A September escape!

We’re off!

Yes, it’s that time again – we’re off to the seaside for a week’s lounging about and eating whatever we fancy so long as it’s chips or ice cream. My hubby loves fish, I detest it–I hate the smell, I hate the taste, I hate the feel, I just hate it…the thought of eating fish makes me feel really poorly.

Which is odd, because my stepfather had a fish and chip shop. Or maybe that’s the reason. On the other hand, before my mum met my stepdad, we lived near Hastings on the East Sussex coast of Britain. (Yes, the same Hastings as the Battle. Though the Battle of Hastings took place not at Hastings itself, but just inland from there. Now there is an abbey to commemorate the battle and the town has grown up around it, famed for–what else–gunpowder production… and the town is called, not very surprisingly, Battle… Ahem, what was I saying?)

Oh yes, and at Hastings I spent time on the beach and often saw the fishermen bringing in their catch, huge fish in massive buckets, flipping up and down as they gasped for air–this made a huge impression on me and I so much wanted to grab them all and release them back into the sea. So maybe that’s why a) I love the sea, and b) I hate eating fish.

But we are not going South, we are travelling East, and going to Cromer for the first time. I have been told it’s great, so I’m very excited. As an asthma sufferer, I also enjoy going to the coast for my health, so I’m hoping to be able to breathe freely in the good sea air.

I’m taking books to read. I’m hoping to have a lazy time, just sitting about and reading. I have Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, for some reason she didn’t write a mystery novel called Destination Cromer. I’m also taking Jeanne M Dams’ Smile And Be A Villain (love a Shakespeare quote…), and Merryn Allingham’s The Bookshop Murder. I really don’t think I’ll have time to read all three–there is a country house to visit, and a preserved railway, (sadly not in steam at the moment) and of course I am taking work with me.

What, you cry!!! Yes, it’s true, I am taking with me the manuscript of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 to do last minute checks and faffing. It’s due out in a little over four weeks, (taking slow, calming breaths…) and I just want to have one last look through to make sure all the characters have the right names, and that there aren’t any missing chapters, or you know, stuff like that, the sort of thing that can get easily overlooked in the excitement of the moment.

And while I’m away, the wonderful Stef is making a start on the translation into German of book 5 of the Dottie books. The English title is The Thief of St Martins, and in German it will likely be called Der Diebstahl von St Martins. We are hoping/planning for a December release of that book.

Also in December, book 7 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries: Rose Petals and White Lace will be released. The eBook versions of both Rose Petals and White Lace and A Meeting With Murder

Readers of the Dottie Manderson mysteries have been incredibly patient, as it’s been almost two years since book 6, The Spy Within, was released.

So I’m off, and I’m leaving you with another tiny extract from Rose Petals and White Lace:

He halted the car at the side of the road. Ahead of them were two huge wrought iron gates, the only opening in the high stone wall that ran parallel to the road.

‘Where are we?’ Dottie looked at William, but he just smiled and got out of the car. As always, he came around the front of the car to open her door for her, putting out his hand to help her.

‘Watch your step as you get out, the bank is a little muddy here.’

He slammed the car door shut. She took his arm and he led her towards the gates. She was consumed with curiosity but determined to make him speak first. At the gates, there was no plaque or other sign, no family name carved in the stone, nothing to say where they were. Beyond the gates was a long, winding drive through overgrown fields of grass. At one side of the gates, part of the wall had crumbled away and it was possible to clamber over it and into the grounds.

Stopping to brush the dust from her skirt conferred by the stones, Dottie grumbled, ‘Just remember you’re a policeman, and can get into trouble just as easily as anyone else by breaking and entering.’

His only response was another enigmatic – and irritating – smile. He took her hand again and tucked it into the crook of his arm. They set off along the drive. After a couple of minutes’ walking, Dottie noticed the drive was sloping downwards, and around the next bend, there was suddenly The View: it was as if the whole valley lay spread out at their feet. Trees, farms, fields dotted with cows, sheep and horses. And to their left, halfway down to the valley, a large old house of greyish stone was sprawled beneath trees, as if taking an afternoon rest.

And now she knew where they were. It had to be…

‘Oh, William, it’s so beautiful!’ she told him in a hushed voice. ‘Great Meads. Your old family home.’

He smiled at her now, and she could see he was feeling emotional. His eyes glistened suddenly and he had to clear his throat a couple of times, in that way that men have. He indicated about them with his hand.

‘Of course, we would never have let the grass get so overgrown as this, and the wall would have been mended immediately.’

She squeezed his arm. ‘Of course.’ She spared a thought to wonder if it had been him who broke the wall down to gain access. She could absolutely picture him doing exactly that late one evening when no one was around.

