Book review: Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong by Emily Brightwell
When a genial businessman is brutally bludgeoned to death in his hotel room with his own walking stick, it's up to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon's resourceful household servants to piece together the clues and point their master in the right direction.
Prolific New York Times bestselling American author Emily Brightwell (aka Cheryl Arguile) has been penning popular cosy mysteries on a regular basis for the past 24 years. Adding a novel twist to standard detective fiction, her long-running Victorian historical mystery series featuring the incisive Mrs. Jeffries and her invaluable squad of determined, below-stairs novice sleuths has gained a keen international following, with the books proving just as popular in parts of Europe and Asia.
In her newest novel, Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong, which marks the 35th entry in the series, Brightwell delivers another entertaining and intricately plotted murder mystery set around a bustling London hotel and focused as much on uncovering the truth about the ‘slick as a slippery eel’ victim as on discovering the identity of the killer.
On an extended stay at the Wrexley Hotel while he secures funding for his consortium’s coffee plantation in São Paulo from wealthy aristocrats like the Comte de Valois, the handsome, affable, middle-aged Thomas Mundy seems, on the surface, like a harmless guest. He pays his hotel and restaurant bills with cash and considerately dissuades some of the elderly guests from investing in his overseas business ventures because he doesn’t want them to risk losing their savings.
However, there is much more to Thomas Mundy than meets the eye. In reality, he is a duplicitous confidence trickster with a shady past that includes crimes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and he has ‘an inordinate number of enemies,’ several of whom have a very strong motive for wanting him dead.
While attempting a hasty departure from his hotel, intending to catch the night train to Paris, Mundy is clubbed to death before he can pack his belongings. Despite an abundance of hotel staff and guests, there are no eyewitnesses and few clues as to the murderer’s identity.
Enter the unassuming Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of Scotland Yard. Having inherited a huge house and a substantial amount of wealth from his late aunt, Witherspoon doesn’t need to work. However, because ‘solving crimes made him feel as if he was doing good in the world,’ he eagerly takes the high profile case.
Alas, Witherspoon is no Sherlock Holmes. Although hard-working and methodical, ‘a large part of the Inspector’s success was due to the enormous amount of help he received on each and every case.’
As with previous murder investigations, at the end of his long days spent interviewing guests and workers at the Wrexley Hotel, Witherspoon frequently discusses the case with his housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries, over sherry. Naturally inquisitive, Mrs. Jeffries, ‘the widow of a Yorkshire policeman,’ probes the inspector for details, gleans what she can from his assistant, Constable Barnes, and passes on the information to her fellow servants who then go off on undercover assignments.
Careful, smart, and sociable, Witherspoon’s household staff can ‘get information out of people who’d sooner spit on a policeman than talk to him.’ Although sometimes overly competitive, the desire to contribute useful information when they regroup to discuss their findings helps to make Witherspoon’s servants a successful unit.
Constable Barnes, aware of their sleuthing practices, is glad of their input. The dilemma for him is how to get the mass of information they collect to the inspector without revealing his sources.
With Barnes carefully ‘dropping hints’ to Witherspoon as to whom the inspector should interview again, and Mrs. Jeffries and her colleagues discovering evidence and coercing witnesses to come forward, there’s a chance a grave injustice can be narrowly averted and the villain brought to justice.
Well-told and with an absorbing, carefully constructed mystery at its core, Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong is another great addition to Emily Brightwell’s robust series.
(Berkley Books, paperback, £12.99)