Month: April 2013

Just look at this: a new café bookshop in Lincoln!

BookStop Cafe 4

I’ve used the word ‘serendipity’ several times just lately and, since style matters to me, I’m troubled by tedious repetition; yet Twitter is rather generous with serendipitous moments and another one (thanks to my writer friend Carol Hedges @carolJhedges for the information) popped up in the feed on Thursday last.  It was the start of something big and it was, is and will be in Lincoln.

Living in this city are siblings Joff and Becky, who are taking the brave step into the wonderful world of independent bookselling, with a special emphasis upon supporting local and independent authors.  On Saturday 4th May, BookStop Café will be opened to the discerning readers and the tea, coffee and cake addicts of Lincoln.

Where?  At 46-47 Steep Hill and 7 Christ’s Hospital Terrace, the new home of BookStop Café is also a very old home, an example of Norman domestic architecture and, according to many references, known as ‘Aaron the Jew’s House’ (where Aaron of Lincoln, who died in 1186, lived – he was then the greatest Jewish financier of England).  The building has been a shop for many years and is currently where, up above the new bookshop/café, tea importer Imperial Teas conducts its business: an atmospheric venue indeed, ready for a new development in its very long history.

Joff (self-published author Joff Gainey) and Becky have always dreamed of combining a café with books and now their vision is becoming reality: BookStop Café will, at weekends only to start with, be a place for readers to enjoy new and secondhand books in comfortable surroundings.  Before very long, it will be a place where children can listen to storytelling and where artists can display their works.  Keep up to date with its progress on Twitter at @BookStopCafe .

I am delighted to have come across this new venture and hope that you will join me in wishing it well.  The lucky people of Lincoln will be able to settle down to good reading on Saturdays and Sundays from 4th May, 10.00 a.m – 4.00 p.m.  My guess is that they will be settling down to some very fine cake, coffee and tea too.

I know where I’ll be heading, next time I’m in Lincoln.

BookStop Cafe 5



As a former bookseller, my heart was gladdened by attending the announcement of the Books are My Bag campaign, which for me was the most exciting single event held at the London Book Fair this year.  The campaign has been devised by M & C Saatchi and is entirely based on a single, simple, very effective message: that the passion for books and bookshops is a precious part of our national heritage and something that we should cherish, celebrate and promote.  It is a campaign of perfect solidarity: all booksellers (whether they belong to chains or independents) and publishers are uniting with one voice to celebrate the pleasures and cultural importance of the high street bookshop.

Tim Godfray, CEO of The Booksellers Association and Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association, both spoke at the event.  They were joined by some industry legends, including Patrick Neale, currently President of the Booksellers Association and joint owner of the marvellous Jaffé Bookshop in Oxfordshire (in a previous life he was the inspiration behind the equally wonderful Waterstone’s Sauchiehall Street bookshop in Glasgow) and Gail Rebuck, Chair and CEO of Random House (who, like Dame Marjorie Scardino, has proved that women can get to the top of large corporate publishing houses and stay there).

Patrick’s message was strong and direct.  He made the point perfectly that there is far more to the experience of buying a book than receiving a brown cardboard parcel through the post: “We all know that there are many ways to buy and sell books, but what Books are My Bag captures and celebrates is the physical; the simple truth that bookshops do more physically to let people enjoy their passion for books.”  Gail Rebuck said: “In these challenging times for the UK High Street, it is terrific that a world-renowned advertising company – M & C Saatchi – has devised such a positive campaign for all booksellers.”

In keeping with its message about the physical presence of bookshops, the campaign will feature strong branding and a very distinctive prop: a cloth bag with the words BOOKS ARE MY BAG printed on it in capitals in neon orange.  These bags will be given to customers by bookshops across the country when the campaign is launched on 14th September.  I wasn’t sure about the colour when I first saw it – and I was hugely impressed that Tim Godfray was prepared to spend the whole day wearing a matching T-shirt emblazoned with the orange slogan.  However, throughout the Book Fair, I spotted people carrying these bags (the BA gave them out daily) and I concluded that they are very effective indeed.  As Patrick put it, “This is the first time anyone has needed sun-glasses when inside the London Book Fair.”  I have acquired two of them, one from the BA stand and one from the event, and I shall carry them with pride throughout the summer.

