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Thursday, 28 November 2019

‘The Wages of Sin’ by Judith Cutler

Published by Severn House,
31 October 2019.
ISBN: 978-7268-8938-6 (HB)

This mystery, set in a Victorian country house in Shropshire, is the first in a new series by this popular author, featuring Matthew Rowsley, land agent to the youthful Lord Croft and his mother Lady Croft. Matthew has only been in his job for two months but there is plenty for him to do: the estate has been neglected since the old lord’s death and has become very run-down. He is chiefly concerned with matters concerning the land of the estate such as the farms, and he has considerable power over the lives of those who live on the Croft estate. He can, for instance, tell the tenant of a poorly maintained farm that he must quit. Matthew, however, would much prefer to deal justly and fairly with the tenants so, for instance, unlike his predecessor, he has no objection to tenants keeping some animals on their own account: as Matthew points out to Dr Page, a well-fed worker is a good worker.

Of particular concern to Matthew is Croft House itself; it is in very poor condition and urgently needs substantial repairs. But the young Lord Croft is only interested in his own pleasure and what will bring him immediate profit and, in any case, spends much of his time away from Croft House as does his mother who suffers from ill-health and bad temper. Domestic matters in Croft House with its 28 indoor servants are the responsibility of the butler, Mr Bowman, the housekeeper, Mrs Faulkner, the housekeeper, and the cook, Mrs Arden. These four, within the strict hierarchy of the servants of Croft House, are the upper servants and they enjoy the privilege of taking meals separately to the rest of the servants in a chamber known as the Room with their own lad to wait on them at table while the remainder of the staff eat in the servants’ hall. When Lord Crofts and his mother are in residence, his valet, Luke Hargreaves, and her maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, join the upper servants. But all the upper servants, while well aware of their own status, calling each other Mr and Mrs, not by their first names, and expecting the lower servants to bow and curtsey to them as well as to Lord and Lady Croft, are concerned for the well-being of all the staff and ensure that all are well-fed. So, when one of the housemaids, little Maggie Billings, disappears there is much concern among all the servants. It seems all too likely that she is pregnant – but who is the father? Matthew instigates a search for her but to no avail and Maggie’s own mother, denying that there is any cause for concern, seems less than truthful. Matthew becomes very much aware that there are secrets within the walls of Croft House, with its many unused rooms, some locked, and there are whispers that the conduct of Lord Croft and his wild friends when they are at Croft House leaves much to be desired. However, he cannot devote much time to investigate Maggie’s disappearance because he is repeatedly sent off to Lord Crofts’ other estates, to look into what often turns out to be quite minor matters. Meanwhile, the local clergyman, the Reverend Pounceman, inveighs against sin and fornication for which he blames women and even condemns the notion of teaching the ‘lower orders’ to read and write lest that foster ideas above their station. 

Matthew’s search for Maggie even takes him to Wolverhampton, then in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and a very different environment to rural Shropshire; he is accompanied by Mrs Faulkner for whom he feels a growing attraction. In the end the mystery is unravelled in a thoroughly satisfactory way. 

In the introduction to this novel, the author tells us that the inspiration for it was the story of her own great-grandmother who was made pregnant by the son of one of Shropshire’s richest landowners and was dismissed from her employment. Fortunately, she survived as did her child, the author’s grandmother. I was very impressed by the meticulous research that has gone into this account of life below stairs and also moved by the evidence of the solidarity shown by the members of the ‘lower orders’ to each other in contrast to the total disregard of their so-called ‘betters’. Recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May 

Judith Cutler was born in the Black Country, just outside Birmingham, later moving to the Birmingham suburb of Harborne. Judith started writing while she was at the then Oldbury Grammar School, winning the Critical Quarterly Short Story prize with the second story she wrote. She subsequently read English at university. It was an attack of chickenpox caught from her son that kick-started her writing career. One way of dealing with the itch was to hold a pencil in one hand, a block of paper in the other - and so she wrote her first novel. This eventually appeared in a much-revised version as Coming Alive, published by Severn House. Judith has seven series. The first two featured amateur sleuth Sophie Rivers (10 books) and Detective Sergeant Kate Power (6 Books). Then came Josie Wells, a middle-aged woman with a quick tongue, and a love of good food, there are two books, The Food Detective and The Chinese Takeout. The Lina Townsend books are set in the world of antiques and there are five books in this series. There are two books featuring Tobias Campion set in the Regency period, and her series featuring Chief Superintendent Fran Harman (6 books), and Jodie Welsh, Rector’s wife and amateur sleuth. Her most recent series features a head teacher. The first book is Head Start. Judith has also written two standalone’s Scar Tissue and Staging Death. 

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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