‘Is anyone living here at the moment?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s been closed up for almost a year.’ He looked about him as if feeling rather lost. ‘Look, darling, I hope you don’t mind coming here like this. I—I just wanted you to see it, just once, don’t know why. It just seemed—important. I like to come and take a look at the place anytime I’m up here. I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to forget it.’

‘Of course,’ she said again. ‘Your father was born here, your grandfather, probably several generations before that were all born here. You were born here. You love this place. It’s part of you. And it always will be. Next time we come, we shall bring a camera and take some photos. They would look wonderful on the walls of your new house.’

He nodded vaguely, only half-listening. They walked on. After a moment he said softly, ‘Our new house.’

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More Killer words

I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks. It’s the highlight of the story for me–their moment of crowing glory or abject defeat. This is the moment when we the audience have already heard the detective’s wild accusations or seen their insurmountable proof. Then, turning to the perpetrator, the audience holds their collective breath. And then the killer speaks…

After The Funeral by Agatha Christie is one of my top ten of her books. I just love the way, right from the start, the reader is deceived. (I’ve tried to do this without spoilers, but there’s only so much I can do and still make my point!)

Here is an extract of the denouement. Poirot has been outlining his case. Then the killer remarks:

‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help… A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant. but go on, M Poirot. Go on with this fantastic piece of nonsense!’

So Poirot does go on.. and it’s too late now for the killer to save him/herself. I love it when the killer challenges the detective in a rather snarky way–we know they are about to get their comeuppance. Of course Poirot has more up his sleeve. When it comes, it is, of course, irrefutable. The murderer realises they’ve given themselves away irretrievably, but if they can’t have their way, then nothing else much matters:

‘You don’t know how boring it is to listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour, day after day… Pretending to be interested… And nothing to look forward to…’

All too often, the murderer has a side-kick who is apt to be thrown under the bus at the final moment, for their ineptitude. Side-kicks are notorious for saying the wrong thing to the detective in the final showdown:

‘…darling, it’s not true. You could never kill anyone, I know you couldn’t…it’s that horrible girl you married. She’s been telling lies about you….’ said the side-kick in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, only for the villain to turn on them and snarl:

‘For God’s sake, you damned bitch… shut up, can’t you? D’you want to get me hanged? Shut up, I tell you. Shut that big, ugly mouth of yours.’

Life’s tough for a side-kick. The murderer will always be centre-stage, their vanity demands it.

What about the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a controversial book in its day, one of my favourites, and still hugely popular. Here, after revealing the murderer, Poirot says to him/her:

‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’

To which the murderer responds, with a characteristic touch of vanity:

‘My dear Poirot,’ I said, smiling a little, ‘whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’

It is important for him/her to be appreciated and treated with respect, even though they are a cold-blooded killer. At least for the reader, justice is served–or about to be–whilst for the killer, their dignity is more important than their life.

The best ‘killer speaks’ moment is when the murderer is unable to maintain their aplomb and with terrifying and self-condemning rage, they launch themselves at the detective–for whom this is usually all in a day’s work–and the game is most definitely, and fatally, up. This is that moment in Evil Under The Sun – my number one Agatha Christie novel:

‘Poirot said: ‘You will be interested to hear that both you and (……) were easily recognised and picked out by the Surrey police… They identified you both…’

(…..) had risen. His handsome face was transformed, suffused with blood, blind with rage. It was the face of a killer–of a tiger. He yelled:

‘You damned interfering murdering lousy little worm!’

He hurled himself forward, his fingers stretching and curling, his voice raving curses, as he fastened his fingers around Hercule Poirot’s throat…’

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a satisfying conclusion! The murderer must have his or her moment in the spotlight, to explain their motivation. It’s all very well to know how they did something, and of course, vital to know who committed the crime, but if you don’t know why – it’s one of those puzzles that can never be put to rest.

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She’s such a character!

My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader.  It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.

In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.

In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.

Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.

However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.

To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.

Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.

After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.

Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.

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Coming soon: The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5

As you may be aware, (I’ve talked about it a couple of times recently) there is a new Dottie Manderson book in the pipeline. I plan/hope to release it on 27th October, as an eBook and paperback on Amazon, and as an eBook and paperback through other online outlets such as Apple (not the print, though, soz), Kobo, eBook through Barnes and Noble’s Nook, paperback at Barnes and Noble’s online store, and a few other places. Still not at Waterstones, sorry, that would be a dream come true for me, but hey, maybe next year? I can’t give you the links at the moment for anything except the Kindle pre-order page.