Anyone reading this blog who is interested in knowing more about this, here is your link  Books are My Bag  to its dedicated website.

I love bookshops!

A London Book Fair 13 seminar about using social networking to create author presence

Elizabeth Baines LBF13  3Chris Hamilton-Emery LBF13  4

I cannot miss the opportunity to comment in today’s post on the social networking session yesterday morning at the London Book Fair.  First, may I thank the very many people who attended and made the event very special indeed; you were a lovely, attentive audience and we all valued your interest and contributions.

Secondly, I should like to thank Elaine Aldred (@EMAldred, Strange Alliances blog), who very generously agreed some time ago to chair this session and, with her characteristic attention to detail, introduced the panel and provided a succinct summary of the key points arising, as well as modestly managing us and our timekeeping!

I was very pleased to meet and honoured to join my much more experienced social networking fellow panellists, Katy Evans-Bush  @KatyEvansBush) and Elizabeth Baines (@ElizabethBaines), and to be able to listen to the social networking supremo, Chris Hamilton-Emery, Director of Salt Publishing (@saltpublishing), all of whom provided different perspectives from my own.  However, though we may have addressed in various ways the topic of how to make the most of the best of social networking, I felt that we were unKaty Evans-Bush LBF13  5Elaine Aldred LBF13 2animous about the terrific value of what Chris called ‘the confluence’ of such media as Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs in creating author presence and profile.    I believe that we also affirmed the essential need to be ourselves (however uncomfortable it may initially feel to present our private side, as Elizabeth very pertinently explained) and to interact with the people we ‘meet’ in a genuine way.  We shared the view that ramming our books down the throats of our online audience in a ‘hard sell’, as some people do, is counter-productive; it is much better for us to engage with others in discussion of the things which matter to us, such as the business of writing, literature, topical issues and so on.  Katy pinpointed the effectiveness of social networking in creating a global family of friends and followers, something we also all felt.

All in all, the session emphasised that participation, helping others, reciprocating generosity and showing real interest in people whom we come to know online are crucial to creating a lasting author presence.  It is really important that authors recognise that they need to have such a profile; with it, books certainly do sell and, as Chris put it, without it they don’t.

Finally, we all accepted the inevitable consequence of managing all of the personal interactions online: it is extremely time-consuming and we have to find our own ways of handling that; if we succeed, the benefits are very clear to see.

My thanks again to all concerned in what was for me a very memorable occasion.

Christina James LBF13  6

I’d like to knock down that Victorian edifice…

The Victorian House

Taking up the theme of food again, I’m still reading about Victorian houses and customs in order to get a feel for how the very old people whom I knew in my youth grew up.  One of the things that strikes is me is how indelibly the Victorian age made its mark on those who were born within it.  My grandmother was born in 1892 and was nine when Queen Victoria died, yet all her life she was a Victorian.  She even dressed like one, in ankle-length skirts and pastel-coloured blouses trimmed in lace, with high collars.

Not only did Queen Victoria’s reign seem to imbue everyone who lived in it with norms and values that were immediately spurned by the next generation, but it succeeded in erecting an almost insuperable barrier between itself and the age which preceded it.  The most alarming thing of all is how women seemed to become walled up as part of this process.

