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Release day!

Lessons in Following a Poisonous Trail is out now.

Somebody appears to be lacing certain Cambridge dons’ food with laxatives. When they appear to have turned to stronger poison Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith get on the trail. Only Jonty’s laid up in sick bay with a rugby injury so he’ll have to wait for the clues to come to him..

Excerpt:

A bright afternoon, with a gentle breeze. St Bride’s rugby pitch, the home team turning out against St Thomas’s college. A tight game, hard fought. Jonty, arms raised to charge down a drop kick from the opposition, stumbled over a churned-up piece of turf, found himself diving headlong towards a boot and took evasive action. It wasn’t his best decision.  

*** 

“What are you?” Orlando Coppersmith frowned so hard that his entire forehead resembled a linen shirt that had just been wrung.
“Well, to give me my full title, I’m the Kildare Fellow in Tudor Literature.” Jonty Stewart put on a brave front but he knew that he would not stand a cross-examination. Especially when he was at the disadvantage of lying on a bed in the St. Bride’s college sickbay with the twin intimidations of his lover’s scowling presence in the room and the college nurse outside the door, cleaving her prow-bosomed way en route to the rest of her charges.
“I don’t refer to your paid employment, Dr Stewart, I allude to your conduct today. The conduct that brought you here.”
Jonty sighed. “I know. I’m an idiot.”
Orlando’s mouth almost tweaked into a smile but he managed to restrain it. “I would have thought the Kildare Fellow would have been able to produce an adjective to go with the noun.” He sat back in the little wooden chair provided for visitors, his arms folded, awaiting the answer.
“I’m a complete and utter idiot.”
“That’s nearer the truth. I can think of a few more terms but I’ll excuse you them. Given your condition.”

“I thank you for such small mercies.” Jonty changed position, easing his leg. Only a patchwork quilt covered his lower regions, hiding the fact that he wore neither shoes nor socks or indeed anything below the waist. Not that he’d been wearing trousers when the mishap had happened. His right calf had been bandaged up to within an inch of its life after his rugby shorts had been cut off him quite mercilessly by Orlando and the nurse, who had decided that, despite being baggy, they’d never come off in the normal way without causing more pain and damage.

Jonty suspected that Orlando would have been happy to suggest that was exactly what they should do to teach him a lesson. He had huffed and puffed and complained all the way through the process, probably to cover up the fact that he was worried. Jonty could only hope he’d enjoyed it just a little bit. Getting their hands on each other’s flesh was usually a treat without comparison and one unlikely to be repeated any time soon, given the state of Jonty’s leg.

Mercy had eventually triumphed over justice, so now he had been made comfortable, propped up with pillows to await the arrival of the doctor.

“I bet you’re enjoying this.” Orlando had risen, to stare out of the small window across the college rooftops. “Being borne on a stretcher from the rugby pitch, into an invalid carriage and through St. Bride’s, like Queen Victoria in her pomp. Now having the prospect of being waited on hand and foot, with everyone fussing round you.”

“That may appeal, but my leg hurts like billy-oh.” Jonty carefully smoothed over the quilt, which was said to be the product of Ariadne Sheridan’s fair hands. Back in the days she’d been Ariadne Peters and the chatelaine of the master’s lodge at the side of her brother, she’d crafted a series of beautiful covers for the sick bay. To provide, she’d said, a little touch of home comfort for the students—or fellows—who found themselves ensconced there.

“One might say it served you right to be suffering.” Orlando, still in his muddy rugger jersey, kept his gaze fixed outside, possibly afraid that if he contemplated Jonty’s stricken frame his mood might soften. “What exactly did you do on that pitch?”