The book is called The Thief of St Martins. It’s the fifth book in the series, and I’m really excited about it. If you want to read a sample chapter (that may or may not still be chapter one by the time the book is released, I’m not quite decided, but it will definitely be in there somewhere…) you can find the link to it below this brief description:

We last saw Dottie in the Summer of 1934, discovering that her mother was in fact really her aunt, and that she was the shameful daughter of her mother’s sister, her ‘aunt’ Cecilia Cowdrey. Some months later, to help herself to come to terms with this revelation, Dottie accepts an invitation to spend a few days with Cecilia and Lewis Cowdrey over New Year, although she’s not too sure what to expect.

Sample chapter that may or may not be chapter one on publication ;D

Meanwhile though, if you’ve missed out on books 1 to 4, here’s a little catch-up: (warning, contains a few spoilers!)

Book 1: Night and Day:

London, November 1933. Dottie Manderson stumbles upon the body of a dying man in a deserted night-time street. As she waits for help to arrive, she holds the man’s hand and tries to get him to tell her what happened. But with his last breaths he sings to her some lines from a popular stage show.
But why, Dottie wonders? Why would he sing to her instead of sending a final message to his loved ones? Why didn’t he name his attacker?
Dottie needs to know the answers to these questions and even though a particular, very annoying young policeman Sergeant William Hardy is investigating the case officially, she feels compelled to carry out her own investigation into the mysterious death.

Book 2: The Mantle of God:

Can a tiny piece of faded cloth really be worth killing for? Is the past ever truly forgotten? Dottie’s new friend William Hardy asks her to find out more about a scrap of fabric found in a dead man’s pocket. But as soon as she starts to ask questions, things begin to happen. It’s not long before someone dies, and Dottie wonders if she may be next. Can the insignificant scrap really be a clue to a bloody time of religious hatred and murder?
Join Dottie as she works to uncover the truth of a distant past, whilst uncovering secrets held by her own closest friends and family. Can Inspector Hardy put the murderer behind bars before it’s too late? Setting aside his own personal tragedy, Hardy has to get behind the polite façade of 1930s London society to find a killer.

Book 3: Scotch Mist: 

After the funeral of her friend and mentor Mrs Carmichael, Dottie Manderson is sent on a mission to find the dead woman’s missing son and to inform him of the death of a mother he never knew. Unbeknown to her, Dottie’s close friend Inspector William Hardy has also been sent on a mission, one that will force him to confront his past. His conversation with the Mrs Carmichael just before she was killed opened up questions about his father William would prefer not to ask. A sentimental lawyer has plans to bring Dottie and William together, acting on Mrs Carmichael’s bequest. But after a personal tragedy and some hectic months in his new role, is Inspector Hardy ready for romance? Perhaps if no one got murdered, he could think about other things?

Book 4: The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: 

Dottie’s had a hectic and difficult time: she’s attended too many funerals, and has just had a massive row with the man she thought she loved. on the spur of the moment she makes a stop off on her way home, in search of a dear friend who needs her help. In any case, a few days rest in a hotel by the sea is just what Dottie needs. It’s not long before she makes the acquaintance of the newly-widowed Penny Parfitt, and her attractive brother-in-law Gervase. Dottie impulsively accepts their invitation to spend a few days at Penny’s home in the country.
Quickly Dottie realises that secrets and intrigues lurk beneath the pleasant surface of their lives. A suicide years earlier casts a shadow. Was it really suicide? Dottie begins to think something sinister has taken place.
But after all this time, can she find out what really happened?

So now that you know a little bit about these, I hope that you feel intrigued enough and inspired enough to give them a try. There are more in the pipeline, but as yet I’ve only planned the first ten books in this series. Will there be more? Yes, I think there will. By book 11 we will be into the war years: the war no one ever thought would happen. So I am looking ahead and seeing the potential for that. How will the war affect the lives of Dottie, Flora, Mr and Mrs Manderson, and of course, William Hardy? Who will fight for King and Country? Who will be left behind, and what will they do to cope with the strain of constant danger? I’m quite keen to get to that point. But there’s so much to do first.

I’m what writers call a ‘pantser’ ie I don’t plan my books in meticulous detail in advance, but I write by the seat of my pants, almost literally making it up as I go along. BUT I do plan loosely, sometimes years ahead. But if I told you any of those loose plans now, it would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the wonderful people who’ve said such nice things, and given me so much encouragement with my writing, and with this series in particular. Honestly, you have no idea how amazing it is to know that someone somewhere has read and enjoyed one–sometimes more than one–of my books. Thank you so much.

And thank you too to my family and friends for all their love support and active assistance, ‘without whom’…

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