They were literally walled up: condemned to stay in the house almost all of the time, maintaining and cleaning it or supervising its cleaning and maintenance, depending on their class; spending each day of their lives ensuring that the master of the house returned to a perfectly-kept residence.  This in itself would have been irksome enough, but social aspirations added to women’s domestic workload in the most intolerable way.  In an age when the middle classes were burgeoning, so that many people had more of what is now called ‘disposable income’, and when, for the first time, machinery could churn out materials and finished goods very cheaply, houses became filled with all kinds of artefacts, many of them quite useless.  Whether they were bought or made at home, all of these things also needed care and maintenance – the latter involving a great deal of washing and cleaning when houses were warmed by coal fires and lit by candles or gas.  Clothes and food became much more elaborate.  Women were not only not allowed to go out to work, they felt compelled to spend every waking hour carrying out tasks which today we would regard as of minimal value or even futile.  Meals in middle-class households consisted of many dishes.  When providing food, the housewife was expected to achieve an illogical combination of outward show – especially when there were guests at the table – and the practice of frugality.  This often meant that the same food appeared on the table several times running before it was finally consumed, each time ingeniously and time-consumingly served up in a slightly different way.

I’ve often reflected that, to a greater or lesser extent, all except the very young spend some of their time living in the past.  Although my own and my husband’s tastes in furniture are quite traditional, and therefore most of our possessions have not dated all that much, I know that the décor and soft furnishings in my house are very much of the period at which we moved in to it in 1994, and that visitors will recognise this. It is a phenomenon that was yet more true of previous generations: they thriftily kept the same furniture until it had, quite literally, worn out.  And it wasn’t just the surroundings that belonged in the past; attitudes, values and points of reference were also behind the times.  Exactly how far behind often depended on location, sometimes also on education.  In London at the turn of the twentieth century, the Bloomsbury Group famously rejected the lifestyle and morals of their Victorian parents; however, Victorian lifestyles and morals were still alive and well in the Spalding of the 1950s and 1960s.  It took the combination of the pop scene (I don’t just mean the music, but everything that went with it) and the advent of the first working-class generation to be university-educated to instigate real change.

In some ways I feel privileged to have lived through all of this and, through aligning my reading with my own memories, to have come, belatedly, to some kind of understanding of it.  Women today still complain about glass ceilings and the impossibility of ‘having it all’.  True equality has been a long time coming and is not quite here yet.  The journey was started by those Victorian girls who were allowed just enough education to understand what they were missing.  Some nineteenth century women were so frustrated, or so badly treated by their husbands, that they turned to murder (the weapon of choice was poison), knowing that the death penalty would surely be their fate if they were caught.

What I’d really like to be able to do would be to travel back to the past and knock down that huge Victorian edifice, as the Berlin Wall was knocked down, in order to be able to see beyond it to the Georgian age that preceded Victoria’s.  I wonder what those women, in their lighter, brighter, more sparsely-furnished houses, were like; whether they led happier lives than their Victorian descendants; whether knowing them better would prove the hypothesis that civilisation develops, not in linear fashion, but in loops and curlicues, like oxbow lakes.  The Victorians, so enterprising in so many ways, were out there in their boats, not realising that they were grounded in a swamp.


It’s tomorrow! Making the most of the best of social networking…



Today’s post is a repeated ‘shout-out’ about tomorrow’s Salt Publishing seminar at this year’s London Book Fair, when there will be an opportunity to listen to Chris Hamilton-Emery, founding director of this world-renowned independent publisher, and three of its authors talk about how to use social networking to promote books and good writing.   There will be a question-and-answer session to develop discussion about the topic How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a ShoestringElaine Aldred, an independent online reviewer, will chair the occasion. 

Date:  Tuesday 16th April 2013

Time: 11.30-12.30

Place:  Cromwell Room, EC1, Earls Court

I’ll be joining Katy Evans-Bush, writer and editor, and Elizabeth Baines, novelist and short story writer, to offer some personal experiences of social networking as a means to achieving an online bookworld presence.   Readers of this blog will already guess from previous posts here about both Salt and social networking, how much I personally value the opportunities provided by the Internet to meet and mingle with booklovers across the world.  I have also made it very clear just how proud and privileged I am to be supported as a writer by Chris Hamilton-Emery and how exciting it is to be associated with an independent publisher with the finest of literary lists.

