A split-second decision is life-changing in this stand-alone Victorian-era mystery from Bowen (Love and Death Among the Cheetahs, 2019, etc.).
Isabella Waverly’s father is an aristocrat estranged from his family who’s fallen so far in the world that he sent his oldest daughter out to work as a servant at 15. Her only joy is learning to cook. When a girl is run over by an omnibus before her eyes, Bella automatically picks up an envelope the dead girl had been clutching. The envelope contains an invitation to apply for an under-cook position at Buckingham Palace that very day. Introducing herself as Helen Barton, Bella snags the job. She hides her new position from Louisa, the younger sister who’s marrying the son of a well-off family. She struggles to immerse herself in the persona of a girl from Yorkshire, explaining her upper-class accent by saying her father was a gentleman. The only fly in the ointment is the appearance of Helen’s brother, who blackmails her into finding a job for him, too. Bella’s passion for cooking and her work ethic soon endear her to the mostly male staff. Queen Victoria, who has an enormous appetite for rich foods, so enjoys Bella’s scones that she personally asks her to make them every day. When her majesty travels to Nice, Bella goes along and gets to put her knowledge of French to use. She develops a semiromantic friendship with the head chef at the hotel, which was built especially for the queen. Indeed, her life seems idyllic until Count Wilhelm, the betrothed of Princess Sophie, dies, ostensibly from a poisoned mushroom Bella bought in a local market. Now she must juggle cooking and a suddenly active love life as she searches for a way to end her predicament.
A treasure trove of Victoriana, especially for foodies. More history than mystery but a truly delightful read.