Cut to the Quick, by Kate Ross (Discussion)

A few of us got into a Twitter discussion of Kate Ross’ Regency-set mystery series, and that led to a group (re)read of the first book, Cut to the Quick. This post is mainly meant to provide a space for more expansive discussion than Twitter allows, so the comments will be spoilery. If you’ve read the book, feel free to join in!

I also wanted to recommend the series if you haven’t read it, because I loved Cut to the Quick just as much this time as when I first read it about 15 years ago. There are only four books in the series, so it’s not too big an undertaking–I wish there were more, but I remember feeling that it ended with Ross’ hero, Julian Kestrel, in a satisfying place. Here’s my sales pitch:

  • If you like Georgette Heyer and/or traditional Regency romance, you will probably like this.
  • If you like Regency-set mysteries like C. S. Harris or Ashley Gardner, you will probably like this.
  • If you wanted to like Heyer but didn’t, you might like this too: there is much less Regency slang and endorsement of aristocratic prejudices in Ross. One of the interesting themes of the book is the way honour and justice are sometimes at odds.
  • Ross’ historical world is richly drawn and convincing; this is no Almackistan. The book is set mostly at a country house and I thought things like the master-servant relationships and the non-aristocratic locals were well done.
  • There’s no over-arching romantic arc in the series, but Julian Kestrel, Ross’ hero, is a romantic figure: a man with a mysterious past who hides his sharp mind behind a dandy’s immaculate façade, a man with a streak of knight-errantry driven to uncover the truth and see justice done.
  • The plot twists and turns are engrossing and surprising–a little way in, I thought I remembered the solution to the mystery, but it turned out I was fooled by the same red herring as last time I read it.
  • There are echoes of other books I love–Heyer, Dorothy Sayers (the dandy pose)–but this doesn’t feel derivative or fannish. Ross’ creation is her own.
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24 Responses to Cut to the Quick, by Kate Ross (Discussion)

  1. Barb in Maryland says:

    I would have to re-read this to be able to comment intelligently.(Off to see if library has…)
    I do remember being relatively happy that the 4th book ended in a satisfactory way for Julian, as Ross’ death shortly after it was published meant there would be no more stories. I’ve always wondered how the series would have progressed…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I can’t remember *how* it ended–we find out more about his past, I think–but I remember thinking that at least if there were no more I wasn’t left hanging. I wish there *were* more, though!

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    I guess I should say some things besides my vague non-spoilery praise.

    I think that one of the things I enjoyed/found most interesting about the book on re-reading was the kind of disenchantment of the aristocracy. The initial set-up with the forced marriage does feel like something from a Regency romance, and so do some of the character types. But the Fontclairs’–and that seems like an ironic name–notion of honour really gets challenged over the course of the story, while often when I read books with this kind of setting I feel I’m being lured into kind of agreeing values I really don’t want to (the superiority of refined aristocratic tastes, primogeniture, etc). I was really interested in the way that notions of “honour” obscured the truth, because the Fontclairs would conceal things, even minor things, that they thought might be dishonourable to the family. And I think that’s ultimately why Sir Robert didn’t recuse himself from the start–not just a that ideas and procedures of justice were different then, but because he deceived himself that he could both pursue the truth and protect his family honour.

    I still really like Julian–he’s a kind of character I do find very romantic. Less deliberately acting the fool than Wimsey, but someone who conceals his intelligence and emotions much of the time. I think my favorite character this time around might have been the doctor, even though he is very much a type. Ross makes those types rounded and appealing, not cardboard.

    I was less on board with Julian’s knight-errantry. Thinking about his interactions with the female characters that way, as revealing his desire or need to be a saviour, helped me put up with it. But I think he more or less rescues every single female character in the book at some point, and they all turn to him, even Isabelle and Lady Tarleton. That was a bit tiresome. And in almost every case, his interactions with them involved reflection on their sexual/romantic appeal for him, or his for them. Even Philippa decides she wants to marry him, and Lady Fontclair appeals to him not to tell her husband what she concealed in a way that’s “almost seductive.” I didn’t quite know what to make of all that. Is it supposed to tell us something about his appeal? (Which I think has to do with the fact that he listens to them and is understanding).