I hope to become real to at least some of my ethereal friends at the London Book Fair this year!

I’d kill for a slice of coffee and walnut cake…

Get stuck in to a good book...

Get stuck in to a good book…

On Thursday, I had a conversation with a librarian in Doncaster who would like me to take part in a literary festival that will be run in May by the Doncaster Library Service.  After further discussion, we decided that it would probably be more effective for everyone if, instead of participating in one of the library-based events, I were to run a couple of writers’ workshops, one at a local school and one at an open prison.  I warmed to this idea immediately; as a bookseller, I have supplied books to two open prisons; more recently, I have read the MS of a fascinating memoir written by a writer-in-residence who works in a prison in the North-East.  I shall be happy to work further with the prison community if I can be of use. I’ll write more about these two events nearer the time.

Before we decided on this plan of action, when the idea was still that I should participate in a library-focused event, our chat had been about what sort of writer we should choose to present with me.  To my initial surprise, she suggested a cookery writer, but, the more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought that this was.  Aside from the interest in food (among many other subjects) that both this blog and the many other crime-writing blogs to which it has been introduced (and introduced itself) have expressed, now that I’ve thought about it, I think that a crime writer and a cookery writer have a lot in common.

The similarities are there if you look for them.  Firstly, and of most importance, we are both genuinely interested in the craft of writing: although the crime writer’s main purpose is to devise an interesting plot peopled with intriguing characters and the cookery writer’s is to develop practical recipes that people really want to try out, the means, for both of us, is as important as the end.  In a certain sense, we are both genre writers, but the style and standard of the writing is important to us; mostly we don’t deserve to have the word ‘genre’ applied to us in a condescending or pejorative way (though we have both suffered from this).  I don’t deny that there is huge variation in the quality of writing accomplished by both crime writers and cookery writers, but at our best we produce classics.  When my friend Sally gave me How to Eat and The Domestic Goddess as a very generous birthday present ten years ago, I was both amazed and entranced by Nigella Lawson’s wonderfully fresh and funny prose style.  You may gorge yourself upon her books both literally and metaphorically, delighting in the sensual language and wonderful photographs even as you assemble the ingredients for a luscious cake and anticipate eating it later.  The best crime novels are like this, too: each page not to be gobbled down quickly because it gets you a little closer to the denouement, but lingered over and savoured for the pleasure that the words bring of themselves.

Similarly, a well-set-out recipe is like a well-crafted short story.  It tells a tale, from the beginning, when there might be a note on some kind of utensil – a springform cake tin, for example, or a coeur à la crème ramekin – to the afterword, which might offer serving suggestions or other tips once the culinary masterpiece has been completed.  Conversely, a poorly-conceived recipe, one which perhaps is not clear about quantities or method, disappoints and exasperates just as much as a badly-written thriller.  And, whilst I don’t think that it is possible to ‘learn’ writing step-by-step in quite the way in which you follow a recipe, writers can certainly give others pointers to how their writing can be developed – hence the workshop idea.  Conversely, an inspired cook will add some special twist or variation to a recipe to make it more delicious and uniquely his or her own.

There is one point on which we will always be at opposite poles, however: cookery-writing is about celebrating life and that which sustains it.  Food and the sharing of food is a civilising influence.  Almost every great nation has developed its own cuisine.  Crime writing, on the other hand, is about what threatens a civilised existence, sometimes including life itself: a sobering thought, yet, as I’ve said before, the end of a crime novel usually brings with it some kind of catharsis and a feeling that all is right with the world again.  And along the way, both heroes and villains can enjoy some excellent food.  From the Victorian victuals described by Wilkie Collins to DI Banks’ pub lunches and Paola Brunetti’s elegant meals en famille, crime-writing owes a lot to cookery.  I’d better not embark upon a consideration of how cookery-writing might be indebted to crime; otherwise my imagination might run riot!


