Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Saturday 31 March 2018

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter to all when it comes (later for some than for others, I know!).

If you were expecting the newsletter and its accompanying novella today, and haven't received them, let me know at contact@kellascatpress.co.uk.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

New Murray novella: The Status of Murder - read Part One here!

The Status of Murder
Chapter One

No one with any sense of occasion visited Fife. Not even in the summer, though it was hard to determine that this was in fact summer.
Three figures stood by the side of the road – again, the word ‘road’ seemed ill-applied here, with its connotations of solidity, definition, a surface one could rely on for the support of wheeled vehicles. The three figures were distinctly separate, each in their own little wet world, raindrops lining up eagerly along the edges of their hoods, yet they were united in misery, watching from the muddy bank as the coachman and the groom, clarted to the thigh, struggled to slide branches or stones or parts of their own anatomies under the wheels to free them and the horses from the mire. It was impossible to see far in either direction through the veils of rain: their progress had been so slow it had become impossible any more to calculate how long it might take them to reach the nearest shelter, if they would ever reach it.
And yet even in their mutual despair, each of them had some purpose to drive them towards Scoggie Castle. That, and the fact that turning back at this point would be just as filthy as going on.

‘It’s no raining anymore,’ announced Hannah, using her bony hip to shove the kitchen door wide enough for herself and her bucket. Her shawl appeared to have been slapped about her and hung, dripping, from her forehead down.
‘Is it no?’ Mrs. Costane, the cook, glanced up in surprise at the high windows.
‘No,’ said Hannah firmly. ‘It’s defunding. And the wind’s fair rowsty.’
As if to prove her point, the wind took a great handful of raindrops and hurled it through the doorway at her back. She emitted an innocent-enough profanity in a tone that made it a hundred times worse, and slammed the door. Smacking her hands in satisfaction, she glanced around.
‘Och, sorry, Mr. Murray, I didna see you there.’
Charles Murray, long and thin, had folded himself into a settle by the fire where he was drying off after mistakenly taking the boys, his pupils, for a walk. He hurried dutifully to relieve Hannah of her bucket.
‘Oh, it’s a lot milder than what I said when I came in,’ he assured her, and she grinned.
‘Aye, my very ears were embarrassed at him!’ Mrs. Costane stopped to wave a wooden spoon in his direction. ‘And I dinna remember you apologising to me! Gentleman, he cries himself!’
‘And gentleman he is, and just you remember that, Mrs. Costane,’ came a lugubrious voice from the doorway, this time the one that led to cold sandstone corridors and the rest of the Castle. Naismith, the steward, stalked into the kitchen with his long head on one side, eyeing the assembly – well, cook, maid and tutor – like a heron watching a clutch of dubious frogs. Mrs. Costane drew herself up to her full height, which was not as impressive as she hoped it was.
‘I think I always treat people in my kitchen with the respect they deserve, Mr. Naismith,’ she stated. Naismith surveyed her, and blinked slowly. Whether or not he would have made any fitting response to this ambiguous comment became smartly moot as a plump but nimble figure slipped under his arm impatiently and advanced into the kitchen. Beside Naismith’s heron, she was like a rather cross duck. Naismith blinked more rapidly.
‘Ah, Miss Rosa Gerard.’ He gestured to her with a wingtip. ‘Lady Manchett’s maid, of course.’
‘Oh, aye!’ said Mrs. Costane, advancing round the kitchen table as Murray scrambled again to his feet. ‘You’re very welcome, Miss Gerard.’
The two women curtseyed to each other with as much propriety as two duchesses at an assembly. Mrs. Costane took on further introductions as of right in her own kitchen.
‘Hannah, the kitchen maid – and maid of all work at the moment, for we have no other since the last lassie left – and this here’s Mr. Murray, tutor to Master Scoggie and Master Robert Scoggie, and secretary to his Lordship.’
Rosa Gerard nodded to both of them in turn. By build she was what Murray had often heard called ‘a cosy body’, constructed with upholstery in mind rather than joinery, but something about the way she held herself stated very clearly that she did not see herself in that style. Even the lace on her cap looked as if it would scrape anyone who put their hand too close.
‘I’m delighted to make your acquaintances,’ she said, her accent blandly proper. ‘Is this all the staff?’
‘Aye, barring Davie Peacock, the manservant,’ said Mrs. Costane. ‘You’ll find that Lord Scoggie doesna believe in over-staffing his establishment.’
‘Amongst his other beliefs,’ murmured Hannah, earning herself a sour look from Mrs. Costane and a stern glance from Naismith.
‘Perhaps that explains it,’ said Rosa Gerard briskly. ‘Is Davie Peacock a tall thin man with a – well, not to put too fine a point on it, a look of extreme stupidity on his features?’
‘He can be dreamy, certainly,’ Mrs. Costane admitted.
‘Is he really strong enough to be carrying luggage up the stairs? There are, I find, quite a number of stairs,’ Rosa Gerard added, as though more respectable households had a restrained attitude to stair provision.
‘I shall see to it that he moves a little faster,’ said Naismith at once, and rearranged his awkward legs to leave. Rosa hesitated, perhaps wondering whether to go and make sure this happened or to stay in the kitchen and maintain her distance from the dreamy manservant. But Naismith had already vanished, and Mrs. Costane had nodded to Hannah to swing the kettle over the fire.
‘Will you sit yourself down for a cup of tea?’ the cook asked. ‘You’ll have had a long journey. York, was it, you’ve come from?’
‘Harrogate,’ said Rosa with precision. She examined the settle that Murray had vacated, found it almost satisfactory, and took a seat. By the better light of the fire, Murray saw that she was in her middle years despite her nimbleness of movement.
‘Far enough, indeed,’ said Mrs. Costane, for whom the difference was minimal. ‘You’ll travel around a good deal with her Ladyship, then? I hear tell you’re off to Bath for the season.’
‘We have seen a good deal of the country,’ Rosa conceded. ‘We are quite familiar with Bath, Harrogate, London, Weymouth … the more fashionable places, you know.’