    I totally got fooled by the red herrings and thought I remembered that the victim was Lady T’s daughter. Though I did remember fairly early on who the killer was and what the smudges on the wall meant–but I still didn’t remember a lot of details until the very end.

    I enjoyed re-reading this and plan to revisit the rest of the series at some point.

    • Jorrie Spencer says:

      I like your point about values. The book is quite generous when it comes to the Fontclairs, and yet they are so clearly in the wrong for most of it. The doctor was fun, especially his reluctance to like and then agree with Julian. But he of course comes around, and quite quickly.

  3. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I enjoyed the first 2/3 to 3/4 more than the very ending, although that may just be my issue with the mystery genre. I’m never crazy over too many red herrings and too many ties to the victim that in some ways paints a picture where anyone could have done it. Except I know one of the points of writing a mystery is to keep people on their toes about who committed the murder and why they did it!

    But I really enjoyed Ross’s voice, it was more assured than I remembered, and Julian was a treat. I enjoyed the omniscient point of view, too, except for those scenes where she’d pingpong back and forth between Hugh and Maud. I mean that was a deliberate choice on Ross’s part to show how badly these two misunderstood each other, but I just don’t like that technique.

    I kinda wanted the mother to be the murderer, since I felt she was a darker character than we realized (including that “almost seductive” scene). Whereas Isabelle simply didn’t interest me at all, beyond her passion for art, and I didn’t buy into any of her motivation and didn’t find Julian’s interest in her very, well, interesting.

    Ross did a fantastic job of showing how awful Guy was in the way he talked about women, complaining about “straightlaced” maids and wanted a woman to be docile and “come to heel”. I loved Julian’s response to that.

    I like the touches of humor as well, especially around Philippa who loomed larger in my memory, given she’s barely on the page. Though maybe that’s because I recall someone suggesting she’d been named after a Lymond character and was possibly going to play a similar role until the series got cut short. (Though goodness knows how correct that is, even if the idea has stayed with me.)

    Despite my impatience with the last quarter, I did enjoy reading this a lot, and will revisit the other books in the series as well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I agree that finding out Lady Fontclair was more than the idealized wife and mother she appears at first–and that her family wants her to be (and maybe Julian too)–was really interesting. There was a point where I thought she could be a good murderer too. She’s always hiding negative feelings and keeping the social niceties going, and there is a dishonesty in that, as well as a sort of concern/kindness. Killing a girl who threatened the family’s honour would just have been a larger version of that motivation in some ways. I thought the novel really did raise the question of whether actions like hers are goodness/kindness, as they first seem, or self-interested. What kind of parents sacrifice their son’s happiness to protect a traitor?

      I agree about Guy, too. That was the kind of moment where Ross was much more honest about rakish behaviour and the damage it does than romance is often willing to be.

      I still have not managed to get into the Lymond books but I know enough to have wondered about that connection too! And she is a great, memorable character.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        “What kind of parents sacrifice their son’s happiness to protect a traitor?”
        I agree. This caught my eye, too. That is why that scene in the gun room took on more significance after the fact and I agreed with Sir Robert’s outburst that perhaps she cared more for Geoffrey than she liked to admit.

        I do hope you will pick up Game of Kings. Perhaps as an audiobook? It’s really marvelous.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I bought the whole series with a Kobo 90% off coupon (those were the days). But it may be the kind of thing I need to read in paper, at least the first time. I keep getting stuck half way, but not because I don’t like it. Probably because I need to be able to flip back and forth more. (Who was that again?)

  4. Sunita says:

    I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this reread. Like you, Liz, I hadn’t read it in over a decade. I’m so glad the books have been digitized, and I got my ebook copy from my library. I was apprehensive when I started, because I remembered it so fondly and I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to that memory. But I agree with Jorrie: what an assured voice Ross had in her debut.

    I can see traces of Wimsey and Heyer heroes in Julian, but Ross makes him a unique character, as you’ve all noted. I am very grateful for that, because romance today is littered with characters who are clearly modeled on other authors’ originals. As has been noted, Ross takes archetypal characters and then gives them her own interpretation. Julian reminded me of George, Lord Rival, in Diane Farr’s THE FORTUNE HUNTER, someone whose air of suavity and mystery is genuine but also conceals a lot (but not horrible stuff).

