Christmas won’t be Christmas without…

…the Christmas Day Downton Abbey Special (to paraphrase Jo March in ‘Little Women’.) dabbeylogoI’ve been watching the entire story, plus Christmas Specials, over the last couple of months (for the umpteenth time) and I’m now half way through the last series, with the 2015 Christmas Finale saved for sometime on Sunday. I’ve loved every single minute of it, even when Mr Bates, the valet, morphed from a chubby but charming stranger with a secret, into a creepy misery with a line in emotional blackmail and a tendency to loom and menace in dark corners. The rest of the inhabitants of the fabulous Gothic palace were terrific and I miss them; I’m hoping there really will be a film – and I want to be the Dowager Countess when I grow up…   cousin-violet

Failing the miraculous return of my favourite tv programme on Christmas Day here are some more books you’d probably rather not find in your stocking – but might have if you’d been around in the early 1900s.  A couple of years ago I shared some of the more exciting blurbs from my collection of Victorian and Edwardian novels – similar vintage to these (Picture: a tea towel from the Bodleian shop)bodleian_tea_towel

The first three are advertised in the back of a book published in 1909 – you can tell they’re not going to end well…

WO2 by Maurice Drake  ~ A sensational and exciting story of present-day illicit sea-faring. To explain the character of the forbidden trade would be to tell too much; enough that international politics are concerned… An exciting yarn of the sea and its scoundrelism(sic)…

Led into the Wilderness by  ~ William E Bailey John Martin, the hero of this story, is a missionary in a rarely visited island in the East. Here he is ‘tempted of the devil’ and falls. First he yields to a craving for drink and then to allurements of another kind in the person of a beautiful island girl….

Passions of Straw by Evelyn F Heywood  ~ The poignant tragedy of a young woman who, proud, beautiful, ambitious, finds herself wedded to a cynic and a roué. Her husband, having shattered her happiness, finally succeeds in drawing their only child into the whirlpool of his idle, vicious life…

And finally, a cheerful little book advertised in the back of a book published in 1912 – possibly not a forerunner for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Thankfully things have moved along – a bit – since then. (Below: A diagnostic tool of the era)phrenologyhead

The White Thread by Robert Halifax  ~ A book which is practically certain to arrest a serious consideration, both lay and medical. Tilly Westaway herself – the lovable, human little heroine with her secret maternal longings and her desire to ‘put everything right for everybody’ – makes a curiously moving appeal all the way. But it is the vast shadow in the background – the menace of the ever-absorbing, ever-expanding lunatic asylum ward – which will remain in one’s mind long after the book is laid down…(I bet they’re right about that last sentence, it sounds a morbid little tome…)

holly

On the other hand, here’s a book that would cheer anyone up, containing as it does a stalker, a vandalised Porsche, lots of dead insects, a blood-filled fish pond, and a host of other seasonal delights… the-art-of-murder-final-image

Have a Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year (hopefully, in my case, without further adventures involving patios, broken bones and broken heads…)

The Happiest Days…?

Look at that! Nearly three months since I last threw some words at this blog. There’s no excuse except that I’ve been busy writing. The trouble is, though, I’ve been writing TWO books at once – admittedly for the past couple of years – and although they’re nearly done, they’re not quite done. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve started a third book which is something I sneak off and play with, just for fun, but it all tends to put a stop to serious thoughts about actually getting something published.

I must say that the third book is fun to write. My younger daughter calls it my doll’s house and the friend who has read it complained loudly when she reached the end of the pitiful fifteen thousand word total. I hope to finish it sometime but there’s no hurry; it’s set in 1918 and there are three girls, one still at school; a dead (they hope) father; a distant mother who is a suffragette who writes racy novels under a pseudonym; a grandmother who failed dismally as a debutante by being sick all over Queen Victoria’s satin-clad feet, and a houseful of wounded officers in the small stately home next-door.Red Cross Hospital

