A few months ago my good friend Margot Kinberg wrote a post on her splendid blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, about novels that end where they began. I suggested that Margot write a short story that began and ended with the same sentence and her reply was along the lines of ‘I will if you will.’ It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I thought it would be great fun and so it’s proved . We agreed to post them today and link our blogs. She hadn’t read my story and I hadn’t read hers. I could hardly wait. Here is her story – it’s a cracker – at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. It’s called ‘Wine Country.’ This is mine and the title is ‘Cold for May.’
It was cold for May, very cold.
But it wasn’t as cold as that woman’s heart.
With most of the people I’ve cleaned for, I’ve soon been on first-name terms, but not with her. Oh, I was Jenny to her, but she insisted on being Mrs Forster to the end. She was the kind of employer every cleaner hates, always looking to find fault, always setting little traps to see if I was doing my job properly. And then there was the trouble over her gold bracelet that went missing. From the way she questioned me, it was obvious that she thought I’d pinched it. I found the bracelet a week or two later down the side of a chair, but she didn’t bother to apologize. So why didn’t I hand in my notice, you ask. Well, if it hadn’t been for the old gentleman, I would have. And when I say gentleman, I mean gentleman. Those too were so different you’d hardly credit that they were father and daughter.
When I first started cleaning there, Mr Pullman was still living alone. He had his bed in a big room downstairs looking out onto the garden. It had a nice Georgian fireplace and bookcases and red velvet curtains. With a fire in the winter, it was cosy and in the summer, there was a lovely view of the garden. But then he became bed-ridden, and his divorced daughter moved in to look after him. And to give her her due, he was well looked after in a way, but there was precious little love in it. She had all sorts of petty little rules, like not having a fire after the end of March – and he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. Not that he was much of a smoker, but he did like the odd cigar. And other thing, before she came, he’d have visitors, other nice old ladies and gents. She let them know they weren’t welcome and that stopped. He was lonely, poor old gent, and that’s why I stayed.
Tuesday and Friday mornings were my times and Mrs Forster used to go out to do her shopping or go to the hairdressers. I’d take my tea-break in his room and we’d have a chat. She didn’t know about that and she wouldn’t have liked it if she had known. We used to talk about my kids and about his other daughter, Cordelia, living in Toronto with her husband. She’d just had her first baby. She was a lot younger than Mrs Forster – they were half-sisters, I believe. Just as soon as she and the baby could travel, they’d be coming over to see him.
It was a miserable day in early May, raining stair-rods, when I arrived at the house and Mrs Forster asked me to witness the signing of her father’s new will. I expected to see a solicitor, but no, it was just him and her and the next-door neighbour as the other witness. Well, he signed it alright and Mrs. Forster covered the will with a blank piece of paper, just leaving the bit at the bottom for me and the neighbour to sign. Downright rude, I call that. I wouldn’t have looked anyway. She sealed it in an envelope and gave it back to her father. He wrote his name on it and she hustled us out of the room.
Later that morning when me and Mr. Pullman were having our tea together, I could see that something was bothering him. He said, half to himself, ‘Perhaps it’s only fair that as she’s living here and looking after me, she should have the house.’
So then I knew. She’d persuaded him to change his will and leave the house to her. Worth a bloody fortune it would be, property prices being what they are in Hampstead. We’re talking millions! There was plenty for the two daughters, but that wasn’t enough for her, she had to cut Cordelia out. He was miserable about it, I could tell, hadn’t wanted to do it. But he was at her mercy. Undue influence they call it, don’t they? I bet she threatened to go off and leave him, have him put in a home.
After a while he beckoned me to come closer, though there was only us in the house. He said, ‘Jenny, go over to my desk. I want you to get something for me. You see that drawer second down on the right?’
I did – and I saw something else: an envelope sticking out of a pigeon-hole. So that was where she’d put the will.
‘Pull the drawer right out,’ he went on. ‘There’s another little drawer behind it. You have to hook your finger under it. Nobody knows about that.’ Meaning that she didn’t know.
There was a roll of twenty pound notes in there. I took them over to Mr. Pullman and when I gave them to him, he pressed them back into my hand. ‘There’s £500 there. I want you to have it. I was going to leave you something in my will, but well . . . better in any case that you have it now.’ I told him it was too much, but he said, ‘You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t take it,’ and I could see he meant it, the dear old man, and it was his to do what he liked with.
We sat quietly together, watching the rain streaking the windows and the branches of the horse chestnuts thrashing about. There was a chill in the air.
‘It’s a miserable day,’ I said. ‘Would it cheer you up to have a fire?’
And he said that it would. And while he was at it, he was going to have a cigar and the hell with it.
The following week Cordelia arrived with her baby. Talk about chalk and cheese. She was a lovely young woman, a breath of spring, not a bit like her half-sister. The weather changed too, and I’m glad Mr Pullman had that time with her, though I could see how tired he was getting.
I wasn’t surprised when Mrs Forster rang me this morning to say that her father had passed away in the early hours. His poor old ticker had given out, that’s all. The excitement of seeing Cordelia and her baby had been too much for him. I told Mrs Forster that I’d only been coming for his sake and that I wouldn’t be coming again.
But I do wish I could see her face when she opens that envelope and finds a blank piece of paper instead of her father’s new will. And I can’t help but laugh when I think of what he used as a spill to light that cigar. She might suspect my part in it, when she thinks back to that chilly morning when she tore me off a strip for lighting a fire in his bedroom. But she won’t be able to prove anything.
