Babysitting Grandpa: a short story

This week I thought I’d publish a short story from a few years ago. I hope you like it.

The game was over. Marc watched as Lou put the old lead soldiers back in the box, each one slotting neatly into a cushioned slot, neat as a row of—well, soldiers on parade, duh! Even in the box they seemed to stand to attention.

After three hours, it was finally over. The game had been played in earnest. But for Marc, his unwelcome victory brought no ceasefire, no end to hostilities. It was merely the provocation Lou had needed to shout “Best of Three!” and now Marc was doomed to relive the torment at least once more. Possibly twice, if the unthinkable happened and he was stupid enough to lose the next game. A one-all draw was unthinkable.

Lou’s joy was evident in the gleeful chuckling as he took each soldier from the field of battle and carefully put it away into its own little green felt lined slot. His false teeth flopped about inside his slack jaws. Marc’s stomach lurched at the sight. Old people were so creepy.

His heart seemed to have fallen to his boots. Just when there was a chance of him living some kind of normal life, of going out and seeing something of this town on a Saturday night like other teenagers, hoping against hope to actually live, his soul was snatched away to babysit his weird grandpa because his mum had to work and there was no one else to watch the old bloke. Lou’s slippered feet slapped the lino as he did his victory dance. Just his luck if the old git fell and broke a hip and Marc had to spend all night in the hospital.

“You’re such a loser.” Marc said.

Lou just laughed. “Let’s get some dinner, Son. Then it’s Round Two!”

Marc put on his coat and went to the chip shop. His friends were just coming out as he went in.

“You coming down town later?” one of them called.

“No, I’ve got to stay in. Mum’s on a late shift so I’ve got to look after my grandpa.”

They nudged each other and laughed. “What a loser!” One of them said and they all laughed again. Marc sighed and turned for home.

Grandpa was waiting for him, plates out, ketchup, salt and vinegar on the table. “Thanks, Son,” he said. “Not every kid your age would stay in on a Saturday night and keep his old grandpa company. I know it’s not cool, man.’

Marc rolled his eyes. If only grandpa didn’t keep trying to use modern slang, life would be easier.

“It’s all right,” Marc told him. He didn’t mind all that much, he realised. It was cold out. And his friends were all freaks and idiots anyway. He ate his chips. “How old are you, Grandpa?”

“96. Why?”

Marc shrugged. “Just wondered. Why do you like playing soldiers so much?”

“Ah well, you see, my dad, he was there.”

“There?”

“Yes, there. When I was old enough to be aware of him, he seemed like a frail sickly bloke, but it was the war made him like that. When he died, I found all his medals and his photos with his comrades and that. I was surprised to see how young he looked, quite good-looking really, not that I take after him. And he looked—I don’t know, strong, I suppose. Healthy. He was laughing at the camera, just a normal young bloke. And in the wedding photo of him and me mum, well, they both looked so—alive, so happy. It made me wonder. So I spent all my life finding out about the first world war, what happened and why. I started to see him as the hero he really was. He stopped being some useless old bloke.”

Marc thought for a moment. He balled up his chip wrapper. “You were in the war too, weren’t you?”

“Yes, Son. I was in the war. The second world war. The one they said could never happen.”

“Tell me about it,” Marc said. ‘Then maybe we could have another game.’

***

 

Publishing December 8th 2023: A Wreath of Lilies: Miss Gascoigne 1960s #cozymysteries

As I may have mentioned 473 times this year, my new Miss Gascoigne book, A Wreath of Lilies is due out on the 8th December this year. It’s book 2 of my new series set in Britain in the ‘swinging’ (not like that, you naughty people) 60s.

The protagonist, Dee Gascoigne has actually been offered a paid excuse to go to a small village and be her normal nosy self. She can hardly believe her luck! That is, until a boring meeting turns into something for more dangerous…

If you’re intrigued, you might like to take a look here to read a bit from Chapter One (a big bit, it’s more or less the whole chapter…)

Or you could just carry on and read this scene from a later chapter:

It was a relief to leave the hot angry air of the pub’s meeting room and get out into the cooler air of the evening. Most of the villagers who had attended the meeting were well ahead of them due to Miss Marriott’s slow pace.

Only half past eight in the evening, but night was fast approaching. At the horizon the sky was still pale blue, but higher up in the atmosphere the blue velvet sky was growing deeper, darker, and already Dee could see a few scattered stars twinkling as silvery pinpricks. She would have loved to stand and gaze at the sky, to enjoy the hush as the night-time settled around her. A night for lovers, she thought, and dismissed the image of her ‘cousin’ Bill. There was no time for that sort of thing right now.

She couldn’t be sure he would ever be truly hers. Men liked to play the field, didn’t they? And he seemed to be committed to doing exactly that. Busty Barbara had given way to Leggy Pam, Giggly Susan, then Wistful Wendy, according to Bill’s mother, her Aunt Dottie. The last thing Dee needed was a man who changed girlfriends as often as his socks. Yet he’d sworn to Dee that he loved her… That he would wait for her. Perhaps waiting didn’t mean saving himself? She sighed. Why were things always so complicated?