“I scored one magnificent try and made another. Both of the kicks beautifully taken by—”
“No Jonty. That wasn’t the question. What did you do to get yourself laid up like this?”
“Ah. Yes. Well.” The dreaded question to which the questioner knew the answer and was using it to make the recipient squirm. Jonty took a deep breath. “Well, I started to charge down this drop kick and then I saw a boot coming straight for my face. At which point I thought Mama wouldn’t want to see her lovely boy disfigured so I twisted out of the way and…” He tailed off. The rest must have been obvious at the time, from the awful way his leg had gone awry as he hit the ground to the howl of pain that he had given. He was sure he’d heard a breaking noise, as well, but perhaps best not to mention that at present. “It was better that my leg copped it, surely, rather than me lose my good looks?”

LessonsPoisonousTrail

The last of the daffodils

Strange to say that, under the present regime of social isolation, we’re walking more than we normally do – all locally – and seeing folk around we haven’t seen for years! It’s lovely watching spring developing a little more every day.

Great to find the last few daffodils in bloom – most of them are over by now. This is at the old school, which is now used as a community centre (during normal times.)

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Keeping sane – life commentaries

I am completely addicted to Nick Heath’s life commentaries, which you can find on his twitter feed and youtube channels. A warning – these are very British in humour, totally addictive and can have the unexpected effect of making you start doing your own.

We are having a sunflower growing competition in the family – hosted by eldest daughter – who posted a picture today in our iPhone group showing my seed had sprouted ahead of the others. I couldn’t resist: “Well, you join me live at the West End sunflower sprouting event, where we have a false start by ‘Mum’s Fancy’. Over the line before the starter waved the flag, so that one will have to go to the stewards for a decision.”

 

Locked down but having fun

Yesterday we were supposed to be having a family get together to celebrate a couple of birthdays. Thanks to the wonders of ipads and the internet, we still had our do – lots of laughs, many a glass raised, quizzes and games and plenty of fun. Bonus? I was able to wear my pyjamas and it didn’t matter.

There are some bonuses to the present unpleasantness. We are getting out and walking locally every day (3 miles yesterday) and it’s having a positive effect on our muscles. We’re getting inventive with recipes and making sure as little as possible gets wasted. We’re loving the re-runs of the Ryder Cup and Opens that are on the telly. Some of these are matches young Ros has only been told about so she’s delighted to see for real things like “The day the Ryder Cup was won by paddy McGinley’s putt”. The daily challenge I put up on our iPhone group is proving a huge success–to the extent the family want me to carry on once the Lockdown is over.

Found this from a year ago today: at some point this will be possible again!

 

Charlie’s latest newsletter

 
Well, what a difference a fortnight makes. Feels like the world has turned a bit skew-whiff, doesn’t it? I for one am battening down the hatches, socially isolating and generally trying to be sensible. (My family might say that’s the most extraordinary part of the situation!) 
 
News
 
Just a reminder about upcoming releases. Lessons in Following a Poisonous Trail is first up and available for pre-order, for a release date of 6th April.
 
Then I’ve a short story in Given in Evidence: A Collection of Short Crime & Thriller Stories from Lume books (the new name for Endeavour Media, who have the Cambridge Fellows books.) Pre-orders for that go live on April 10th and it’s released on May 1st.
 
Then later in May the next Lindenshaw mystery – A Carriage of Misjustice – hits the shelves. I’ll post the link when I have it.
 
First part of a free story!
 
My youngest daughter has been coming up with some strange but brilliant ideas for short stories and I’ll share them as they get written. Ever wondered what happened to Tiny Tim after the events of A Christmas Carol? This is the first instalment of his unofficial biography…
 
