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

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Competition Question Three!


It's time for the third of our competition questions - answers to contact@kellascatpress.co.uk. I can now reveal that the prizes will also include a Lexie Conyngham mug and an Audible credit for Tomb for an Eagle!

Question Three: Hippolyta is an artist, and interested in the new Scottish Academy in Edinburgh which stages the annual exhibition. When did the Academy receive its Royal charter?
Picture shows one of Hippolyta's favourite views, which will feature in The Corrupted Blood.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Blog post by Mrs. Kynoch

Today Mrs. Kynoch has found time in her busy life to tell us a little about herself.

You’re sure it’s me you’d like to talk to? There are certainly more interesting people in Ballater! Well, then, if you will just allow me to make sure the girls are all usefully engaged – I’m in two minds about the new Portuguese tutor, for she can be a little vague about how many girls are in her class and they are quite capable of taking advantage …

There, they are all settled. Not everyone wants to learn Portuguese, you know, and so there is also an accountancy class in the dining room until six. Girls learning accountancy? What, would you rather they were unable to run their households in a way that will not bankrupt themselves or their husbands? And some, bless them, will need to make their own way in the world. Not every family that works in the West Indies and sends their children home to Scotland to be educated is a wealthy, slave-owning business.

Do I take on the daughters of slave-owners? Indeed I do. Did I found my school on money derived from plantations? Yes, I did - after much soul-searching. The money existed, and it had been left to me. To my mind, at once, it was tainted money, earned by poor Africans to support those who believed that one human being is entitled to own another. This is of course wrong – how could it be anything else? I wanted to fling all the money to some worthy charity, and forget the bequest had ever occurred.

Then it struck me that I would be passing on the taint, and that if I wished to wash that money clean, I should do something more direct with it. I was not in a position to buy slaves and set them free, which was my first idea – and even that appalled me. I sat back and considered where my talents lay and how I might use them.

Since I had come to Ballater with my late husband, who had been the minister here, I had used the time which might have been taken up with a family, had we been so blessed, in educating a few village girls who showed promise and who might have need of particular skills. Motherless ones came to learn how to cook and sew, for example, but others might come for languages, or music, or, as we noted before, accountancy. I have always been a little dilettante in my interests, and I found that I was able at least to start the girls off on poetry, piano, Latin and Greek, embroidery and plain sewing … all the things, to tell the truth, that they envied their brothers learning from an ordinary school and a few extra, feminine skills besides. I suppose that is how the breadth of my interests began, anyway, if you will permit a further digression. My brothers were educated by a tutor – that sounds so grand! But really, he was a relative who had had to retire through ill health, and came to live with us, though he had been a Professor of Natural Philosophy – I shall not say at which of the universities. He was an inspiring teacher, when his health permitted, and I, the only sister and the youngest, would be permitted to tag along if I behaved myself and pick up any trifles of knowledge that might come my way. I was so fortunate! And of course my mother saw to it that I learned sewing, and though we had a maid who cooked I found that process most interesting, too. In fact, I think I may safely say that I have never been bored a day in my life, for there is very little indeed that does not arouse in me some curiosity and I have been delighted to be able to gratify much of that curiosity.

When my beloved husband died, really very young, I was glad of my little school for the clergy widows’ fund is unfortunately not generous. I was able to rent a cottage in the village, and carry on with more pupils than before. Still mostly local girls, of course, for who would take the trouble to travel to Ballater for one poor teacher in a cottage?

But when the money came my way I saw an opportunity. I knew that many families in the West Indies, fearing the dangers of the climate, sent their children home to Scotland to be educated. I knew a clergyman who could provide me with contacts. I had enough money to purchase a lease on Dinnet House, which had stood empty for a little while: I was able to furnish it appropriately and employ assistants. It was large enough to accommodate not only a number of girls, but also the nurses who often accompany them on the long voyage, and are, like the girls, far from home and baffled by a strange country. I can easily look after them until they are ready to return – if they choose to return.