Snapping Dee from these unhelpful thoughts, someone came running up and spoke to Miss Marriott.

‘You’ll never guess what!’ This newcomer exclaimed, excitement bubbling over as she giggled.

‘Well, out with it, Sylvia, what are you on about?’ Before Sylvia had a chance to explain, Miss Marriott was turning to Dee and grumbling, ‘I do hate it when people hem and haw, and hint and don’t say exactly what they mean. Hurry up, Sylvia, we’ve got to get to the churchyard!’

‘That’s where they’re doing a séance!’ Sylvia burst out.

Miss Marriott huffed. ‘We already know that, dear, that’s why everyone is rushing in that direction. Surely you realised that? Now do come along.’

‘It’s them beatniks, them seekers. They’re doing it again!’

‘We know that too, dear,’ Miss Marriott told her again, sounding exasperated by this new person. Dee glanced at Sylvia, a young woman in her early twenties, dressed in a housecoat over slacks and a blouse. Her hair was scraped back severely in a ponytail that hung over her left shoulder.

As they went along, Sylvia continued excitedly, ‘They’re holding hands in a circle and calling on the spirits to speak to them. Oh it’s so exciting!’ She broke off to look at Dee. ‘Sorry, but who are you?’

Dee introduced herself. ‘I’m Dee Gascoigne. I’m staying at Miss Marriott’s for a few days. I’m here to find out more about what’s going on in the village.’

‘Police? Or a reporter?’

‘Neither, actually. Miss Marriott’s legal adviser sent me. Shall we…?’ Dee pointed after Miss Marriott who was already some distance in front of them now.

Sylvia nodded. ‘Ooh yes, let’s!’ as if it was a treat.

They hurried after the old woman who was moving faster than Dee had so far seen her move, albeit aided by her walking stick. The other people from the meeting were also headed that way, though many of them were already inside the walled expanse of the churchyard.

By the time they reached the area where the séance was supposedly happening, Dee had already seen two people stumble over half-hidden gravestones in the dark and sprain their ankles, and one person had fallen headlong and now had a suspected concussion. Little knots of people offered assistance to the injured parties, but in general, the mood amongst the villagers had turned from mere curiosity to that of an angry mob. Dee’s heart pounded as she gave into the urge to hurry along. She had serious misgivings. And when she saw the mass of people crowding into the area and heard loud shouting a short way ahead, she halted, taking Miss Marriott’s arm.

‘I think we should just get you home,’ she said.

Sylvia on the other hand, was still trying to urge them forward more quickly, impatient with them for holding her back when she clearly wanted to run.

‘Oh what rot!’ Miss Marriott snapped. She rummaged in her coat pocket and held out a key. ‘Here, take this. You can go back, if you’re such a ninny.’

With an inward groan, Dee gave in. Thirty or forty yards ahead, she could see a bonfire burning in a brazier, whilst around it figures in silhouette were standing in a circle, chanting softly, their hands joined.

Even in the darkening twilight, Dee could see that their robes were saffron, or white, or purple, and of a floating light fabric that reached to the ground. There were, she thought, perhaps eight or ten of them, men and women, all dressed alike in these robes, some in white ones, two men in purple, and nearer to where she was now, an older woman and two men in saffron-coloured robes, then there was one person, already crouching down onto the ground in an emerald robe.

They wore flowers and strings of beads about their necks, and in their hair, and they sang a song without words, one that Dee instinctively felt she knew somehow. They touched no one, called out to no one, but were gathered by their brazier, arms raised now to rattle tambourines, or to beat a rhythm on a tabor or to chime cymbals together.

A saffron-clad man with hair reaching almost to his waist began to speak, and his cohorts stepped back and bent to sit on the ground, cross-legged and silent.

‘Again the unclaimed one calls out to you, heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and begs to be brought home, to be mourned and released, no longer to be cast adrift between this world and the next. They cry out to you for your pity. Do not turn away from their plea. We who seek implore you…’

But he got no further.

A couple of the men at the head of the rabble of villagers rushed forward to break through the circle of seated chanters, grabbing a couple of them by their arms or legs and dragging them away from the group.

Someone kicked the fire brazier over, and predictably instead of going out, the flames caught at the tall grasses and set them alight. People began to yell, the flames spread, someone threw a punch and within seconds there was a brawl. The flowing white robe of a young woman caught alight. Galvanised into action, Dee rushed forward to throw the girl onto the ground, tearing off her own jacket to quickly smother the flames. Mercifully, the girl was unharmed, Dee thought. She shuddered to think what might have happened had her jacket not been to hand.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked the girl, who appeared somewhat dazed. She nodded.

‘I-I think so… Thank you…’.

Dee helped her to her feet. Most of the robe had been burnt away now, as was Dee’s jacket, a sooty rag on the ground. The young woman hurried away, no doubt to rejoin her friends. Dee looked about her for Miss Marriott, worried yet again that the old woman was too frail to be out amongst this chaos. 

