A compassionate countess and her levelheaded housekeeper brave the thorns among the roses at a horticultural house party.
Edith Jackson, housekeeper for the Earl and Countess of Montfort, reluctantly gives an audience to Mrs. Armitage, a distraught cook who got the sack from nearby Hyde Castle because houseguest Rupert Bartholomew died of food poisoning after a hearty second helping of her kedgeree five months earlier. Unless Jackson and Lady Montfort can help Mrs. Armitage clear her name, she faces an impoverished old age. Despite Jackson’s misgivings, Lady Montfort takes pity on Mrs. Armitage and arranges to visit Hyde Castle with Jackson masquerading as her companion and with some assistance from renowned real-life botanist Gertrude Jekyll. When Miss Jekyll offers to judge the Hyde Rose Society’s individual breeds of roses, Lady Montfort and Jackson find out how competitive the rosarians are, and not just about their hybrid teas. Their host, Roger Haldane, made a fortune in tinned beef stew; on the eve of the Great War, his hopes for a government contract have been much improved by the demise of his erstwhile rival Bartholomew. Haldane is a jealous and overbearing husband as well, and Lady Montfort’s first choice for the murderer of the notoriously womanizing Bartholomew. But Jackson is more objective, willing to cast a cold eye over a guest list that includes another possessive husband, his determined flirt of a wife, the dead man’s widow, and an elderly hypochondriac who claims he can communicate with the dead. An orangery obligingly yields the two amateur sleuths a clue, and a list of poisonous plants conveniently falls into Jackson’s hands. With the help of a landscaper for whom Jackson has tender but secret feelings, a botanical fraud and a séance rout the killer.
Arlen (Death Sits down to Dinner, 2016, etc.) follows up on her two previous Downton Abbey–era tales with the requisite stately mansion and quirky dramatis personae, although this third entry feels more labored than cozy.