    I guess where the book shows its age is in the roles the women play. Every one of them has some kind of fatal flaw (except maybe Maud, although she’s the daughter of a merchant so socially flawed). On the other hand, the women do get the most active roles. But the motive for the murder, after all the red herrings, was a bit of a letdown (with all that was floating around, simple jealousy was the motivation?, even if it was realistic. More of the men get to be upright and honorable (Julian, the doctor, Hugh). Still, I agree that the depiction of the aristocracy is much more damning than we get in most other Regency-set books, and I really appreciated that.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The very explicit like-mother-like-daughter patterning in the motive was unconvincing as well. Bad choice of love object is genetic?

      I wondered about Isabelle’s speech about what loving someone unworthy does to you–how it’s demeaning, etc. I guess I’m not totally clear that you could see someone’s weaknesses so clearly, and they could be such serious ones, and you could still love as jealously as Isabelle. Why would she blame the women instead of Guy, when she knows so well what Guy is? But maybe I just want to believe our head can rule our heart–or our lust, which seems more like what this is–better than that.

      I thought the mother-daughter comparison was a problem, too. There’s no real evidence that Craddock is “unworthy” in the way Guy is. He was unworthy only in being a groom. Well, there’s his blackmailing of the Fontclairs, but that happens much later, as revenge. It’s not admirable, but does it suggest that he was always unworthy as a person?

      In both cases I wonder if the unworthiness is as much in the lover and her judgements of others as it is in the object.

      • Sunita says:

        Yes, I see what you mean. Isabelle seemed to have a high degree of self-hatred, which set her apart from her mother. Maybe she fixated on Guy because he was weak and superficial, rather than in spite of it? But it doesn’t make much sense, and I never really saw what the years-long attraction was about. I don’t have to understand it but I do need to see it, and we see so little of Isabelle’s interior life until the end. By contrast, the mother was very strongly drawn.

        Craddock seemed to me to be a straightforward revenge figure, and he had some conflicts about what he was doing. Our first glimpse of him tells us that. I closed the book thinking that he would relent on Maud, because he did love her. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. 😉

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Oh no, I’m sure he’ll come round. Maud’s story strikes me as pure comedy in the traditional sense–she is the triumphant heroine who puts things right–and so she deserves nothing less than a penitent father. That’s my version to the story and I’m sticking to it!

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I find Isabelle’s supposition that what she felt for Guy was love is false. It’s not even plain lust, but more like unhealthy obsession. I’m sure despite his licentious ways, knowing the depth and breadth of Isabelle’s obsession with him would creep him out.

        I agree about the letdown feeling of Isabelle’s jealously as the reason for all this sturm und drang. Like you two, Lady Fontclair seemed a likelier suspect especially when she tried (ew!) seduce Kestrel.

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        Pretty much none of this made sense to me either! Nor was I even convinced Isabelle had deep feelings for Guy. It ended up feeling like (to me) Ross was trying to arrange the book so so many of the characters could have done it and then just randomly chose Isabelle. Of course, I’m sure that’s not the case, but not enough got on the page for my taste in terms of being convinced of the murder. (Though like I said in a previous comment this is just partly me and the mystery genre. I feel like I give much more of a pass on motives in romance and adventure. Whereas with mystery I sometimes like: well, _that_ ruined the entire book! Not in this case though, since I enjoyed so much about it.)

        I did like the book giving its due to poor Aimee, with her fierce friend so protective of her.

  5. KeiraSoleore says:

    Overall, I thought the writing was superb as were the historical details. I’m totally committed to the series now.

    I loved how she dropped “The Rake’s Progress” into the narrative. It was like she and I had this inside joke. Those who didn’t get the reference would’ve still enjoyed that scene, but those in the know would enjoy it all the more.

    The plot was a tad thin and I guessed Guy’s involvement as well as Isabelle complicity. The murder was very much a controlled passionate woman’s crime. However, the how of it was fascinating as was the pacing, and Ross did a fabulous job with the ending. While I guessed Lady Tarleton and Mr. Craddock were actually lovers (at least once), I thought Aimee was their love child. I never guessed it was Isabelle.

