Upstairs-downstairs sensational whodunnit


Legacy of Death

Written like a 19th sensational novel – A good read but modern sensitivities are anachronistic and interfere with the story – Read Book 1 first.

Legacy of Death | Judith Cutler
Publication date: March 2021

I was certain I would love Legacy of Death — an upstairs-downstairs whodunnit set in some indeterminate period of the Victorian era or the turn of the century. It turned into ‘like’ rather than love. It was a good read but did not quite live up to my [admittedly high] expectations.

The pros — Plot, characters and setting

This novel has all the ingredients of a gripping 19th century mystery or sensational novel, à la Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Ailing aristocrats hidden away in the private wing of a great estate, a stranger claiming to be heir to the Lord, mysterious ruins, assaults that leave the victims unable to identify their attacker, valuable possessions going missing, and a plucky couple ready to loyally defend the household.

It’s all you need for a cracking good plot, and it largely delivers. With strong characters that pull you into the day-to-day investigation and a setting that comes alive through ample domestic detail.

The cons — Democratic to a fault!

Unfortunately, Legacy of Death was NOT written in the 19th century and, for me, its 21st century credentials really got in the way of the story. It is insanely unrealistic, packed with details of behavior that is at best unlikely, at worst bizarrely anachronistic in light of values at that time. If you haven’t read a lot of 19th century novels, this might not bother you, but I have and it did.

The author appears keen to demonstrate how democratic, modern, kind and forward-thinking are the main characters, Matthew and Harriet Rowsley. Indeed, I’m not sure exactly why this is such a big part of the story. Perhaps it’s just to prove that they are not ‘snobs’ so that they will be more appealing to a modern reader? But it’s emphasized so much that the story gets bogged down in side stories about all the Rowsleys are doing to improve the domestic lives of the servants and estate workers, and to protect them from abuse.

I’m not talking about the typical acts of charity/patronage that you’d find in a 19th century novel, where the aristocrats or the higher ranks of servants show their humanity by bringing a bowl of soup to a poor worker. Rather, there’s a wealth of detail about a project to rebuild the estate workers’ cottages. With privies! And kitchens! Interesting, sure, but relevant to the mystery? No!

Again and again, we’re presented with proof of the Rowsleys’ equitability, and indeed their condescension — in both the 19th century meaning of the word (kindness to one’s social inferiors) and its later connotation. It’s all too much. From dining with the under-butler to proposing to allow servants to look in the attics to pick out furnishings to redecorate their rooms. At one point, they propose a reward of £20 pounds for information about the assault on Bowman, who is not even a member of the family! He is ‘merely’ a servant, albeit a valued one. It’s a ridiculous amount, comparable to the annual salary of a housemaid or a reward of roughly £40,000 today. The man isn’t even dead.

As I said, unlikely.

(I think someone else might have been killed, but I was confused at the start of the story so I’m not sure and it wasn’t mentioned again.)

Ideally, read book 1 first

If this book appeals to you because of the sensational plot elements, I strongly recommend you also take a look at the real thing: the books of the 19th century sensational novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

If it appeals to you because you like a series with a 19th century setting but a 21st century ethos and style, then this series might be just what you’re looking for.

Which brings me to my final comment about Legacy of Death: the fact that it is book 2 of a series. While book 2 can be read as a standalone novel, I had not read the first book in the series (The Wages of Sin) and I was deeply confused to start with. It took me quite some time to get the characters straight in my head. I even found myself going online to check the blurb and reviews of book 1 to understand the background. This wasn’t helped by the fact that alternating chapters are narrated by Matthew and Harriet in turn, adding to my confusion before I figured that out. Yet while all that was a bit irritating, don’t let it put you off. Instead, I suggest you read book 1 first.

My thanks to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.


You might also like:

Death at the Theatre – Celina Grace

Novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Book 1 in this series: The Wages of Sin


I don't send emails or push notifications to my blog readers. To see when I post new reviews, you can follow me on FB or Twitter:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.