The best book where the house is a character (and someone’s got to clean it)

Who am I?

When I started writing historical mysteries, I made my sleuth posh so she would have the spare time and the spare money to go racketing about solving crimes. But I’m not posh (at all) and so, when I’m thinking about earlier times, I never imagine I’d be in the fringed flapper dress, or on the fainting couch. I always assume I’d be down in the basement, grating a block of lye soap to scrub the soot off something. I think that’s why I’m so endlessly interested in how the grunt work gets done.

I wrote...

Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains

By Catriona McPherson,

Book cover of Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains

What is my book about?

Edinburgh, 1926, and aristocratic detective, Dandy Gilver, is going undercover as a lady’s maid in a grand house where all is far from well. Her own maid offers some tips and the lady of the house is in on the secret, but fooling the other twelve servants is the toughest challenge of Dandy’s career.

When the trouble turns to gruesome murder, Dandy the maid must care for a great deal of ruined linen, while Dandy the detective tracks down a killer.

The books I picked & why

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The Paying Guests

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of The Paying Guests

Why this book?

Just the most luscious plunge into the domesticity of the post-WWI period. I do quite a bit of research into the 1930s when I write Dandy Gilver, but Sarah Waters is something else again. Frances is trying to run a house for herself and her mother (plus the new lodgers of the title) and you can smell the Brasso and taste the bottled coffee as you read. The book is action-packed too – a real page-turner – but it’s Frances’ daily grind that will have you re-reading even once you know the ending.

I Capture the Castle

By Dodie Smith,

Book cover of I Capture the Castle

Why this book?

If Frances Wray is a model of grit and doggedness, her exact opposites inhabit this 1930s novel. The Mortmains of Godesend Castle are hopeless. Stepmother Topaz does her best – dishing up meals like brussels sprouts and cold rice – but the castle is gradually emptying out as they are forced to sell their furniture, and they have so few towels that, on wash days, they have to shake themselves dry, like dogs. Every time I re-read this old favourite I want to shake them too: get a job, I mutter. Take in some extra washing, while you’re doing your own. But when the plot starts to move, with the arrival of rich American neighbours, I’m entranced all over again.

The Town House

By Norah Lofts,

Book cover of The Town House

Why this book?

There was no such thing as YA when I was the right age for it. I went straight from the school stories of Enid Blyton to bonkbusters, bodice-rippers, and sweeping historical sagas the size of building bricks. The Suffolk trilogy was always my favourite of those, because its sweep was so stupendous. (Book one opens in the 1300s and Book three ends well into the twentieth century.) The Town House world is so physical, so brutal, so strange to modern eyes. The food, the clothes – my God, the plumbing! – the relentless scrabble to survive for all but the very rich, make this novel and, to some extent, its two sequels a completely immersive read. I particularly love that Lofts pays as much attention to the lowly folk who keep the place going as to the owners of the manor house. 


By Robert Cedric Sherriff,

Book cover of Greengates

Why this book?

The Baldwins live a small but happy life in London, until the bombshell day when Mr. Baldwin retires. He loses his raison d’etre, but his wife too has her life upended by his constant presence. Slowly their domestic bliss begins to unravel. Until they decide to do something beyond radical: they move to the county – to Greengates, a spanking new 1930s villa – and a thrilling fresh start together. I really mean “thrilling” too. This quiet and affectionate exploration of a couple remaking their humdrum life moves me to tears, even while the fascinating details of equipping and running a “new” house charms my socks off. 

Blanche Cleans Up: A Blanche White Mystery

By Barbara Neely,

Book cover of Blanche Cleans Up: A Blanche White Mystery

Why this book?

This is the third of Barbara Neely’s mysteries about a peppery African-American housekeeper, Blanche White, and the dirt she finds while she’s cleaning other people’s houses. It’s a different house in each of the novels – and a tough task to choose just one, I can tell you. This time, we find Blanche in Boston working for the Brahmin-ish Brindle family, who have got “too-good-to-be-true” written all over them. There’s a nifty plot, but what I love (and this can’t be a surprise after the first four books, surely) is Blanche’s take on everything from how a spice-rack is organised, to why rich people have such ugly art. She is irresistible. I wish somehow she could meet Frances Wray (from The Paying Guests) and share some of her moxie. I’d kind of love to hear her thoughts on the Mortmains too.

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