    Given that Geoffrey knew Aimee when she was a child and given how enamored he was of Gabrielle and by extension liked Aimee, I was surprised that he had no words of shock or condemnation of Guy’s behavior with Aimee: how he lied to her and seduced a virtuous girl into being his mistress with the lure of marriage to a Fontclair. He should’ve been incensed, and instead he comes out completely in support of Guy and betrays Aimee, too.

    I didn’t like Kestrel’s initial relationship with Dipper. It was too chummy, too confiding. However, later on it settles more into a congenial but established servant-master relationship.

    I never understood what made Kestrel confide so much into MacGregor. I can understand instant connections with strangers and liking a person a lot. But given the suspicious atmosphere that Kestrel found himself in, I thought it was off-character for him to trust MacGregor so much. I was even waiting for the shoe to drop and for MacGregor to turn out to have had an affair with someone or somehow be connected with the murder.

    Liz, I disagree with you about Sir Robert’s decision to stay on as magistrate once it became clear that his family was complicit in the crime. Honor demanded that he be above-board and recuse himself toute de suite. So I was a bit disappointed and apprehensive about his decision. For a while I suspected him on being involved in the murder or at least the cover-up in some way.

    About Kestrel’s foppishness…I would’ve liked to have see him more of a Pimpernel character to contrast with his serious incisiveness in dealing with the investigation. I felt Ross wanted to go there by starting him off with a Beau Brummel look-n-feel, but she quickly abandoned the pose, because she became too engrossed in details of the story. Comparing Kestrel to Whimsey is a better comparison.

    I know how the backcover copy calls it Heyeresque, I didn’t get that feeling. It’s Regency done really well, but the plot style isn’t Heyeresque–then again, I haven’t read her historical or gothic mysteries. The characters are well-drawn and individual 3-D, but I’m not sure if/how that makes them Heyeresque.

    I have more to say but will do it later. This is already long enough.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think my point about “honour” is that it turns out to be more about *appearance*–good name, reputation–than about *reality*–it is not, in fact, a virtue, although it poses as one. Would Sir Robert have engaged in a cover-up if he could? We can’t be sure, I think, just as Julian is not sure. He certainly went to great lengths to cover up his brother’s treason, and I think the only reason that ends up feeling sort of OK is that we really have no idea what was in the letters and how serious a betrayal it was. Did it get other people killed? Then how is it any more OK than covering up a murder would be? So I guess what I’m saying is that the book punctures the idea that aristocratic “honour” is a noble thing. In the Fontclairs, it leads to a great deal of ignoble action. They may disparage Julian’s middle-class policing instincts, but those appear more virtuous in the end (and I think that is what also what links him so strongly to MacGregor, who is a mere surgeon after all, and who, though he feels a kind of feudal attraction to the idea of the Fontclairs as noble and honourable, isn’t willing to defend that idea if/when it proves to be illusion.

      I don’t think this book is Heyeresque in mood/tone. The mysteries of hers that I have read have Golden Age brittleness that isn’t part of Ross’ style at all, and this book has little of Heyer’s comedy of manners, either. It’s more a tragedy of manners, perhaps. But some of the initial set-up did remind me of Heyer–especially Maud and Hugh, who remind me of Heyer’s youthful secondary couples, and Julian’s rescue of Hugh in the gaming house (is it Hugh? Am I already forgetting names?_

    • Sunita says:

      On Sir Robert, I would say that his behavior was in keeping with the way the gentry occupied local magistrate positions at the time (although it was starting to change and professionalize in the 1820s, when this is set). If he recused himself he would have had to call in a magistrate from a neighboring district/parish, and he might not have trusted that person or thought that he would treat the family’s secrets with sufficient discretion. Remember that’s what they were so afraid of if the Runners were called in. His honor, such as it was (and I agree with much of what Liz says below) was to his family, not necessarily to the rule of law; local magistrates weren’t professionalized jurists but amateurs, and many of them were not very good. In fact, thinking about it, I think that Ross (who was a lawyer herself) may have been using Sir Robert to show that magistrates were often anything but impartial and ethical.