“God bless us, every one.”
How I grew to hate those words.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d only been made to repeat them every Christmas, but Uncle Ebenezer made me trot them out every time he saw us. Even Ma became tired of it and she had the patience of angels. Still, he’d seen us alright—after the Christmas Eve business—so she didn’t kick up too much of a fuss. I don’t think I minded too much at the time, doing my party piece, but I was only a wee tiddler in those days, barely six the Christmas Scrooge saw the light.
Did I believe his stories about the ghosts? I’ve been asked that plenty of times—I’ll state that my belief has ebbed and flowed like the tide up and down the Thames. I didn’t hear the details until a few years after, when Ma and Pa decided I needed to be told the full tale and I remember not accepting any part of it as true. The more I thought about events, though, even my infant mind recognised something profound must have happened to the man for him to have changed his character so completely. Maybe he dreamed the ghosts were visiting him or had some sort of hallucination under the influence of whatever he could get hold of down Limehouse in those days. I didn’t add the Limehouse bit to my thinking until I was much bigger, of course,
I don’t think he made the story up. When he first gave me his version of what happened that night, I became convinced there had to be a kernel of truth. Now I understand better and I know that a man can carry his ghosts around with him every day. Events past, present and in times yet to come walk alongside us, influencing our actions. Uncle Ebenezer’s changed him for the better: not all men are so fortunate.
“God bless us, every one.”
It was bad enough when it was only the Cratchits who knew I’d said that. Then Dickens got hold of it. He was an author—I don’t think I met him unless I was too young for him to lodge in my memory—and somehow he’d got hold of the story of Scrooge’s redemption. Pa reckoned that tale had gone all around London and back again. Bit of a nine days’ wonder and probably going to be forgotten by everyone except us, until he got hold of it.
Charles Dickens needed a story.  His last one hadn’t been that successful, so he wanted to put some money back in his pocket, although I didn’t find that out until much later. I also didn’t discover until I was grown up how disappointed he’d been with his profits from A Christmas Carol. Touch of the Scrooge, there? He’d published it himself and it had sold well enough, but it had cost him a pretty penny to turn out, which had eaten into the proceeds. Among other things which had affected them.
Anyway, he needed a story and it seems that one day he met a man who had one to share. This cove had been collecting for his charitable causes the previous Christmas and had got short shrift from Scrooge one day and a whacking great donation from him the next. A miracle, he’d said, a Christmas miracle. Grist to Dickens’s mill, of course, a tale of redemption with his old friends poverty and pathos thrown into the mix. I provided the pathos.
He didn’t bother to check with Pa, Ma, or even old Ebenezer, whether they were happy to have our lives made public. He could have had the decency to change the names, but I guess he thought they added to the authenticity. Ma said he was going to call me Little Fred in the book, but he decided against it for some reason.
“How did you find that out?” I asked her, when I was just turned ten and reaching the age I didn’t automatically assume that mothers knew everything.
He told me. Charles Oh look how I love the poor Dickens.” She never minced words did my mother, God rest her soul.
“When? When did you talk to him?”
“Not long after that book was published.” Its title was never spoken of in our family. That book was all the name it deserved. “I found out where he lived and went to see him. You father tried to stop me, as did your Uncle Ebenezer. Both too soft by half, that pair. But I would not be stopped.”
It would have taken one of the elephants from the Zoological Gardens to prevent my mother doing something she was set on. “What did he say when he found you on the doorstep?”
“People like that do not find other folk on their doorsteps. They have servants to answer the door.” Ma’s face cracked into a grin. “A butler. All dressed up like a prime minister. He did not get time to announce me, because I barreled past him and straight into his master’s study.”
“How did you know where to go?” I recall thinking that maybe I’d been wrong and Ma really did know everything.
“I had seen him at the front window as I walked past the house. Getting the lie of the land, I was, so when I called, I could beard him in his den. He did not know what had hit him. Although, Tim, you must understand that I did not resort to physical violence. That would have been wrong. Gave him a proper lashing with my tongue, though. Told him he had no right putting what had happened to us on the pages of his books for profit.”
“Wow. He must have been in a taking. Did you threaten him with the law?”
