Death came aboard with the cormorant. It arrived on the seventh day of our voyage…
This is the secret report of disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, written on the mail ship Tankerville en route to Philadelphia. His mission is to aid the civil servant charged with carrying a vital treaty to Congress that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in their war against Britain.
When the civil servant meets an unfortunate ‘accidental’ end, Laurence becomes the one person standing between Britain and disaster. It is his great chance to redeem himself at Whitehall – except that his predecessor has taken the secret of the treaty’s hiding place to his watery grave.
As the ship is searched, Laurence quickly discovers that his fellow passengers – among them fugitive French aristocrats, an American plantation owner, an Irish actress and her performing bear – all have their own motives to find the treaty for themselves. And as a second death follows the first, Laurence must turn sleuth in order to find the killer before he has an ‘accident’ of his own.
I loved that atmospheric opening. The cormorant sitting there on the bow of the ship, nonchalantly drying it’s wings in the wind and oblivious to the superstitions it’s arousing in the crew. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to take a voyage from Falmouth to Philadelphia in the 18th Century then look no further than this novel from Leonora Nattrass. It is so detailed and grabs the reader immediately, within a couple of pages the ship was as real to me as the cat sitting on my lap. Everything from the period appropriate language to the workings of the ship come together to entice you back into the 1790s. I felt like all my senses were engaged from the feel of cold sea spray to the sound of a passenger throwing up over the stern rail. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being stuck on the ship, at one point for three days near the French coast thanks to the prevailing winds, is very apparent. I loved the little details like the full ‘piss-pot’ sliding up and down the deck, the cacophony of the dog barking incessantly at the turkeys they are transporting, and the bear cub that turned out to have ‘tolerable table manners’. The author also emphasises how cramped the cabins are, with Jago almost able to reach out and touch both walls. At least its his own space though and somewhere he can relax, which he does with a drop or two of laudanum to combat the stress he’s feeling from all the subterfuge.
I hadn’t read Black Drop, the first outing with Laurence Jago, but I think this stands well alone. It’s a clever idea to take your characters and put them into a totally different situation. Laurence is a likeable fellow, a disgraced foreign office clerk, with a few downfalls in his character. Not only does he like a drop of laudanum, he’s a little bit gullible when it comes to a pretty face. He is tasked with helping a civil servant who’s carrying an important treaty to the Americans, to prevent them joining the French in their war against the British. When they come up against a French warship in the channel the treaty needs to be hidden, so when a death occurs on board not only is the treaty lost, but there might be a murderer on board. There’s such a cast of characters on board: two French aristocrats escaping the changes in the run up to the revolution; an Irish actress; a man who is possibly a freed slave; a plantation owner; and a dancing bear! Most of them have a vested interest in the treaty and all of which could be a murderer. Of course Jago can’t rule out one of the crew being involved, perhaps hiding the treaty for financial gain. As for the murder, they are investigating a locked room mystery, it’s just that this room is a cabin.
I loved how the tension built as Jago tries to find the treaty and solve the murder, especially as the stakes grow ever higher and Jago himself could become a target for the murderer. I became more attached to him as the story progressed because I felt he was a bit of an innocent, totally out of his depth and with poor judgement, such as with Lizzie. He’s perpetually confused, which isn’t surprising considering his shipmates and their antics. One of the aristocrats holds a seance, the crew mates are full of maritime stories and superstitions, including the usual giant sea creatures, plus they’re eating slop and feel exhausted. I wasn’t surprised Jago’s brain was muddled!. Aside from the subterfuge and untrustworthy passengers, there’s the constant underlying tension of being unable to get off the boat and knowing that whoever committed the murder is still there too. Once they’ve left the sight of land, these misfits are stuck together for weeks. Oh, and I forgot about the pirates. This is a fabulous adventure, a murder mystery some full on comedy here and there. I’m now looking forward to going back and reading Jago’s first adventure.
Today as part of the Bookstagram tour for Julia Vaughan’s new novel Grave Issue, I’m spotlighting and sharing an extract from the novel.
Grave Issue is the second book in the DCI Kath Fortune series of novels and is released on 16th September 2022. This follows on from Daisy Chain, Julia’s debut novel.
“Who killed Abraham and Esther Downing in the 1970s?
What is the significance of the seven tiny skeletons unearthed in the garden of Downing’s cottage?
And why does no-one care?
As DCI Kath Fortune and her cold case team deep dive into their second investigation, they come up against a wall of silence surrounding the reclusive couple. With Kath trying to piece together the clues and keep her personal and professional relationships on track, her past comes back to haunt her with time running out on all counts.”
6th March 1963
Now it begins. New life comes again—surely my last chance. The good Lord blessed me with fertility, but my work is nearly done now, and I know that He can take away the gift of life. I must write quickly now. A spends less time in the fields now that I am close to my time. My new waters cover the stains of the seven birth waters gone before. The bare boards soak in the fluid that the child no longer needs to live inside me. The pains come now. Soon, A will come with the rope to pull the life from my body. There’s the scream of the back door. He moves about beneath me. I pray for God’s love…God’s love and forgiveness through the pain. Always and Ever.
‘What time do you call… Oh!’ Ruth halted her admonishment as Kath stepped into the room. Kath grinned and rubbed the back of her now naked neck. ‘Yeah… thought it was time for a new look.’ She threw her bag onto her desk, soaking in the admiring glances from her team. ‘Makes you look months younger,’ Shirl said, laughing and pointing at her boss. ‘You look great, Boss. Really suits you.’ Marvin continued pouring coffee into mugs as Kath sat down. ‘Well, I was looking a bit like Worzel Gummidge’s half-cousin.’ She’d made a sudden decision the day before and called up her hairdresser of many years, who always came to her house and worked her magic. She felt lighter in spirit and now in hair as she and her colleagues had wrapped up their first cold case. ‘New look for a new man.’ Ruth accepted her mug from Marvin, and Kath laughed. ‘Old man, you mean. I mean… no, not old… Oh, you all know what I’m trying to say.’
Kath had reignited her relationship with her school sweetheart, Lenny. The young love that had brought them together across algebra and Romantic poets had survived the intervening time and his marriage of many years. Now, his marriage had ended, and they were moving forward into a new era of love and companionship. Marvin pointed to a newly labelled box in the corner. ‘I’ve put all the paperwork in there. Case closed.’ Kath nodded. ‘Onwards and upwards now, guys.’ She swivelled in her chair to face Byron Lord, the civilian member of the team, who had been invaluable in their first case and in bringing together all the details to find the murderer of five-year-old Daisy Prospero. Kath felt his skills in finding hidden information secreted within the wheels of the dark web were going to continue to be key in all their cases. He had proved his worth and, as a reward, Kath had suggested that he might like to choose their next case from the hundreds stacked in the boxes lining the back wall of the office. ‘Byron, what do you think? Are you happy to choose the next case? I don’t want you to feel any pressure but I want to ensure you feel as much a part of this team as anyone else. ‘Byron nodded, his waist-length hair falling forward as he reached for a folder on his desk. He stood up and handed the manila file to Kath. He did appreciate the responsibility. He had come into an already established group of detectives who had worked together on active cases for some years. Ruth, Kath and Shirl go back many years previous, Marvin a more recent addition but still with experience under his belt. Byron’s skills as a ‘technical wizard’, as Ruth called him, had proved so important in their first case, and he felt useful and enthusiastic about his new role.
‘Have you lost weight, Byron?’ Ruth pinched taut flesh through his T-shirt, and he skipped out of her reach, smarting at the harshness of her fingers. ‘No.’ Byron sat down and hid behind his two huge monitors. ‘I’m naturally skinny. Runs in the family.’ ‘I’m naturally jealous.’ Ruth patted the spare roll of fat around her middle. ‘Look at it this way.’ Shirl stood up and took the lid off the biscuit tin next to the kettle, her finger poking around in the crumbs. ‘You’re providing a warm and comfortable home for Mr Gregg and Mr Kipling.’ ‘Cheeky cow.’ Ruth tried a tone of superiority, but she couldn’t pull it off, knowing that her over-enjoyment of certain food groups had not helped her post-menopause weight gain. ‘And you can talk… get your hand out of there.’ Shirl pulled her hand out of the tin and licked the few measly crumbs off her finger. ‘Talking of Mr Gregg…’ Kath smiled, reached into her bag and pulled a twenty pound note from her purse. She flourished it at Shirl, who grabbed it, smiling. ‘Yes, go to Greggs, get us all some sustenance.’ ‘Salad for Ruth, obviously,’ Shirl said, grabbing her coat from the back of the door. ‘Fuck off,’ Ruth replied.
