Every couple of months I do my interviewer bit for the International Thriller Writers magazine, The Big Thrill. Latest one is available now – talking about Jane Austen fans for Pride, Prejudice and Poison.
Good afternoon (or morning or evening, depending on when this finds you). Life at Cochrane central bounces along as normal, the latest invasion of workmen being to replace the wooden posts either side of our drive entrance that were rotted away at the base and at risk of falling over if they encountered anything more vigorous than a butterfly going past. It’s all go here!
Very busy over the last fortnight. Love in Every Season is now available in ebook and An Act of Detection is out from Williams and Whiting in both print and e-book. Lots of positive feedback about that cover. An Act of Detection consists of two stories, one a reissue and the other brand, spanking new.
Of course, like buses, covers come in bunches, so I have the artwork for the next Cambridge Fellows novella to share with you, too. Isn’t it great? Many thanks to the multi-talented Alex Beecroft for kitting out this series.
Lessons in Playing a Murderous Tune is now up for pre-order. Release date 26th August.
The excerpt today has to be from the new Alasdair and Toby story in An Act of Detection.
Stars of the silver screen Alasdair Hamilton and Toby Bowe wow the post WWII audiences with their performances. But when they depict Holmes and Watson life starts to imitate art. They get asked in by a friend to investigate a mysterious disappearance only to find a series of threatening letters—and an unwanted suitor—make real life very different from the movies. Then there’s an unpleasant co-star who’s found murdered during an opening night. Surely detection can’t be that hard?
Whitlock hadn’t exaggerated.
George Howell was far beyond the help of medical aid, with what appeared to Toby’s untutored eyes to be a stab wound plumb in the left side of his chest, the blood massing on his crisp white dinner shirt. The actor was lying in an alcove off one of the corridors back of house, just around a corner from the office where Toby had made his telephone call. Most likely George had been lying there already dead while Phyllis was being contacted, although why had nobody noticed him before?
“Nobody ever comes along here,” Whitlock said, his thoughts clearly going down the same lines. “I only went to investigate because…” He turned a ghastly greenish shade, as though about to decorate the carpet with his stomach contents.
“Steady on. Let’s go back around the corner where we can’t see him. There’s nothing we can do to help the chap now, except keep gawkers away. Mr. O’Connor will have ensured the police are on their way.”
They’d encountered the doorman in the corridor, Whitlock asking him to contact the authorities as a matter of urgency. And to ensure all the external doors were locked and kept locked after he’s done so.
Once they’d got safely out of sight, Toby halted. “You were saying?”
“What? Oh, yes. Nobody would usually be going to that part of the building at this time of day. Haunt of cleaners and the like. I only went to investigate because of the theatre cat. He’s black and white you see, only when he came round the corner and trotted towards me I noticed that the white bits were—” Whitlock paled again.
“Yes, I get the drift.” Like the old joke, black and white and red all over. “It might be an idea to see if we can locate the cat before he’s had the chance to clean himself. He could be carrying vital evidence.” As would the killer themselves, given how far the blood had spread, although the moggy might have had something to do with that aspect. The soiled murder weapon would be tricky to hide, especially to smuggle out of the building—why had the killer not left it there in an attempt to make it look like an unusual suicide? Although the killer could be long gone by now, those locked theatre doors having been locked too late to prevent the horse bolting.
The sound of Alasdair’s voice, in conversation with Sir Ian, floated up the stairs. Toby sprang to head them off. “I’m afraid it’s definitely George. Stabbed to death by the look of it. Mr. Whitlock’s in a fair state about the situation.”
Alasdair gave him a brief are-you-all-right glance, to which Toby nodded. He’d seen much worse during the war, and among men he’d liked better. Alasdair turned to O’Connor, who had followed them, a few steps behind. “Best take Mr. Whitlock downstairs to the green room and get a sweet tea into him if somebody will rustle one up.”
“Oh, God,” Sir Ian groaned, when they’d taken him to view the body. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” He eyed the corpse again, then ran his hands through what little hair still adorned his pate. “This is terrible, and not just for him. You’ll think me hard-hearted, but what about the publicity? For the theatre and for the studio.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Alasdair’s stern tones were evidently as clipped as he dared when addressing somebody who had such power over his career. “It’s the sort of sensation that will make people flock to his last film, anyway. The man plying the murderer is himself murdered.”
Toby nodded. A cynical viewpoint, admittedly, but probably an entirely realistic assessment of the situation.