It was like I told her at the time.
It was cold for May, very cold.
It’s a great pleasure to have Margot Kinberg as my guest on the blog today. Margot’s wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, is a must-read for me and many other fans of crime fiction. Her knowledge of crime fiction is encyclopaedic, she blogs every day – yes, every day! – and yet her standard never slips. I have picked up so many books for my TBR list from her and she has started some fascinating debates. She sets some killer quizzes, too!
She is also the author of the Joel Williams series of crime novels. The latest, Past Tense, combines two things I especially enjoy, a campus crime and a cold case when, during the excavations for a new building, the body of a student who disappeared forty years ago is discovered. It’s a splendid read.
Welcome to the blog, Margot.
Thanks so much for inviting me, Christine. It’s a privilege and an honour.
The honour is all mine, Margot. Let me begin by asking how you carve out time to write fiction? What’s your writing routine?
I’ve found that I write best in the morning, so I try to commit some time each morning to my fiction. I must admit, there are days when I can’t. I’m in higher education, and, as you know, academia doesn’t really keep a regular schedule. But I do make an effort. And my thinking is, even twenty minutes and a few sentences is progress. I try to guard my writing time jealously, too; when I’m writing, I don’t answer email or check social media. I write. I also jot down notes if I get an idea when I’m not at home. Later, I look back on those notes when I’m actually writing.
Things are a bit different when I’m not teaching. Then, I try to focus as much as I can on my writing, because my non-teaching schedule is a bit more flexible. So, that’s when I do those major revisions that require a lot of extended attention.
What comes first for you, plot, characters, or theme?
For me, it’s always character first. I write crime fiction, so my first stop is always the victim. I think about who that person is, and what that person is like. That leads me, then, to the people in the victim’s ‘inner circle’ – those who might have the most likely motives for murder. Then, I move to other people who know the victim.
From all of these interactions and relationships, I can get a sense of what might have happened to cause the murder. And that’s where the plot comes in. The ‘how’ and ‘when’ often come once I’ve worked out who’s killed, why, and by whom. The better I get to know the characters, the better the plot works, anyway.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read and why?
I’m very fortunate that there are a lot of highly talented writers out there whose works I enjoy. It’s hard to pin down just a few, as I think I learn something from just about every author I read. But here are one or two.
I’m a fan of Paddy Richardson, whose characters are so beautifully done, and whose writing style I really admire. If it’s by Paddy Richardson, I’m sure I’ll love it. She really does deserve more attention than she gets. I admire Michael Connelly, too, on a few levels, not the least of which is his consistency. He’s been writing for twenty-five years, and has remained consistently strong as an author. There are plenty of other contemporary authors, too whose work I really respect – far more than there is space here. Going back to the classics, there’s no doubt that Agatha Christie is my hero. True, some of her books are stronger than others. But overall, the body of her work is so well done, and what clever plots! I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just say I learn something new from her every time I re-read one of her stories.
A favourite bookshop?
Sadly, I don’t live anywhere near one of the ones I like best. It’s Baldwin’s Book Barn, located in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a converted barn – five floors filled with all kinds of books. A person could get lost for days, just browsing. I miss it very much actually.
I’ve another top shop, though, in San Diego, which is about 35-40k from where I live: The Mysterious Galaxy. Its specialties are crime fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. It’s an indie shop, so it’s got its own distinctive style. I also love the fact that the owners welcome authors – even those who aren’t ‘household names.
What are you writing at the moment?
Thanks for asking. Right now, I’m revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. It’s going well, but not nearly as quickly as I’d like. As you know, revisions can take time, and one small revision in one part of a story has a ‘cascade effect’ in others. I’m optimistic, though (most of the time!).
I’m also working on a standalone – quite different to the Joel Williams novels. In that way, it’s a bit like your choice to write Deep Water, which is different to your Cassandra James series. In the novel I’m working on, a fifteen-year-old homeless girl, Staci McKinney, witnesses the aftermath of a murder. The criminals catch sight of her, too. In part, the novel follows Staci as she tries to stay clear of the murderers and survive. As the novel goes on, she’s befriended by Leo Slater, a thief and fence who has his own past history. Staci decides to work with Leo, who in turn, gives her a safe place to live and some protection against the criminals who are looking for her. The novel follows the murder investigation as well as what happens in Staci’s own life. It’s a bit of a departure for me, as it’s a slightly darker novel than what I usually write. But I’m very much enjoying the process, and it’s ‘stretching’ me as a writer.
And finally: how do you do it, Margot? How do you manage to post every day and keep up such a high standard?
First, thank you. It means a lot to me that you enjoy what you find on the blog. I’m really glad you do. For me, crime fiction is utterly fascinating on so many levels. There’s always something new to discover, always some new perspective from which to look at the genre. And there are so many fine crime novels out there that there are always other talented authors to try. What’s not to love? Besides, keeping a blog is good writing discipline for me. And, I enjoy sharing my passion for the genre, so for me, it’s not an onerous task. It’s more along the lines of excitedly talking about a much-loved film or book with a group of friends.
And that’s the other thing that keeps me blogging: the wonderful group of readers and writers, such as yourself, who share an interest in crime fiction. I learn so much from everyone! The comments I get on my blog are so informative, and I treasure the online friendships I’ve made.
Thanks again for hosting me!
It has been a pleasure, Margot. Good luck with your writing and I look forward to visiting you many more times at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.