The Devil in Music, by Kate Ross

Actually, I want to talk about all four of Ross’s mysteries, featuring Julian Kestrel, a fashionable young man in 1825 London. Although moving in the best circles, Kestrel is not the usual well-to-do fribble, but a man whose background—his aristocratic father married an actress and was cast off by his family and all of society—lets him look at that world slantwise. Having grown up on the Continent, Kestrel has been able to establish himself in society as a leader of fashion without revealing his background or his shaky finances. Kestrel reminds me of Selden in Wharton’s House of Mirth in his ability to stand to one side of society and critique it even while being a part of it.

In Cut to the Quick, Kestrel goes on a weekend visit at Bellegarde, country home of the Fontclairs. He finds a murdered woman in his bed and is forced to solve the crime in order to exonerate himself and his valet, a former pickpocket known as Dipper for his facility at his trade. In A Broken Vessel, Kestrel becomes embroiled in the world of prostitutes and reformers. Whom the Gods Love is the third book, in which Kestrel investigates the murder of Alexander Falkland, a man universally admired for his charm, intelligence, and artistic talent.

Over the course of the series, Kestrel comes to value the intellectual challenge of crime-solving and the meaning that it gives to his formerly rather aimless days. At the same time, he struggles with the consequences—of the crime, certainly, but even more interestingly, of the revelation of long-held secrets, an inevitable consequence of his investigations.

These are wonderful novels, with complex and well-drawn characters, satisfying puzzles, and a wonderfully conjured world of high and low society in Regency England. Sadly, there will be no more books in the series. Kate Ross died in 1998 at the age of 41.

Ross had been a trial lawyer, living in Brookline, Massachusetts. I feel as though I mist have known her. Maybe I brushed past her on the Brookline sidewalks as I went to visit friends. Perhaps we casually nodded to each other as we examined the treasures at the Gardner museum. I’m betting she was one of the spectators when my morris team danced the sun up on Maydays. She certainly knew about morris dancing; several times in the books she uses “morris off” as slang for “leave”.

I talked a bit about immortality last week. For a writer, as for any artist, any parent for that matter, our creations give us a chance of living on for a bit. Here I am, twelve years after her death, thinking about this woman whom I did not in fact know, wondering about the shape of her life, and feeling grateful that these four books keep her name alive.

On this Labor Day, it seems appropriate to think about the role of work in our lives. I remember the first time I visited the Tate, walking through room after room of Turner’s paintings with their huge splashes of light, and thinking: This is a man’s life. There can be no greater satisfaction than to be able to look around and say: I did this. I thought about visiting my friend, Susan, on her dairy farm. After I had regaled her with tales of my travels, my sons, my dancing and writing, she took me for a walk through the fields, pointing out one cow after another and telling me their names, laying a sun-browned hand on a flank or rubbing a dipped head. Now I think too of Stoner, that modest novel that has stayed with me over the months. At the end of his life, a life that would have left most men bitter, Stoner lies in bed holding the one book he has managed to write and believes that he has had a good life.

We all want—I believe—work to do that we can be proud of, that at the end of our lives we can point to and say: I did this. I reread these books every few years because I enjoy them, but also to celebrate Kate Ross and be glad that she had this accomplishment to be proud of at the end.

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