“I’m not thinking of that, so much as…” Sir Ian appeared to be struggling for words, even though he’d have seen men killed much more brutally the best part of forty years previously. “There were plenty of Landseer people here tonight. What if one of them killed Howell? A viper in our midst.”
That was a scenario that even Alasdair’s finest raising of the insured eyebrow wouldn’t have been expressive enough to remark upon.
And finally – a lovely summer sky over Cochrane central.
I usually mark the start of the torture that is an Ashes series with a repost of “Once we Won Matches”, which features Jonty and Orlando being presented with a mystery at the Oval test match. I’d forgotten there were two versions. Here’s the revised one…
Editor’s note: This account of one of the minor cases tackled by Edwardian sleuths Coppersmith and Stewart (or Stewart and Coppersmith as the narrator always referred to them) was recently unearthed among the papers they bequeathed to the nation. Their biographer, Mrs. Cochrane, would be honoured to publish it here in tribute to ongoing cricketing rivalry between Australia and England.
The story itself is unusual in being related in the first person, something Dr. Stewart always swore he’d never do, as it smacked of Dr. Watson. As Mrs. Cochrane says, you should never trust a word he says, the little toad.
This match referred to was real; it took place at Kennington Oval, London on 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd August 1912. Please note that England won by 244 runs.
Once we won Matches
“It shouldn’t do that, Dr. Stewart.”
“That’s the third time you’ve said the same thing. And it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat the phrase, it won’t change the facts. It can and it does.” I tried my best to smile kindly; I love it when Orlando Coppersmith finds things that contradict his powers of intellect and reason.
“But it defies all logic. Whatever variables you apply, it makes no sense.” Orlando shook his head, loosening the curls which always seemed keen to fight free from the restraint of comb or pomade. I love those curls, too. When we first met and I fell head over heels for Orlando, it was that wild mane of hair, so carefully restrained, that got me all of a lather. It spoke of hidden qualities within him, parts of his character that I had to find and liberate.
I digress; Orlando says I do that a lot. I have a story to tell you and I’m not being logical about it.
“Well, you can’t deny the evidence of your eyes.” I said, wrinkling my nose in delight.
“And you do it, don’t you—with that flipping movement or whatever you call it.”
“That’s a matter of the finger action, although some people do it from the wrist. Similar thing here. The hand position makes all the difference.” I made a series of movements with my fingers, flexing and twisting. It might have looked obscene to anyone who was sitting nearby, but they’d all have known I was demonstrating my bowling action.
Read more: Once we won Matches – revised
The next Cambridge Fellows novella is about to go into the last stage of production – a smashing cover as usual thanks to the multi-talented (if I didn’t love her so much I’d have to hate her) Alex Beecroft.
“Hello sailor!” Toby Bowe’s cheery tones came down the telephone line.
Alasdair Hamilton groaned. “I knew you were going to say that. Sir Ian’s been in touch with your agent, then?”
“Of course he has. Contract’s signed, sealed and delivered. I don’t know why they bother to keep up the pretence of talking to our agents individually rather than saving both time and effort and nabbing us both together.”
“You know exactly why they do that. More important to save scandal than save time.”
What would the British cinema-going public say if it knew its favourite leading men—the pride of Sir Ian Sheringham and his studio, Landseer—continued their love scenes in the privacy of their own homes? And without the participation of Fiona Marsden, who’d been their perennial leading lady.
Hamilton, Bowe and Marsden. The British public adored the special chemistry the trio displayed on screen, one that made every scene appear real rather than acted. Although given the true situation, then Toby and Alasdair’s acting skills surely surpassed those of even Olivier and Gielgud, so convincingly did they both display their adoration of Fiona on celluloid. Still, hadn’t many an actor or actress being doing exactly the same thing over the years? Alasdair and Toby weren’t unique in finding their own sex more attractive than the opposite one.
“Are you looking forward to lunch?” Toby asked.
Alasdair snorted. “The food, yes. Not necessarily the rest of it.”
“Landseer always does put out a good nosebag. I wonder if they’ll be supplying us with faux girlfriends to add to the illusion?”
“Not today, I’d guess.” And thank God for that. Part of the smokescreen that helped maintain the actors’ reputation was their being seen in public with beautiful young women. Rarely the same ones twice, though, because Landseer didn’t want the young ladies becoming suspicious about why their charms appeared to be having no effect.
