snub nose and a wide mouth, with a missing tooth just visible when she smiled. Still, she was satisfied with her face. There was not much an enterprising girl could not do with a little cunning and a pair of liquid brown eyes.
So Dipper brings Sally to his apartment to get her off the street and give her a chance to heal. He shares this apartment with his employer, Julian Kestrel, the Regency dandy, known far and wide for his fashion and manners, the man everyone emulates in all things dress and gentlemanly behavior. We have already learned in Ross’s first book that there is so much more to Kestrel than this dandified appearance – his growing friendship with Dr. MacGregor serves as a foil for the reader to see Kestrel in more human terms, and MacGregor’s unasked questions become ours: all we know is that Kestrel’s father was a gentleman, disinherited upon marrying an actress, and that Kestrel has been an orphan for a good many years. Although he appears to have money and is viewed as such by his cohorts, we, the reader, and Dipper know this not to be the case – but where DOES he get the funds to lead this gentleman’s life, buy these fine clothes, live in France and Italy for years before settling in London? We learn a bit more in this book…but not much!
Here is Dr. MacGregor, not of London and critical of all the goings-on there, learning about the gentlemanly art of duelling:
‘If you thought he was lying or hiding something. Why didn’t you tax him with it?’ asks MacGregor.
[Kestrel] ‘If I called him a liar point-blank, I should have had to stand up with him, which would have been deuced inconvenient, and not at all part of my plans.’
‘Do you mean to say you’d have exchanged pistol shots with him over a mere matter of words?’
‘Not if there were any honourable way to avoid it. But accusing a gentleman of lying is the deadliest of insults. If he’d insisted on receiving satisfaction, I should have had no choice but to give it to him.”
‘But that’s preposterous! It’s criminal! I don’t understand you at all. One minute you’re investigating a possible murder with all the seriousness it deserves – and the next minute you say you’d stand up and shoot at a man because he took offence at something you said!’
‘Duelling isn’t murder, whatever the press and pulpit say about it. If one gentleman insults another, he knows what the consequences will be: they’ll fight according to the laws of honour, as nations fight according to the laws of war. Killing an unarmed man, or -God forbid!- a woman, is completely different.’
‘Well, I suppose you can’t help those wrong-eaded notions. You probably learned them at your father’s knee before you were old enough to know better.’
‘Oddly enough, my father had much the same view of duelling as you do. But then, my father was too good to live.’ He added quietly, ‘And he didn’t.’
The discovery of the letter wrapped up in one of Sally’s stolen handkerchiefs sets the plot in motion – they must find which of the three men carried the letter, who the woman is, and where she is being held. Many plot twists, many characters appearing, each with a tale to tell – are they all connected in some way, or are they all separate unrelated but oh so interesting mysteries of their own? When Sally finally discovers that the woman who wrote the letter was an “inmate” of the Reclamation Society’s prison-like home for recovering prostitutes and has been found dead from an apparent suicide, Kestrel’s shackles are raised, his detective skills in high gear, and he, Sally and Dipper pursue the three men to find out the truth. And along the way, we see Dr. MacGregor’s astute eye upon Sally and her effect on Kestrel – can this street-wise, sharp little spitfire possibly soften the edges of the leader of the ton? Or is Kestrel immune to such feminine wiles? (and those “liquid brown eyes!)
Ross writes a compelling tale, her research into Regency England, its language (she is adept at presenting the dialect of the streets and the Regency-speak of the “Quality”), the manners and mores, evident on every page; her knowledge of the underside of London life makes the telling very graphic and realistic – you will learn much about prostitution on the streets of London, the religious zealots who acted against it (indeed, the title is from a Psalm), the Bow Street Runners and the all too-ineffective police forces of the time, and best of all, the mystery is excellent! and while I often “figure” these things out, I was most pleased to have the various side stories pull together with a few surprises along the way. All in all, a fine mystery, with wonderfully drawn characters, and enough tidbits about Kestrel’s background to more than gently coax this reader into the third book in the series, Whom the Gods Love.
4 1/2 full inkwells (out of 5)
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