There was no sign of Miss Marriott and Dee began to panic. The shouting of the people, the billowing flames, and the orange-black smoke already hanging seemingly all about her made it near impossible to see what was going on. She became aware that she was breathing shallowly due to the smoke, her eyes stinging, her hands shaking. She had to fight down a sense of panic and force herself take her time to look about her properly. She stood for a minute or two in the midst of all this noise, looking about her.

There, she thought, there she was. She made her way over to Miss Marriott’s side. The old woman clutched at Dee with relief. Her bony fingers pinched at Dee’s arm, icy through the fabric of Dee’s dress.

‘Oh my dear, I thought I’d lost you. I tripped, and then somehow, I lost my bearings in all this smoke. And I can’t find my walking stick.’ She was looking all around her at the ground, hoping to spot it. But there wasn’t a hope of finding it. They needed to leave.

Dee put an arm around the old woman and tried to guide her away. ‘Don’t worry about that now, you can lean on me.’

The bishop and the woman from the local history group were standing together by the gate and watching the scene with horror. The bishop attempted to call for peace but he was shouted down. Dee once again tried to persuade Miss Marriott to return home. Sylvia was nowhere to be seen; it seemed likely that by this time she was much farther ahead.

A scream rang out—and finally people began to realise the scale of the problem, and at last began to back away to the safety of the lane. The fire had taken a firm hold and was snatching with greedy licks at the dry grasses, weeds and fallen branches. With lightning speed, it was conquering the churchyard.

Behind them, at the village end of the churchyard, police officers began to appear, running forward, waving truncheons haphazardly, and Dee grabbed Miss Marriott firmly by the arm.

‘We’re leaving now!’

*

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed that extract.

I do hope you’ll nip over to our old friend Mr Amazon right now and pre-order your eBook, but if like me you prefer something solid you can hold, the paperback, large print paperback, and hardback editions will all be out around the same time as the eBook on Amazon, or you can find a paperback copy on Barnes and Noble, Waterstones, Scribd and many other online book shops on or just after 8th December.

***

Routine – the nemesis of creativity?

I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, I read, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, and allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.

I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give us a sense of security. And if you feel secure, you can relax and have the freedom to be creative.

All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But… Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.

Now I’m tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, that genres have their own conventions and that you can subvert or uphold these as you desire, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog-post fairly to-the-point.

Obviously we can all have an off-day. But you know when you are recharging and when you are simply wasting time or letting things slide.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, I do just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing, sometimes called ‘automatic writing’, is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for everyday ‘work’ writing, you need focus, not indulgence.

Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.

Why?

If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, you crack on, (hopefully/usually) and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased experience, increased confidence and also positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.

Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. You’re prepared, in the zone. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go immediately with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.

As I’ve said already, routine, planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results. You see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues, even through the ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ sulks.

For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands and the atmosphere of the book the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked. I’m totally immersed in my story.

They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach the New Year, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.

***

A deleted scene from A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne Mysteries Book 1

This week, I’m away so I thought I’d do a quick and easy (for me haha!) post: It’s a deleted scene from A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne Mysteries Book 1 which is one year old!!!!!!!

In this scene my heroine and amateur detective Dee Gascoigne is trying to teach a few words of French to a rather well-to-do lady, Meredith Prescott so that she can greet her guests in their own language. Meredith, however has horrible attitudes to people from other nations and doesn’t really see why she should bother…

‘If you like, I could teach you a few basic phrases. It’s actually quite easy to learn just a few words to welcome your visitors. Then you could feel that you’d at least tried to meet them halfway. You know, get things off to a good start.’

‘Oh I don’t know…’Meredith said, wrinkling her nose. ‘I mean, really… It seems an awful faff to go through for a bunch of foreigners.’

Dee said nothing. Whether her feelings were there in her expression or Meredith really was interested, she didn’t know. But after a moment, Meredith said,

‘Oh go on, then, if it really is that easy, I suppose a few words in French can’t hurt.’

‘What? Now?’ Dee queried.

‘Yes, why not. It’s pleasant enough sitting here, and we’ve got to talk about something, haven’t we? Go on, try me.’

‘All right.’ Dee thought for a second, then decided to start with the absolute basics.

‘Let’s start with an easy one. Bonjour. It literally means ‘good day’ but can be used at any time during the day to greet someone. Just think of it as a way of saying hello. So let’s try it. Bonjour.’ She beamed encouragingly at Meredith.

Meredith was immediately sulkier than a whole class of fourteen-year-olds. Yet it had been her idea, after all. Dee could feel her smile freezing on her lips as Meredith said, with no effort to copy the accent or tone at all, ‘Bon jaw.’

‘Not bad for a first attempt,’ Dee lied. ‘Not bad at all. Let’s try it again. Watch my lips as I say it and try to copy the sound. The J is a softer j than we usually use in English. Think of the sound of the second g in garage, or the g in the word menage, also a French word. More of a Bonjour. Bonjour.’ She emphasised the J in the word.

‘Bon jaw,’ Meredith repeated, exactly the same as before.

‘Nearly.’ Dee made an effort to sound bright and encouraging. It was too ridiculous that Meredith already looked cross and bored.

‘I thought that was perfectly fine,’ Meredith snapped. ‘What else?’

Dee decided that most French people would probably decipher ‘bon jaw’ so she said, ‘At the end of the day, as a greeting or as a way to say goodbye to your guests, one would say ‘bon soir’. Bon soir.’

‘Bon saw,’ Meredith immediately responded.

Through gritted teeth, Dee said, ‘Not bad. Let’s have another go. Think of how you say the word Soirée, another French word. Bon soir. Soir. Bon. Soir. Bon soir.’

‘Bon saw,’ said Meredith without any effort, and yawned.

It was all Dee could do not to roll her eyes. ‘Excellent,’ she lied, thinking, who am I kidding, she’ll never use anything I teach her anyway. She’d rather die than learn something useful. She decided to make one last sally before giving up entirely.
‘Now, you’ll probably want to introduce yourself. So you might say, ‘Je suis Mademoiselle Prescott’, that is to say, I am Miss Prescott. Or you could say, ‘Je m’appelle M’selle Meredith Prescott’, which means…’

‘Oh stop, stop, stop!’ Meredith was holding up a hand, then she pressed it to her temple, frowning as though her head was aching with the effort. ‘This is all going far too quickly. You must remember that I’m a complete beginner.’

‘Yes, of course, Meredith, but if you’ll just…’

‘No! I will not be badgered in this way. It’s all too much. You’ve got to go slowly. I thought you knew how to teach?’

Dee apologised.

‘Anyway,’ Meredith added, ‘As I’ve said before, these foreigners really ought to learn to speak proper English before they come to our country. It’s bad enough just having them here, and all the extra work that makes.’

Dee sighed. Clearly the lessons were at an end.

Don’t forget – book 2 in this series, A Wreath of Lilies is available now to pre-order (eBook only, sorry) and is released on November 10th in eBook, Paperback, Large Print Paperback and Hardback editions.

***

Fairy tales: Not for the faint-hearted!

I remember as a kid I was a voracious reader. By the time I was 6 or 7 I was reading from a big book of fairy tales.

I remember standing in the kitchen of our flat in Tunbridge Wells and reading to the man who had come to repair our gas boiler. I can’t remember his face, but I remember the blue overalls – not a ‘uniform’ I had been aware of up to that point in my life. I adored this guy, he was friendly and patient and kind, and he told me about his dog. He dated my mum for a long while and I hoped they’d get married so we could be a family and live happily ever after. Sadly that didn’t happen and we moved away, which broke my baby-heart.

But he always used to say how much he enjoyed me reading the stories to him. Sometimes he had to stop his work to help me with the tricky words that were extra long or that I hadn’t seen before.

A while ago, I thought, let’s have a read of those old stories. I was in for a bit of a shock.

They are gruesome, aren’t they? And brutal! I can’t believe anyone ever thought they were suitable for a small child to read. (Not mentioning any names, but I’m looking at you over there in the corner, Brothers Grimm!) Were they cautionary tales to frighten children into good behaviour or what? yes, I know kids go through that gore-is-good phase but honestly!

People got chucked into barrels which were nailed shut and they were thrown into the sea. They got fed to wolves either deliberately or accidentally. Dropped into cauldrons of boiling water. Thrown down wells. Made to climb ridiculously high beanstalks. People’s bones were ground to make someone’s bread. Or people were locked into cages by witches and made to stick a finger through the bars so she could decide if they were fat enough to eat. Turned into swans. Turned into frogs. Turned into pretty much anything as a matter of fact.

But the characters of the stories try to do what they think is good: they turn sick people around in their beds to trick the devil, they try to get good fortune from fish, but still they get turned into roses and chandeliers, or have to run for their lives. And there are the musical animals or tiny people who can make shoes… but even so…

I mean, that’s dark, isn’t it?  Mwah ha ha!

***

Oh-so-social-media!

Guess what? I’ve been doing stuff on social media!

I know as an Indie author, I’m supposed to do stuff on social media, but I’m not one to do what I’m supposed to do, so this will come as a surprise to many of you. Besides which, there’s my age to factor in – two weeks to go to my 63rd birthday – and as we all know, us oldies are still getting used to The Face Book.

But I’ve been trying to improve and so here’s a few things I’ve done this week, mainly on mastodon social (I’m there as @caronallan – pop in and say Hi!)

I’ve discovered the pleasure of online writing groups. On mastodon, there are two I enjoy – writerscoffeeclub and wordweavers. In addition to those, a lovely author lady (@elizabethguilt ) suggested a daily 100 word flash fiction, she calls it a drabble – this is new to me, though I used to regularly write 500 word flash fictions and also haiku – 17 syllable poems in a 5-7-5 format.

These groups plan a daily task or question for those who want to play along, and there are some interesting things on the list that came out at the start of the month. For example, Oct 3 for the Word Weavers was ‘How do you convey a character’s emotion in your work’.