‘I’ll take a look at this whilst Shirl goes into the depths of Madeley, and we’ll discuss it when she gets back.’ Kath opened the manila folder. ‘I’ve done some notes for everyone.’ Byron patted a pile of the folders on the edge of his desk. Shirl disappeared down the stairs, and there was a companionable silence as Kath skimmed through the file and Marvin and Ruth tapped away on keyboards, answering emails and starting new documents ready to receive the information Byron would input for them. Kath read quickly, nodding to herself, then grabbed her cigarettes and made her way outside. Shirl was just reversing her car out of the rear car park when Kath stopped her. Shirl opened her window. ‘Don’t get me anything; feed the others.’ Shirl looked her boss up and down. ‘This new diet of yours is paying off. New hair, pounds dropping off. What’s going on?’ Shirl knew Kath too well, and Kath was not about to reveal the secret behind her weight loss. A Volvo stopped in the road, indicating to turn in but unable to because Shirl was in the way. ‘Go.’ Kath waved her hand in apology to the PCSO trying to get into the station, who was building up a stream of traffic behind him. ‘Fine.’ Shirl was still muttering as she closed the window and reversed quickly, turning off up Madeley High Street—a short distance that would not have taken her long on foot. But Shirl didn’t walk anywhere she didn’t have to.
Kath stood back as the Volvo turned in and the traffic continued down Legges Way into the Ironbridge Gorge. She lit a cigarette and walked a little way down the path that led down from the police substation, opening onto a wild grass area with woodland fringing it, the rooftops of the Sutton Hill housing estate visible in the distance. She paced and smoked. The pounds were indeed dropping off at an amazing rate, but Kath couldn’t tell anyone it wasn’t a new diet or exercise regime but the relief in the knowing that she had truly got away with murdering an aged paedophile over twenty years ago. She had kept her secret past hidden for so many years now, and there was every reason to believe she could carry on doing so. She skirted dips in the packed earth pathway, softened by the regular nightly September rain. Byron had picked an interesting case: two bodies unearthed in Broseley, a mile up the hill from the gorge, one male and one female and seven tiny bodies buried alongside them. This was truly a cold case, the bodies of the seven infants only being found eight years later in 1983 when a developer brought in excavators to demolish a rundown cottage in a large expanse of land bordered by woodland off the main road.
Kath flicked her cigarette butt into the long grass as Shirl returned to the car park at the back of the station, brandishing bags from the bakery. The thought of the contents of the bags made Kath feel slightly queasy as she caught up with her colleague. They made their way back through the small station and up into their office, the smell of fresh pastry and meat wafting into the nostrils of Marvin, Ruth and Byron. As Shirl passed around the assorted bags, Kath sat down and patted the folder on her desk. ‘Okay, guys, our new case is an old one—eighties and beyond, I think.’ Byron looked at Kath and nodded. She knew he would have already done some work in the hope that she would agree to his choice. Marvin and Ruth chewed on their steak slices. ‘We have two adult bodies—one male, one female—both murder victims, according to the initial report, but that’s not all.’ The chewing stopped, and all eyes turned to Kath. ‘As if that isn’t enough of a tragedy, we have seven small bodies as well. Babies. Seven dead babies.’ The team looked at each other and then back at Kath as Shirl sat down in her chair, turned her back on her colleagues and blinked away tears of sorrow and memory.
The sun had finally broken through the clouds, warming the bones of the old man in the churchyard. He stretched and put his hands onto the small of his back, pressing the kinks out of his eighty-five-year-old spine. The trees surrounding the pretty Norman church were still hanging onto their leaves, reluctant to let the autumn season have its way. A pair of magpies squabbled at the top of the biggest oak tree, their harsh chatter the only sound in the quiet of the countryside. A tall man of slight build emerged from the dark interior of the church. He raised a hand in greeting to the other man, walking slowly towards him and glancing up at the sky. ‘Morning, Sam.’ He placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘God’s majesty in all His glory.’ ‘Reverend.’ Sam Williams tipped his cap, holding the rake upright, tines resting against the grass. ‘It’s looking lovely, Sam. As usual.’
Sam nodded his thanks. ‘I’ve been bringing on some roses at home, thinking of clearing that patch down there.’ He pointed to the left of the church, where some of the oldest gravestones rested. ‘Get them nettles cleared. Good soil, sun and shade. Should bring on a nice display in years to come.’ Reverend Michael Thomas smiled. ‘A rose garden. Joyous. The Lord has blessed you with a great gift. I, myself, cannot tend a houseplant.’ Sam gazed off into the distance. ‘Your gift is with people, Reverend, not plants.’ ‘You’re very kind.’ Reverend Thomas pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, his dog collar moving with the motion of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed several times, knowing what he was about to say would break the moment. He moved forward a few strides, coming to stand and look at the side of the church where a lone stone, small and sunken, sat apart from all other gravestones in the bucolic churchyard. The earth around the stone was barren. A few rogue blades of grass pushed valiantly through the tired earth and a single dying dandelion held onto its last few fluffy seeds. He kept his back to Sam, knowing the reaction that would come with his next words. ‘Maybe we could try some bulbs here, for next year.’ Sam approached the vicar but stayed a little way back. ‘I tell you every year, Reverend, and I’ll repeat myself once more: I’ll not tend to this.’
The vicar sighed and his shoulders dropped. ‘His sins have been forgiven by the highest order in the land. Yet you still judge him.’ Sam coughed, and a globule of phlegm sailed past Reverend Thomas’s shoulder and landed on the leaf of the dandelion. ‘The Lord can forgive whoever He likes, that’s His job and well He does it. But you know me, Reverend… you’ve known me many years. Those of us who know won’t forgive and won’t ever forget, and I’ll not plant beauty in poisoned soil. Won’t grow anyway, you know that.’ He turned and walked back to continue raking up the small leaves that drifted on the winds from across the neighbouring fields. The vicar knew Sam was right. Ever since the body had been buried, the surrounding soil seemed against supporting life. No worms turned the earth. Any seeds dropped naturally by passing birds that would have flourished anywhere else on landing would not survive in this bare section of the churchyard. A large twig had lodged itself against the gravestone, and the reverend leant forward to move it. He was unaware of the thorny spines until it was too late. He straightened up as he winced and sucked the circle of red blooming from his finger. ‘Damn you, Abraham Downing,’ he muttered.
They’d all spent twenty minutes or so quietly eating and looking over the notes Byron had provided and now Kath was eager to get into it. ‘So, thanks to Byron for the abridged notes of the case,’ Kath said, waving her copy of the paperwork. ‘We pare it down to the bare facts. Feel free to offer ideas, suggestions.’ Kath moved the front sheet further away from her face, trying not to look as though she was squinting. ‘Get some glasses, woman,’ Ruth said, trying to hold in a laugh. ‘I’m fine. Leave me and my eyes alone.’ Kath shook the paper and cleared her throat. ‘Two adults, Esther and Abraham Downing. Police were called when a dog walker discovered Abraham’s body.’ ‘Thank god for dog walkers,’ said Marvin. ‘Indeed. He was lying in front of his cottage with his head caved in,’ Kath continued. ‘A shovel, covered in blood, lay next to him. Presumed murder weapon. Police discovered a shallow grave containing the body of his wife, Esther. Cause of death: shotgun blast to the torso. Said shotgun was inside the house. Only one cartridge discharged. So, the first question is, why two different weapons?’
Shirl lay back in her office chair, almost horizontal. ‘Ruth, you’re gonna wear a hole in the carpet.’ Ruth was pacing at the other end of the office. She did her best thinking on her feet, the movement seeming to aid her brain in putting thoughts together in some sort of natural order. She liked her external world to be clean and ordered, everything in place, and now her brain was in chaos mode, trying to unscramble the information. ‘My question is, why was one body buried and the other left exposed?’ ‘Marvin.’ Kath pointed at him, and he sat up straight at his desk. ‘You’re the killer. Go.’ ‘Erm… well, I go to shoot Abraham, but Esther gets in the way.’ Kath nodded. ‘Okay. Shirl?’ Shirl tossed her papers onto her desk. ‘Why wouldn’t Abraham stop you?’ She peered at Marvin, who was tapping his pen against his forehead. ‘He can’t get to me in time.’ ‘So, why not turn the gun on Abraham and shoot him?’ Shirl asked. ‘The gun…’ Marvin struggled to focus his brain, trying to insert himself into the killer’s head. ‘Okay, how about the gun jams?’ He smiled and held out his hands. ‘So, I throw the gun to one side and pick up the nearest weapon, which is the shovel. I bash him in the head. Job done.’ ‘Maybe Abraham wasn’t there when Esther was shot,’ said Ruth, still pacing. ‘So, why didn’t he report it?’ Marvin was throwing questions out now. There was a moment of silence. ‘Okay,’ Byron said. ‘But why would you bury Esther and not Abraham?’ They all turned to Marvin for an answer. ‘I… don’t have time.’ Kath nodded. ‘It can take a while to dig even a shallow grave.’ ‘Is that the voice of experience talking?’ Ruth laughed, and her colleagues joined in. Kath feigned indignation but her insides flipped at the thought of her teammates discovering her own murderous past. She needed to bring the discussion back to the case in hand. ‘Marvin, why didn’t you bring your own weapon with you if you meant harm to them?’ The office was silent as Marvin processed the question. ‘I didn’t mean to do it; it was spur of the moment, so I used what was already there.’
