I love a locked room mystery, so when the call came for contributions to an anthology of stories featuring impossible crimes, I jumped at the chance to write one of my own.
My story, ‘The House by the Thames,’ is by way of being a tribute to the master of locked room mysteries, John Dickson Carr, aka, Carter Dixon, and was in fact inspired by JDC. A year or two ago, I read a short story of his. Yes, there was a body in a locked room, but the puzzle was less who had done it, than how they had done it. Though the room and the people in it were searched from top to bottom, no weapon was found and there appeared to be nowhere that it could have been concealed. As I neared the reveal, I thought I knew where the story was going and that for once I was ahead of Dickson Carr. But no! Fooled again! Looking back through the story, the clues had been there and it was all perfectly fair. But I still had got it completely wrong.
However mulling it over, it occured to me, that though my solution wasn’t the right one, it was still pretty good. I now had my own idea, quite different to JDC’s, about how a weapon might be made to varnish from a locked room. And that was how ‘The House by the Thames’ came to be written. The title is itself a hat-tip to the master: one of his most famous and macabre stories (though not the one that inspired mine) is ‘The House in Goblin Wood.’
‘The House by the Thames’ is published in The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which is out now. These are all new stories by some of the most best known American and British crime and thriller authors of today, including British Science Fiction Award winner Eric Brown, Derringer Award winner O’Neil de Noux, and multiple CWA Dagger Award winners and nominees.
I first started writing a journal twenty years ago when I was writing my first novel. At the beginning it was more of a writer’s notebook in which I jotted down ideas, scraps of conversations overheard on trains, anything that might one day end up in a story. Then it broadened out, particularly after the arrival of our daughter, when I wanted to record the things I knew I’d forget about life with a small child and the joys and challenges of motherhood. Some of that ended up in Stage Fright and Footfall, two of my Cassandra James mysteries, including for instance the time when, distracted by a furious toddler, I drove off with my handbag on the roof of my car.
I have two notebooks on the go at any one time, one for writing up at home and one for my handbag. At first I used whatever came to hand, and then I settled into using a black, hardback Moleskine notebook at home, and the most recent handbag notebook is a Leuchtturm1917, recommended by my writer friend Sue Hepworth. I am going to stick with those, because they have pages at the front for listing contents, which is something that I wish I had for my other notebooks. I am now on notebook 27 and there is an awful lot to trawl through if I want to find something and can’t quite remember where it is.
I don’t write in my journal every day – far from it. It is best to write it outside the house – sitting in a cafe, for instance. Not entirely sure why, but it is something to do with stepping aside from ordinary preoccupations for a while. It has to be hand-written. There is something about putting pen to paper that aids reflection.
I often refer to them. One example: I recently wrote a short story set near Cambridge during a heatwave. I wanted something to convey a sense of that. In one of my earliest notebooks I found a description of a farm lorry laden with hay bales lumbering along a road in the Fens: ‘Specks and stalks of chaff eddied behind it like sparks in the draught of a bonfire.’ That was just what I needed. Whenever I start a new novel or want an idea for a short story, it’s an invaluable resource.
My husband, the architectural historian and critic, Peter Blundell Jones, died in August 2016. It all happened very fast. I didn’t think to ask him where he wanted his archive to go and he didn’t leave any instructions in his will. It is an important body of material. In the course of his career Peter had interviewed leading architects all over Europe, taken millions of photographs, and kept all the research material for the books he had written. After a lot of thought and consultation with the children, I decided it should go to the University of Sheffield. The School of Architecture had been his academic home for the last twenty-two years of his life and it was where he had consolidated his reputation. He was happy there and was loved and respected. I felt confident that this was the right place.
It was, however, just the beginning of my job as Peter’s literary executor. Over the last year I have been preparing his archive for transfer to the university and that has been no small task. It wasn’t just that there was a huge amount of material – Peter kept EVERYTHING – but it was completely unfiltered. His correspondence was particularly problematic as it was ordered simply in chronological order, the personal mingling with the professional. Peter kept almost every scrap of correspondence, however trivial. One of the first letters in a box that I opened at random was from my lovely late mother-in-law thanking us for cooking Christmas dinner. I had to go through everything, picking out letters too personal to go into the archive, right back to the 1960s, years and years before I met him. I have had through my hands virtually every letter that Peter ever received. He often kept copies of letters that he sent, so sometimes I saw the other side of the correspondence, too. I began to feel like someone in a story by Borges, living someone’s life by proxy, going further and further into the past, almost overwhelmed by the deluge of information.
I have finished now. Forty-eight boxes are waiting to go to the university when lockdown ends. It has been poignant – heart-breakingly so at times – but it has also been wonderful to relive our years together. I have a sense of the whole of Peter’s life and can see how rich and rewarding it was. As for me, my task has been a labour of love, and also a way of grieving.
