Death in the Stars: A Book Review

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I am fairly new to Frances Brody’s mystery novels, having only read the previous one Death at the Seaside, so I have a lot of catching up to do! In the past I have ran extracts of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver mysteries. Needless to say, if you enjoy those stories then you’ll love Brody’s work. The covers are always a treat, very Mitfordeseque, and the content inside does not disappoint. This latest instalment, Death in the Stars, draws on the eclipse of 1927, an unsettling and exciting period when people thought the world was going to end (nothing new there!) or that some form of witchcraft was at work. The perfect setting for things to go wrong! Super sleuth Kate Shackleton is invited to accompany Selina Fellini, a theatrical actress, to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel. As you can tell, the names are often what the Mitfords would call a tease; a real homage to 1920s and 30s detective novels, whilst still retaining the integrity of the story. Of course it is during this natural phenomena that a death occurs – Billy Moffatt, Ms Fellini’s co-star vanishes and is later found dead, and soon two other members of the theatrical troupe die under mysterious circumstances. Is there a murderer in the company? It seems likely. But when Ms Fellini’s husband, a war hero prone to mood swings and violent behaviour, emerges on the scene everything changes. Who will be next? With nods to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ethel Lina White, this neat murder mystery has all the touches of a gripping thriller along with a lighthearted narrative to hold the reader’s attention. Although such contemporary books can often be dismissed as quirky tributes to the aforementioned crime authors, it is wrong to assume they are frivolous stories. Frances Brody’s background is in television writing, and this is apparent in her effortless touch when forming the plot. It is a witty, suspenseful novel, and a perfect companion for those who love a bit of glam with an atmospheric touch.

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Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble : Guest post by Catriona McPherson

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In Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble there are two stately homes. One – Castle Bewer – is a dark, damp Gothic pile where a production of Macbeth is being mounted. Thus the Bewer family hope to keep the wolf from the door. Castle Bewer is more or less Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfriesshire.

The other house is Mespring. And nothing like it exists in Dumfriesshire, that’s for sure. It’s fictional. It truly is fictional. But I know some of its over-the-top décor is identical to the décor of real stately homes I’ve wandered round, with my mouth hanging open, unable to believe that people ever chose such insane levels of ornamentation for walls, floor and furniture. Visits to Chatsworth have definitely helped me write this. Hopetoun too. And Drumlanrig Castle, where I first saw leather wallpaper of the kind described here.

I thought it would be fun to have the Annandales of Mespring be quite sanguine about the look of their house, even while they prepare to open it to the public at a shilling a pop. Here’s some of the best fun I’ve ever had writing fiction – Billy Annandale giving Dandy Gilver an advance peek at the splendours of Mespring:

It was, quite simply, staggering. A game of rugby football could have taken place in this hall and still left room for the household to have tea undisturbed by the fire. It was enormous, like a cathedral, and stuffed to its waistline with marble in every conceivable shade. The floor was mustard with green veins, the fireplace ginger with pink, and the pillars were the nasty brown of chocolate ice-cream. The statues were good plain white but they were dwarfed by what was above them. Surely, I thought, this hallway had been raised at some time in its long life. Surely no architect had planned all of this at once. For on top of the green, brown and pink marble excesses was another room entirely, as though its floor had fallen through and they had simply left it hovering there. The upper room was a riot of painted frescos, crawling over walls and ceiling. Literally crawling in most instances, I noted, since the tableaux – as such tableaux tend to – suggested that people do not walk around or sit down but that instead they drape themselves on couches if mortal or clouds if not, so that a crowd of them painted on a grand scale is simply a tangle of arms and legs and the odd bit of floating drapery. Gods, cherubs, graces, nymphs and puttis rolled about from the top of the hideous marble on one wall all the way across to the top of the hideous marble on the other, eyes beseeching, limbs waving and clothes mostly falling off.

It’s-’ I said.