Ruth nodded, flapping her own paperwork and causing a draft. ‘But why did you put the gun back inside the cottage? The shovel was outside, next to Abraham’s body, but the gun was inside.’ ‘Maybe…’ Marvin shrugged. ‘I’ve got nothing.’ Byron picked up the thread. ‘Maybe someone else killed Esther, and Marvin—sorry, the killer—found out and Abraham’s murder was something else entirely.’ Kath went back to her notes. ‘Autopsy showed Esther’s approximate day of death was the same as her husband’s.’ ‘Which was?’ Shirl asked. ‘August sixteenth 1975,’ said Byron. ‘No one heard the gunshot and thought to go and see what had happened?’ ‘Everyone’s got a shotgun in that neck of the woods, pardon the pun,’ said Kath. ‘It’s the regular form of maintenance, shooting foxes and such. All the farmers have one, and the cottage is quite remote, set back in woodland away from the main road, no other houses around.’
The cottage in question, at the heart of the case, was still standing but was a shell of a construct. With no traceable relatives, the Downing property had passed, after many years, into trust, and there was no possibility of selling the land to build on. Broseley was full of sinkholes from its mining history, and portions of woodland and road had slowly disappeared over the years as the land shifted and tree roots snaked their way through the underbelly. The cottage could just about be seen from the main road running from Broseley centre down the Ironbridge. In times of torrential, prolonged rainfall, the whole area in front of the cottage turned into a mini lake fringed by ancient trees and scrub. The cottage was still standing, despite the shifting of the land around it. The roof was all but gone, the window spaces resembling empty eye sockets. ‘You’ve picked a good one here, Byron.’ Ruth stopped pacing and perched on the edge of one of the tables in front of the window. ‘Sorry.’ ‘No, don’t apologise.’ Kath grabbed her cigarettes and stood up. ‘I think what Ruth is hinting at is that this all happened in the mid-1970s. Forensics was sketchy, nothing at all like we are now blessed with, and there is practically a whole generation that has died off, so witnesses are few and far between.’ ‘Didn’t anyone miss the Downing couple?’ Byron asked. ‘Surely someone would have said that they hadn’t seen them around and gone to check if they were okay.’ ‘Can’t answer that one,’ Kath said. She headed for the door, and Shirl got up to follow her. ‘It’s the babies,’ said Byron quietly.
Everyone turned to look at him. He lowered his head, his curtain of hair falling forward to cover his face. ‘I had a baby brother.’ No one moved, not wanting to break the spell. Byron took a deep breath and looked up. ‘I was seven, I think. So excited to have a brother. But he died when he was around three months old. Sudden infant death syndrome.’ ‘Oh, mate.’ Marvin moved to him and put a hand on his shoulder, wanting to give him a hug but feeling it was maybe too much. ‘It’s okay.’ Byron gave a weak smile. ‘Mum called him Percy. He was adorable.’ Shirl’s sudden movement made them all start, and she pushed past Kath and headed down the stairs. Kath frowned and looked over at Ruth, who shrugged and raised her eyebrows. ‘There’s no explanation for SIDS. I guess I just want to try and find out what happened to those seven little babies.’ Byron moved to the coffee machine, and Kath rubbed his back lightly as she passed him on the way to meet Shirl downstairs for a much-needed fag break. ‘We’ll find out, won’t we, guys?’ Kath looked over her shoulder at Marvin and Ruth, who muttered words of encouragement, and she continued downstairs to find Shirl smoking underneath her favourite tree next to the Madeley station.
That was the part of the case they were all not talking about: the seven baby bodies found in graves at the side of the cottage. It wasn’t until the council had released the ground many years after the deaths of the Downing couple that the graves had been unearthed. A developer had made inroads into looking at the prospect of using the land for building houses and had used a team of surveyors to look at the potential of the ground if the council was willing to let it go for the right price. The seven bodies had seemed to be a forgotten aspect as the police had concentrated their efforts on looking for Abraham and Esther’s murderer. Now, the babies were most definitely in Kath’s sight, and the team would be investigating their deaths just as thoroughly as the two adult bodies. The case wasn’t so much cold as frozen. Although the adult bodies had been discovered in 1975, the corpses of the seven babies had only been unearthed, literally, when developers had been testing the soil. The officer in charge had amazingly had the bright idea of getting a local archaeological group to take a look, realising they may have some relation to the case of the two adults found murdered on the same spot eight years earlier. The would-be archaeologists had surmised the tiny bodies might even have stretched back into the 1960s, but the focus had been on the adults, and the seven skeletons were considered a mystery not worth the time and effort of investigation.
‘You okay?’ Kath lit up and waited for Shirl to speak. Shirl kicked at the mass of leaves already forming in the September sunshine under the tree. ‘I have to show you something.’ Shirl exhaled a plume of smoke and looked at her boss and friend of many years. ‘Will you take a ride with me?’ ‘Of course, mate, whatever you need. We’ll go after we’ve finished these, okay?’ Shirl nodded, took one last drag and dropped her cigarette butt, crushing it with force into the leaves. ‘Thanks, yeah. I’ll see you up there.’ Kath looked up at the branches as Shirl went back into the station. ‘Always another mystery.’ She flicked her cigarette butt into the road and followed Shirl inside. The churchyard was quiet. A woman sat on a bench against the front wall of the church, hands clasped in her lap. The only other person was a man collecting grass cuttings from an old lawnmower. He moved to an area on the far side where the oldest graves leant at impossible angles against the low perimeter wall and deposited the grass into a boxed construction that appeared to be some kind of compost heap. Planks of new wood encased the cuttings and decaying flowers, and the elderly man stepped into the box and began trampling the contents.
Kath followed Shirl to a gravestone to the right of the lychgate. She still had no idea why Shirl had asked her to come but knew that her friend and colleague would tell her when she was ready. Shirl had seemed unsettled ever since Byron had produced the new case for the team. The gravestone was an old one, rounded at the top and bearing two names. ‘Oliver and Mary Carling,’ Kath murmured as Shirl lay a small posy of roses against the headstone. They had stopped off at a florist on the way, Kath again choosing not to ask questions. Shirl patted the grass and stepped back. ‘My grandparents,’ she said. ‘And also the resting place of Rose Thompson.’ Kath waited, watching her friend as she took deep breaths. Shirl turned to Kath and pulled her cigarettes from her pocket. Kath waited as she lit one. Shirl looked up at the clear sky and exhaled a large plume of smoke. ‘My firstborn. My daughter.’ ‘Oh, Shirl.’ Kath put her hand on Shirl’s arm, searching for the right words to comfort her friend. She had not seen this coming. ‘Tell me about her.’ ‘She breathed for two hours. Short, snuffly breaths. We were told she probably wouldn’t live very long. Heart defect.’ Shirl paused and took another deep drag of nicotine. ‘It was there on the scans. They said they couldn’t do anything but wait until she was born and then they could perhaps look at operating once she was strong enough, but even then, she might not survive the surgery.’
Shirl wasn’t known for being overly emotional and she kept it together now in the warm sunshine, with the sound of birdsong and the hum of tractors in the far fields. ‘You must have been really young.’ Kath took out her own cigarettes and lit one. Everyone knew that Shirl had four sons, two sets of twins, grown men now, who Shirl and her husband adored. Shirl nodded. ‘Eighteen. Both of us. We knew we wanted a family straight away, and I was pregnant when we got married, here in this church.’ ‘And she’s buried here?’ Kath stared at the gravestone, confused, failing to find another name on it. ‘There’s a centuries-old tradition where babies who died were often buried with a grandparent or elderly lady so they could take care of them in… Heaven, I guess, or wherever.’ Kath smoked quietly and let her friend talk, amazed at the revelation. They had known each other for over eighteen years and Kath had not had any clue. Shirl had been very careful to keep this little part of her past well and truly buried. She suspected that very few people knew this story, and she was humbled that Shirl could share it with her.
