July 2023 Author Interview
A Meadow Murder
By Helen Hollick
Theme: Mystery in History
Author Bio: I moved from London to Devon in January 2013 (in the snow!) to live in an 18th Century farmhouse with thirteen acres of land. I live with my husband, adult daughter, several pets (dogs, cats, hens, geese, four horses, three Exmoor ponies, two pigs) and a few friendly ghosts.
I write historical fiction, getting to the nuts and bolts of the 'what might have really happened' story of King Arthur in my PENDRAGON'S BANNER Trilogy. There is no Merlin, no Lancelot, knights in armour, round table or holy grail - just the story of a warlord who has to fight hard for his kingdom and even harder to keep it. My Saxon Series - HAROLD THE KING (I AM THE CHOSEN KING is the US title) and its prequel, A HOLLOW CROWN (The FOREVER QUEEN is the US title) tells the story of the twilight years of Anglo-Saxon England immediately before the Norman Conquest. Stripping the Norman propaganda from what we think we know of that most famous date in English history - 1066 and the Battle of Hastings - my novels portray all the honour and dignity that history remembers of its fallen heroes and heroines.
My latest venture is branching out into the 'cosy mystery' genre with my library assistant 'Jan Christopher Mysteries' series set in the 1970s. The first three being A MIRROR MURDER, A MYSTERY OF MURDER, A MISTAKE OF MURDER, and Episode 4 launching July, 2023: A MEADOW MURDER.
More about Helen: https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
Book: Exclusive Preview of A Meadow Murder, Book 4 in the Jan Christopher Mysteries.
Librarian Jan Christopher is on holiday with her fiancé, Detective Constable, Laurie Walker. They should be relaxing in the beautiful Devon countryside, enjoying a break from the bustle of their London home. But suddenly they are thrust into the middle of a mysterious murder, which leads to high stakes events in the local horseracing community. A delicious cosy mystery set in the 70s.
Look for these themes in the excerpts below:
· A cast of local characters, building the “cosy” community
· Descriptions of the English countryside, setting a sense of false calm, and using the author’s own environment to build plot
· A catalyst that shifts the polarity of the scene
· Language and gestures that deepen the mystery
Excerpt 1 Chapter 1
(I’ve chosen this excerpt to show how I’ve woven together reality with fiction – this scene really is my home and a walk up my lane!)
It was a beautiful afternoon, so after changing into suitable shoes, Laurie and I set off arm-in-arm up the hill. Even though she wanted to come, we didn’t take Bess with us, because of the heat and she was starting to get old. Dogs are always enthusiastic about prospective ‘walkies’ but are not savvy enough to work out the consequence of a hot day combined with more than a mile to the village. Not a great distance, but for an elderly dog on a hot day, and despite it being nicely shaded beneath the trees bordering the lane – hazel, ash, oak, beech, birch, holly. Their leafy branches formed curved archways for us to stroll under.
There were two magnificent elm trees halfway up the lane. Laurie stopped to inspect them for any sign of the Dutch Elm Disease that was sweeping through much of southern Britain. The epidemic killing these beautiful old trees was a fungus spread by an invasive beetle. Such a shame. Nothing could be done to protect or save the trees.
“They look healthy enough,” Laurie said, taking my hand and walking on. He looked back over his shoulder. “Though I wonder how long before they succumb to this wretched disease.”
The hedges to either side were smothered in ferns and wildflowers: foxgloves, dogroses, honeysuckle, campion, stitchwort, valerian – they’re the ones I know. There were a lot more, including the inevitable nettles and brambles although at least the latter would produce plump, ripe blackberries come early autumn.
We stopped at the wooden gate into the bottom end of Top Meadow. “Ssh!” Laurie said putting his fingers to his lips, “go quietly to the gate and look over.”
He held back a long bramble so that I could step across the grass to the garden-type gate, and pointed. In the shadow of an oak tree two rabbits were nibbling at the clover and grass. I had to smile, remembering my favourite Little Grey Rabbit stories from childhood. One of those books was an earliest memory: I distinctly recall coming out from Walthamstow Junior Library, clutching a Little Grey Rabbit book, so thrilled because it was one I had not read. I was four. I liked to think that in the same way, children today left ‘my’ library at South Chingford clutching a much-loved treasure to read, enjoy and remember. My only slight disappointment was that these bunnies looked more brown than grey.
Laurie touched my arm and pointed again, whispered, “Look, over there in the field, where the land starts to slope down towards the woods.”