Billy Annandale guffawed. ‘It certainly is. Let’s keep walking. I’m afraid there’s a lot more of it before we get to the long gallery.’ He cleared his throat modestly, an impeccable imitation of a very correct footman, or perhaps a clerk in a rather staid bank. ‘This, as you see, is the great hall and if we ascend the great stairs’ – he waved to both sides, pointing out the disputed Rembrandt on the way – ‘we arrive at the great drawing room.’ Here, in a chamber forty feet long if it was an inch, as well as marble and tapestries and a fresco of the birth of Venus with a great many more flailing arms and legs and even less clothing, there was also a quantity of veneered wood in that very intricate parquetry that I am afraid makes me think of dartboards. Add the fact that the carpet was Victorian and so had not yet begun to fade the way that older carpets do – so kind to their surroundings – and the fact that the curtains were set about with tassels and tucks and looked like the costumes of a battalion of pantomime dames, and the drawing room was worse than the hall.

And now the great dining room,’ Billy said, flinging open one of a pair of doors.

What on earth is that?’ I asked, stepping through into an even longer room, which seemed to have been afflicted with some kind of fungus.

It’s leather wallpaper,’ Billy said. ‘Stamped, silvered and gilded. Do you like it?”

Uh,’ I said. ‘It’s ingenious.’

Again Billy only laughed and said: ‘if you’re wondering how much better it would look with more gilding covering the leather . . . Behold the great music room.”

Oof,’ I said, for here the gilt was dazzling and the marble border above it – quite ten feet deep – had even more naked nymphs, all managing to play violins, pipes and lutes while rolling on their backs.

We did think of redoing the chairs,’ said Billy, waving at the rows of those uncomfortable little gilt and velvet affairs one sits on during music recitals. They are wonderful at keeping one awake even after a solid dinner, but most unfortunately in this case they had been covered in what I can only call orange. It was not the gold of the leather walls nor even the cream of the damask curtains. It was an unrepentant orange. ‘But really,’ Billy went on, ‘what’s the use? If we actually started to look at any of it with the eye of taste we would curl up in little balls and weep wouldn’t we? Anyway, finally the ordeal is over and we have arrived at . . . the great gallery.’

We passed through another tall door and it was a testament to the garish nature of the rooms behind us that this – a sixty-foot gallery with red walls, red carpet and gargantuan portraits in those gold encrusted frames that look as though they have been overrun by barnacles – seemed almost soothing.

God knows what the trippers will make of it all,’ Billy said.

I think,’ I told him, quite honestly, ‘they will be over-awed and delighted but, because not everything is exactly in accordance with modern tastes, they won’t be quite so covetous and dissatisfied with their own little villas and flats as they might be otherwise.’

Billy stared at me. ‘What a nice woman you are,’ he said. ‘They’ll be happy to have paid their shilling to see this ugly barn of a place and they’ll go home to cream paint and plain rugs quite content?’

Exactly.’

Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Dandy Gilver & A Most Misleading Habit an extract by Catriona McPherson

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Prologue

24th December 1932

There was not a sound to be heard, nor a creature abroad to hear it. The village lay still and cold in the moonlight, the long street a pale ribbon, the cottages on its either side no more than inky smudges, their windows set too deep to gleam. Only on the stained glass of the church did the moon’s reflection catch at the little panes and shatter into spangles.

Inside, silently as midnight came, the villagers bent their heads and clasped their hands. Some were praying, some merely waiting; but others, struck by awe, let their thoughts drift up and out into the moonlight, over the quiet countryside to other churches where other heads were bent in silence, to stables where donkeys might kneel if the legends were true, across the seas to distant lands where prayers were said in strange tongues and people quite unlike themselves were awestruck too.

Peace on earth, they told themselves, thinking of those faraway places. Joy to the world, they thought; the words lately sung, still resounding. Silent night, holy night. If only they had known.

For at that moment, not five miles away, klaxons shrieked and guards bellowed, their boots ringing out on the ironhard ground as they gave chase. Out upon the hills, hunched shapes flitted and darted between the shadows, each one cursing the moonlight.

Later that same night, not five miles away, a bell would toll and women’s screams peal out as flames leapt merrily higher and higher. Black smoke rising in billows from a chapel roof would hide the moon.

And before the morning came, not five miles away, alone in his bed, a man would quietly die.