‘My family have been buried here for generations.’ Shirl pointed across the churchyard, next to the makeshift compost heap. ‘Great-great-grandparents over there, great-uncles next to them. We asked if Rose could be buried with my grandmother.’ ‘That’s lovely,’ said Kath. ‘Comforting, I should think. For all of you.’ Shirl nodded and looked at her burned down filter, flicking off the remaining ash and putting it in her pocket. ‘I understand now why this case has hit a nerve. We don’t have to carry on…’ Shirl held up her hand. ‘It’s fine. It’s time.’ She gave a weak smile. ‘It just made me sad when we started out. I mean, we were looking at the murder of two adults, then the dead babies turned up…’ She moved away, and Kath followed, keeping hold of her filter until she could flick it into the road. ‘Any time you want to talk about her, you know you can come to me now. Right?’ Shirl turned and embraced Kath. ‘Thank you. But it’s all good. I have one day a year—her birthday—when I cry and come here to talk to her, tell her about her brothers, our lives.’ Kath released her and stepped back. ‘June fourteenth. You have it off every year.’ Shirl smiled. ‘What a good detective you are.’
They got into Shirl’s car and sat looking out across the fields. ‘It’s weird how Byron picked up on this case,’ Shirl said. ‘And how we now have this strange connection. Not that he knows.’ ‘I don’t know… it might have something to do with Lane,’ Kath replied. Shirl turned in her seat to face Kath. ‘Go on.’ Lane Petreus was the psychic who had helped the team on their first case a few weeks previous. Kath had watched the interaction between her and Byron as she’d said goodbye. ‘I think Byron has some… capabilities that even he doesn’t know he has. We can’t explain it, and we don’t want to because we just accept that it is what it is, but maybe Byron was just guided somehow to pick this case.’ ‘Okay, I’ll take that. You may be right. He’s an extraordinary young man.’ Shirl paused. ‘Have you thought about inviting Lane onto this case?’ Kath had been wrestling with the idea. The team was still in its infancy, and she didn’t yet know if Lane could be a permanent part of the team, even if it were possible and it was what Lane desired. Her talent was in great demand, and Kath felt a little selfish in asking Lane to commit completely to them. ‘I don’t honestly know yet. I kind of feel we should press on as we are. If we hit a stumbling block and Lane is available to us, then maybe we can consider calling her in. What do you think?’ Shirl nodded and started the car. ‘I think your instincts are spot on, as ever. You’ll make the right call when the time comes.’ She nosed the car forward and headed back to the station, considering the idea of sharing an intimate piece of her past with the rest of the team.
Grave Issue Julia Vaughan Cahill Davis Publishing Limited
Rachel Savernake investigates a bizarre locked-room puzzle in this delicious Gothic mystery from the winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger.
1930. Nell Fagan is a journalist on the trail of a intriguing and bizarre mystery: in 1606, a man vanished from a locked gatehouse in a remote Yorkshire village, and 300 years later, it happened again. Nell confides in the best sleuth she knows, judge’s daughter Rachel Savernake. Thank goodness she did, because barely a week later Nell disappears, and Rachel is left to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Looking for answers, Rachel travels to lonely Blackstone Fell in Yorkshire, with its eerie moor and sinister tower. With help from her friend Jacob Flint – who’s determined to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant – Rachel will risk her life to bring an end to the disappearances and bring the truth to light.
A dazzling mystery peopled by clerics and medics; journalists and judges, Blackstone Fell explores the shadowy borderlands between spiritual and scientific; between sanity and madness; and between virtue and deadly sin.
It was the female characters that drew me into this interesting mystery that travels from London to the village of Blackstone Fell. Three particular women caught my eye and my imagination throughout the novel: Cornelia ‘Nell’ Fagan, Rachel Savernake, and the minor character of Ottilie Curle. All three women are very different from the usual heroines of Gothic Literature and a world away from their own Victorian mothers. In fact when I compared them with other women in the novel they don’t conform to the average respectable middle class lady one bit. Nell drew me into the story first, perhaps because she’s best described as ‘a bit of a character’. Everyone in Fleet Street knows her and she’s a regular in all the hang outs including the pub. Nell smokes cheroots, drinks like a fish, earns a living as a journalist, is a bit loose with the truth and loves to tell a story. Recently she’s lost her steady job and has been scouting around for stories that might enable her to start freelance work. She stumbles on the mystery of Blackstone Fell and there’s nothing better than a locked room puzzle to get the cogs turning. She bravely decides to undertake research on the ground and where better to stay than the very gatehouse where two men disappeared 300 years apart. She soon gets the message that there are people still living in the village who don’t want this story investigated. Realising it’s more than she can manage alone she begrudgingly asks for the help of Rachel Savernake. Can they solve the mystery together?
Rachel is another independent woman, financially independent and fiercely intelligent. She loves to solve mysteries especially those involving murders. She’s incredibly observant and perceptive, knowing immediately when Nell is spinning a yarn or lying by omission. She has certain standards for those who work alongside her, expecting loyalty and complete honesty. When these standards aren’t met she is ruthless in her decision to dispense with people. There’s a ruthlessness about her investigation technique too. When she finds information or solves a mystery, she doesn’t just hand over what she knows to the police. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, sometimes she knows of a better way to dispense justice, whatever form that might take. One character suggests she plays God and there is an element of that in her personality; a certain arrogance that she’s right, combined with the self-belief that only she knows the best way for someone to pay for their actions. I was also fascinated by Tilly, the medium first consulted by Nell who reappears in the story. She’s from a background of poverty, using the only gift she has to make a living. I was interested in the way her appearance is depicted. Like Martha, who looks after Rachel, Tilly is a marked woman. Martha has a scarred face from a burn, whereas Tilly has a scarred neck from a thyroid condition. Marked women have quite a history in Victorian fiction and they are often used to make a point, like Rosa Dartle in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Martha’s scars are a contrast, enhancing the beauty of the rest of her face. Tilly’s scars and her obesity are used more like a smoke screen. People’s prejudices around women who are marked or deemed unattractive, can throw them off the truth about a person. The fact that her servant is a ‘Moor’, is another aspect that’s unconventional. I realised that Tilly might be all too aware of how people see her and has used that knowledge to hide behind their assumptions.
I loved the novel’s setting. Blackstone Fell couldn’t be more gothic. Not only does the village have a creepy gate lodge where two men have disappeared: there’s a tower that looks more like a folly rather than a practical home; the river with it’s beautiful, but dangerous fall, where one wrong step could mean being dragged into the water and dashed to death on the rocks below; the endless fog and boggy ground of the moor has it’s own dangers for those who’ve become lost or disoriented. Then there’s the sanatorium, with it’s isolated location, mysterious residents and methods. Finally there’s the vicarage, where the fire and brimstone vicar seems to have a disintegrating relationship with his much younger and highly strung wife. Phew! It was a lot to keep straight in my head at times.
The historical background is fascinating too. We’re between two world wars where so much change has occurred both for individuals and society. The social order has shifted, with more upward mobility, more freedom and improved rights for women. I loved the power dynamics at play here and the sense that these years are an in between space. The vicar and his wife illustrate the old Victorian, traditional idea of a women’s lot in life. It seems archaic when compared to the independent paths that Rachel, Nell and even Tilly have carved out for themselves. Tilly’s success as a medium echoes a societal trend, fuelled by the loss of loved ones, both in WW1 and due to Spanish Influenza. Through the medical men in the story, the author touches on the rise of Eugenics Theory at this time; the idea that there were weaker or lesser races and hereditary disabilities that needed to be eradicated. This could be used as a way to rid oneself of an unstable or inconvenient wife or an old uncle with dementia standing between someone and their inheritance. However, when applied to society at large it became the gateway to Mosley’s ‘BlackShirts’ and Hitler’s Final Solution. The plot itself is an interesting puzzle, although at times I did flounder a bit to remember all the aspects or keep characters in order. I’m willing to accept this might be my brain at fault, so I really welcomed the clue finder at the end of the book that helpfully showed me where to find clues for every thread. There were twists right up to the final page so I defy anyone to work it all out, before Rachel explains her reasoning and unmasks the villains. This was an intelligent mystery, with solid female characters, all set within a period of history that provides an unsettling backdrop to the action.
Meet The Author
Martin Edwards has received the CWA Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in British crime writing, given for the sustained excellence of his contribution to the genre. His recent novels include Mortmain Hall and Gallows Court, which was nominated for two awards including the CWA Historical Dagger. British librarians awarded him the CWA Dagger in the Library in 2018 in recognition of his body of work. His eight and latest Lake District Mystery is The Crooked Shore and earlier books in the series include The Coffin Trail, short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for best British crime novel. Seven books in his first series, featuring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin, starting with the CWA John Creasey Dagger-nominated All the Lonely People, have been reissued by Acorn in new editions with introductions by leading writers including Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid.
