“The devil may make work for idle hands, but industry stills the demons within.”
A Death in the Family is a story of a young English girl named Euphemia Martins coping with the sudden death of her father and Reverand Joshia Martins and the financial struggle left behind for her mother and little brother Joe. With no assistance from any immediate family, Euphemia takes it upon herself to apply for employment/residency as a maid in local country homes at the behest of her mother. The Stapleford family was not a happy household, they were a family full of secrets and the paranoia that comes with it. The family took care of their own personal belongings and in its eerie nature became the personification of their peculiar house. Consequently the start of Effie’s new life will bring about the end of a few other lives along the way. Welcome to Stapleford Hall.
Euphemia’s quest for emplyment in servitude for a well-established, fully-functional working unit is reminiscent of a young man meeting his girlfriends family for the first time. You go out of your way to mind your P’s and Q’s and everything that could possibly go wrong ends up coming to fruition. The difference between the girlfriend and the job is that by the end of the night you will most likely be assured of having the relationship with your girlfriend intact. For Euphemia Martins there is a lot at stake. Effie could lose a tremendous opportunity, have an abrupt end to her newly found sojourn away from her family, and more importantly she may have to tuck tail and make true of her mother’s pessimistic expectations of her. A reconciliation she would rather die than make happen.
“I should add that despite my mother’s efforts to rid me of my whimsy,I remain my father’s daughter,and thus one that holds faith in the future.”
Euphemia is a character woman readers will especially enjoy reading about as she is representative of a powerful lead character. During a time when subservience was expected due to gender or class distinction, Euphemia rises above and stays true to who she is as a child of God. It is a general principle of the human condition that everyone has a breaking point when it comes to the acceptance of authority, but for Euphemia her resolve threshold is higher than everyone else. At a time when the swallowing of pride was the daily special, Euphemia wants her voice to be heard and for it to present itself when desperate times come calling, especially when she’s accused of murder.
” ‘My dear, you hardly behave like a woman,’ chuckled Mr.Bertram. He clinched under the look this comment occasioned and added ‘I meant only that you display not only a code of honour, but that ability to use logic. Neither of which attributes are customarily regarded as attributes of your sex.’ I smiled slightly at that. ‘I am a great trial to my mother.’ “
Although the story is set in early twentieth century England, the reader is entrenched in Stapleford Hall as a “fly on a wall” with a direct narrative that doesn’t inundate the reader with time-oriented behaviours or language consistent with the setting of the book. You are given enough localized details to gain perspective of the time and place, but not enough to where you feel like the author is communicating to a separate audience. A lot of times with period pieces the author will get caught up on a certain grace or elegance that requires a lyrical tone; with this book the author executes a straightforward mystery with researched knowledge of time and place while courageously riding the fine line of user-friendliness.
At times I felt the author was going to lose me with the vast English terminology. However; the vocabulary was one where you could interpret the meaning of the word with the constitution of the sentence. With words like harridan, vicar, cad, pater, bally, somnambulism and others I thought my auto-correct was going to spit hot fire back at me or thank me for expanding its default level of understanding. Another interesting aspect were the technicalities of the relationships and vocations found within Stapleford Hall. Scullery maid, kitchen cat, boot boys and foot men were some of the job identifications of the staff and ones I have never heard of before. The architecture of the home was one that was built with provisions for the servants, the working staff would have to hide at the presence of family members entering a room, and the segregation of male and female staff to prohibit any semblance of intimacy.
“It was true that staff were not to be seen by the family – we were meant to be some sort of invisible benevolent fairy army that swept, cleaned and generally made their lives perfect.”
The author does a great job of including a fair amount of humour in the book. Without it the story would be a rather dark tale with little personality, with it, Euphemia comes across as a very cunning, yet engaging character that transcends her place in life. For Effie to maintain a sense of humour during the course of events is quite inspirational especially in times of distress.
“As he opened the door, he threw over his shoulder, ‘do not forget to clean my bath, Euphemia. I want it to sparkle.’ Unfortunately as I yet had no idea where such cleaning stuffs were stored, I was unable to do more than dust it. Being a man, I doubt he noticed the difference.”
Another running theme found throughout the book is the role class distinction plays in the Stapleford Hall. Hierarchy in the home, among family, in parliamentary potential, among servants, in the kitchen, among sexes and even the mice holding residence in the home. Effie truly abides by these expectations, but when her integrity is at risk of being quashed she responds like a cat in a corner puffing her tail, raising her tails and comes out fighting.
“I did not want to hear the rest, but stormed off in the direction of my room. I hate packing, it is a tedious and depressing task, but when one is angry it can be quite satisfying to bang about and dismantle a room.”
This book is a traditional murder mystery. More Murder She Wrote less Criminal Minds, more Agatha Christie less Harlan Coben. I can hear the readers saying; well it takes place in the early twentieth century what are you getting at? It’s not about the resources available to the characters, the place of the author’s upbringing or her possible literary inspirations. This is about the stripping down of a genre and achieving a widely-accessible story for all readers.