Recently, I was having a discussion with some other writers about what, if any, encouragement we were given at school. The answer seems to have been, Not Much, for most of them, and school was often a barely-tolerated cross to bear. Not for me though. I loved school. When my mother put my name down at the small primary school down the road – the one that was built from Nissen huts left over from the First World War and were so fragile that a boy once punched a hole through the cardboard wall – she was told in no uncertain terms that she Must Not Teach Me To Read. So she didn’t and as the annual intake happened in the September after your fifth birthday I turned up on my first day aged 5 years and 9 months, unable to read (though not bothered about it). Alone out of the other forty-nine wailing children, I, (horribly precocious), informed the harassed teacher that I wasn’t supposed to be at her school. ‘Oh? Where should you be then?’ ‘I’m going to the grammar school,’ I announced. To which she replied, ‘I’m sure you will, eventually, Nicola. Now you’re here though, perhaps you’d help me with some of these children who are crying?’

I don’t remember learning to read but by my sixth birthday, on Christmas Eve, I could read fluently and was put up a year – the  downside of that being that I was too shy to ask where the girls’ loos were with the inevitable puddle as a result. (The answer was out in the arctic playground, with no glass in the windows, and a long way to walk (run) if it was raining.)

So – school was fine and I had no problems – apart from the entirely ludicrous requirement that had nine-year old girls (don’t know what the boys did) knitting. Not simple knitting though. I was presented with needles and wool and presumably a pattern and told to knit a pair of gloves. With fingers. After a month of hideous nights rent with screams and nightmares – and more puddles – I was a nervous wreck and my mother demanded that they set me to knit a plain scarf.

The grammar school was fine too – Parkstone Girls’ Grammar School – which, after I left school, was transferred to a modern building. (I bet it wasn’t as much fun as when we poked about in one of the old the attics and found a tiger skin rug complete with glass eyes and fearsome teeth!) We weren’t actively encouraged to write fiction as essays on dull topics were the order of the day but there was always an expectation that you could do anything you set your mind to and I did get a couple of poems in the school magazine. It was only after O Levels that I disliked school: not the lessons but the wasted hours doing games and PE, civics, music (which seems, at this distance, to have consisted of learning to sing ‘Who is Sylvia?’ for a whole term!) I should mention games, something I loathed with a passion and to this day the only sport I follow is tennis. (That’s probably because of the Australians of the day, with their long bronzed legs and tiny shorts – step forward John Newcome. Sigh…) My school consisted of several large Victorian and Edwardian houses scattered around a couple of acres. img783The art department was in another house, Torvaine, about half a mile up the road and the hockey field was just beyond that. To my eternal gratitude this field was low-lying and often flooded but we didn’t get away that easily. A little farther down the road was Poole Park with its football and hockey pitches. That was all right, the walk took time out of the lesson, but best of all were the times when our school field was flooded and the pitches in the park were already booked. That meant we had to walk towards Sandbanks (the millionaire’s paradise where, incidentally, my grandfather was offered the chance to buy an acre of land in about 1900 for the princely sum of £5! He couldn’t afford it and as my mother was the fifth child, I doubt if I’d have benefited even if he had.) Once we arrived at the Whitecliff playing field we had to pick up for teams. Naturally I’d made sure nobody ever picked me, though I could run pretty fast if I wanted to. The leftovers were told to play a scratch game out of the way and this is where it was fun. It takes a perverted kind of skill to hit a hockey ball on to the shore just far enough so you all have to clamber down to the beach to retrieve it, and not so far that the ball gets lost in the sea. Much more fun than running up and down after a ball with the hockey mistress (short hair held back by a Kirby grip, aertex shirt, and shorts that were known as ‘divided skirts’) shouting, ‘Where’s the left-wing? Oh – it’s you, Nicola.’

Enjoying school as I did it’s no wonder that I was an avid reader of stories of boarding schools, many of them dating back to the late nineteenth century – these, of course, are the inspiration for my pet project, the WW1 book. I have an awful lot of them, some ludicrous and some so beloved that I read them annually and sometimes more often. There are also modern stories set in schools I’d have given my eye-teeth to attend: Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Witch Week’ school; Terry Pratchett’s ‘Assassin’s Guild’; Miss Cackle’s Academy and, of course, Hogwarts.