Martin is a well-known crime fiction critic, and series consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics. His ground-breaking study of the genre between the wars, The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books won the Macavity and was nominated for four other awards, while Howdunit, a masterclass in crime writing by members of the Detection Club, won the H.R.F. Keating prize and was nominated for five other awards. His long-awaited history of the genre, The Life of Crime, will be published in May 2022. In addition Martin has written a stand-alone novel of psychological suspense, Take My Breath Away, and a much acclaimed novel featuring Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman. He also completed Bill Knox’s last book, The Lazarus Widow. He has published many short stories, including the ebooks The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and Acknowledgments and other stories. ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice‘ won the CWA Short Story Dagger, for which he has been nominated for three other stories. He has edited over 40 anthologies and published diverse non-fiction books, including a study of homicide investigation, Urge to Kill. An expert on crime fiction history, he is archivist of both the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club. He was elected eighth President of the Detection Club in 2015, spent two years as Chair of the CWA, and posts regularly to his blog.
‘Helen leaned close enough to fog the mirror with her breath and whispered, ‘You, my girl, are a qualified medical almoner and at eight o’clock tomorrow morning you will be on the front line of the National Health Service of Scotland.’ Her eyes looked huge and scared. ‘So take a shake to yourself!”
In Edinburgh, 1948. Helen Crowther leaves her crowded tenement for her own office in a doctor’s surgery. She is aware of other people’s opinions and disapproval- ‘Upstart, ungrateful, out of your depth’ – but she’s determined to take part in this incredible new service that will help so many people. She’s not even settled in when she blunders into a murder. Even though Edinburgh is the most respectable of cities, no one wants to stand up for justice, but Helen is determined to find the killer. She’s taken into a world she didn’t know existed, it’s darker than her own as hard as her own can be. Disapproval is now the least of her worries. Helen, known as Nelly, takes on a newly created position within the NHS, as a Medical Welfare Almoner. This was a position based within the free hospitals that is the forerunner to a hospital social worker. The very first almoner in the U.K. was Mary Stewart, appointed at the Royal Free Hospital of central London in 1895. The Royal Free was a charitable hospital and gave free medical treatment to those patients considered morally deserving, but unable to afford medical care. An Almoner would means test patient to ensure that only those deemed “appropriate” received free medical treatment. However, Stewart slowly reshaped her role of and fashioned the position into a medical social worker, referring patients to other means of medical and charitable assistance, visiting patients’ homes, and training almoners for positions at other voluntary hospitals.
Nelly is there in the role’s infancy and while she’s still finding her bearings in her new job she begins to notices that all is not as it should be. Nelly isn’t the type of person to brush things under the carpet, so she starts to investigate. There is so much more there than she expects, especially when a body is found in the garden of the house she’s been living in as part of her employment. Even then her curiosity about cause of death and any motive pushes her to carry on investigating, even if it puts her in danger. I felt like I really understood Nelly. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her dogged refusal to let things go. She wants to make a difference to the patients she sees at the hospital and it was fascinating to be taken back to the birth of the NHS and see how it was implemented. New patients had no idea what help they were entitled to and no-one, even those working in it, fully knew how it worked. I thought that the title was a clever nod to Aneurin Bevan’s own book of the same name.
The mystery was clever and well paced, it kept me reading and surprised me at times, but it wasn’t my favourite part of the novel. I’m used to Edinburgh based stories taking me to the university and male dominated academia, which also suggests people of a certain class. The author focuses on the blue collar, working people of the city. We see a generation and class still struggling in the aftermath of war. This is the beginning of universal health care; health for everyone, not just those who can afford it. The writer gripped me from page one by bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of this point and place in time. As someone who has needed the NHS more than most, I found it so interesting to see how it began from a character working on the frontline and making tough decisions.
Meet The Author
Catriona McPherson was born in the village of Queensferry in south-east Scotland and left Edinburgh University with a PhD in Linguistics. Her historical fiction has been short-listed for the CWA Ellis Peters award and long-listed for Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, as well as winning two Agathas, two Macavitys, and four Leftys in the USA. Catriona lives most of the year in northern California, spends summers in Scotland, and writes full time in both.
You have to indulge me with this review, because it’s quite a personal response to Kirsten Miller’s novel. It had to be personal, because as a peri-menopausal woman, I fell in love with the idea of a latent power that women can tap into at an age when we are often dismissed as ‘past it’. An age I’ve now reached. ‘The Change’ was a whispered word in my family. At my Grandma’s house there was a clear dividing line at the front door, right into the living room for my Grandad and left into the dining room for my Grandma. I was the only granddaughter and I did spend a lot of time with Grandad, but the other room with my two aunties, Grandma and Mum was where secret feminine conversations took place. ‘The Change’ was first overheard when I was just getting used to my periods starting. Older family members were struggling with the symptoms of menopause. Now, thirty years later I’m experiencing symptoms of peri-menopause and I realise we never really had full and frank conversations about it. Starting my periods was traumatic. I was constantly worried about leaking through my clothes, particularly at school. I was embarrassed that sometimes I had to take my bag to the toilet with me from the classroom and I was mortified that to get out of swimming I had to shout out, in front of everyone, that I had my period.
I’d started my period in my first week of secondary school, in the same summer that I broke my back so I went through an enormous amount of change. I felt tied down and I certainly wasn’t the same tree climbing, dog walking tomboy I had been up till now. I’m thinking that menopause is going to have another seismic effect. I’m already finding it difficult to contain symptoms like sweating and hair loss, but I don’t want to lose myself. I love that menopause is starting to be talked about thanks to media celebrities like Davina McCall and I’m trying to be open and honest talking about my experiences with friends. So I was really up for reading a book about women who are moving towards middle age. Women become more interesting as they get older, more confident and full of wisdom and experience. I certainly found that in my friends and in the characters of this book who I fell immediately in love with. They are definitely meant to be a trio.
Nessa: The Seeker Jo: The Protector Harriett: The Punisher
Each woman finds herself bestowed with incredible powers. When Nessa is widowed and her daughters leave for college, she’s left alone in her house near the ocean. Finally, she has time and quiet hours to herself, and she hears voices belonging to the dead – who will only speak to her. They’ve possibly always been there, but she’s been too busy with her family’s needs to hear them. Harriett is almost fifty, her marriage and career have imploded, and she hasn’t left her house in months. Her house was the envy of the neighbourhood and graced the cover of magazines, but now it’s overgrown with incredible plants. Harriett realises that her life is far from over – in fact, she’s undergone a stunning metamorphosis.
Jo has spent thirty years at war with her body. The rage that arrived with menopause felt like the last straw – until she discovers she’s able to channel it, but needs to be able to control it too. The trio are guided by voices only Nessa can hear and discover the abandoned body of a teenage girl. The police have already written off the victim. But these women have not. Their own investigations lead them to more bodies and a world of wealth where the rules don’t apply – and the realisation that laws are designed to protect villains, not the vulnerable.So it’s up to these three women to avenge the innocent, and punish the guilty…
The time has come to embrace The Change.
I loved these women, they were powerful, sexy, sassy and deeply committed to their fellow women – dead or alive. Some might call them witches, but isn’t that a man’s name for a woman who won’t be controlled? Harriett is wonderful! She’s unapologetically sexy and partakes of beautiful men or women when she fancies, but doesn’t feel a need to be attached. She lets her garden run riot and has her own methods for dealing with those who complain. I loved her fearlessness and sense of humour. Nessa has a gift that’s past down through the generations, but has laid dormant till now. I loved that Nessa’s situation is a positive spin on the empty nest, although her gift is not one most people would want. I loved her compassion for the girls she sees and her drive to help, to the extent of taking a ghost home with her. Jo’s gift felt like the embodiment of the rage a lot of women feel about the injustices of the world we live in. The author tells us tales about what women face every day: husbands who control their lives; young girls preyed on by their sport’s coach; vibrant and intelligent women overlooked for promotion; creative women having their ideas stolen by men; women excluded from the gent’s club where a group of millionaire men rule the world. These women are determined to speak out, be open about what women’s lives are like and educate other women to speak their truth and feel their power. It’s inspiring and exhilarating.
