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Review: The Wages of Sin

The Wages of Sin audiobook cover. A sepia-tinted image of a grand, country estate.
The Wages of Sin by Judith Cutler.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 9 hrs 35 mins.
Publisher: Isis Publishing Ltd.

Wages of Sin, Matthew Rowsley Series, Book 1 by Judith Cutler is the first book in an intriguing new series of Victorian mysteries, in which a young estate manager and the manor's diligent housekeeper must combine forces to uncover the secrets that threaten their home, their neighbors, and their livelihood. But their pursuit of the truth shines a light into all the darkest recesses, and they must confront their own hidden shames and heartbreaks if they are to succeed.

Audible Summary: "Newly appointed as land agent to the youthful Lord Croft, Matthew Rowsley finds plenty to keep him busy as he attends to his lordship's neglected country estate. But he's distracted from his tasks by the disappearance of a young housemaid. Has Maggie really eloped with a young man, as her mother attests - or is the truth rather more sinister? What's been going on behind the scenes at the grand country estate, and where has his lordship disappeared to?

Teaming up with housekeeper, Mrs Faulkner, to get to the bottom of the matter, Matthew uncovers a number of disturbing secrets, scandals and simmering tensions within the household.

©2019 Judith Cutler (P)2020 Isis Publishing Ltd." 

Content Warning: There are both assaults and sexual assaults in this audiobook, involving men, women, and minors. Most of the violence is only viewed after the fact, but the rape and its aftermath are covered in more detail and with greater presence, so please listen with caution if you would find those themes upsetting.

I was excited to begin listening to this book as I've been meaning to read more Victorian historicals and had high hopes for the sleuthing potential of a land agent and a housekeeper. Though the book was not quite what I had expected, I am already looking forward to Rowsley's next outing!

I had anticipated the housekeeper being a Mrs Hudson figure and was surprised to find the role filled by a youngish, attractive woman, who would - rather swiftly - become Matthew's romantic interest. It's quite unusual not to have such an attachment be a slow burn that ebbs and flows in will-they-won't-they fashion throughout a series, so it was quite startling to have that convention overturned. I do not think it is a spoiler to say so, for a potential listener ought to know that in many ways this is as much a historical romance as it is a Victorian mystery. That is not to its detriment, as it allows us to see a softer side to the often-austere interactions of the day, which makes it easier to 'get to know' the characters.

This novel takes quite a matter-of-fact, black and white approach to the characters and their circumstances overall. People are generally good or evil, compassionate or preachifying, respectable or profligate, and there's seldom much ambiguity about which side of the line they fall. That is quite in-keeping with an era which viewed society through a similarly reductive lens, though not necessarily reaching the same conclusions, for this novel is far kinder to the 'have nots' than the Victorians themselves ever were. This was, perhaps, informed a little by Cutler's own family history, which helped inspire some of the servants' stories.

From the beginning, this novel positions itself on the progressive side of history; referencing the fact that Rowsley's father corresponds with Darwin, that his physician-uncle does not charge the poorest families for his medical services, and that Matthew was aware of Christiana Willes' cricketing prowess. Early in the book Rowsley opposes the Vicar's view of keeping the poor 'in their place', instead wishing to make basic education available to all by building a school.

Much as I think there is a responsibility within historical fiction to shine a light upon unhealthy attitudes in one way or another when portraying challenging or uncomfortable themes, I felt that Wages of Sin was a little too strident in its focus upon issues relating to women's disenfranchisement, discrimination, and abuse. Rowsley, in particular, is exceedingly vocal on these topics, which was refreshing at first but soon became a tad unbelievable, given quite how unusual it would be for a man to be quite so sympathetic to the female cause. A little subtlety may have helped it to feel in-keeping with the time, but as it was it felt very heavy-handed throughout, with characters of all sexes and classes discussing things they would usually be very reticent to disclose; especially with their 'betters' or in mixed company.

Despite the very modern sensibilities and candid conversations, there were some very nice historical references adding colour to Cutler's world, such as using limewashed wallpaper to feed runner beans, and the (outmoded, even in Victorian times) custom of the butler, Bowman, fetching the upstairs servants' dessert. Food is an evocative theme throughout, with the cook's menu and the extras that they send to the poorer families helping to enrich the setting. And indeed it does, for I can have nothing but praise for an audiobook that includes the consumption of cheese straws. (The oldest printed recipe for Cheese Straws that I can find is of Victorian origin - contemporary to this story - and comes from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861). Which of the two methods yielded the melt-in-your-mouth delicacies eaten by Lord Croft's household we shall never know, but I'm willing to take a punt that it's not the recipe that includes breadcrumbs in the mixture.)

The language of this book was quite loose and lacking some of the Victorian formality, but it was gentler for it and easy to listen to. As such, it was not always instantly evocative of the era, but this was when the additional time spent adding colour in other areas really came into its own, and there was enough period detail to bring the past to life. Some close repetition in word choice occasionally made the writing feel a little unrefined, but it was never anything egregious. Audiobooks often highlight such passages in a way that is far less noticeable when reading words on a page. Descriptions such as "I thought of the neat bean rows flourishing in cottage gardens. A man's body would fit neatly under the canes" will always sound clumsier when softly spoken into a listener's ear than they ever do in a reader's imagination. The narrator's lively performance conceals any awkwardness well, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that it is their dialogue, more than their internal observations, that really drive the story.

Most of the revelations in this audiobook were not a surprise, but as with most mysteries, the fun comes not only from guessing the ending correctly but from navigating the twists and turns as the various threads weave together. I enjoyed the storytelling and having come to know the characters I would be interested in their next mystery. I'm curious about their future given the scope of the changes that occur in this inaugural outing, and would like to see Dr Paige featured a little more in future adventures.

The narrator, David Thorpe, was new to me but I liked his voice very well. His performance was clear and expressive, and he reminded me a little of Kris Dyer and Mark Meadows in the style of his delivery. All the book's personalities had voices with plenty of character, and emotion, and he managed the tricky flashback scenes without confusing the listener, which is always admirable (and very welcome).

He had a rather unusual, and varying, pronunciation of "Ianto" (EE-AN-tow rather than the soft Welsh ee-AN-tow or Anglicised YAN-tow), but delivered a nice, rounded, resonant Welsh accent for the character in question which was full of warmth and perfectly suited a kindly village clergyman.

I would recommend this audiobook to people who like Victorian tales from below stairs and all those who enjoy mystery novels, though the distressing themes it covers mean that it is not quite the 'cosy' mystery some might expect.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in the hope of an honest, unbiased review.

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