And of course, when I have the girls under my influence, these daughters of plantation owners, these young ladies so used to having a native person at their beck and call, purchased sometimes on a whim or born into degradation – I can begin to persuade them to a more proper way of thinking about their fellow human beings. I know that several of the girls have returned to Tobago, or Guyana, or wherever, and had some considerable influence in their own families. I know that pride is sinful, but to hear of slaves not only freed, but properly employed, paid and nurtured and their children educated, gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

Have I done wrong? I have only made a small impression on a much greater problem, I know. Have I gone about it the right way? Sometimes I feel guilty that I have perhaps, very occasionally, used a little of the money to purchase a new gown, or a book for my own enjoyment – should I have done so? I am only a small woman in a small village, far from those plantations and their masters. Could I have done better with my legacy – converted it all to treasury notes and burned them at the church door? But I was always brought up not to be wasteful, and people suffered to make that money – why should it not be used to try to ensure that others in a similar position did not suffer? I have been so fortunate in my life: I have known many good people who have influenced my thinking, my faith and my behaviour. I hope, in my plans to influence others, I have not let them down.

Friday, 16 April 2021

The third book, and Ballater in the snow

Politically this couple of decades, the 1820s and 1830s, were far from settled. I knew that as more visitors came to Ballater each year, politics would begin to intrude on the quiet village. It was also a reminder that inland Aberdeenshire feels the winter more than the coast, and used to feel it even worse!


Thursday, 15 April 2021

Miss Ada Strong

 Miss Ada Strong has been kind enough to contribute a short account for this morning's blog post.

Well, now, here’s a thing! Someone who’s actually telling me they’re interested in the opinions of Miss Ada Strong, spinster of the three parishes? Mind, that sounds as if I spread myself about a bit, and Annie wouldna like that at all. I tell you, my ribs are black and blue from the dunts she gives me – I have only to open my mouth and there she is with her ‘Ada!’ Och well, she doesna have much fun in life, I suppose.

Aye, we were born and bred in the three parishes, my two sisters and my brother Sandy and I. A well kent family, respectable – men of law, my father and my brother both. And my brother-in-law and all. We moved away from Ballater for a whilie and lived in a town – I needn’t tell you its name just the now – and my elder sister Mary came out into what passed for its society. Well, in truth, to be fair my mother took the three of us up to Edinburgh for the season to see if she could find us husbands. My elder sister, she was quick off the mark, and just as well, for my mother was strict and the eldest had to be married off, or at least engaged, before the next could come out. Competition, see. Of course, I was the youngest and the bonniest – dinna make that face! – so they had no wish for me to be out the same time.

Anyway, Mary was the eldest, and she’d barely been five minutes in the new Assembly Rooms on George Street when up steps a fine young gentleman with his foot in a law business up on the Lawnmarket. Well, you ken what it was like in Edinburgh yon days – likely still is – when the nobility and the high heidyins headed for London to make up to the King after the Act of Union, the lawyers stepped in to be the top rank of society, the noblesse de la robe, ken? Aye, I do speak French, as it happens, and German forbye. My sister tells me speaking Scots makes me sound ignorant, but if a’body thinks I’m ignorant they can think again. My mother was a gey intelligent woman and saw no need to bring her daughters up as fools. Mind, I’d have liked fine to study the law like my brother: I often read bits of his books and I think I’d have done a grand job, standing up in the court like the Queen of the May and telling folk what to think. Maybe I’d have been a judge one day – could you see that? Och, I’d have liked that fine!

Where was I? Oh, aye, the Assembly.

Dod MacQueen, he was cried, and he was a good lawyer and a good husband, for all I can tell. Their son Edmund, now, he’s the grand wee man, and a lawyer himself. And Dod and my sister met that evening and I dinna ken why either of them even bothered dancing with a’body else, for they only had eyes for each other. And within a week it was all arranged, and Mother let Annie come out.