The mystery of the serial killer is compelling and really keeps you reading. I kept picking this up in every spare moment, wanting to spend time with these women and see where their investigations lead. I really loved the clever way the author took on the concept of serial killer stories while writing one. She addresses the popularity of crime thrillers and true crime podcasts and how they appeal to men. They’re written as if the victims are expendable and the killers get special nicknames as if they are comic book villains. I’ve often thought this about the Yorkshire Ripper. He’s notorious, but I couldn’t tell you a single name of his victims. There is a truth about the world right at the heart of her story. It comes to light when the women involve the police. There are women in the world who matter and there are others who are worthless, both to law enforcement and to the powerful men encountered in this book. They can be dismissed, because they’re sex workers, or drug addicts, or live in poverty. The Yorkshire Ripper’s first victims were possibly sex workers, then a young girl was attacked after walking home from a night out. She was perceived, by law enforcement and the media, as coming from a decent family. Media headlines screamed that the Ripper had taken his first ‘innocent’ victim. The implication being that the other victims deserved their fate. The author really got this message across, but without losing any of the power, the tension or the desperate need to see the killer caught. Finally, I have to say something about magic realism and being a huge fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Alice Hoffman, I’ve been reading some of the best writers in the genre. Miller’s story is so strong and the characters so well constructed, that I never felt a sense of disbelief. I have quite a collection of magic realism starting with my teenage love for Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil and Angela Carter’s short stories. This book can easily sit next to my favourites. It really is that good.
Meet The Author
Kirsten Miller grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. At seventeen, she hit the road and moved to New York City, where she lives to this day. Kirsten’s first adult novel, The Change, is a feel good feminist revenge fantasy–with witches. The Change is a Good Morning America Book Club pick for May 2022. Kirsten also the author of over a dozen middle grade and YA novels, including the acclaimed Kiki Strike books, which tell the tale of the delinquent girl geniuses who keep Manhattan safe, and How to Lead a Life of Crime. She is not the Kirsten Miller who wrote All That Is Left (which appears on the list of the books she’s written), but she assumes that Kirsten is lovely and talented.
This book is one of my picks for the autumn and I really did pick an absolute cracker of a crime novel. It’s chilling, atmospheric and incredibly clever, especially at weaving the setting into the story. I read this straight through and halfway through my binge read I had to look it up and check that it really was a stand-alone novel. Sadie Levesque is a compelling central character: brave, resourceful, determined, intelligent and ever so slightly impulsive. I could easily imagine her as the backbone of a great crime series. Sadie is a private investigator based in Canada where she’s about to be the birth partner for her sister. She has time to fit in one last job, which takes her to Scotland and the atmospheric island of Mull. The Clark family recently moved to Mull from the United States to start a new life, but their plans have been derailed by the disappearance of their seventeen year old daughter Adriana. With her American accent and dark Latino looks, Adriana caused a stir among the teenagers of Mull and was very noticeable in her job at the local pub. Her desperate parents feel the local police force are doing very little to look for their daughter, possibly because they are outsiders. When Sadie finds the girl’s body while searching local teen hang outs, the police become hostile. Adriana has been drowned. The killer has sexually assaulted her, adorned her with a seaweed crown and filled her mouth and throat full of sand. Sadie’s immediate thought is she’s been silenced. Without police cooperation, Sadie must find the killer and is drawn into a mix of local folklore, witches, a misogynistic priest and a community that looks after it’s own. Will Adriana be the last girl to die?
The island is definitely a character in it’s own right here. It even narrates it’s own chapters. Nature is in every part of the book, starting with Sadie who seems more comfortable outside than in. She feels more powerful out there, sleeping in a tent and lurking around in the dead of night, observing the islanders. For the island’s teenagers, the beaches and stone circles become the backdrop for their vigils and parties. Of course Adriana is also found outdoors, in a cave adorned with the plants and products of the sea. There’s something folkloric about the way she is posed and especially the sand, which Sadie finds out is part of ancient lore dating back to the 16th Century if not further. It is part of a ritualistic killing, if her mouth is full of sand she can’t utter the truth about what or who killed her. It is a method used by witches to silence those who might identify them. The outdoors and the sea is in these people’s DNA for generations, many are fishermen and one of the island’s legends is of a ship from Spain that was wrecked on the coast of Mull. On board was a Spanish princess who had dreamed of a beautiful man on a Scottish island and saw him as they reached the shore at Tobermory and fell instantly in love. The man’s wife saw the look in the princess’s eyes and called on the Mull Witch who destroyed the vessel, killing all 300 souls on board. History tells us that the boat was part of the armada and that islanders sank the vessel, a terrible end for the sailors who were seeking help. These deaths, from the 16th century to the present leave their mark. The island is a living thing, we are told, it feels everything. I loved the poetic way the author writes in the island’s sections:
‘Sea deaths bring furious tides. The waves slap the sides of boats, knocking the sailors from port to starboard, and the fish thrash so hard they break nets. Shells smash, scattering vicious fragments on beaches to slice careless feet. Salty tears form an ocean.’
It’s following her instinct and looking into the death of a young woman years before that first sparks the idea of witchcraft. Flora Kydd’s father laments in the village pub that his daughter’s death was glossed over by the police. Her killer had never been found. Sadie finds the Kydd’s house covered with posies of flowers to deter witchcraft and dark symbols burned into the beams to ward off the evil eye. I loved the way the author paired witchcraft with feminism, showing a deep seated misogyny in some of the islands men, particularly the local priest. Sadie stumbles across a group of women in a forest clearing, late at night. They are naked, but covered in clay, dancing around a fire. Their leader, Hilda, talks to Sadie at length dismissing the idea of darker witchcraft and claiming to be a women’s group, offering support and learning the old healing ways of nature. They protest at a community meeting where women have been told they have a curfew and should stay indoors after dark. Hilda has a strong position on this, maybe men should stop killing women. Sadie’s thoughts are going in two different directions. Could Adriana have been killed by unscrupulous members of Hilda’s group who were pressuring her to join in? Or had she become one of the women dancing around the fire and been killed because she was deemed a witch? There are some twists to the final stages that came as a huge shock. I love to be surprised and I really was here, with my heart sat in my throat at times. Could the truth be more prosaic than the legends? That men kill and could use the excuse of ancient folklore and witchcraft to cover their tracks. I was torn between this more logical explanation and the sense of an ancient evil at play on this remote and wild island. If anyone knows, the island does.
Published by Avon 1st September 2022.
Meet the Author.
Helen is a former criminal and family law barrister. Every book in her brilliant Callanach series has claimed an Amazon #1 bestseller flag. The last book in the series, ‘Perfect Kill’ was longlisted for the Crime Writers Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2020, and others have been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, Scottish crime novel of the year. Helen also writes as HS Chandler, and has released legal thriller ‘Degrees of Guilt’. Her audio book ‘Perfect Crime’ knocked Michelle Obama off the #1 spot. In 2020 Perfect Remains was shortlisted for the Bronze Bat, Dutch debut crime novel of the year. Now translated into 16 languages, and also selling in the USA, Canada & Australasia, Helen’s books have won global recognition. Her historical thriller ‘These Lost & Broken Things’ came out in May 2020. Her first standalone thriller – The Shadow Man – from HarperColllins was published on February 4, 2021. She currently commutes between West Sussex, Scotland and California. She lives with her husband and three children. Helen can be found on Twitter @Helen_Fields for up to date news and information or at http://www.helenfields.co.uk.
Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York.
After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun.
Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…
Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.
This is one of my most anticipated books of the year, mainly based on how much I loved her debut This Lovely City, but also because I loved the sound of this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery. It doesn’t disappoint and really has the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, not just the plot either, but the glamorous location, the wealthy passengers and the sumptuous descriptions of their clothes and jewellery. The story has its period detail spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. Woven within this whodunnit are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly.
Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed the start of her own career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died after a long illness. In order to pay the bills Lena has worked with the club band, but she has ambition and has always wanted to work in the theatre, preferably the bright lights of the West End or Broadway. We get the sense that she’s good enough too. We meet her first as she embarks on her voyage across the Atlantic with a theatre producers assistant, strangely named Charlie Bacon. Charlie has offered her the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. This is a favour from Charlie’s boss who once knew Alfie and felt he owed him for an old transgression. The cabin is first class and Lena has never had such luxury, in fact she has a suitcase of clothes from best friend Maggie because she didn’t own anything grand enough for the first class dining room of the Queen Mary. There’s a sense in which she doesn’t feel like herself, sailing on someone else’s charity, in grand society and in someone else’s clothes. She then finds herself dining with the Abernathy’s. The head of this wealthy family is their father Frank, now disabled due to a stroke (apoplexy) but once an absolute tyrant and still uses the family riches to manipulate his children and grandchildren. Alongside the family are Frank’s assistant Daisy and his own private doctor.
At first Lena is a little intimidated by this entitled and often quite unpleasant bunch. This is a mix of knowing she isn’t of the same class, perhaps opting to gravitate towards Daisy and Dr. Wilding who are the help. However, Lena’s whiff of stardom seems to satisfy the family that she is suitable company and she’s certainly glamorous enough to fit in. However, there’s also the question of race, brought to the fore when Lena encounters one of the ship’s band Will. Will isn’t fooled by glamour or the first class ticket when they meet out on the deck by accident. He doesn’t even ask, simply identifies her as black like him. At first she denies this, not wanting to be found out. Lena has always been able to ‘pass’ because she is so light skinned, but later when she sees Will again she trusts him a little more and owns her identity. It brings home to us the difficulties of being mixed race, perhaps worse for Lena who has never known her mother and didn’t grow up with that side of her identity explored. We can only imagine the taboo nature of a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the early 20th Century, a time when eugenics was gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. There is discussion at the dinner table of Adolf Hitler and his successes in improving German life after WW1, but this is the run up to WW2 and knowing what comes next in the name of racial purity made this a sobering experience as a reader. Lena isn’t just playing with identity here, in America it may have an impact on her ambitions and her place in society. As Will observes its okay for the black men of the band to entertain the rich and white passengers, but not to fraternise with them and he’s very careful that he and Lena are not seen together. However, when Lena is asked down to steerage for an evening of music in the bar there, it is the most fun she seems to have on the whole voyage. It’s the only time she’s not on tenterhooks and can relax. She feels like she’s with her own kind – people without money and influence, people who scrape by, who play music and really let their hair down.
Yet, she is accepted upstairs and is a hit with both Eliza Abernathy and her daughter Carrie. Lena is invited to tea, asked to go bathing and meets up for drinks. She likes Carrie who seems so young and controlled by her family, desperate for some company of her own age. Eliza is Frank’s daughter, rather aloof at first and seemingly unaware that her husband is seducing Frank’s assistant Daisy when no one is looking. None of the family seem particularly happy, with a lot of sniping at dinner and all the vices of drinking, gambling and … It makes Lena nostalgic for her father and the easy way they got along, and also Maggie who despite her difficult marriage and the terrible drama of her husband Tommy’s recent murder, has always been like a sister to Lena. It’s a huge shock when the rich family patriarch starts to choke at dinner. Dr. Wilding springs into action, but it becomes clear nothing is obstructing his airway and he starts to foam at the mouth. Lena is horrified, he’s acting the same way Tommy did and rather horrifically he dies at the table. An investigation is started immediately and everyone is interviewed. We are privy to Lena’s thoughts and she’s terrified that what happened at the club has happened again here. She didn’t poison him, but maybe someone knows something about Tommy’s murder. Are they taunting her? Is this something to do with her? Surely its too much of a coincidence. The proximity of the group and the inability to get off the boat adds to the tension of the novel. Who will be next?
I thought the mystery was well thought out and unexpected too. There were a couple of moments where I wanted to shake Lena or shout at her not to do something. It really brings home to us that here Lena is alone in this new life. She’s without family and friends to protect or support her. As the bodies begin to pile up I was asking questions of everyone in the party, even Lena herself – could she be an unreliable narrator, committing crimes without really knowing? It all seemed such a big coincidence, but then when the revelations started coming it all made sense. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what was coming for Lena’s private life, or who was next in the murderer’s firing line. I thought the pace was perfection and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Queen Mary, however luxurious, really added to the tension. The opulence of the setting, the fashion and Lena’s new wardrobe are dazzling and so perfectly in tune with the time period. I loved the author’s depiction of difficulties in identity and the distinctions of race and class for these passengers. The contradiction that the band are allowed to entertain first class passengers, but not sit with them, is something that will stay with me. As will the idea of ‘passing’, an interesting part of my own identity as someone with an invisible disability who sits uncomfortably between people with disabilities and the able-bodied. I loved This Lovely City and I think with this novel Louise Hare has repeated her success. I’ve already ordered my special signed copy, because this is definitely a keeper.
Published by HQ 28th April 2022
Meet The Author
Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common. This Lovely City was featured on the inaugural BBC TWO TV book club show, Between the Covers, and has received multiple accolades, securing Louise’s place as an author to watch. Miss Aldridge Regrets is her second novel.
If you love a juicy gossip about your fellow villagers or friends, or watching rich people’s lives implode, then this is definitely the book for you. Based around an elite Colorado private school, a tangled web connects three women. Brooke, the archetypal private school mum, fiercely protective and an filthy rich heiress with a creative approach to her wedding vows. Asha is a realtor, staging and selling houses while juggling children, hormones and an increasingly distant husband who she fears is having an affair. Then there’s Natalie, a lowly office assistant, watching the parents and children at the school taking for granted a life she could only dream about. Brooke has probably passed Natalie hundreds of times since she started working at the school, but probably doesn’t even know her name. Asha has noticed her, but only because Natalie has turned up at lots of her open house events. This is strange because there’s no way she could afford the types of properties Asha is selling. These women are bound by their relationships with the handsome, charming assistant athletic director Nicholas. Brooke wants him, in the way she wants any handsome man to notice her, but also because he has the contacts to get her daughter Sloane into one of the best colleges based on her talent at football. Asha uneeds him to get daughter Mia ready for the competitive world of college applications, because the best school won’t take two girls from the same school and Brooke seems several steps ahead. Natalie’s motives are the purist, she’s falling in llove with him and he’s making all the right noises, but is it just lip service? When two bodies are carried out of the school early one morning, it looks like the jealousy between mothers and daughters, or rival lovers, or the haves and have-nots has boiled over. The truth will shatter the surface of this isolated, affluent town, but whose version of the truth counts in a town where people will stop at nothing to get what they want?
I’ll be honest, it was hard to like anyone in this novel. Even the kids were awful; they were spoiled, entitled and self-centred. Asha’s daughter Mia, being the best of the bunch, is unsure what it will take to get into a good college until Brooke brings it to the family’s attention when she buys a state of the art camera to film Sloan’s soccer matches and create a reel for her application. Once Asha realises and approaches Coach Nick for help, Brooke becomes furious, worried that Mia’s Indian heritage will ensure her a place thanks to the positive discrimination built into the application process. Meanwhile, it’s clear there’s something brewing in the girl’s social circle of students who are particularly gifted at sport. I was shocked by just how sophisticated their sports programme was with gym work, massages, physiotherapy, and even anti-inflammatory injections happening on school premises. Are these kids simply rebelling over the level of control the coaches seem to have in their lives? I wondered whether they were plotting revenge against Coach Nick. Sloan’s boyfriend Reade, is fed up with Nick’s control over his athletes, hinting that he may want to get rid of Nick or at least have him reprimanded and he wants to recruit Mia to their plan.
Natalie is meant to be the most sympathetic character I think and on the morning she drives to the school to find it swarming with police she is in genuine shock. Then we go straight back to her reasons for being in Colorado; her brother had an accident and broke his leg so badly he couldn’t get around. So Natalie has been caring for him and took the job at the school when he started doing more for himself. She’s a painter by trade, with a shop on Etsy selling quirky pet portraits. She starts seeing Nick, almost accidentally, after a bit of flirtation at her desk when he’s been in to se the Headteacher. He invites her to his home and Natalie is blown away by how beautiful it is. Yet I was seeing red flags everywhere about their relationship going long term: Nick is a lot older and possibly wants different things; he’s previously been a womaniser; they never go anywhere but his place; he asks Natalie to keep their relationship secret. Yet Natalie seems to be falling in love and I had to admit he talked a good game. Is Nick just super careful because of his teaching role and what are these private sessions he seems to be conducting with elite kids?
The best thing about not really warming to anyone in the novel meant I could genuinely enjoy the tension and these people getting their comeuppance! The structure worked really well with an excerpt from a police interview, then going back to the events in question. The move back in time a few months illuminated the case going forward and the interview drew together many of the things I’d been concerned about. The drip feed of new information definitely kept me reading and gave me sudden changes of opinion on some characters. I was so invested in what the kids were up to and why Mia seemed to be under pressure from the others to join in. I kept wondering if they really had the measure of their opponent or was someone going to get hurt? I was also wondering if the mystery of the memorial Natalie had seen on her walk would be explained? Who was the crying woman and would new revelations shed light on this old story? With it’s luscious settings, opulent homes and beautiful people the best way to describe the book is to say this was like a particularly indulgent dessert. Strangely, even though the subject matter is dark, it’s delicious, decadent and rather thrilling.
