Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Helen Hollick’s newly released novel A Mystery of Murder as part of a blog tour hosted by The Coffee Pot Book Club. A Mystery of Murder is the second of Helen’s Jan Christopher Mysteries.
Jan Christopher is spending Christmas 1971 with her boyfriend DS Laurie Walker and his parents who live in an old farmhouse in Devon. The village is holding a Christmas carol service around a blazing bonfire – but there’s more going on than just singing carols…
BONFIRE HEAT AND A COLD FROST
The eight-foot-high bonfire had been built on the village green, and was well ablaze by the time we got there. Laurie had told me to wrap up warm, so I’d donned my duffle coat, gloves and faux fur hat – which looked more like a curled-up grey cat than a hat – modest length tweed skirt, cashmere jumper and my walking shoes with woolly socks over my tights. Standing near the blaze, Laurie’s arm around my waist, I wasn’t feeling the cold, despite the glisten of frost and the clouds of breath from everyone who had gathered to sing carols.
Sitting under a protective awning on bales of blanket-covered straw, was a group of enthusiastic musicians, consisting of an accordion, a guitar and a fiddle player. They had started the evening off by launching into a rousing rendition of In Dulci Jubilo, although I don’t know how their hands hadn’t immediately frozen, despite the fingerless woolly gloves they wore. Following on, we sang several joyful carols, Good King Wenceslas, While Shepherds Watched, O Come All Ye Faithful and a couple more, then we had a break for mulled wine or beer, hot sausage rolls kept warm on dishes propped over paraffin camping stoves, and mince pies – not that I was hungry after the huge dinner Mrs W had served; even so, I managed two of each, which, being home-made, were delicious.
“Did you know that ‘bonfire’ comes from an old word for ‘bone fire’, where the ancient people used to burn bones?” I said to Laurie through a mouthful of pastry crumbs.
“What, like cave men and such?”
“No, I think the Celts or Iron Age people,” I frowned, then laughed, “Uncle Toby told me, but I can’t remember everything he said now.”
“Well, I hope he meant animal bones, not human remains!” Lauries dad, Alf, chuckled, overhearing.
“Actually,” I answered, my face blushing slightly, although I don’t think it noticed because of the heat emitting from the flames, “I think he did mean human – you know, sacrifice and all that.”
Alf frowned, thoughtfully. “Sacrificed dead or alive, that’s the question! Maybe a winter solstice custom – appropriate, eh?” His frown changed to a grin. “Who do you suggest we toss onto the fire? My money would be on Gran, Laurie, if she were here. Or Haywood over there?”
I rather wished I hadn’t brought the subject up. Laurie’s dad was only joking, but he had consumed several beers and his voice was rather loud as he nodded towards a dishevelled man standing slightly apart from the crowd over to one side, an almost empty pint glass of beer in his hand. A girl, I reckoned to be about my own age of eighteen, stood next to him, her puckered expression sour. Both of them were glowering in our direction – they couldn’t have heard Alf, could they?
“Another mince pie?” Laurie asked me, swiftly changing the subject.
“I shouldn’t but, yes, please.”
“And another mulled wine?”
I said yes to that, too.
Laurie left me with Alf, who steered me nearer the fire as the ‘orchestra’ started up again, leading us all into a triumphant rendition of Hark The Herald Angels. The carol changed to the gentler Away In A Manger. I wondered where Laurie had got to. There had been a short queue at the refreshments stall, but it had dwindled now, and he wasn’t there. Then I saw him talking to the man Alf had called Haywood, who was on his own now, the girl having disappeared. The man was waving his arms about in an angry, animated fashion, then he jabbed his finger into Laurie’s shoulder. Laurie’s expression was as angry. It had obviously been an altercation of some sort, but he brushed his assailant aside, spun on his heel and walked away – back to the refreshment stall. A moment later, he was at my side, handing me a glass of warm, spiced wine and a mince pie.
“Sorry I took so long,” he apologised, “had to go to the loo over in the village hall.”
“Who was that man?” I asked, after taking a sip of the aromatic wine.
“The one who was arguing with you.”
“Oh, that man. Godfrey Haywood. He’s the tenant of the smallholding at the top of the lane.”
“So what was he arguing about?” Pulling teeth would have been easier than trying to get a coherent answer!
“Moaning about the state of the fencing along the lane. It’s habitual for him to complain about it, although it’s his fencing, his responsibility. His livestock is always breaking it down because he doesn’t mend it properly, but he always hopes that he can bully Dad into doing the repairs and footing the bill, on account of the lane having shared access.”
“He’s got the grumps this time,” Alf added, joining in, “because I gave him the heave-ho from doing our gardening a week ago. He frequently never turned up, and, when he did bother, he barely managed any actual gardening. I asked him to spread some of the compost heap on the vegetable beds, but he was worse the wear for drink. Final straw and all that. I told him not to come again.”
Then the girl re-appeared, her face like God’s wrath turned to hardened lard, heading straight for us.
As the crowd was bursting into God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Laurie stepped forward to meet the girl, his arm outstretched, palm raised in a ‘stop’ gesture, as if he were a traffic cop not a newly qualified Detective Sergeant.
“So, you’ve found the nerve to come back, then?” the girl sneered. She flung a crude gesture towards me. “And you brought a fancy London tart, too? How dare you! You swan off with my sister, and not a word from either of you since? Where is she? Eh? What have you done with Colly? You’d better come clean, Lawrence Walker, or I’ll be telling what I know. I’ll tell it all!”
I instantly had a few similar questions of my own rattling around in my head. Who was this young woman? What was it she knew? Who was her sister, this ‘Colly’ person? And what did both of them have to do with my Laurie?
‘Had I known what was to happen soon after we arrived at Mr and Mrs Walker’s lovely old West Country house, my apprehension about spending Christmas in Devon would have dwindled to nothing.’
Library Assistant Jan Christopher is to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, DS Laurie Walker and his family, but when a murder is discovered, followed by a not very accidental accident, the traditional Christmas spirit is somewhat marred…
What happened to Laurie’s ex-girlfriend? Where is the vicar’s wife? Who took those old photographs? And will the farmer up the lane ever mend those broken fences?
Set in 1971, this is the second Jan Christopher Cosy Mystery. Join her (and an owl and a teddy bear) in Devon for a Christmas to remember. :
Will the discovery of a murder spoil Christmas for Jan Christopher and her boyfriend DS Laurie Walker – or will it bring them closer together?
Helen Hollick and her family moved from north-east London in January 2013 after finding an eighteenth-century North Devon farm house through being a ‘victim’ on BBC TV’s popular Escape To The Country show. The thirteen-acre property was the first one she was shown – and it was love at first sight. She enjoys her new rural life, and has a variety of animals on the farm, including Exmoor ponies and her daughter’s string of show jumpers.
First accepted for publication by William Heinemann in 1993 – a week after her fortieth birthday – Helen then became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Despite being impaired by the visual disorder of Glaucoma, she is also branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with the Jan Christopher Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working for thirteen years as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She also runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, a news and events blog for her village and the Community Shop, assists as ‘secretary for the day’ at her daughter’s regular showjumping shows – and occasionally gets time to write…
Book Title: A Mystery of Murder
Series: Jan Christopher Mysteries, Episode 2
Author: Helen Hollick
Publication Date: 14th November 2021
Publisher: Taw River Press
Page Length: 160 Pages
Genre: Cosy Mystery