A murderer unmasked after sixty years…

Poison Farm

I’ve been looking for some real-life murder stories set in South Lincolnshire and can’t find any; I’m not sure whether the people of Holland are unusually law-abiding, unusually cunning or just lucky.  However, my search did turn up Poison Farm: a Murderer Unmasked, by David Williams.  It’s set in Suffolk, not too far away from South Lincs; as it’s still East Anglia, it ‘counts’.  Williams tells a fascinating story, not least because the murder – of prominent local farmer William Murfitt, who had quite a seamy private life – took place in 1938, in the village of Risby, when he was himself growing up there.  He remained preoccupied with it, until he investigated more fully in 2003, after retiring from journalism.

Williams paints a graphic portrait of what village life was like just within living memory.  The archaically hierarchical nature of the small but prosperous farming communities of the time is conveyed well – some of the people and situations that he describes could have come straight from the pages of a novel by Trollope.  (Much of this strict adherence to the class structure would shortly be swept away by the Second World War.)  He also manages to capture a fine example of a perennial female figure who, in fiction as life, has always managed to inveigle herself into the upper levels of local social hierarchy, despite its snobbishness and respect for tradition.  She is the adventuress with a shadowy past.  The lady in question in this story rejoices in the name of ‘Lady’ Mary Elizabeth Fernie Chandler, or some less flamboyant combination of these names, as the occasion demands.  She is the literary descendant of Becky Sharp, the real-life counterpart of the Duchess of Windsor (also known as Bessie Wallis Warfield, sometime Spencer, sometime Simpson).

The murderer of William Murfitt was never charged or prosecuted, though Williams thinks that he has identified the culprit; in the course of telling the tale he builds a convincing case, based partly on a re-examination of the evidence, partly on the reminiscences of some extraordinarily long-lived survivors, already adults at the time of Murfitt’s death, whom he manages to interview.  In the process, he comes to the conclusion that the perpetrator had probably also committed another murder some years previously.

Modern forensic techniques might have resulted in a conviction if Murfitt’s murder had happened today.  Yet this is not necessarily the case: the two policemen sent to Risby, Detective Chief Inspector Leonard Burt and Detective Sergeant Reginald Spooner, both became celebrated later for their acumen and sureness of touch.  Each went on to solve many serious crimes, including other murders.  David Williams’ story illustrates perhaps that you can get away with murder, if you have the nerve to stick to your story… and a little bit of luck.

Let’s consider the general good of the English-speaking world…


As I’ve mentioned, I’ve just spent several days at a conference – the sort of event where I meet people whom I haven’t seen since the last conference or, in some instances, for two or three years before that.  If you’re British (as I am), good manners dictate that making the courteous enquiry ‘How are you?’ at such meetings is inescapable.  Naturally, such etiquette under such circumstances tends to be more for convention than for information.  The answer that I dread getting back is a prolix account of all the ailments that the acquaintance has suffered in the interim (‘My sciatica hasn’t been playing up lately, but I had ’flu really badly this winter, despite getting the injection, and I’m still not feeling …’ etc., etc.), the speaker (and listener) obliged all the time to stand in a hot, crowded, noisy room and drink outsize glasses of red wine, on the whole coping remarkably well with his or her various infirmities.

The next worst response is short but irritating: ‘I’m good’.  It’s an expression that I first encountered about twelve years ago, interestingly also at an event.  I had to think about what it meant for a moment.  Clearly an American import, as a stock response it gained ground slowly at first and then with rapidly-increasing speed.  I shall come back to it in a minute.

‘Good’ is a slippery word.  Used as an interjection, it can variously signify an approving verbal nod, a comment on the speaker’s views or performance, or just something to say – a more positive alternative to ‘Oh’.  Its use as an adjective is familiar to everyone (though I’m sure there are many gradations of meaning from individual to individual when saying that something is good), but I must have been about forty before I realised that good in the singular is also a noun.  I discovered this in rather traumatic circumstances, having been required to teach a first-year postgraduate class basic economics as part of an MBA course, even though economics was a subject of which I had been entirely innocent until that moment.  (Don’t ask – it involved university in-fighting, a topic on which I can wax at length in very bitter and twisted fashion!)  I still dislike this use of the word.  I don’t mind ‘goods’ in the plural – ‘goods train’, for example, is a term that appeals with its expansive connotations of plenty; but ‘a good’?  It is too abstract, too pedantic, too stuffy.  To me it represents a kind of emotional shorthand, like being given a plastic token instead of a gift.