To this catalogue I can now add, ‘The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School’ by Kim Newman. Set in a gloomy boarding-school not long after World War I, this is a school story written by a writer of horror stories! He’s certainly done his research into the genre and it’s great fun to spot all the usual situations but the horrors creep in and it gets extremely scary!drearcliff

The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, the fabulous series written by Jodi Taylor, isn’t on the face of it, a school story, featuring as it does time travel, history, death, murder, mystery, comedy and lashings and lashings of margaritas, beer and head-banging sex. However, the setting is an historic stately home, everyone lives-in at their workplace, discipline is strict (most of the time) and when summoned to the Director’s office, the historians are as nervous as any third-former at the Chalet School.one damned thing

Size matters – when it comes to Sicily

The thing you have to remember about Sicily is that it’s BIG. Much, much bigger than you imagine. When we first went there in 2002 I found a farm that had been converted into a hotel/holiday accommodation. It was bang in the middle and with breath-taking ignorance I decided we’d be able to visit the rest of the island in day trips. This was based on my mistaken belief that Sicily is about the size of the Isle of Wight.  It isn’t, it really, really isn’t.

Anyway, as you can imagine, there were bits of Sicily (quite a few, actually) that we didn’t see, as well as some we wanted to revisit, so this year, Sicily was the place to go. As I’ve said before, everyone assumes that our predilection for railway trips is based on the Engineer’s passion for preserved railways, but it’s not. I like trains too so I came up with the bright idea of going to Sicily by train – all the way. (You can even stay in the train when it goes on to the ferry across to Messina.) WP_000286The original plan was to fly home but while we were planning the trip there was a particularly nasty plane crash (yes, I know they all are, but that one was wicked). I’m more a resigned air passenger than a frightened one but when I cunningly suggested we should travel both ways, the idea went down very well.

Not everyone would imagine their trip from London to Sicily would include stops in Paris and Milan, as well as a return journey via Rome, Milan, Switzerland, Amsterdam and Harwich, but then, not everyone would have crossed the Alps in the scenic Bernina Express, but it was a fabulous trip.

We stayed in Catania on the east coast and concentrated our six night visit on the south-eastern corner of Sicily. On our first visit we went to the astonishing Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, (this is the famous mosaic of female athletes in leather bikinis)

WP_000300a place I really wanted to revisit. It was just as fabulous the second time around and as a Unesco World Heritage site, it’s beautifully looked after. The other reason for choosing that area was none other than Il Commissario Montalbano, who lives there in the fictitious town of Vigata. We both love the tv series although I get fed up with the cavalier way they treat evidence and the way that Inspector Montalbano gets his kit off in every episode and sleeps with suspects, murderers, mourners, anything with a pulse really. (I like his sidekick Augello, though and Fazio who does all the work).

You can do Montalbano tours and visit the locations, either the ones Camilleri used in the books, or the television locations. With this in mind we headed for Montalbano’s house, which turns out to be a B&B. We had lunch nearby, though not overlooking the beach where he found a dead horse.WP_000306 The town of Ragusa doubles on TV as Vigata and looks amazing from the opposite hill, where you get the full impact of the old town.WP_000443

I thought about this Literary Tourism last week when a friend asked me to show her where I murdered somebody in Winchester. Cue startled shop assistant nearby. I fantasise about readers pottering round the cathedral looking for the exact seat in the side chapel where one of my characters is murdered in ‘A Crowded Coffin’, and standing in the Crypt (as did Sam Hathaway in ‘Murder Fortissimo’, while another man stared at the statue by Antony Gormley.)Presentation4a One day…

And the Winner is…

 

 

ED, TRYING TO WORK OUT WHAT HE’S SUPPOSED TO DO

In fact, Ed lost interest until I hit on the idea of hiding a piece of ham under all the names. He was so enthusiastic about this that he managed to drag out TWO slips of paper at once, so – since the Oracle has spoken – I’m happy to announce that we have two winners. Congratulations, Old Kitty and Dina(*see note), you will shortly be receiving a copy of Murder Fortissimo (or at least you will when you email me a postal address).

Thanks to everyone who joined in – there will be more giveaways in future but Ed has resigned as Winner Picker so I’ll see if the squirrels at the bottom of the garden would like a go next time. (It’s not a cat blog, we’re open to offers from blue tits, wood mice, voles and shrews, in fact any creature who displays more interest and aptitude than Ed).