‘Aye, aye,’ said Mrs. Costane, plumping into her usual chair opposite the settle. ‘I’ve been to Paris, myself, though that was whiles ago now.’
Rosa evidently could not top Paris, and did not respond directly.
‘But you are from here in Fife, then?’
‘Hannah here’s frae Fife,’ said Mrs. Costane. ‘And Mr. Murray is, too, of course. His father’s Murray of Letho.’
Rosa turned with interest to Murray, who was now standing nearby, trying not to get in the way.
‘Your father is titled?’
‘No, no!’ said Murray with surprise. ‘He’s just the local laird.’
‘I see. Does he keep a large household?’
‘Um, well,’ Murray thought. ‘Ten or so, in the house.’
‘I see,’ said Rosa, turning back to look about the otherwise empty kitchen in a rather pointed fashion. ‘On the other hand, it must be rather a humble household. I think a household nothing if the master or mistress has no title.’
‘Aye, well,’ said Hannah, catching Murray’s eye with a glint in her own, ‘you maybe have something there.’
‘And I suppose having such a small household here makes it necessary for the serving ranks to mix so readily,’ Rosa added, looking directly at Hannah. Hannah glowered, but the visitor had already turned away. Rosa Gerard was not setting out to make friends, it seemed. Murray wondered what her mistress was like: he was beginning to notice how much servants and masters made up each other’s character. Sometimes he wondered at the effect Lord Scoggie might be having on him.
The kettle had just boiled when Naismith reappeared. Often he would disapprove of the staff stopping for a cup of tea in the middle of the day, but on this occasion he nodded graciously and with some state took the place beside Rosa Gerard on the settle, arranging his bony knees in their buckle breeches and flapping at the tails of his coat.
‘I have instructed Davie to carry more than one piece of luggage at a time, Miss Gerard,’ he said, pleased with his achievements. ‘He believes he is not a strong man – he treats himself rather delicately, in fact. He needs to be kept in order. He has not been here long, of course, or he would know better how to behave. Thank you for bringing his inadequacies to my attention, Miss Gerard.’ He nodded at her, smiling, and she smiled back as if presenting him with a slightly ungenerous tip.
‘He’s no a young man,’ said Mrs. Costane, thoughtfully. Hannah nodded, perhaps forgetting that she should be more conscious of her station in the kitchen.
‘He told me he’s near sixty, Mr. Naismith. And he doesna keep well. He had a michty cough last month when it was that damp.’
Naismith turned haughtily towards her.
‘None of us is as young as we might be, Hannah. But we are all expected to play our part in keeping his Lordship’s household running smoothly. Is that not right, Miss Gerard?’
‘Quite right, Mr. Naismith,’ Rosa Gerard agreed smoothly. Again they exchanged satisfied smiles. Mrs. Costane and Hannah by contrast swapped an expressive flicker of their eyebrows. Murray managed not to laugh. He was still not quite at home here, in either kitchens or parlour, though the small size of both parts of the household seemed to mean that he was expected to be part of both. Sometimes he felt like a seed in two kinds of soil – in either he might have sprouted and put down roots, but between the two it was more difficult. In a larger household, though, he might have been lost altogether in the interstices between the classes. He had not yet, in his few months there, succeeded in establishing his place to his own satisfaction, though Lord Scoggie seemed happy enough with him, treating him more as a young protégé than as a servant. His work as his Lordship’s secretary was interesting enough, and if he found himself waking in the night in panic at the thought of teaching young Henry and Robert, then that seemed a small price to pay if it meant his position was secure. He was sure his tutoring would improve with experience – well, he hoped so.
He left the kitchen reluctantly to see if Henry and Robert were indeed dried off and preparing a translation of Livy as they had been instructed, and not, specifically, giggling over Ritson’s Robin Hood which they had recently liberated from their father’s library. Passing through the castle’s icy entrance hall, he chanced upon a small mountain of luggage, almost obscuring the form of a man crouched on a chest behind it. At Murray’s approach, the man leapt to his feet, shaking, supporting himself urgently on the domed lid of the chest.
‘Oh, Mr. Murray!’ he gasped.
‘Davie. Are you all right?’ Davie Peacock was indeed an unhealthy colour, and his shaking did not seem to be abating.
‘Oh, aye, I’m grand, grand, Mr. Murray. I was just taking a wee look here – the strap on this case was loose and I thought I’d just tighten it.’
Murray nodded sympathetically, though he was quite sure there was nothing wrong with the strap. He had not yet had much to do with Davie, a recent arrival in the household. The man, standing straight, would be taller than he was, and he himself was above the middle height, but Davie was hunched and limp-looking like a kale stalk left out over winter. Murray could barely imagine him lifting even the lightest of the chests in front of him.
‘Are all these to go up to the guest rooms?’ he asked. ‘Can I give you a hand?’ If nothing else, it would spare him dealing with Henry and Robert for a few more minutes.
‘Oh, I canna have that!’ Davie looked alarmed. ‘It’s no the tutor’s place to be doing that kind of business!’
‘If we’re quick,’ said Murray, ‘no one will ever know.’ He glanced around, then stacked two chests, tucked another under his arm and lifted the two he had stacked. ‘I’ll go ahead – you wait until you’re ready. I’ll leave them in the passage by the rooms, so you can carry them in.’
It did not take him long: the chests were more numerous than heavy, presumably so that Rosa Gerard could manage them once they were in her mistress’ chamber. Murray stacked all three neatly against the wall, and darted back down to the hall. Davie was desultorily shifting the remaining boxes with one foot, and still did not look well. Murray scooped them up, nodded to Davie to follow and strode back upstairs, two at a time, hearing Davie panting behind him. The boxes were quickly deposited, and as he nodded, leaving Davie to take them into the guest room, Murray noticed that the guest room door was just a little ajar. Rosa Gerard must have returned from the kitchen by the back stairs. Murray hoped she would leave poor Davie alone to recover, and headed further up the castle tower to his own responsibilities. As he passed the door to the Long Gallery, he heard from somewhere within a curious, persistent, rhythmic tapping, but it was not his place to investigate.