“I did. I was thinking of saying I would take him to the newspapers, but he might have liked that. All the publicity for his books, after the last one flopped.” She rolled her eyes. “It was too late to make everything secret again, now that so many people knew our story, so I said I would put the matter into the hands of Mr Scrooge’s solicitors if Dickens did not act like a proper Christian gentleman. He saw the light, eventually.”
“And what next, Ma? You can’t leave the story there.”
“I was not going to. Just had to catch my breath. Well, young Tim, what happened next was that Mr Dickens felt it was right and proper to ensure that the people he had misused should benefit from his actions.” She waved her hand, taking in our elegant parlour. “Mr Scrooge’s generosity did not buy us all this. It helps, of course, and I am most grateful to the man, but that book put the cream on the pudding.”
So, there it was. Pragmatic as ever, my mother, so she’d turned misfortune to our advantage.
Life certainly turned on its head, one way or another, when I was just a little boy. You’ll know about the limp and the crutches, naturally, and how I might have died had it not been for the changes that happened to the Cratchits. We bought a house—a warm and dry one—with a garden, so I could get out and play with my brothers and sisters. There was more food on the table, and different. Good quality meat and vegetables, fruit in season and occasionally out of.
The longer we’d been living there, the stronger my legs grew. I don’t really know what the problem was or what made it better: maybe the former was want and the latter the escape from it. Whatever had worked the cure, by the time I was fifteen I could walk with only a slight limp. The crutches had long gone, although I sometimes used a cane, especially when the weather was damp. That still applies now, even though I get about pretty well for a man in his sixties. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would have been amazed.
There have been fixty five Christmases, to my reckoning, since then and London has seen a lot of change, one way or another. And while people haven’t forgotten that book, other heroes of literature have replaced the Cratchits and Scrooge in the readers’ minds. Sherlock Holmes has captured everyone’s imaginations, although I prefer a good laugh. Give me Diary of a Nobody rather than A Study in Scarlet any day.
The British public loves a bit of crime, though. A murder, whether real or fictional, gives them a thrill. That might either be fear or, in some instances, the exposure of a deeply hidden streak of their personality. Funny how the deaths of young women or children seem to produce a particular wave of interest. Of course, some folk simply want to be one step ahead of the police or the fictional detectives. Proving they’re cleverer than Sherlock—or the poor old peeler on the beat—by working out the identity of the killer before the end of the book or before the police make an arrest. Even Jack the Ripper didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for that game.
Jack the Ripper. Will people still be talking about him in a hundred years’ time the way they talk about him today? If I had a guinea for every occasion I’ve heard somebody say they’re sure they can identify who he was and what evidence led them to that conclusion, I’d be even richer than Dickens. I have no idea who lurked behind those crimes and no interest in finding out. Ma might have been keen to offer an opinion, had she lived to read the newspapers of the time, but she’d passed on—cheery to the last, even though she was riddled with consumption.
I still miss her: I suppose I always will. Money apart—being the thing, I appreciate, that meant I survived my early years—Ma was the biggest influence on my life. She tried to instill into all of us a sense of right and wrong, of generosity and fairness.
“Tim,” she used to say, “always be led by your conscience. It will tell you what to do, better than some of those parsons that stand up and preach the good lord knows what nonsense.”
One day I asked, “Were Uncle Ebenezer’s ghosts his conscience pricking him?”
“More than likely. I do not for a moment think he was visited by any supernatural beings but I am willing to allow that he might have had a vivid dream. So vivid he woke believing it had actually happened to him, flying through the sky and everything.”
I remember nodding. I’d had dreams like that, waking the next morning terrified. Were they my conscience pricking me?
“Or perhaps he did not see anything at all, real or imaginary. Apart from an understanding of what a terrible old miser he had been. Dressed the tale up to make it more convincing. People do that.” She took my hand, rubbing it like she used to when I was small and in pain and there was nothing much else she could do to help. “Keep your own tale plain and honest, Tim. Like your ma and pa have tried to and like I hope all my family will. None of us need any lardy-dardy authors over-spicing the plum pudding.”
 
To be continued next time…
 
And finally – only a year ago we were cruising round the Canaries. (This is a volcanic cave on Madeira.)One day it’ll get back to normal again!
 

 
lots of love

Charlie