 

Chapter One

‘If you read the newspapers or listen to the wireless,’ Sister Mary began, ‘you might remember the trouble we had here at Christmas time. The newspapermen have tired of it now and turned their attentions elsewhere but our troubles are far from over. The great harm done to our house has weakened us and we are not equal to dealing with mischief as well as recovering and carrying out our duties. We are in sore need of a woman such as yourself and can offer you a measure of comfort here if you should choose to help us.’ It sounded almost as though she wanted me to profess a vocation. I read on. ‘It cannot take much longer. The moor has been aswarm with policemen for a month now and in the end they shall surely prevail.’

Of course I remembered the events at which she was hinting. Either a breakout from an insane asylum or a fire at a convent that killed a nun would be memorable each on its own. Both together, a few miles apart and on Christmas Eve besides, had given the headline writers almost more than they could handle. Still, a little more detail in Sister Mary’s letter would have been welcome. I read it over again to see what I might have missed and found myself tutting.

I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden? – and this letter did nothing to change my mind. The great harm, the fickle newsmen, the troubles far from over. ‘Aswarm indeed!’ I muttered to myself. Then, finally, I caught the meaning. If policemen were swarming over the moor even now, that meant that the breakout was still in business. There were inmates at large. Did I really want to go and stay in a house full of women then?
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‘What’s that?’ said Alec, looking up at my muttering. Hugh was behind The Times.

‘Interesting case,’ I said. ‘Although interesting isn’t perhaps the word, exactly.’

‘Same here,’ said Alec. ‘Interesting, but “case” isn’t perhaps the word, exactly. I’ve been asked to help a friend.’

‘Do it,’ said Hugh suddenly, letting the paper drop. ‘If you’ve the chance to help a friend, Osborne, do it.’ He had a peculiar look upon his face, strained about the eye, and not quite steady about the jaw.

‘What is it?’ I asked him.

‘Friend of mine in the obituaries,’ he said. ‘Sooty Asher.’

‘Oh, Hugh!’ I said. ‘I am sor—’

Hugh shook his head as though to get rid of a fly and went on, sounding angry now rather than stricken. ‘He killed himself. Shot his own head off. Got past the Boers, got past the Hun, settled himself in a good job, rising through the ranks, and then bang!’

‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Well, you must try to get to the funeral, no matter how the roads are. Where is it?’

‘God knows,’ said Hugh. ‘He lived in Hyderabad. So they’ll probably have it there and send a tin pot of clinker back on a ship. You know what Indians are like. Poor old Sooty Asher.’

‘What was his Christian name?’ I asked. ‘Where are his family? I shall write to them and you can sign it, if you like. But I can’t call him Sooty.’

‘No family,’ said Hugh. ‘At least . . . I think there was a sister, but it was all rather under wraps. He had a patron, you know. We never asked and never cared.’ He glared at me as though I had been unfeeling. ‘So there’s no one to write to,’ he concluded, sounding bleak. Then he rose and left the room.

‘You didn’t deserve a scrap of that,’ said Alec.

‘I don’t mind,’ I replied. ‘Gosh, if one can’t snarl at one’s wife when an old pal blows his head off.’

‘Well, at any rate, I think I shall take Hugh’s advice and help my old pal Tony Gourlay,’ Alec said, but he looked over the letter with no great enthusiasm as he spoke.

‘Help him do what?’ I asked.

‘Keep his neck out of the noose,’ said Alec. ‘His mother writes to tell me I’m their last hope.’

‘What’s he done?’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t a lawyer be better?’

‘If I know Tony, he hasn’t done anything,’ said Alec. ‘He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. There was this one time in— And Tony didn’t even— Just stood there and waited for— If I hadn’t—’

I had grown used to the way Alec spoke of the trenches and was able, just about, to fill in the dreadful words for myself.

‘But what has he been accused of?’ I said.

‘Murder,’ said Alec.

‘And he protests his innocence?’

‘He protests nothing,’ Alec said. ‘He hasn’t spoken for fifteen years. He’s got the worst case of shell shock I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. He’s been mute since before the Armistice, living in a mad house out on the Lanark Moor, that goes by the jaw-dropping title of Hopekist Head. Hardly! Anyway, he lives there, carving wood and digging flowerbeds – rotting in other words. And then suddenly this Christmas he’s supposed to have broken out, set fire to a chapel and killed a nun! What is it, Dandy? You’ve gone paler than Hugh.’