Friday, December 15, 2023

The House Keepers

The House Keepers
  The House Keepers
Author:  Alex Hay
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1525805002 / 978-1525805004

Rating:  ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Mrs. King laid out all the knives on the kitchen table."

Favorite Quote:  "Mrs. King's rule was: choose your first move wisely, and you could steer things any way you liked. Choose it badly, and you'd get boxed into a corner, pummeled to a pulp."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The description of this book is reminiscent of an upstairs downstairs story. It presents a set of "eclectic" women setting out to settle the score. It is about power, gender, and class. It sounds like an adventure story with the underdogs to cheer for as they finally conquer and get their just dues.

The book, however, is much more about the back stories of these individual women, the element of that back story that connects them to this particular house on Park Lane and its inhabitants, and their own specific reason for getting involved. The reasons range from revenge to acknowledgement to dreams of a better life.

Strong women working together to right social wrongs. Yes. Sign me up. Strong women coming to terms with their individual pasts to create a path forward. Yes. Sign me up.

Either or both of those are strong concepts for a compelling story.

The book is a long, slow build. There seem to be a lot of characters. Mrs. King is the mastermind and the instigator of the plot. She has reasons all her own beyond the riches to be gained. Mrs. Bone is an entrepeneur with all kinds of enterprises. She too has a connection beyond the financial gain to be had. Then there is Winnie Smith, Hepzibah, and Alice. All are recruited for specific reasons and specific skills. All have stories of their own and reasons of their own for joining this adventures. Then, there is the lady of the house with goals of her own. With all their back stories, that number of characters and subplots grows.

The beginning of the story is the introduction of and the gathering of this group of women. At times, it is difficult to follow who is who and how the characters are related together. The "heist" is a long time coming. The mechanics of the heist are planned in details in the lead up - too much detail. At some point, the details and the heist itself take a back seat to the personal connections of these women and the relationships that have led this particular house and this particular family to be targeted.

For me, it takes too long. The book is entertaining but takes too long to bring all the threads together. This book is concepts with potential that, for me, do not quite attain their promise.

About the Book

The night of London's grandest ball, a bold group of women downstairs launch a daring revenge heist against Mayfair society in this dazzling historical novel about power, gender, and class. 

Mrs. King is no ordinary housekeeper. Born into a world of con artists and thieves, she’s made herself respectable, running the grandest home in Mayfair. The place is packed with treasures, a glittering symbol of wealth and power, but dark secrets lurk in the shadows.

When Mrs. King is suddenly dismissed from her position, she recruits an eclectic group of women to join her in revenge: A black market queen out to settle her scores. An actress desperate for a magnificent part. A seamstress dreaming of a better life. And Mrs. King’s predecessor, with her own desire for vengeance.

Their plan? On the night of the house’s highly anticipated costume ball—set to be the most illustrious of the year—they will rob it of its every possession, right under the noses of the distinguished guests and their elusive heiress host. But there’s one thing Mrs. King wants even more than money: the truth. And she’ll run any risk to get it…After all, one should never underestimate the women downstairs.

About the Author

ALEX HAY grew up in the United Kingdom in Cambridge and Cardiff, and has been writing as long as he can remember. He studied history at the University of York, and wrote his dissertation on female power at royal courts, combing the archives for every scrap of drama and skulduggery he could find. He has worked in magazine publishing and the charity sector and lives with his husband in London. The Housekeepers is his debut novel and won the Caledonia Novel Award.


Excerpted from The Housekeepers by Alex Hay. Copyright © 2023 by Alex Hay. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Friday June 2, 1905 Park Lane, London

Mrs. King laid out all the knives on the kitchen table. She didn’t do it to frighten Mr. Shepherd, although she knew he would be frightened, but just to make the point. She kept good knives. She took excellent care of them. This was her kitchen.

They had scrubbed the room to within an inch of its life, as if to prevent contamination. The tabletop was still damp. She could feel the house straining, a mountain of marble and iron and glass, pipes shuddering overhead.

She reckoned she had twenty minutes until they threw her out. Madam was awake and on the prowl, up in the vast ivory stillness of the bedroom floor, and they were already late with breakfast. It was important that Mrs. King didn’t waste time. Or endanger anyone else. She didn’t care what they did to her—she was past caring about that—but troubles had a way of multiply­ing, sending out tendrils, catching other people. She moved fast, going from drawer to drawer, checking, rummaging. She was looking for a wrinkle in things, a missing piece, something out of place. But everything was in perfect order.