Then there is ‘goody’ – as in sweets (‘goodies’) and also as someone who is sickeningly good (Goody Two-Shoes).  It was Arthur Miller who taught me (in The Crucible) that Goody was originally an abbreviated version of ‘Goodwife’.  The male equivalent was Goodman, but this does not seem to have survived in any modern context.  I don’t like Goody as an alternative to Mrs – or Mistress, as I suppose it was then.  It’s too oppressive, maybe too exclusive – it was a term that belonged to Puritanism.  (Miller, of course, exploits the irony of this.)

And so I return to ‘I’m good’.  What is it about this expression that makes it so objectionable to me?  I think it’s because it has a number of undesirable overtones: it seems prickly (‘How impertinent of you to ask’); defiant (‘Why would you think I was anything other than fine?’) and superior (‘Everything about me is excellent.  What about you?’).  It also involves incorrect usage, judged by UK English standards, anyway.  When offered it, I am very tempted to reply, “Oh, really?  I had always considered you to be very wicked and bad!”

Good, that’s sorted.  I rest my case.

Balmy Bournemouth: edgy enough for murder? At the weekend, maybe…

Classy Bournemouth

Classy Bournemouth

I find it ironical that, in one of the coldest springs on record, I have already visited five seaside resorts: Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Brighton, Cromer and now Bournemouth. Temperatures were low during all of these visits, but cold comes in many guises, each one having a different effect upon enjoyment. Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby were bracing and sunny; Brighton snowy, with a vicious wind whipping in from the East; the similarly cutting wind in Cromer was accompanied by some sunny intervals; and, at Bournemouth, where I have just spent four days, there was initial bright sunshine, followed by cloud, followed by two days of driving rain and then, just as I was departing, bright sunshine once again, this time accompanied by some real warmth.

By circumstance now something of a 2013 seaside connoisseuse, I’ve had the opportunity to discover that I much prefer the rugged east coast to the smoother, more luxuriant yellow sands and vast bays of the south. To my amusement, I have also been able to verify a colleague’s observation that Bournemouth has two faces: one for the weekend; another for the working week. I’ve stayed there several times before when attending conferences, but this was the first time that I’d needed to arrive at the weekend. I’d previously considered Bournemouth to be a refined sort of place, but I now know that weekend Bournemouth is much edgier.

Arriving last Saturday just before 6 p.m., I decided to make the best of the bright sunshine and still light evening by going straight out for a walk along the promenade. For a while, this was fine: families on the beach were just packing up, a few beach-hut owners were still relaxing in their doorways in deck chairs. Then, suddenly, all of these people had gone and I realised that there was no-one in sight except for perhaps twenty skateboarders, all young men, who had suddenly appeared and were performing expert manoeuvres all along the prom. I probably read too many crime reports in the newspapers, but the thought struck me forcibly that if one of them were to swoop down on me and snatch my handbag and then either sail away or pass it on to one of his friends, I’d have no chance of getting it back. I beat a hasty retreat to the hotel. (Apologies to all honest skateboarders everywhere for this shocking stereotyping!)

This hotel had been booked at the last minute, when I realised that Sunday travel would be impossible. It was all I could get and not of the standard of the conference hotel, to which I moved at the end of the weekend. It turned out to be the sister hotel of the hotel in Torquay on which Fawlty Towers was based. I have also stayed in the latter, and I can say only that both hotels live up to their reputation. The bucket in the corridor, to catch drips from the ceiling (someone had probably let their bath overflow) was dispiriting; the room itself was tiny – I could lie in bed and touch both walls with my elbows. (I smiled at the child’s Z-bed in the corridor: any parents who could get their offspring as well as themselves into such a room must have been contortionists!)