If you didn’t win this time you can still buy a copy of Murder Fortissimo from the Worldwide Mystery Library  Even with postage from the US it’s still only about £7.50.

Next post coming soon – the mysterious circumstance of the dog with no head!

 OOPS! I seem to have put Dina’s name into the draw by accident, daft ha’porth that I am. Have just redrawn and the second winner is Mary! Mind you, if Dina does turn up and claim her prize, I have a spare copy!  Sorry – I’m blaming it on the weather!

Win a copy of Murder Fortissimo! Deadline 5th May

The North American edition of ‘Murder Fortissimo’ is now out, published by Harlequin’s Worldwide Mystery Library (click here to buy from Harlequin ). See end of this post for how to win a copy.

Cover of the North American edition of Murder Fortissimo

When a terrible, awful woman dies by suspicious means, is there any reason not to let sleeping killers lie? Christiane Marchant met her bloody end when a large, heavy euphonium plunged off a balcony and onto her head. Everyone at the Firstone Grange residential home agreed it was a terrible accident. But nobody was going to miss the hateful Mrs. Marchant. Not her beleaguered daughter, not the exasperated staff, nor fellow guests at the home—and especially not those she was blackmailing.

But retired headmistress Harriet Quigley, a new resident at the luxury lodgings, believes in getting to the truth, no matter how terrible. As she begins to ask questions, her sympathetic nature elicits more than a few confessions from the others—all involving shameful secrets and long-buried dark deeds that Christiane had threatened to expose. But who among them was forced to resort to murder?

If you love English village mysteries, particularly when they have a few twists and a seasoning of humour, you’ll enjoy ‘Murder Fortissimo’. Although I’m dealing with very serious crimes, the jokes turn up but I’m always careful not to be flippant. But somehow, as in real life, cheerfulness always will break in. In fact I really wanted to call this book Ding Dong Merrily You’re Dead – to reflect its Christmas–time setting, but my agent wouldn’t let me! An alternative that I liked was Deck the Halls with Blood & Bodies, but that didn’t pass either.

As I live in a beautiful part of the world it makes sense to use local places in my books. ‘Scuba Dancing ’ is set in a slightly tweaked Romsey and my Victorian heroine, Charlotte, lives in a version of Otterbourne, a few miles south of Winchester. The fictitious village of Chambers Forge shares a geographical location and a few features with the real Chandlers Ford, a couple of miles further on from Otterbourne. It amuses me to drive past the house lived in by the monstrous Christiane Marchant (or it did until it was pulled down recently!) and to work out roughly where the upmarket Firstone Grange would be, as well as the pub that Harriet visits. There really is a Waitrose supermarket and there really is an excellent independent bookshop, but the other locations are mostly composites.

However, Winchester Cathedral is entirely real and a must-see on a trip to Hampshire. Harriet’s cousin Sam is a Canon of the Cathedral and an important scene takes place when Sam escorts one of the Firstone Grange residents to visit the crypt. In the banner at the top of this blog, the Cathedral is flanked by King Alfred’s statue and, on the right is the statue (Sound II) in the crypt, by the famous sculptor Anthony Gormley. Just like Sam and his companion in that scene, I always have a catch in my throat when I see this iron man, a modern masterpiece.

I do hope you’ll enjoy reading Murder Fortissimo. The North American edition is available from Harlequin (see link right) and there is also a link to the hardback edition.

How to win a copy of Murder Fortissimo. If you’re following this blog you’re already in with a chance so you don’t need to do anything. Otherwise you can (a) simply post a comment, (b) press the Follow button, or (c) email me. I’ll put the names into a hat and let the resident moggie, Eddie, choose the winner on 5th May.

Stop Press: I’ve just heard from my agent that Robert Hale Ltd will publish A Crowded Coffin, the follow-on to ‘Murder Fortissimo’! No details yet but probably early in 2013.

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Why Mysteries? Why Winchester? And why, for that matter, a blog at all?

I love mystery stories.  I also love history and historical novels, so it’s no surprise I now write Victorian mysteries.  Why Winchester? It’s a lovely place, the ancient capital of King Alfred’s Wessex – it’s a perfect setting for my books.

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