At first I couldn’t see anything, but then a movement caught my attention and I saw them, two fallow deer does browsing in the long grass, their distinctive spotty hides providing superb camouflage. I must have made some sort of appreciative sound because the bunnies scattered, their white scuts flashing as they disappeared into the concealing tall grass and meadow flowers that would soon be cut for hay. Alerted, the deer also turned tail and fled down the slope to vanish into the safe shadows of the woods at the bottom of the hill.
“I love it here,” I said to Laurie as I slipped my arm through his and we ambled on up the lane, to stop again at the top to lean on a larger, wooden farm gate to admire the panoramic view. No sign of the deer now, for the ‘V’ dip of woodland in this gentle part of the valley was hidden by the sloping terrain; only the top halves of the trees could be seen from up here. Laurie explained that a stream ran down through the woods, all the way from the village up on the ridge, to the River Taw meandering through the valley which gave the area its name.
“You can see some of the river from your bedroom window,” he said, “and part of the Tarka Line railway as it sweeps round a long bend.”
I nodded. I’d watched several trains chugging by the last time I’d been here, at Christmas. It had been quite exciting at night, to see the train’s line of carriage lights curving around the track, and hearing the rhythmic clickety-clack as it trundled over the wooden bridge crossing the river. It was like looking down on my own personal section of a model railway.
Excerpt 2 Chapter 9
This scene is the discovery of a murder... (no spoilers!)
We were all awake. Alf and Laurie ran down the stairs while the rest of us peered over the banisters, wondering who on earth could be bashing at the door at five-thirty in the morning. In the hall, Alf grabbed the still barking Bess’s collar and Laurie opened the door. A woman half-staggered, half-fell into his arms.
“That’s Dorothy Clack!” Elsie exclaimed as she tightened her dressing gown belt and hurried down the stairs.
I was surprised. I’d somehow assumed that Dorothy Clack was a frail, grey-haired old biddy, but she was neither frail nor old; in fact she was about Elsie’s age and the almost spitting image of popular shop worker Mavis Wilton in ITV’s soap drama series, Coronation Street, played by actress Thelma Barlow. The character was a moralising, dithering spinster with a fertile imagination. The sort of woman who had no idea how to arrange her paranoid soul.
“Oh crikey,” I whispered to Aunt Madge and Uncle Toby as we trailed more sedately in Elsie’s wake, “I hope it’s not another flying saucer or walkabout scarecrow hoax, not this unearthly time of a morning!”
Elsie managed to prise Mrs Clack’s clutching hands away from Laurie’s dressing gown collar – the woman was nearly strangling him in her deep distress. “Come into the kitchen and sit down, pet,” Elsie said. “What about a nip of brandy, Alfred?”
Mrs Clack’s pale face wrinkled into disapproval. “No, no, I never touch alcohol.”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Aunt Madge offered as an alternative shock remedy. “I reckon we could all do with a cup of tea.”
“No time for that! Oh dear, oh dear. I didn’t know what to do!” The distraught woman pulled away from Elsie and shifted her clinging fingers to Alf. “He’s dead! Down in the woods! He’s dead!”
Laurie helped steer Mrs Clack into the kitchen and sat her down. We gathered round, concerned and puzzled.
“Who is dead, Dorothy?” Elsie asked, taking the woman’s hands in her own. Poor Mrs Clack was in such a state, her dress was torn, her hair was dangling in disarray from what had, I assumed, been a neat chignon not long ago. Her coat was half off and she had bramble scratches on her legs and hands.
“Or what is dead, Mrs Clack?” Laurie added, squatting down in front of her. “Have you found a dead badger or deer, perhaps? I think there might have been poachers around last night.”
She grasped his hand, I saw Laurie wince, she held it so tightly. “I watch that big sett of badgers at the back of your field most nights. I make myself comfortable in a little camouflaged den I’ve made amongst those rhododendron bushes and sit and watch them until dawn. I take scraps of food for them. They’re quite tame now. Did you know that badgers love peanuts? I buy them especially.”
“Yes, I knew that. So you were in the woods, watching the badgers? What time was this?”
“I go down there about midnight.”
“With a torch?”
I thought that was a rather odd question for Laurie to ask her, but didn’t comment. He would, no doubt, have his reasons.
Mrs Clack produced a torch from her string bag. “Yes of course. You’d not expect me to walk through the woods without one would you?”
Laurie smiled, explained. “No, I thought I saw torchlight last night, wondered if it was poachers, but it was probably you after all, which is a relief. Do go on, Dorothy, what happened next?”
“I was making my way home and found him.”
“The leprechaun. He was slumped against the headstone. Quite dead.”