I have plenty of contemporary crime novels to hand that I am looking forward to reading, and yet these days I find myself more often turning to old friends. I’ve gone back to the novels of Ngaio Marsh and have just enjoyed Singing in the Shrouds, Scales of Justice, Clutch of Constables, Death and the Dancing Footman, and When in Rome. I have to say that she is not in my view the best of the GA writers. In Artists in Crime the middle stretch of the novel consists of interview after interview and she makes the mistake of having most of the characters be really repellent. Her attitudes towards homosexuality have not dated well. I was startled by that in Singing in the Shrouds. And she cannot hold a candle to Dame Agatha for plotting. Her strength lies in description and conjuring up atmosphere, and I think this owes something to her first career as a painter.
I’ve found myself thinking of when I first read her novels. It was the 1980s and I was a postgraduate student living in a bedsit in Birmingham. I can see it as I write this. There was a bed that unfolded from the wall, a small yellow galley kitchen, and a surprisingly cavernous bathroom. It was damp. I was tired of sharing student houses and wanted to live alone, but looking back, I can see that I was often lonely. I did have friends, but writing a Ph.D. thesis is a solitary occupation and it is easy to feel discouraged. Days could easily pass when I didn’t speak to anyone. Now that I think of it, I was far more isolated in those days before the internet and mobile phones than I am now in lockdown.
But then as now it was a comfort to escape into a familiar world with familiar characters and to know that at the end of the book all will be explained and order will be restored. I’ll be ready for more up-to-date reading soon, but just for now old friends are best.
Earlier this month the apple tree that we planted in memory of my husband, Peter, was in bloom. The warm days were followed by cold and windy weather that brought to my mind one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The power of art to console remains undimmed in these difficult days. Indeed, we need it more than ever.
So here it is, Sonnet XVIII.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
There are a few blogs that I always read and one of them is ‘Fragments of a Writer’s Life’, which can be found at SueHepworth.com. I’ll declare an interest – she is a good friend – but she is also one of the funniest people writing today. Sue has put together a selection of her posts spanning a decade and here is one of them. I can’t read it without laughing.
He called my bluff
‘No sooner had I finished writing an article on my longings for an empty nest than my 18-year-old called my bluff. He cares nothing for the current trend of young adults living forever at home. A friend had phoned and asked if he’d like to share a house with her. His eyes lit up. My eyes lit up. It was hard to know who was the more excited.
He went to his room to pack but then returned to say that his duvet needed washing before he went. The laundrette has just closed down in our local town and now the nearest is 15 miles away, so I rang Sketchley, who quoted me £15.99 and two weeks to wash the duvet.
“£15.99 ?” said my husband, horrified. He’d just been checking our dwindling Isas and decided we should combine the boy’s leaving with an economy drive which would begin with the easy cuts of (1) cancelling Kerrang, and (2) shunning supermarkets, now we won’t need to buy junk food.
Then he had an idea: “I’ll wash the duvet. That will save money.”
“But it’s a double one,” I said. “It won’t fit in our machine.”
“I’ll do it by hand in the fun tub.” (A fun tub, dear reader, is a huge plastic tub – three feet high and three feet across – in which builders put rubble, and which my husband uses for his DIY.) But the fun tub was languishing in the shed stuffed with used plastic cartons, which would one day “come in useful,” so he decided to use the bath, which is more commodious and also has (of course) running hot water.
He swung the duvet into the bath and started to run the taps, but the duvet behaved like a giant sponge and soaked up every drop of water. He couldn’t swish it around to make a washing motion, and had to bend right over and pummel the thing. It was like wrestling with an alligator, with my husband looking less like Paul Hogan and more like an also-ran in a wet T shirt competition.
Even when rinsed and squeezed it was so heavy that my husband – a strapping chap who is as strong as a pair of Charlie Dimmocks – found it hard to pick up. He had to bundle it up and clutch it to his chest like one of the contestants in The Strongest Man in the World competition in that event where they stagger for a hundred metres carrying a boulder as big as a buffalo.
The plan was to go down the stairs with it, through the open front door, and outside to the washing line. But he slipped just two steps from the bottom, lurched forwards and squeezed the duvet between himself and the wall, depositing three gallons of water on the hall floor.
And to think I’d been harbouring a fear that life might be a tad dull when my son left home.
Eventually he got the duvet outside and edged it bit by bit over the washing line, which then swooped grasswards in a giant parabola, though miraculously the trees to which it was tied remained rooted. It only took three days to dry.
With the duvet sorted everything else was simple. My son has been moving his stuff in bits and bats, and last night after tea he took himself. We drove three miles through the fog and the dripping wetness of the October night and I left him at the bus stop for his ride into town and his new house.
The empty nest is a strange place. I cannot think of another life event which combines such wildly conflicting emotions. Unaccustomed feelings of lightness and liberation sweep in, only to be edged aside by drifts of haunting wistfulness at the thought of the baby of the family growing up and leaving.
I gave him the biggest hug of his life in the hall before we left, because there wouldn’t be room in the car for a proper one, while the duvet-washer ( aka his Dad) stood with his arms folded and said: “A whole new exciting stage of life.”
“Aren’t you going to say ‘Good luck with your new exciting stage of life’?” I asked.
“I was thinking about me,” said his Dad.’