“I suppose that when Fiona’s about they like her to shine like a diamond on a coal heap. No other lovelies to risk detracting attention.” Toby chuckled. “They could give us plain starlets to squire on these occasions. No, belay that. They’d not let us be seen with anyone too mousey.”
“I don’t suppose it would go with the image. The studio powers that be think the public would expect only the most attractive women to be draped on our arms.”
“Hm. I bet it’s more subtle than that. A beautiful woman, and a different one each time, implies a series of flirtations. Were she homely it might suggest we’d found true love. And what would your adoring fans say if they believed you were at risk of being taken out of the marriage market permanently?”
“Less of the adoring fans nonsense, you cheeky bugger.” Alasdair snorted. “And the same would apply to you. Just as well we held those negotiations directly with Sir Ian.”
At the point they’d become the hottest properties in British cinema, rather than holding out for everything in terms of film deals or size and luxuriousness of dressing room, they’d made it plain to the boss that while they’d wine and dine whichever young lady Landseer felt needed a leg up on the ladder to stardom, they would draw a line at even the suggestion of undergoing sham marriages. That both maintained their reputation as playboys and enhanced their standing as being easy to work with and highly professional.
“And what’s all this belay rubbish you were spouting earlier?” Alasdair added.
“Got to get in character for the new role, Admiral. Splice the main brace, twelve at the grating and whatnot.”
I met Tony the first time I turned up at the local writers group. Delighted that he’s here to talk about his first book, U-Boat Enigmas.
Tony, what does it feel like to see your first book fledge and leave the nest?
The book is still my baby even though it is now in public view: now I hope that people will like it. Amazement that I could actually write something that I am so proud of is the other overriding feeling. The best day for me during my research was finding the German Codebook from UC-44, wonderful to find and hold something so important that my hero helped to recover. Publishing gave me that same feeling, now I just want everyone to know the story. When I do the lecture that this talk is based upon I feel an energy that I hope brings it to life.
What advice would you give other first time novelists?
In my quest to produce this novel I joined a writing group, as I was struggling at the time and thought it might be helpful. Unfortunately, the style of leadership just turned me off; I have never been good at set homework. Then a chance meeting on a cruise ship led me to a writing group that allows us to do anything. Listening to other people’s work in an informal setting released me – let’s face it, I was only at the time writing a story for the family and our leader could get some copies published for a few pounds.
I was privileged to witness this book in development – we all loved the cat. Tell us more about him.
“Lucky” the cat is the small kitten that John is pictured holding so caringly on HMS Centurion during World War 1. When I came to write that part of the book I could do little else but include him, especially as this was when I decided that the picture would be the front cover. Another of my talks is entitled “Amazing Animals of WW1” and this explores the relationship between humans and animals in conflict. Caring for animals in wartime helps to take your mind off the horrors of war. He was probably the most useful addition to the book as a character bringing together some crew members who may not normally socialise especially on a warship. He is a mixture of the many cats that I have been privileged to know (nobody owns a cat) and a tribute to them all.
What surprised you most when researching this book?
The most important part of this book is the historical context which I believe has huge significance for our understanding of the salvage work in WW1 and Room 40’s intelligence efforts. The research has followed some strange paths and it was almost luck that led me to the understanding that I now have of events so long ago. I really believed that Bletchley Park would welcome my new research, it is after all their heritage and telling them before the book was released would surely allow us to work together. Their total disinterest was both a huge surprise and disappointment to me, however, that only strengthened my resolve to finish the book and now I can be content because I am the first to publish what I believe is new history and that cannot be taken away.
For people like me who read lots of books about codebreaking, what does this book add to the genre?
Most of this type of book focuses on the complexity and mathematics where extremely intelligent people perform miracles, such as they did in WW2 in Bletchley Park. Looking at WW1 the Zimmerman telegram decoding quite rightly has it place in history in bringing the USA into the war on our side. In my book, I show examples of other types of intelligence work which are as important especially during periods when codebreaking is failing. There are many instances in my book which show that Room 40 was learning these other tricks of the trade in WW1 and hopefully this will give the reader a more balanced view on intelligence work. My final point is that salvage of ships was critical well before they recovered the codebook in UC-44: in that way we could stay at war and eventually win.
The Cochranes are back from Jersey where the sun shone fit to crack the paving stones. A great time had by all including fleecing the bookies at the evening race meeting and the sighting of choughs (twice!), something we’ve never achieved before.
This week’s bargain is Pack up Your Troubles – three stories for only £1.99!
