My new book, Murder at Mallowan Hall, is a mystery set in the (fictional) home of Agatha Christie. The housekeeper at the large estate in Devon, Phyllida Bright, must take on the task of solving a mystery in Christie’s manor. I thought that the day-to-day challenges of being a servant in a large home during the decades between the World Wars would make an interesting mystery, and I uncovered many interesting facts on the downstairs/servant hierarchy during my research.
The butler was the highest-ranking servant, and the housekeeper ranked just below the butler. Butlers dressed in very fine clothing—oftentimes cast-offs from their masters. A butler was most often the first person one encountered when visiting a large home, and it was incumbent upon him to represent his household well. However, although the butler was always dressed like the gentleman he served, there was a convention that something about his attire must not be quite right. Either a slightly out-of-date cravat or a coat that was a trifle too short in the sleeve—or too long—or shoes that were the wrong style. There must be something about the butler’s appearance that differentiated him from the upper-class man he served so that no one should mistake the butler for the lord of the house, or even any member of the gentry.
Housekeepers of large estates had to be organized and efficient because they managed not only the staff of kitchen servants and maids, but also the expenses related to the household and vendor relationships (including negotiations). They did little of the actual manual labor but managed all of it, as well as the budget and inventory. The housekeeper might rise an hour or more later than her staff members, and while the maids all shared attic rooms, she had her own apartment on the ground floor: usually a small sitting room or office and an adjoining bedchamber. She also usually served tea to the master and mistress of the estate, as well as any guests they might have.
The chambermaids and parlormaids were chosen not only based on their work ethic and experience but also could be selected based on their appearance. Chambermaids were relegated to working in the upper floors; that is, the bedchambers, where they were less likely to be seen by visitors. On the other hand, parlormaids worked on the main floors and public areas, such as the sitting rooms, parlors, music rooms, etc. Often a more attractive or presentable young woman would be hired as a parlormaid because it was possible she might actually be seen by someone! There were times when a parlormaid might answer the door or need to assist in serving tea, and the household preferred more efficient and capable maids for those roles.
Since a large household might have ten or more staff, it was often difficult for the master and mistress of the household to remember the names of each of the servants. Thus, in many households, each position was given a name. For example, the first footman might always be Bob, regardless of what his real name was. Or the first parlormaid was always Sally.
It was very unusual for kitchenmaids to venture abovestairs to the ground floors or upper floors (except to use the servants’ stairs to get to their attic bedrooms). The maids assigned to the scullery and the kitchen had no reason to go about the main floors of the home, which means they likely wouldn’t know their way around the house in a large residence.
I found it very enjoyable to write a mystery from the perspective of both Phyllida and some of the other downstairs staff, and I look forward to continuing the series and developing not only future investigations but also the personalities, characteristics, and diversity of Phyllida’s staff members.
Colleen Cambridge is a pseudonym for a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author whose books have been translated into more than eight languages. She lives in the Midwest and is hard at work on her next novel. Visit her at ColleenCambridge.com.
Tucked away among Devon’s rolling green hills, Mallowan Hall combines the best of English tradition with the modern conveniences of 1930. Housekeeper Phyllida Bright, as efficient as she is personable, manages the large household with an iron fist in her very elegant glove. In one respect, however, Mallowan Hall stands far apart from other picturesque country houses ….
The manor is home to archaeologist Max Mallowan and his famous wife, Agatha Christie. Phyllida is both loyal to and protective of the crime writer, who is as much friend as employer. An aficionado of detective fiction, Phyllida has yet to find a gentleman in real life half as fascinating as Mrs. Agatha’s Belgian hero, Hercule Poirot. But though accustomed to murder and its methods as frequent topics of conversation, Phyllida is unprepared for the sight of a very real, very dead body on the library floor.
A former army nurse, Phyllida reacts with practical common sense and a great deal of curiosity. It soon becomes clear that the victim arrived at Mallowan Hall under false pretenses during a weekend party. Now, Phyllida not only has a houseful of demanding guests on her hands—along with a distracted, anxious staff—but hordes of reporters camping outside. When another dead body is discovered—this time, one of her housemaids—Phyllida decides to follow in M. Poirot’s footsteps to determine which of Mallowan’s guests is the killer. With help from the village’s handsome physician, Dr. Bhatt; the butler, Mr. Dobble; along with other household staff, Phyllida assembles the clues. Yet, she is all too aware that the killer must still be close at hand and poised to strike again. And only Phyllida’s wits will prevent her own story from coming to an abrupt end.