      I definitely did not want Julian to be like the Pimpernel, but that’s because I weary quickly of play-the-fool characters. Orczy did a great job, but it’s hard to pull off, and even Sayers moved away from that depiction of Wimsey in the later books. I thought that Julian was very much a Brummell-type character at the beginning, but then he began to be his own person and I forgot about Brummell (whom I would describe as a dandy but definitely not a fop).

      I thought the book’s Heyer echoes were in the secondary characters and the setting. “Brittleness” is a good word to describe the Golden Age mysteries. They did often feature high-born people doing less than honorable things, though, so in that sense I can see an overlap.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I like how you two use the word “brittleness” to describe the Golden Age mysteries. While later series like PD James’s Dalgliesh retained some of the aristocratic tendencies in the lead (while not being of the upper classes), the brittleness had given way to pragmatic solidity.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    I just started reading it last night and haven’t reached the discovery of the body yet. i’ll read this after I finish.

  7. lawless says:

    I found Isabelle more intriguing and her motivation more plausible than the rest of you did. I thought she was more of a cautionary tale about concealment and identity. Had she known who she really was and had an acknowledged place in the family instead of appearing to be on sufferance, might not she have turned out differently? Her obsession over Guy seemed like a means of displacement. On that reading, Lady Tarleton, and by extension respectable society, was also to blame for Isabelle’s crime.

    I also was not convinced Julian would actually try to prevent Isabelle’s suicide. Wanting everything to come out seems like a more modern sense of values than even Julian would have.

    I was less surprised by Lady Fontclair. Her explanation of her coverup – that she knew the Colonel would be suspected, and she wanted to spare him that – made sense to me. I didn’t see her as any more ethically challenged than her husband. She wants to keep the peace and put a good face on everything. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with that. The “almost seductive” scene was almost, but not quite, out of character.

    Craddock was the person I felt had the least depth. Dipper was a bit of a caricature, too. Lady Tarleton’s only good quality was her emotional honesty. And Julian’s attraction to various female characters was overplayed.

    Like others, I appreciated Philippa and MacGregor. I thought the misunderstanding between Maud and Hugh was handled a little heavy-handedly, but it did provide an emotional counterpoint for all the detecting.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wonder, though, whether she would have had LESS of a place in the family if she had known who she was/her parentage had been more openly acknowledged by them. She wouldn’t have been a “real” Fontclair had her father not been one/had she known she was illegitimate. Maybe that would have undone her obsession with family pride, maybe not.

      If you look at her feelings for Guy in light of that outsider status, I can see how they could make more sense–he’s a Fontclair, but not a perfect/insider one like Hugh. And actually, in a way I see this choice (well, perhaps not choice) of love/obsession object as related to the problematic valorization of honor. In some ways, Hugh is obviously more honorable and idealized, but he’s not as flashy as Guy, who despite his fear of blood has more of the old-fashioned “my ancestor would have run you through!” thing that Lady T. and to some extent Isabelle admire. It’s the wrong kind of aristocratic manner, but it’s a more obvious one in some ways.

      I agree about Hugh and Maud. I enjoyed that, but that was a part of the book that seemed to lean much more on Regency romance conventions and was less interesting because of it (although I did believe they’d fall for each other AND be the type not to get things out in the open).

  8. I wasn’t online much during the holidays, but saw this and re-read CUT TO THE QUICK on my way back home. I was amused by how much I had forgotten about the whole murder plot – what stuck with me were my feelings for the characters.

    Is anyone else reminded of Campion? Personal facts about him are concealed, he has a cockney manservant with a dubious past, strangers tend to like him.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have only read one or two Campions years ago (or maybe just seen a TV episode years ago?) but that character and relationship did seem familiar from somewhere.

    • lawless says:

      Only to think Mahgerfonstein Lugg somehow seems more of a character and less of a caricature even thoigh he’s probably more unlikely than Dipper. Kestrel himself didn’t remind me of Campion. Campion is less of two minds about investigating; he revels in it.
      And he’s not as easily distracted by the ladies.

      Also, for all of Ross’ assurance, Allingham’s writing style is more to my preference.

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