THIS GROUND WHICH WAS SECURED AT GREAT EXPENSE
An officer thinks he finds love in the trenches, but is it really waiting for him on the home front?
A doctor and an army chaplain spend the night in a foxhole and discover there’s hope even in the darkest situations
MUSIC IN THE MIDST OF DESOLATION
And an old soldier discovers that there are romantic problems to solve even after you’ve cashed in your chips.
Want to pick my brains (what there’s left of them after the last few weeks of devices self-destructing all around me)? Am doing an author chat at the Elm Books forum this coming Saturday (20th July) at 3pm EST, 8pm UK
Love in Every Season is out on Monday. Watch this space for news on the next Cambridge Fellows novella – working title Lessons in Playing a Murderous Tune – which will be released soon. Just waiting for the finalisation of cover art.
Don’t forget I’m offering a British themed goodie bag this summer, winner to be drawn from all newsletter subscribers on August 5th. I’ve been adding some wonderfully tacky seaside items to it thanks to our holiday. You can sign up from any page of my website.
The excerpt this week is from the forthcoming Cambridge Fellows novella, which is set in 1911 so is one of the ‘making up the gap in time’ stories.
Once Orlando had got a bit of sun on his face, some hot coffee in his cup and a good helping of bacon and eggs in his stomach, Jonty was ready to broach the delicate subject. “So, what ails thee, oh love of my life?”
“A possible case.”
Jonty put the back of hand to his head. “You stun me. A case? And you’re not jumping up and down with joy? Is it from the college next door?”
“Worse than that. It’s from my old college at Oxford.”
“Ah.” Jonty put paid to the over dramatics and stirred his tea, meditatively. He could instantly see all sorts of reasons why Orlando would be torn between the natural attractions of having something to get his investigational teeth into and a return to a place he’d inhabited when he’d, to all intents and purposes, been another person. A person who was a shadow of his present self. “And will you take this commission?”
Orlando glanced up at the apple tree, where a robin was lustily serenading the new morning. “I don’t know. On the face of it, the puzzle itself is intriguing, but I’ve no great inclination to return there—to college or university—unless it’s on business.”
“Mathematical business, I suppose you mean by that? An investigation counting as merely pleasure?”
“Precisely.” Orlando managed a smile.
“I can understand you might not want to return to old haunts—they’re never the same—but to turn down a case seems odd, when it’s been a while since we had one.” It had been February when they’d last had to pit their wits against a criminal of proper cunning. Neither of them would count the matter of some poison pen letters which had reared their ugly heads in London over the Easter holidays. That had turned out to be easily soluble, given the correspondent’s tendency to write loose instead of lose and insert apostrophes where none were needed. Somehow that had been more offensive than the lurid content.
“I know. You’ll no doubt think that I’m being stupid, but I can’t help worrying. Supposing we take it up and this turns out to be the case we’ve always dreaded? The one that’s insoluble? I’m going to look a total idiot.” Orlando ran his long, agile fingers through his hair. “They’ll say I lost what little intellect I had when I headed eastwards and into the territory of the dark blue’s most deadly rivals.”
“Balderdash. If they say any such thing I’ll tan their hides. And consider the opposite. What if it turns out to be a triumph? A masterpiece of deduction that nobody but us could have delivered? Your name will resound in college legend, if it doesn’t already. In fact, I’d imagine rather than thinking you’ve lost your abilities they’re secretly furious that your reputation is associated with the light blues rather than them. I’m surprised they haven’t offered you an enormous bribe to return. Or kidnapped you.” That seemed to be an ample sufficiency of fanning the guttering flames of Orlando’s confidence. One didn’t want the man to be getting too smug. “By the way, did they ask both of us to be involved? Or would they eschew the services of a man who spent his undergraduate years at Cambridge?”
“If they hadn’t asked for your involvement I’d have turned the case down without a second thought.”
“Would you? Just as well they want me to tag along, then.”
“You think I should accept it?”
“I think you’ll kick yourself if you don’t.” Jonty reached over to pat his partner’s hand. “You can’t let down the alma mater. It’s a matter of honour. What’s the case, anyway? Perhaps if you relate the details to me it’ll whet your appetite.”
“It’s about a mysterious violin that just appeared in the Old Quad at Gabriel very early one morning.”
“A violin? You disappoint me. How very mundane.”
“How very Sherlock Holmesian,” Orlando said with a snort of disdain.
And finally – from our Jersey adventure. The loveliest sunset over the loveliest racecourse, just after we’ve had our fifth winner out of five races.