This was my reply (there’s a word limit, much bigger than Twitter’s but still, it confines you.)

10/3
Conveying characters’ emotions.

Because I write 1930s cozy mysteries, I sometimes like to keep things a little understated. I think less is more in terms of emotional impact sometimes.

Though this is true of my ‘contemporary’ murder Friendship Can Be Murder series, which are written as 1st POV diary entries (yes, I now know no one likes that, but 11-12 years ago, I didn’t realise) So Criss Cross, when her hubs is murdered, MC simply records:
‘Thomas is dead. And I am alone.’

And because I wanted to share more about my Dottie books, as part of my reply, I added this image, which is an extract taken from The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2.

Coming back to the Drabble – the task was to share a 100-word limit story. I found this quite tricky, because I tend to think in terms of long fiction, so I’m not sure I’ve really followed the spirit of the idea. On Oct 1st, I uploaded this:

And then on Oct 2nd, I couldn’t stop myself from continuing on from there instead of writing a whole new 100 word story…

But I have to say, it was highly enjoyable and I feel really proud of myself to have written two new (teeny) pieces of work this week, made some new friends and talked about my books a little.

Mabel would be so proud.

***

 

 

 

So what has Agatha Christie done for us?

Agatha Christie is arguably one of the most well-loved authors of all time. And her books are still being published in new formats, turned into plays and TV series and mini-series, and of course films on the big screen, a hundred years after she first began her writing career. Her books regularly top the online bestseller lists and there have been spin-offs, recreations and fan fiction. You can even buy her ‘secret notebooks’, biographies and merchandise.

Between 1920 and 1973-ish she wrote 66 detective novels under her (first) married name, Agatha Christie, 6 non-detective novels as Mary Westmacott, and 14 short story collections. In addition a number of her works have been adapted for the stage, or were written as plays that have now been novelised.

But far from setting out to be a great author, she only started writing at all due to a bet with her sister, and a certain amount of boredom. Yet she has created some of the best and worst (sorry, but Parker Pyne and Mr Quin????) detectives in the genre, and some of the most devious and controversial plots to ever trick, misdirect and enthrall the reading public. If we sometimes today find her plots predictable or jaded, that is because we can easily forget that she and a handful of other trailblazers have, through their work, made us as readers more sophisticated and at the same time, have aroused expectations to fit the genre. If we can place the books in their original era, then they become even more fresh, more unusual and very, very clever.

So if you’ve been living on the moon, and haven’t read anything by Christie before, or if you’ve only lately come to detective fiction via some other nefarious genre, what are the five books you should read by Agatha Christie?

Well obviously you’ve got to read the first Poirot book, not that sequence is an issue with Christie as it is with many authors. But it’s always interesting to a) read an author’s first book, and b) read the first book to feature a well-known detective. So you absolutely must begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920 and featuring Hercule Poirot. I would say he is the world’s foremost fictional detective (though fans of Sherlock Holmes would no doubt disagree). This is a phenomenal debut, and an intriguing mystery.

Christie famously disliked Poirot, and her dislike is clear in the rather comical, uncharitable description of him as he makes his first appearance in chapter two, meeting by accident the narrator of the story, his famous side-kick Hastings. Right from the outset, we note that Hastings always treats Poirot with a mixture of pity and affection. We are told: Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. We are also told of his love of neatness bordering on obsession and, again as always, Hastings is at pains to point out that Poirot’s glories are behind him and he is past his prime. In fact, he’s past his prime for the next, what, thirty, forty years?

So Poirot is not in any shape or form the figure of a hero – he’s short, stout, he limps, he’s fussy and overly particular, and he’s older in years than a classic swash-buckling, overcoming-all-obstacles big-screen hero of that era or even our own. And he has personality flaws in the form of vanity and self-importance, and often, a deep lack of self-belief that I think most of us could identify with today.

But his strengths – oh they are good – he is an acute observer of humanity, he notices EVERYTHING, he understands human psychology, and his success lies in his deep thought processes and his use of logic to work out the details of a crime, that and a reliance on the everyday bigotry that overlooks the intelligence or usefulness of a foreigner on the part of many he comes into contact with.

So that’s Styles.

You also HAVE to read two other classic Poirot’s: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. These have become such genre classics almost independent of their creator, and the TV series and various film versions have definitely assisted with that. These books have masterful plots featuring an ensemble cast, and represent neat variations on the country house theme by being a ship and a train. The exotic locations just add to the pleasure.

Miss Marple is one of Christie’s other detectives, and is almost as well known and beloved as Poirot. She is a single old lady who knits and gossips. She solves mysteries by the simple expedient of listening, asking questions and again, like Poirot, knowing a great deal about human behaviour. This is largely the result of her life experience, and the fact that she lives in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Like Poirot, she is often overlooked as a threat to the plans of baddies and evildoers. The best Marple book to start with, in my opinion, is again the book that introduces us to the character, a volume of short stories first published in 1933, The Thirteen Problems (or in the US this is called The Tuesday Club Murders). In this book, each of a group of friends tells of an unsolved murder they know about, and various solutions are put forward by the rest of the group, until in the end, Miss Marple, between counting stitches or casting on a new ball of wool, puts forward the truth, which is then acted upon and checked by someone who is a high-up legal chap. By the end of the book, the others now turn immediately to Miss Marple, knowing she will tell them the only true solution.