Aye, poor Annie: I think my mother reckoned it’d be another week for her and away to a state of married bliss. But of course Mary was the exception. And I dinna ken what it was about Annie – she was pretty enough, and we were rich enough, and respectable enough, and I canna think that my mother thought she’d have a moment’s bother finding her a match, but it just didna happen.

It was maybe something to do with Annie’s attitude, though: she was there but her heart wasna in it. For back in the town we were living in, she had met a young clergyman, assistant to the parish. He wasna much to look at, to my mind, for he was on the skinny side and his teeth had minds of their own, but each to their own. And he had no money, and the living, which was likely to come to him when the old minister died or retired, was not a rich one. He was a bright lad, aye writing religious poetry and Biblical exegesis, and it was good work, too – I think we still have a few of them in the house, if you’re interested. Aye, he was the loon for my sister, she was set on it. No man in Edinburgh, however handsome or wealthy, could match him, in her eyes. The trouble was, he had no interest in her whatsoever.

She hung on and she hung on, and all through that Edinburgh season and the next one, hoping he might finally notice her in the pews on the Sabbath when we were at home, but he never gave her more of a look than he did the minister’s dog, not once.

Then my mother fell ill, and we never went back to an Edinburgh season: my sister and I nursed her, and when she died we stayed at home to look after my father and my brother – mind, they needed some looking after, the pair of them! All the law in the land in their heads, and no notion how to line up a column of figures and send out a bill. We’d have starved altogether if it hadn’t been for Annie and me. There wasna much time for courting, but in any case however devotedly my sister gazed up at the young minister on a Sunday, his gaze went higher still, up to the rafters, and never anywhere near her. And no one else would do her.

When my father died, we came back to Ballater to our old house and my brother set up his law practice here. Oh, it was gey comfortable, like pulling on an old shawl where you know every pluck and thread, but that was the end of any hope for my sister marrying. And somehow she thinks that means I’ll never marry, either. Aye, but I still have an eye for a fine head of hair, or a good pair of legs in tight breeches – that Dr. Napier, though he’s spoken for, he’s bonnie to look at. Or Mr. Durris – I wouldna mind a walk in the moonlight with him! So I’ve no lost hope, ken: one of these days I’ll find a mannie to call my own, and show my sister the way!

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

And of course the white cats


Hippolyta acquired the white cats in A Knife in Darkness when she was first given a kitten from a litter at Dinnet House. The mother, Bella, was made homeless shortly afterwards and Hippolyta, being Hippolyta, adopted her and all six of her white kittens, now called Franklin, Arctic, Parry, Spot, Snowball and Polar. By 1829, when the Napiers acquired the cats, Sir John Franklin was already a noted explorer of the Canadian Arctic, having led expeditions in 1819 and 1825. Arctic, Snowball and Polar are quite obvious! Sir William Parry was also an Arctic explorer and one of the hunters for the North-West Passage – he too made a successful expedition in 1819. As for Spot – well, as they are all pure white cats I can only assume this is an example of Patrick’s odd sense of humour. The arrival of the white cats was inspired by the arrival of our own rescue cat, No.3 Cat, who, being from Elgin, might easily have been called Marble and was very nearly called Shimi Dawa, Moon Cat (well, Cat Moon, but we're not going to make comments on his figure). But he isn’t! He was originally called Smudge, and had two white sisters who bullied him, so we liberated him.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Death of a False Physician - the second book

Read on for the second competition question!

The second book came out at the same time as the first in a bit of a marathon writing effort to hit a launch date that would help the Ballater Flood Fund. These were the first two books, I think, where I brought in a professional cover artist, Helen Braid, to work on making the books look more professional - since then she has done the Orkneyinga covers and each new Murray book since Death of an Officer's Lady, and is now working back through the Murray catalogue.

 Pannanich Wells was the reason for the existence of Ballater as a village – it really was founded as a spa town. The wells still flow today, with the water bottled as Deeside Mineral Water – great if you need to up your iron levels. I wanted to see more of Hippolyta’s family, and challenge Patrick a bit with a competitor whose scruples fell rather short of what they should be …

Now for competition time! 