My colleagues were arriving very late, so I ate dinner alone, an uncanny backward time travel to the first restaurant meals that I experienced as an adolescent. The set menu was filled with culinary clichés: prawn cocktail, toasted grapefruit, melon boat, gammon and pineapple, coronation chicken, apple pie and baked Alaska. The couples dining seemed to have passed through some invisible looking-glass from the 1970s. The dining-room was vast: half a football pitch away, a very large group (the waiter called them ‘the tour’ – I think he meant ‘coach party’) erupted into song at intervals. They sang ‘Happy birthday to you’, ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, and, for good measure, ‘You’ll never walk alone’. The dining couples stolidly ignored them, the men sipping beer with their food, the women drinking coke.

Outside in the foyer, a group of very young women, obviously members of a hen-party, were about to embark upon a night on the town. They were brightly and uniformly dressed in what appeared to be clinging T-shirt dresses (shorter even than ‘pelmet’ skirts). The bride was instantly recognisable, because she was wearing a veil anchored by a crown of artificial flowers. Two of the other girls were carrying the lower half (i.e., the waist, hips and legs) of a shop-window mannequin, its modesty preserved by the addition of a pair of scarlet lace knickers. They all thought that this was hilariously funny and burst into incontrollable giggles as they carried it out through the door. By chance I saw them returning to the hotel some hours later, by which time the legs seemed to have been mislaid, if you’ll forgive the pun.

I retired to my room to read until my colleagues arrived. When they came, they suggested that we met for a drink, but by this time ‘the tour’ had filled the hotel bar. They were still singing traditional crowd songs, while heavy metal music pounded in the background. We decided to escape to the bar of the hotel next door. The music there was, if not understated, more schmaltzy, and our fellow drinkers consisted mainly of the members of a fairly decorous wedding party. The mother of the bride, dressed head to toe in leopardskin-printed chiffon, was a little the worse for wear. She was semi-recumbent upon a banquette, her eyes closed, her killer stilettoes kicked off. We paid through the nose for cocktails and managed to have a civilised conversation (in the sense that we could hear each other speak) before deciding to return to our own hotel, hoping that it would not be too noisy to get a decent night’s sleep.

Outside it was bitterly cold and very dark. A pergola had been erected between the two hotels, and something was glowing red inside it. Coming nearer, I saw that the bride and groom were sitting there, she still wearing her sleeveless, strapless dress with not even a wrap to keep her warm. Each was smoking a cigarette.

On Sunday, I moved to the conference hotel and the Bournemouth that I have always known sprang back into place again. What does all of this have to do with crime fiction? I’m not sure, but I think there may be the seed of a plot forming in the back of my mind. A silent killer moving between hotels, perhaps, inhabiting two worlds.

Edgy place, Bournemouth…

The Village: Short story opening 5


Madison left Cathy to live with me.  They got a divorce, even though she didn’t want it, and we were married immediately.  Five months later he was dead.  His death was quick, but strange; even the doctor didn’t really know why he had died.  Several causes of death were listed on the birth certificate: organ failure, oedema, pneumonia – but they all seemed wrong, somehow.  He wasn’t a young man, but he hadn’t been unhealthy.  However, at the inquest, the coroner accepted that he’d died from natural causes.

At the time of his death, no settlement with Cathy had been agreed.  Madison had been astute financially and had employed excellent lawyers and accountants.  He’d started salting money into various bank accounts for me, some of them offshore, almost as soon as we met.  He knew that it had always been my ambition to run my own business and he was determined not to let Cathy stand in my way.  He said he was too old to work again, but it would be his very great pleasure to watch me succeed.