Two more famous Marple books, which are in a way companion pieces, are A Caribbean Mystery and Nemesis and are also excellent, showing her personality in her strength of purpose and determination to see justice done.

Okay, I know I said five books, and there they are (not really five but it’s not easy to choose between some of them…). And I can’t resist adding a bonus one: the extraordinary Death Comes As The End. It was published in 1945, and is a traditional-style murder mystery, but it is set in ancient Egypt, and the background was gleaned by Christie from her archaeological exploits with husband number two, Sir Max Mallowan. It’s a great story, full of fascinating detail, and it inspired me as a teenager to learn more about history of all eras.

And of course, you’ve got to read The Murder at the Vicarage, Lord Edgware Dies, my personal favourite, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and my ‘other’ personal favourite, Evil Under the Sun.

I hope that, having read all the above books, you might feel an impulse to go back and read the rest of her works. They are well worth the effort, and I am sure you will agree, not only are they entertaining and enjoyable, you will also feel that you have come to know the woman behind not just these works but the modern cosy mystery genre as a whole. Without Agatha Christie, I believe there would be no Midsomer Murders, no Vera, Shetland, no Line of Duty,  or Inspector Morse.

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Telling myself it’s all okay and that I can do this…

I’ve been really stumped for ideas to come up with for a blog post or a newsletter lately. Mainly because I’m using all my creative energy and inspiration for the final edit/polish I’m currently doing on A Wreath of Lilies (out 8th December, lest we forget – all too soon for my comfort right now).

And these are the things I’ve realised about my story so far:

  1. There are too many people with a surname beginning with P
  2. There are too many people with a first name beginning with S
  3. As always with my books there are just – too many people. Soooo many people…
  4. Things happen in the story that have already happened.
  5. Things happen before they happened?????? How does that even????????????????? Yes I don’t know either.
  6. One chap’s wife changed name halfway through the book. My sympathies go out to the family in question.
  7. One dead body was dead so often in so many places, she/he must have been a triplet… Maybe even a quintuplet. (Note to self, a story about quintuplets would be awesome, if rather complicated.)
  8. I’ve got more criminals than crimes.
  9. I’ve got more police officers than criminals.
  10. Did I mention I have too many characters?
  11. My main protagonists have accidentally reversed their ages by a year. I wish I could do that IRL.
  12. I found my characters using jargon and slang that wasn’t around in that era.
  13. The police are using technology that wasn’t around in that era.
  14. If they all stopped drinking tea and gazing at one another, the crime(s) would get solved three days earlier.
  15. Pretty sure it will end up being okay though. Keeping everything crossed.

Quick sneaky peek:

Closer to hand, Dee was startled out of her thoughts by a man suddenly saying, ‘Ah, we meet again!’

Turning, she saw Clive Barton’s smiling face and she responded with a friendly, ‘Mr Barton, how nice to see you again. I’m here with Miss Marriott,’ gesturing as she spoke.

He nodded, looked disappointed, and murmured, ‘Excuse me, ladies.’ He went off and she saw him settle himself in a seat near the back of the room.

‘He’s too old for you,’ Miss Marriott said in a stage-whisper, taking Dee by surprise. Why was everyone so interested in her love-life? Although in Mrs Padham’s case, perhaps she had become so bitterly opposed to anyone having a love-life after she herself had been abandoned. Dee wondered vaguely why Mrs Padham’s husband Henry had left her. Perhaps she had nagged him the way she nagged her guests.

‘My goodness, I should think so,’ she said vehemently to Miss Marriott’s remark. ‘Not that I’m looking anyway.’

‘Taken, are you?’ Miss Marriott’s eyes bore into her, on the alert for any kind of response. Dee thought she may as well admit it.

‘Sort of.’

‘I see.’ Miss Marriott’s smile was triumphant.

It seemed likely, certain even, that there would be further questions later. But now, with the room packed and a number of people standing at the sides and at the back, the woman at the front stood neatly to attention at the table and rapped on the wooden surface with a teaspoon from the cup and saucer in front of her.

‘They get tea, I notice,’ Miss Marriott whispered resentfully. Dee simply nodded.

‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this open meeting to discuss the proposal to move the graves from the existing burial site to a new position at the north end of the village. I am Cynthia Miles-Hudson, head of planning at Northeast Essex council. On my right, is the Honourable…’

‘There’s nothing honourable about Fast Eddie Windward!’ someone yelled from the back. ‘He’s as crooked as they come!’