I enjoyed this fascinating novel that fictionalises the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie. On December 3rd 1926, after an argument with her husband Archie, Agatha Christie disappeared. Although there is still some mystery around her movements, it seems she crashed her car while driving down to London. Thousands of police officers and volunteers scoured the countryside near the crash site for Christie, but she was nowhere to be found. It was a huge news story with Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved and famously hiring a spirit medium to find her whereabouts. She stayed missing for eleven days until she was found in a spa hotel in Harrogate, signed in under the surname of Archie’s lover. Contemporary theories were that this was a publicity stunt, even though Christie appeared to have been in a fugue state. She may have suffered a nervous breakdown after hearing the news that Archie was leaving her. Nina de Gramont weaves a complex tale around this incident, told through the eyes of Nan – Archie Christie’s mistress – an Irish woman whose pursuit of Archie had been so successful he decided to leave Agatha and divorce her, in order to marry Nan. This is only one part of the jigsaw that makes up the full story the author is telling, ranging back and forth and touching on various viewpoints, with the central figure never quite clear and the importance of peripheral figures more vital than I first realised.
We travel back to WW1 and it’s terrible effects on the years that follow. A time when the nation didn’t yet know that the peace they’d achieved was a mere interval of respite where recovery was barely possible. Nan is born of an Irish family, living in London, but is sent back to visit relatives in County Cork in summer since childhood. There she forms a friendship with Finnbarr, a dark Irish boy who has an affinity with animals, particularly his sheepdog Alby. Over the years their friendship grows into love and she is sure they will marry. A chance meeting on Armistice Day is a passionate interlude which leads to Nan being pregnant. Believing their marriage to be only a formality, Nan steals some money, laid aside by her Mum in case one of her daughters gets herself into trouble, and travels to Ireland and the farm. There she finds that Finn is delirious with fever from the Spanish Influenza brought back by returning soldiers. Denied by his family and with Finn thought to be at death’s door, she ends up in a Catholic Home for unmarried mothers. This place is really the genus of the story, because this isn’t Agatha’s tale, despite her being famous and the one who disappeared.
Meanwhile years later, as the Christie’s marriage implodes and Agatha disappears, we’re taken to a hotel in Yorkshire where Nan goes to stay and take a break before the transition of living with Archie. It’s a spa hotel with healing springs, two sets of newly wed couples and an Inspector Chiltern who has been sent to search for Mrs Christie. From these two time frames, the author cleverly weaves her story with the past gradually catching up with the present. I loved the historical detail of the story as the author uses everything from the decor to the women’s clothes to evoke the 1920s setting. There’s a sumptuousness to these descriptions that contrasts strongly with the earlier poverty, with the Magdalene Laundry section being particularly harrowing. I loved how playful the structure was, not quite revealing it’s genre. Is it a love story, an autobiography, or a detective novel? I also loved going back and forth in time, slowly picking up new threads of the story. I had no idea how they would all come together, but loved the way they did.
Meet The Author
Nina de Gramont’s latest novel, The Christie Affair, will be available In February, 2022. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Of Cats and Men, as well as the novels Gossip of the Starlings and The Last September. She has written several YA novels (Every Little Thing in the World, Meet Me at the River, The Boy I Love, and — under the pen name Marina Gessner — The Distance From Me to You). Nina teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She lives in coastal North Carolina with her daughter and her husband, the writer David Gessner.
I was fascinated and blown away by this sixth novel in the author’s Six Stories series. As always the novel’s structure is based on a podcast format, where Scott King presents his investigation into a true crime case. Each podcast consists of six stories told by six people associated with the case, with additional emails, news reports and documents on the crime. This time King has chosen a highly emotive crime that reminded me of the James Bulger case. The novel takes us to the old mining village of Usslethwaite in Yorkshire, where a terrible crime was committed, one that shocked the world. In 1995 the murder of twelve year old Sidney Parsons, by two boys his own age, was front page news. The murderers were dubbed the ‘Demonic Duo’ by the press and as well as the usual speculation about both the boy’s upbringing and mental state, there was a whisper of something more sinister. The hills above Usslethwaite were reknowned as a place where witches congregated, all the way back to the 17th Century when witch-hunting was rife. Rumours of something dark and disturbing lurking in the caves near the crime scene had plagued the village for centuries, as well as more contemporary plagues of flies, animal deaths and a strange black shape seen nearby. Is there something supernatural and demonic about this crime? Or are they just hysterical excuses for a crime so savage no one can understand it? Now that the murderers have reached adulthood, they’re quite possibly rehabilitated and living somewhere in the U.K. Maybe now it’s time to hear the truth about what happened when Robbie and Danny formed a friendship and proceeded to commit this unspeakable crime.
I love the originality of this author’s work and his audacity in writing about subjects other writers might avoid. I was 20 years old when Robert Thompson and Jon Venables lured James Bulger away from his mother at a Liverpool shopping centre, then murdered him and left him on the train line in Walton. Everything I remember from that case also comes up in the course of King’s interviews about Usslethwaite. I remember being shocked by the murder, the age of Thompson and Venables, but also the savagery of the press and public towards the accused who were still children. Whilst the anger the crime aroused was understandable, I couldn’t understand grown men gathering outside a court to attack the prisoner transport. I kept wondering what their goal was. What would they do if they actually broke through to those boys? Even now, the mention of either boy, their incarceration or the new lives they now have kicks up a frenzy of controversy and rage. While Demon isn’t based on the Bulger case I did wonder if Wesolowski had it in mind, because he has managed to capture a lot of those conflicting feelings in this novel. Through his podcast guests we can look at different aspects of the Usslethwaite murder, and consider the differing perspectives on what happened. Although there is outrage that Scott King is even featuring this case, I can see that all he is trying to do is answer that universal question: Why? What drove these two boys to kill?
The psychological and paranormal aspects of the case are carefully intertwined here. Robbie is a newcomer to the village, fostered by a lovely, community minded couple who haven’t been able to have children. There is speculation on what Robbie went through before he was taken into care and whether he is the disruptive force behind the crime, with Danny simply taken along for the ride. However, Danny is quite a sad, lonely and disturbed little boy even before Robbie comes along. He found his mother when she had hung herself from the rafters of the barn. Rumours abound about his mother who was a herbalist and reiki healer – something rather frowned upon and misunderstood by some members of the village. In fact she was well regarded by her patients and it could be said that the suspicion was raised due to her occupation and how lucrative it seemed to be, more than anything she did. There were reports of her coming down from the caves with another person, scandalously naked. She was also thought to set fires and dance around them. However, to Danny she was the parent who brought warmth, love and softness to his life. Without her, he is left in the care of his father who is not a bad man, but is absorbed by work and struggles to show affection. Danny visits the caves to speak to his Mum, and thinks he might hear her, but in this dark place it’s hard to know who or what might reply.
The author is incredibly skilled at ratcheting up the tension, whether with more detail of the case or the next eerie happening. I often found myself reading yet another chapter so I could find out what was next. I found the paranormal elements clever, I wasn’t scared at first, but after a while the atmosphere built and I found myself uneasy. One night, my other half asked me to turn the bedside light off since it was late and I found myself unsure whether I wanted to carry on reading in the dark. The strange happenings in Robbie’s room at his foster home were very unsettling, from phantom footsteps to flies and a horrible smell that seems to permeate everything. There’s so much in this village that can’t be explained and is witnessed by lots of different people. Were these boys influenced by demons or was this a case of two very mixed up and lost boys doing something so terrible it would destroy the village, the victim’s family, and the rest of their lives. I loved the varied perspectives, especially those unexpected ones that took our understanding to another level. While never losing sight of the victim and his family’s loss, we get to explore the ideas of rehabilitation and how a perpetrator lives with their crime, especially ones so young. Can they ever make a life for themselves and get over the guilt? Or are they forever doomed to keep moving, constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of being exposed? I was fascinated with the question of whether a demon influenced these boys or whether we could call the boys demons. They are labelled monsters, but are they? Perhaps we just label them this way, because we can’t accept one human being could do this to another, let alone a child. This is another incredible read from this inventive and original author. I devoured it so quickly that I’m buying the whole series with this month’s book budget.
Meet The Author.
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care.
‘Six Stories’ was published by Orenda Books in the spring of 2016 with follow-up ‘Hydra’ published in the winter of 2017, ‘Changeling’ in 2018, ‘Beast’ in 2019 and ‘Deity’ in 2020.
‘Six Stories’ has been optioned by a major Hollywood studio and the third book in the series, ‘Changeling’ was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, 2019 Amazon Publishing Readers’ Award for Best Thriller and Best Independent Voice.
‘Beast’ won the Amazon publishing award for Best Independent voice in 2020.