Question Two: When did Queen Victoria first make a visit to what would become Royal Deeside?

Send your answers to contact@kellascatpress.co.uk - we have the hat ready!

Monday, 12 April 2021

Siblings Day

 Can someone remind me who this painting is by? I should know!

Last Saturday was apparently Siblings Day, a day my siblings and I treat (when we’re even aware of it) with deep irony. I’m not sure it’s a celebration that Hippolyta would cherish.

Hippolyta is the youngest of six children, with three brothers and two sisters. Like her, the sisters have unusual names – Galatea and Sophronia – but we’ve only so far met Marcus, the youngest brother. The boys have all followed their father into the legal profession, while Galatea has also married a man of law. Sophronia is also married, and both sisters have provided Hippolyta with nieces and nephews, though as she was a late arrival the nieces and nephews are quite close to her own age. We’ve seen in Death of a False Physician how Galatea – and by implication Sophronia too – treats Hippolyta as an ignorant schoolgirl, following the example of their mother. This is, for Hippolyta, one very good reason to live in Ballater and not back in Edinburgh with the rest of the family.

None of the brothers is married, and Marcus, who actually quite enjoys visiting his little sister on Deeside, is a little too feckless to settle down just yet. His interests flit about from day to day, and Hippolyta often feels like his big sister instead of his younger sibling.

Hippolyta is, if she had to admit it, very fond of all her siblings, sometimes in a slightly desperate, youngest wanting to be noticed, way. But it is much easier for her to feel like a proper grown-up wife and mother when none of them is around – not, I would suggest, an uncommon feeling!

Thursday, 8 April 2021

A Knife in Darkness - why start a new series?


I began a new series afraid that Murray was aging too fast! I knew I couldn’t stop writing so I had to distract myself with something else. But what? It was hard to decide when and where to begin. I was drawn very much to Ballater, the excitement of Royal Deeside and all the scientific advances of the Victorian age, but also to what went before it in this beautiful and relatively sleepy part of Scotland.I had read about the Muckle Spate, the great flood of 1829, and the effect it had had on Ballater. Then Ballater was flooded again, and I wanted to do something to help. So all the profits from this and the second book, for several years, went to the locally administered Ballater Flood Fund.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Guest blog - Dr. Patrick Napier


Good day to you! I trust you are well? Quite well? Yes, you look very healthy, I must say. A pain in your left leg? Well, of course, I’ll take a look at it – perhaps if I visit tomorrow morning?

Oh, yes, I’m fully qualified, and quite experienced. I am a graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and I studied medicine at Edinburgh. Two years there, and I was apprenticed to Dr. Louden and Dr. Snow, whose reputation you’ll know, no doubt.

Well, things are not too bad in Ballater. It’s not like a town practice: not so much contagious disease, and those illnesses connected with poverty, such as you might see in the Old Town tenements of Edinburgh, are rare here. The village is regular and clean. The factors of the various estates here see to it that pensioners are paid reasonably and the estate houses are mostly well kept, and while I hear that the poors’ fund is barely adequate there are some other trusts and so on that help those in need. Of course there is a good deal of damp down by the river, where some houses – including, I might say, the manse – have been built using clay and are examples of very poor workmanship. But the air is remarkably healthy and of course there are the spa waters. Chalybeate, yes – really quite rusty looking as they come out of the earth, but they are very fine to drink, not like some of the more sulphurous springs. And yes, it makes for a very varied and, at least in the summer, quite prosperous practice. Just about enough for me to handle on my own. It’s tempting to think of taking on a student, but of course that is not so easily come about as it would be in a town with a university. I’d need to find some young lad already in the parish, with ambitions, perhaps, to become a physician, and the money to pay me until he goes to do some formal study. And could we house him? I’m not sure we could fit him in. After all, we seem to have developed quite a household staff! Not to mention the animals: I am sure all kinds of creatures follow my wife Hippolyta about the village, waiting for a moment when they can look neglected and she will take them in. Of course there are the benefits of eggs and pork, and I have always been fond of a cat or two about the place … and I have grown attached, I suppose, to the hen that favours my study … It would have been helpful, perhaps, if we could have adopted a pony that would listen to anyone apart from Hippolyta: I feel sometimes it detracts from the dignity people seek in their physician to have his wife deliver him to their houses. But then, the pony needs its exercise, and Hippolyta needs fresh air, and it’s useful that she can drive safely to places to paint.