Too perfect, she thought, skin prickling.

A shadow fell across the wall.

“I’ll need your keys, please, Mrs. King.”

She could smell Mr. Shepherd standing behind her. It was the odor that came off his skin, the fried-up scent of grease and gentleman’s musk.

Breathe, she told herself. She turned to face him.

He made an excellent butler. But he’d have done even better as a priest. He had that air about him, so tremendously pious. He stared at her, feasting his eyes on her, loving every minute of this.

“Good morning, Mr. Shepherd,” she said, voice smooth, same as every morning.

Mrs. King’s rule was: choose your first move wisely, and you could steer things any way you liked. Choose it badly, and you’d get boxed into a corner, pummeled to pulp. Mr. Shepherd pursed his lips. He had a strange mouth, a nasty little rosebud.

“Keys,” he said, holding out his hand.

Straight to business, then. She circled him, making her approach. She wanted to capture a picture of his face in her mind. It would be very helpful later, once things were properly underway. It would give her all the encouragement she needed.

“I’m still doing my rounds, Mr. Shepherd,” she said.

He took a tiny step back, to preserve the distance between them. “No need for that now, Mrs. King,” he said, eyeing the door.

The other servants were eavesdropping in the kitchen pas­sage. She could feel them, folded just out of sight, contained in the shadows. She placed them like chess pieces in her mind. The chauffeur and the groomsman in the yard, the housemaids on the back stairs. Cook in the pantry, entirely agitated, twisting her handkerchief into indignant knots. William, sequestered in Mr. Shepherd’s office, under close guard. Alice Parker upstairs, keeping well out of trouble. Each of them watching the clock. The entire house was waiting, motion suspended.

“I never leave my work half-finished, Mr. Shepherd,” she said as she slid around him. “You know that.”

And she made for the door.

She saw figures scattering, ducking into pantries and offices. Her boots echoed hard on the flagstones. She felt the cold, damp breeze coming down from the back stairs and wondered, Will I miss it? The chill. The unforgiving scent of carbolic on the air. It wasn’t nice, not at all, but it was familiar. It was funny how you got used to things after so much time. Frightening, even.

Mr. Shepherd followed her. He was like an eel, heavy and vi­cious, and he moved fast when he wanted to.

“Mrs. King,” he called, “we saw you in the gentlemen’s quar­ters last night.”

“I know,” said Mrs. King over her shoulder.

A steep staircase ran from the kitchen passage up to the front hall. She kept her eyes fixed on the green baize door at the top. It was a partition between worlds. On the other side the air thinned and the light became frosted around the edges. “Don’t go up there,” called Shepherd.

Mrs. King didn’t care for this. Being ordered about by Shep­herd made the inside of her nose itch. “I’ve things to check,” she said.

He continued to follow, sending a tremor through the stair­case.

Come on, thought Mrs. King, chase me.

“You stay right here,” he said, reaching to pull her back.

She stopped on the staircase. She wouldn’t run from Shepherd.

He got her by the wrist, his stubby fingers pressing into her veins. His breath smelled stale, but she didn’t recoil. She did the thing he hated most. Looked him straight in the eye.

He said, “What were you doing last night, Mrs. King?”

Shepherd had begun balding over the years, and all he had left were scrubby little hairs dotted right across his brow. Yet still he slicked them with oil. No doubt he waxed them every morning, one by one.

“Perhaps I was sleepwalking.”


“Yes, perhaps.”

Mr. Shepherd loosened his grip slightly. She saw him calcu­lating. “Well. That might change things. I could explain that to Madam.”

“But, then again,” she said, “perhaps I was wide-awake.”

Mr. Shepherd pressed her wrist to the banister. “Keys, Mrs. King.”

She peered up at the green baize door. The house loomed over her, vast and unreachable. The answer she needed was up there. She knew it. Hidden, or sliced into bits, but there. Some­where. Waiting to be found.

I’ll just have to come back and get it, she thought.

She took him to the housekeeper’s room, her room, and he stood guard in the doorway, blocking the light. Already it seemed to belong to her past. It wasn’t cozy, just cramped. On the table was the master’s present to her. Four weeks before, she’d marked her birthday, her neat and tidy thirty-fifth. The master had given her a prayer book. He gave them all prayer books, gilt edging, satin ribbons.