(if you're already on the mailing list you'll receive the full story on Saturday! If not, and you'd like to join, then email contact@kellascat.co.uk to sign up for quarterly newsletters from the worlds of Murray, Hippolyta and others).

Thursday 22 March 2018

Local wanderings

 I'm trying out a new camera, but I'm not sure I'm that impressed so far. It was an emergency buy, which usually doesn't work for me. Anyway, this is a typical 3rd. New Town crescent in Edinburgh, with its central gardens - in Murray's day it's possible they would have grazed sheep there, as they did in the older squares.

Then it was off to Perth, where I overlooked the underrated Tay and the new flood defences. The weather was beautiful the first day and the river was racing when I first checked in.

You can see the dark rectangle of a flood gate towards the bottom left of the picture. Then a sculpture caught my eye and annoyingly the camera doesn't zoom, so I set off to take a closer look.

From above it had looked like a moulting peacock sitting on a carp, but it's a gull on a salmon, as you can see from the shadow!

Then I took a closer look at the flood defences. Every pillar has a carving on it, so I pottered the length of the wall, snapping them. Here are a few favourites:

They hadn't stinted on the metalwork, either!
The river was glorious, and starting to calm a little.
and by the early evening it was a soothing rush to lull me to sleep.

Well, if you've lasted this far and you haven't already bought it, A Murderous Game is 99p till next Wednesday! No particular reason - think of it as an early Easter egg, and much less fattening!

Thursday 15 March 2018

Indie author for March - Andy Barrett

 Here's another author who needs little introduction on this blog, and one I'm very pleased to return to.  With most of his books registering around a 2.5 on the Conyngham Scale (that is, closer to noir than to cosy), it won't surprise you to find that the author is an experienced CSI himself in Yorkshire where the books are set, and the main characters of two of his series, Roger Conniston in The Dead trilogy and Eddie Collins (oh, poor Eddie - what he puts himself through!) in, for example, Black by Rose. But it's not just blood and gore: these thrillers are both action-packed and decent brainwork, with convoluted plots that all come together nicely in the end, even if the main characters are not always happy. And the authenticity of the forensic investigation - even if Eddie pulls it out of shape - shines through. There are plenty of books in the Andrew Barrett canon - it's well worth starting each series at the beginning and working through. It won't take you as long as you'd like, but there'll be more on the way!

Stop Press: Bloodhound Books have just announced that they've signed Andy for his Eddie Collins books, so if you want to be a purist and only read indie, you'll have to stick with Roger Conniston. But I'd recommend both.

I'm not supposed to be writing the first book in the next series until April, but somehow I'm just starting Chapter Five! Completely incorrigible. And here's the reveal - it's to be called Tomb for an Eagle.

Mailing list people will be getting a Murray novella along with their March newsletter. It's set in Scoggie Castle not long after Murray's appointment to tutor the young Scoggie boys. More information to follow!

If you're interested and you haven't yet bought Jail Fever, it's 99p on Amazon from today till next Thursday, 22nd. If you like it, leave a review!

A Long Time Dead (SOCO Roger Conniston Book 1) by [Barrett, Andrew]
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A Long Time Dead (SOCO Roger Conniston Book 1) by [Barrett, Andrew]