I’m prodigiously proud of her painting, you know. To think that people want to buy pictures made by my wife! I know some men – and women, too – think that a woman going into business is not fitting, particularly a respectable gentlewoman like Hippolyta – like the wife of most physicians. But painting is not quite business, after all: she is very talented, and it is quite right that others should enjoy that and that she should benefit from their enjoyment. And it does help, financially. I worry lest some other doctor finds Ballater as congenial as I and sets up in competition – would there be enough business for two medical men? It would be so easy to be outdone. And medicine is such a chancy business, anyway: just one mistake, or even one perceived mistake, and one’s reputation can be ruined. What if I were to mis-set someone’s broken leg, and then find that no one trusts me to tackle their gall stones? It’s a great worry.

If there is one lack in the village, it is another professional man to talk with. The minister is a pleasant fellow, but rather older than I and looking forward to the quiet life of retirement more than keeping up to date with changes in the church. There is no Episcopal clergyman, and those who fly in and take our services are so often in a rush to go on to the next congregation. Since poor Mr. Strong’s death there is no man of law, either. But when there is the opportunity, I find working with Mr. Durris, the sheriff’s man, very interesting – he is clearly educated even if he is not very forthcoming about his background - and after all, the patients he presents me with are usually dead. I wonder if I should have stayed in Edinburgh and tried for an anatomy instructor? Though pharmacy is fascinating, too: I do relish having my own little workshop. But then what if one makes a mistake with that? The consequences could be disastrous.

I shouldn’t like anyone to think that I was anxious about my work. An anxious doctor does not give a patient confidence. And I don’t like to think that Hippolyta thinks I worry overmuch: after all, a woman should be able to rely on her husband to be strong and to support her and the household. And really, it is only sometimes that I think ‘What if?’ or ‘I pray I may not …’ And if it is not the middle of the night (and I generally do sleep very well), then I can go and play my violin or the box piano, just softly, and somehow my worries take the shape of the notes and seep gently into the air. Mistakes barely matter there, with no one listening but the cats (though sometimes one of them will give me a critical look if the bow slips), and I can ease out of the heavy cloak of my anxieties and escape, free and content. Until the next time.

Dark Sky Week


This is Dark Sky Week, and I’ve very happy memories of spending it over on the west coast where every night is Dark Sky night – and the Serengeti and the Himalayas were pretty astounding, too. Actually establishing a week for it would have seemed very odd to Hippolyta, whose outdoor activities at night would have been governed by moonlight and starlight much more than we ever see in our towns and cities today. We look up and pick out Orion’s Belt and say that we can see the stars, but there are just so many more to be seen when the background light is switched off.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

I know it's Hippolyta Month but ...

You can't control when audiobooks are going to be approved, and suddenly it was! 

Tomb for an Eagle narrated by Ulf Bjorklund is now available on Audible! I think he’s done a great job, and it was strangely exciting to hear someone else read my book! Here are the links for the US, UK, France and Germany:








Hippolyta Month - the first competition question


Hippolyta Napier was hoping for good tenants for her new cottage, but the first resident is already dead. Who was he? Why was he there? And will the disappearance of a fitness instructor and the strange activities of a new bride offer any clue to the mystery?

The Corrupted Blood - out soon!

And here we are at the first competition day.

The prize (today and for the next three competitions, too) will include a signed copy of A Knife in Darkness, the first Hippolyta book, the chance to have your name (or a modified version of it if it’s very modern!) in a future Hippolyta book, and a few other goodies. The closing date for all entries is midnight British Summer Time on 1st. May, and winners will be informed, and asked for their postal details, the following week.