She held her head up as she handed Mr. Shepherd the keys.

“Any others?”

She shook her head.

“We’ll see to your personal effects. You can come and collect them in…” He considered this. “In due course.”

Mrs. King shrugged. They could inspect her bedroom and sniff the sheets and lick the washbasin all they liked. Even give away her uniforms, if it pleased them. Serge dresses, plain rib­bons, tight collars. You could construct any sort of person with those. “Best to choose a new name,” they’d told her when she’d first arrived, and she chose King. They frowned, not liking it—but she held firm: she chose it because it made her feel strong, unassailable. The Mrs. came later, when she made housekeeper. There was no Mr. King, of course.

She kept her navy coat and her hatpins, and everything else she folded away into her black leather Gladstone. There was only one more thing she needed to remove. Pulling open a drawer in the bureau, she rummaged for a pack of papers.

She threw them on the fire. One neat move.

Mr. Shepherd took a step. “What are those?”

“The menus,” said Mrs. King, all the muscles in her chest tight.

The packet was held together with a ribbon, and she watched it darken on the fire. Red turning brown, then black.

“The what?” His eyes hurried around the room, disturbed, as if he were looking for things he’d missed, secrets stuffed and hidden in the walls.

“For Miss de Vries’s ball,” she said.

Mr. Shepherd stared at her. “Madam won’t like it that you did that.”

“I’ve settled all the arrangements,” Mrs. King said with a cool smile. “She can take it from here.”

She studied the ribbon on the grate. It was satin no longer, simply earth and ash. How quickly it changed, dematerialized. How completely it transformed.

Shepherd marched her through the servants’ hall to the mews yard, but he didn’t touch her again. They passed the portrait of the master hanging above the long table. The frame had been draped with black cloth. She wondered when Shepherd would replace the portrait, now that the funeral had passed, now he’d been buried. Would he put up one of Madam instead, something in soft oils and lavender? It would give everyone the willies if he did. That girl’s eyes were like pincers. She guessed Shepherd would delay as long as he could. He’d be mourning his master longer than anyone.

I hope you’re watching from heaven, she said inwardly, looking at the portrait. Or wherever you’ve landed. I hope you see it all play out. I hope they pin your eyes open so you have to watch what I do to this house.

The house. She’d admired it, once. It was bigger than any other on Park Lane. A sprawling mass of pillars and bays, seven floors high from cellars to attics. Newly built, all diamond money, glinting white. It obliterated the light, shriveled everything around it. The neighbors hated it.

Had any house in London ever been decorated in such sumptuous and stupendous style? Miles of ice-cold marble and gleaming parquet. Walls trimmed with French silks and rococo paneling and columns. Electricity everywhere, voltage throb­bing through the walls, electroliers as big as windmills. Enor­mous gas fires. Acres of glass, all smelling wildly of vinegar.

And everywhere, in every room, from floor to ceiling, such treasures: stupendous Van Dycks, giant crystal bowls stuffed with carnations. Objets d’art in gold and silver and jade, cherubs with rubies for eyes and emeralds for toenails. The zebra-hide sofas in the saloon, and the baccarat tables made of ivory and walnut, and the pink-and-onyx flamingos outside the bathrooms. That library, with the most expensive private collection in Mayfair. The Boiserie, the Red Parlor, the Oval Drawing Room, the ballroom: all dressed with peacock feathers and lapis lazuli and an endless supply of lilies.

They didn’t impress Mrs. King at all anymore.

She didn’t shake hands with Mr. Shepherd. “I shall keep you in my prayers, Mrs. King,” he said.


She supposed the upstairs servants were already clearing out her room. The girls would be scrubbing the floorboards with boiling water and soda crystals and taking the bedsheets to be laundered, eliminating any trace of her.

It was important that she didn’t look over her shoulder on the way out. The wrong look at the wrong person could betray her, spoil things when they were only just underway. A pigeon landed on the portico of the gigantic marbled mausoleum as she crossed the yard. She didn’t give it a second glance, didn’t dip her head in respect to the old master. She marched straight past instead.

She stepped into the mews lane, alone. Heard the distant rumble of motors, saw a clutch of wild poppies growing out of a crack in the paving stones. They were being neglected, trampled, yearning upward to the sky. She plucked one, pressed a fragile crimson petal in her palm, held it warm. She took it with her.

Her first theft.Or, rather, the first correction. It wasn’t simply stealing, not at all.

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