A Wreath of Lilies eBook version pre-order

 

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Coming 8 December 2023: A Wreath of Lilies: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 2

I’m giving in to the long-suppressed urge to share a scene from the new murder mystery I’m currently working on. It will be called A Wreath Of Lilies – you may well have seen me banging on about it already. This will be the second book of my new-ish 1960s series featuring Dee Gascoigne as a private detective. If you haven’t already seen it, you can find out more about book 1 – A Meeting With Murder  – here.

Here’s the blurb-type thing (which may change…)

On her first ‘official’ investigator case, Dee Gascoigne is off to the village of Hartwell Priory, where locals are up in arms over the proposal to dig up the deceased ancestors buried in the local cemetery in order to make way for three hundred new houses.

As if things aren’t tense enough, a group of hippie-like ghost hunters arrive and hold a seance. A message from beyond the grave seems to indicate that a grave has been forgotten.

Or was it just an illegal burial?

This book will be out in October, and like all my books, will be available in eBook form, paperback and large print paperback, from Amazon, and regular-print paperback only from ‘other’ online retailers and libraries. Here’s a sneak peek, in case you’re interested, hope you enjoy it.

Dee Gascoigne was the only person in the train carriage. She had a newspaper in case she got bored, as it was a long, slow journey to Hartwell Priory, a village close to the North Essex coast. And if the newspaper was not enough, she had a novel in her handbag – the Agatha Christie book that she had wanted to read for some time and that she’d been given by her cousin Jenny as a birthday present. Next to the brand new copy of A Caribbean Mystery was the envelope Monty had given her. She had better not lose it. It contained some cash to pay for her expenses, and a couple of sheets of paper that outlined her new ‘case’. She used the word in her mind, and it thrilled her to the core – she was actually on a case. In addition to these she had a letter of introduction and a handful of business cards so that she could be confident in the face of any challenge to her – call it what it was – nosy questioning.

If there was something that could be called a ‘gift’ in Dee’s character it was her ability to ask far too many questions, and it was pleasing to know that these could now be asked officially on behalf of Montague Montague of London, legal services.

Only yesterday, Thursday September 2nd 1965, Dee had been sitting in Monty’s office, hoping almost against hope it had seemed, that he could help her.

It had been practically six months since she had left – or been asked to leave – her job as a modern languages teacher at a very nice school for very nice young ladies. Since then she had found herself at a loss over what to do with her life.

Then, in the Spring, she had been sent off to the seaside to convalesce after an illness and had stumbled into a murder mystery exactly like those she so dearly loved to read. (Here she glanced with fond anticipation at the little bit of the cover of A Caribbean Mystery that she could see nestling in the top of her open bag). She had helped her dratted sort-of cousin, Inspector Bill Hardy, to clear up the mystery, risking her own life and limb to do so, but was the man grateful? Not at all. ‘Keep out of police business in future,’ he had growled at her at her mother’s birthday party, grabbing her arm in a vice-like grip and steering her away from the celebrations where she had been enjoying a lively discussion with her aunt, his mother, who also loved to ‘dabble’ in mysteries. He had a bloody cheek, Dee fumed to herself.

Anyway… Where was she? She had lost herself in the midst of feeling angry with Bill. She certainly wasn’t going to think about how handsome he had looked in his formal dinner suit, nor about how much she liked the way his dark hair crinkled behind his ears and at his neck now that he was wearing it a little longer as many young men did these days.

She had been out of work for some months now. Oh, she had been invited to several interviews for positions at other schools, but it always came down to the same thing: she just didn’t want to go back to teaching.

Yet what else could a recently separated woman do? People were so sniffy about the idea of a woman leaving her husband. It was this scandalous action on her part that had cost her the job in the first place.

And then, seemingly from nowhere, when all hope was lost and the money she had borrowed from her parents was dwindling to a pitifully tiny amount, dear, dear Monty had asked her brother Rob to get her to come and see him.

‘I’ve got something in the way of a job idea that might interest you,’ M’dear Monty had wheezed at her across his vast oak desk. Eighty if he was a day, and about to start his fifth retirement, Monty’s legal expertise had saved Dee’s family on more than one occasion.

She had been all ears. Could he really be serious? She held her breath waiting to see what he said. Even if it was a typing job, she’d have to take it. Not that she could type, not really. But she could no longer pretend that she wasn’t desperate. Her pride – that thing that goeth before a fall – was now in tatters.

‘Most law practices engage investigators to find out things for them. To carry out research, or to go to speak to people, that sort of thing. Montague’s is no different. But the fellow I have been using for the last two or three years has – er – shall we say – found it advantageous to his health to quickly move to South America. Therefore I now have a vacancy.

‘Dear Rob has kindly given me full account of your exploits down in Porthlea – delightful place – in the spring, and I think you could be just what I’m looking for. I know your inquiring mind, (nosiness, Dee told herself) and that you are an intelligent woman. Resourceful too, (crafty, Dee amended) and I know that I need have no doubts whatsoever about your moral integrity.’

She was on the point of speaking, but he held up a hand to halt her. He added, ‘Oh I know this is rather new to you, M’dear, but I feel you have a certain bent for investigating. In any case, I need someone right now, and if I may be blunt for a moment, you need the money. Can I persuade you to give it a try? If it doesn’t suit you, M’dear, no harm done on either side. What do you say?’