You can buy Days Are Where We Live here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/DAYS-ARE-WHERE-WE-LIVE-ebook/dp/B086HPVPJB
Just as you never step into the same river twice, you can never read the same book twice. You always bring something new to it. I recently listened to the divine Juliet Stevenson reading Sense and Sensibility. I first read Jane Austen when I was around the same age as the young women in her novels, and I find that these days, when I’m . . . well, let’s say a woman of a certain age, I see some aspects in a very different light. This time I felt unsatisfied by the ending of Sense and Sensibility. To summarise – I feel that in the case of such well-known novels, it’s not necessary to avoid spoilers – it is pretty clear early on that the recklessly romantic Marianne is going to come a cropper when she falls in love with the dashing Willoughby. Austen does make it clear that Mrs Dashwood failed in her duty to her daughter by allowing the seventeen year old Marianne full rein. But did Austen (and Mrs Dashwood) really have to go to the other extreme by marrying Marianne to Colonel Brandon, who is nearly twenty years older and decent but dull? Certainly not what I would have wanted for Marianne had I been her mother.
And there is the rub. Now that I am a parent myself, I find myself casting a critical eye over fictional parents (not that I am perfect myself, I freely admit). What about Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is presented as amusingly wry and ironic in contrast with his wife, who is foolish and vulgar. Yes, she IS foolish and vulgar and often misguided, but she is also right to be anxious to get her daughters settled with good husbands. The estate is entailed and they will lose most of their income when Mr Bennet dies. Not other career but marriage is open to them. The novels are in fact full of terrible parents – Mrs Price in Mansfield Park, Sir Walter in Persuasion, to name only two more.
Of course it’s not just Jane Austen. It wasn’t until I had children myself that I really understood what it meant for Anna Karenina to leave her son behind when she elopes with Vronsky.
This revisiting of old friends and seeing them in a new light is one of the pleasures of getting older and I’m interested in what other people feel about this.
While I am here, I’ll just mention that my first newsletter comes out tomorrow. You can subscribe here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/newsletter/
‘Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.’ Those are the most famous lines from the poem ‘To Althea from Prison’ by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, written around 1642. We are not exactly in prison, but we are certainly confined. Here is the whole thing, along with a picture of a violet in our garden.
When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.
When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep
Know no such Liberty.
When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
I’m delighted to welcome to my blog, my good friend Martin Edwards. Congratulations are in order as he is this year’s winner of the prestigious CWA Diamond Dagger for contributions to crime fiction.
His new novel, Mortmain, set between the wars, is just out. It is the follow-up to the splendid Gallows Court. It is on my TBR pile and I am looking forward to discovering what his glamorous heroine, Rachel Savernake, will get up to next. It opens with her boarding a funeral train on the London Necroplis Railway . . .
I asked Martin about the challenges and pleasure of writing historical crime fiction. This is what he had to say.
Writing the 1930s Today
Most of my fiction is set in the here and now, but I’m fascinated by history and over the years I’ve written quite a few mysteries set at different times in the past. These include numerous short stories and also a novel about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman; I loved writing that one because it gave me the chance to get inside the head of a strange and fascinating character.
During the past few years, I’ve indulged my lifelong love of Golden Age detective fiction in factual work such as The Golden Age of Murder and introductions to the British Library Crime Classics. I found myself increasingly drawn to the Twenties and Thirties, and this prompted me to try writing a novel set in 1930.
This book was Gallows Court; it represented a major departure from my previous novels, partly because I didn’t plan the storyline in advance, and partly because creating the lead character, Rachel Savernake, gave me the chance to write from a fresh perspective that I found exciting. Of course, even a historical novel reflects the attitudes of the period when it was written – so I aimed to embrace that reality, whilst trying to remain faithful to the conventions of the time when the action takes place.
Rachel and the journalist Jacob Flint return in my latest book. Mortmain Hall has an elaborate whodunit plot in the classic tradition, and I’ve revived the notion of the Cluefinder, setting out the clues to the mystery at the end of the story. Of course, one of the differences between this book and the novels written during the Golden Age is that I wasn’t alive in 1930, so research is vital.
Having soaked myself in vintage popular fiction, I had an advantage in terms of understanding the period, but I still found it necessary to research extensively. This takes time, but when it yields results, it can be infinitely rewarding. And one of the first reactions to Mortmain Hall – totally unexpected – was a post on the Desperate Reader blog (https://desperatereader.blogspot.com/2020/04/booze-and-books-mortmain-hall-post.html) discussing, of all things the various types of alcohol that feature in the book. Not only did I enjoy the piece enormously, I was also very glad that I’d taken the trouble to do my homework! Nobody can get it right all the time, but when writing a historical crime novel, one owes it to one’s readers to try to give the story a whiff of authenticity as well as serving up an entertaining mystery.
To find out more about Martin, do go to his splendid blog, one of my must-reads: DoYouWriteUnderYourOwnName.blogspot
Walking around our garden and seeing the spring flowers, a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins came into my head: ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’ I looked it up when I got inside and here it is, ‘God’s Grandeur.’ The flowers are, of course, forget-me-nots along with a single solitary celandine.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings