Of charm and wit and narrative polish, there is no shortage here. Although it’s the first detective novel written by Ross and the first book to feature amateur sleuth Julian Kestrel, Cut to the Quick cuts a fine literary figure. In that respect, the book takes its cue from its protagonist. Modeled on Regency dandies such as Beau Brummell, Kestrel appears to fit that type to a jauntily crossed T. On first glimpse, he’s a vain and aimless toff who lives only for fashion—the sort of man whose radius of concern extends no further than the hem of his waistcoat or the break in his trousers. He sleeps late and then spends his entire day choosing what to wear for a night on the town. And, as Ross eagerly notes, he wears it very well indeed. Yet Kestrel demonstrates before long that he contains (as does this novel) a deep reserve of intellectual and moral substance: When his valet gets arrested on suspicion of murder, he abandons his peacock pose and acts the part of a true English bloodhound.
The transformation occurs at Bellegarde, the country estate of the ancient and illustrious Fontclair family. It’s 1822, and young Hugh Fontclair has invited Kestrel to attend a house party there. On the first full day of the gathering, Kestrel returns from a ride across the grounds of Bellegarde, goes to his guestroom, and finds an unknown young woman lying under the cover of his bed. She’s dead. There’s a stab wound in her back, and there are bloodstains on a wood-paneled wall nearby. Circumstances conspire to paint Kestrel’s man—a reformed pickpocket named Dipper, whom Kestrel rescued from the foul streets of London—as a likely culprit. To exonerate Dipper, Kestrel must figure out not only who the actual killer is, but also who the slain damsel was. Other matters complicate the investigation. For one thing, Kestrel’s room was locked on the afternoon of the killing. How, then, did the victim and her assailant enter it? For another thing, Hugh has agreed to wed a woman who lies conspicuously outside his social circle, and he won’t explain why. Does that secret have anything to do with the sordid business at hand? Examining the moves and motives of the Fontclairs and their guests is, to be sure, not a gentlemanly pursuit. But Kestrel takes up that charge with his usual aplomb.
Some aspects of the mystery at Bellegarde—the locked-room quandary, in particular—are less clever than they should be. Clearly, Ross has other goals in mind besides engineering a trick plot. She infuses this country-house whodunit with tropes from the fictional world of Jane Austen, and the muses of comedy and romance make their presence strongly felt from the first chapter to the last: At no point do we forget that there’s more to life than solving a murder. Ross also devotes a lot attention to fondly describing the aristocratic milieu of the Fontclairs. (In that way, she’s perfectly typical of other Americans who write about dear old Albion.) Much to her credit, though, she colors her tale with a streak of gothic menace. Before it’s all over, there is ample evidence to show that nobility doesn’t always ennoble those who are born to it.