Well, what could she say?

‘My goodness, Monty dearest, I’d love to!’

And so here she was, on a painfully slow train that seemingly stopped at every rabbit hutch and milepost, heading to a place she’d never even heard of: Hartwell Priory.

She knew it was a tiny place, barely more than a halfway point between the busy port of Harwich and the city of Colchester in the county of Essex. She was to find her way to a guesthouse and rent herself a room for the week. Monty seemed to think it could take her several days, perhaps a whole week, to find out the things he needed to know.

She had money for her expenses, and the promise of ten pounds in wages, whether she was successful or not. Oh, she prayed she would be. The last thing she wanted was to let Monty down after his kindness.

The guard peered at her through the window of the connecting door to the next carriage. He’d already clipped her ticket and was checking to see if any new passengers had boarded into her carriage. They hadn’t of course, it had been almost an hour since she’d seen anyone other than the guard.

The business cards Monty had so clearly had printed before he even knew what she would say, stated simply: Miss Diana Gascoigne, Associate, Montague Montague of London, legal services. And the letter of introduction, was exactly that, short, to the point, impossible to quibble with or gainsay:

‘To whom it may concern,

I confirm that Miss Diana Gascoigne is an associate of this company, Montague Montague of London, legal services, and that she is employed by myself and under my instructions.

The Honourable Montague Montague QC, Bart.,’

The connecting door opened. Dee glanced up. The guard, a young man in his twenties, said,

‘We’ll be there in two minutes, miss. Watch your step getting down, it’s quite a drop to the platform.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Do you need help with your suitcase?’

‘Oh no, that’s quite all right, thanks.’ She beamed at him.

He blushed and left, and Dee closed her handbag with a snap, got up, grabbed her raincoat and hat, and hefted her case down off the luggage net and began to make her way to the corridor. The train slowed and the long narrow platform appeared beneath the window.

She had arrived.

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So are you hooked? You can pre-order the eBook here, or just leave yourself reminders everywhere to order the paperback, hardback or large print paperback when they come out, around the same time as the eBook – sorry ‘actual’ books are not available yet for pre-order, only the eBook. 

Grateful thanks for the image go to Shutterstock and more especially, Agalaya:

https://www.shutterstock.com/g/Arco+Bianco/about

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Researching a historical mystery novel

Because more than half of my books are set in the 1930s, I constantly find myself – even eight books in – looking stuff up. It might be easy to find stuff like ‘good poisons to kill someone with’ (My search history would def land me in a lot of trouble if anything ever happened to my nearest and dearest), but sometimes it’s deeper, more complicated stuff (ie questions such as ‘when did the UK first get direct dialling telephone systems?’ or ‘how much did a postcard and a stamp cost in 1934?’) I need answers to.

Quite often what I need to know are small obscure things that Mr Google or Mr Wikipedia can help with but if it’s a recurring issue, I need to have the answer closer to hand. And it’s important to me that the settings I create for my books are fairly accurate, because I want my readers to become immersed in the story, so I have acquired a number of books over the last few years to help me develop an authentic 1930s-feeling world for Dottie Manderson.

Plus, I just love all the pictures… (not the gory ones in the forensic books, but the pretty dresses etc)

Here are a few of the books I use regularly which have now become indispensable. I did take a few interior pics then realise – duh, idiot, copyright issues! So sadly I’m just showing you the covers. I’m taking it as read that you’d know I have a dictionary and a thesaurus by my side at all times so I didn’t bother to take photos of them.

As I write crime fiction, albeit a gentle, 1930s or 1960s brand, I need to know a bit about the icky side of a crime. so the two books below are my go-to for that sort of stuff. Though I have to bear in mind that for the 1930s – and even the 1960s – some of this stuff wouldn’t be relevant as it’s very much only ‘coming soon’ (1980s/90s and later).

I love the image of the fly on the pages in this book, btw!

This is one of my favourite books – it even tells you symptoms, reaction times, all sorts! Please note the sticky page markers!

I also need to know a bit about houses, social conventions, mod cons and everyday life in the past, so I have loved these books too:

I also find it helpful sometimes to read true crime and related non-fiction:

This was a brilliant birthday present from one of my children. A fascinating read.

Slightly more modern, a bit more gritty and just as fascinating

But if you know me, or have visited this blog before, you’ll know my real love is costume, and also social history. Here are a few of my absolute favourite books:

This book is a wonderful overview of general phases of costume change and development. John Peacock’s books are wonderful!

These books in John Peacocks other series have so much more detail and information – I highly recommend them for authors. and for a wonderful half hour’s reading over a cuppa any time you want to relax.

This is another wonderful series of book with mainly images relating to a specific era, to give an insight into British popular culture of the time. I love them.

And lastly – but most fabulous of all, and not really my era, but such beautiful photos, I wish I could put them on here to wow you:

So now you know what I do when I’m gathering ideas, checking facts and maundering over a first draft idea. Or just – you know – reading for fun.

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