There was a will: it split his assets equally between Cathy and me.  My lawyer said that this was fair, since, if he had left Cathy to live on his own and offered her a fifty-fifty split, this would have been more than generous.  Now that he had passed on, his share had come to me, as was fitting.  After all, I was his wife.  Her lawyer disagreed because of the surprising smallness of the estate: it was worth less than fifty thousand pounds.  Even the house that Cathy lived in had been re-mortgaged.  There must be much more money, concealed somewhere, said her lawyer.  Madison’s accountants blamed the modesty of the inheritance on some unwise business ventures.  Cathy contested the will, but her appeal failed.

Braemar Cottage, the house that I had shared so briefly with Madison, was old – built in the eighteenth century, according to the deeds, though Madison thought that an even older property had once stood on the site.  Montrose, the house that Cathy now lived in alone, was also several hundred years old – Madison had liked old buildings.

I don’t care for the past: thinking about it depresses me; seeing evidence of it all around suffocates me.  Besides, the neighbours said that there was a ghost at Braemar Cottage, of a headless woman in a blue dress.  The place gave me the creeps.  I decided to sell it and buy somewhere bright and new: a place that would give me a clean sheet, with no past.  I found a buyer almost immediately – it is amazing how many people are sentimental about ‘period’ properties.  It was through him that I discovered that Montrose had also been put on the market (I suppose that Cathy couldn’t afford to keep it), but he had preferred Braemar Cottage, because of the new bathrooms and kitchen that I had insisted should be installed before I had agreed to live there.

The sale went through so quickly that I had to move into a hotel for a while.  I found my perfect residence quickly, too: a luxury flat on the top floor of a new tower block in Camden – the internal fittings and decorations weren’t even completed when I viewed – with integral office space for my new business.  The building possessed all of the virgin blankness that I craved.  It was ultra-modern, stylishly asymmetrical, minimalist but opulent in an understated way.  For example, although there were three conventional lifts for tradespeople and visitors, residents were given a pass to a special glass lift that had been installed exclusively for their use.  Day and night there were two porters at the security desk in the main entrance, as well as a doorman standing sentry at the revolving doors.  It was one of the porters, a short, cheerful East-Ender called Jarvis, who, during one of my inspection visits, volunteered to introduce me to the glass lift.

“I hope you don’t get vertigo,” said Jarvis as, with a waft of his pass-card, the glass doors slid open.  We were on my floor at the top of the building, the eighteenth.  He pressed the button, the doors snapped shut and the lift shot swiftly into motion, all, it seemed, in the same second.  I had hardly had time to take in the spectacular view across London before the lift, its glass walls, sides and floor all so highly polished that we appeared to be suspended in air, plummeted like a diving angel.  The sensation was extraordinary: it was like being in free-fall through space, both exhilarating and frightening.  I held on to the rail, and looked down through the glass as the marble floor of the basement flew towards me.  As I looked, the black-and-white squares of the floor broke apart and revealed a gaping pit beneath.  There was something in the pit, writhing and hideous.  I tapped Jarvis’s arm, forcing myself not to grip it.

“What’s that?” I gasped.

Jarvis and I stared down together.  At the same moment, the lift slowed and drew smoothly to a halt.

“What?” said Jarvis.  “See something interesting as we was coming down, did you?  What was it?”

I shrugged.

“I thought that the floor was opening up.  Obviously I was wrong – it must have been a trick of the light.”

“It’s with it being glass,” said Jarvis.  “It plays tricks on your eyes.  Optical illusions, innit?  That’s part of the fun.”


Footnote:  This concludes the series of five short story openings under the theme of ‘The Village’.  Readers of In the Family may perhaps recognise my experimentation with some of the fundamental features of fictional writing (plot development, narrative voice and perspective, character depiction, dialogue, context, atmosphere and mood and so on) that did influence my writing of the novel.  I hope that you have enjoyed dipping into them.   Thanks to those of you who have commented here and on Twitter and to those who have very kindly retweeted for me whilst I have been away.  Normal service resumes tomorrow! 


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