And the first question …

The books frequently make reference to the ‘three parishes’. What are they?

Monday, 5 April 2021

Hippolyta Month - Easter Monday


Here's the centrical church in Ballater, the Church of Scotland or Established Church as it's now known.
But Hippolyta and Patrick are Episcopalians, a denomination which nowadays has most in common with the Anglican Church and is a member of the Anglican Communion. However, despite the fact that it was sometimes called the 'English Church' in fact it stemmed from the post Reformation church in Scotland, preferring to revert to the authority of bishops than to become wholly presbyterian (this is a very potted history!). Patrick is from Longside, which was a cradle of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Edinburgh, Hippolyta's birthplace, was quite mixed even at this period. 

An early Episcopal congregation in Glenmuick came to grief, like so many, in 1698, and thereafter Episcopalians in the area kept their heads down during years of religious strife. The nineteenth century saw more tolerant times, as well as an influx of English tourists looking for a familiar church in which to worship. After several decades of occasional services held at a private chapel in Glenmuick, a mission was established at Ballater in 1897 – this was in an iron church, dedicated to St. Saviour. The current Episcopal church in Ballater was finally built in 1907, and when a full time clergyman was at last appointed in 1945 the church was rededicated to St. Kentigern, more usually a saint associated with Glasgow (it’s another name for St. Mungo - coincidence?).


Bishop William Skinner, who is mentioned in A Lochgorm Lament, was a very prominent figure in Episcopal history though not quite so much as his father, John Skinner of Longside (where Patrick was born), who had also been Bishop of Aberdeen. Both bishops are commemorated at this, the Moir of Stoneywood burial site, in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Aberdeen – you might remember the Moir family from The Slaughter of Leith Hall!

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

April is Hippolyta Month

In late April, all being well, the new Hippolyta will appear - The Corrupted Blood - and the cover for the new Hippolyta box set will be chosen. So we're going to have a Hippolyta Month!

Throughout April there'll be pictures, articles, blogposts, and competitions for moderately fabulous prizes, across Facebook, Pinterest, the newsletter (with a free Hippolyta short story), this blog and the website (www.lexieconyngham.co.uk).

So far three characters have been asked to contribute blogposts - Patrick Napier, Mrs. Kynoch and Miss Ada Strong - if you have anyone else you'd like to hear from (apart from Dod Durris - he's too shy) then drop us a line at contact@kellascatpress.co.uk or through the website.

Further details to follow!

The Corrupted Blood is about 3/4 written, so I'd better get cracking and finish it! Hope to see you in April for Hippolyta Month!

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Books in February

The round up for February (and the few strays from January) - some non-crime here, for once! I've been doing a reading challenge so there will be the occasional oddity creeping in.

Ridley's War: When a War Ends the Killing Doesn't Always Stop

Ridley’s War, Jim Napier: a few odd Americanisms like ‘denim pants’ and American spellings, but this is an interesting book combining a regimental reunion with added murder in Yorkshire, present day, with incidents in Italy during the Second World War. Both are well written with an emphasis on the present, with enough description to set scenes and nothing overdone. Stolen artworks are involved and this is touched on with light authority. I liked the main characters very much, finding them subtly drawn and very real.

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur #2)

The Postscript Murders, Elly Griffiths: I loved the return of Harbinder Kaur in this book which concerns the death of a woman who acted as a murder consultant to a number of crime writers. There’s a visit to what is clearly Granite Noir, our local Aberdeen crime fiction festival, which was great fun - particularly as I was at the event it's based on! The characters are well drawn and I enjoyed seeing what was happening from several points of view. Comparisons have been drawn between this, The Marlow Murder Club and The Thursday Murder Club, but I’m not sure I’d class this with the other two – if I did I’d consider it the best of the three.

The Railway Detective (The Railway Detective, #1)

Edward Marston, The RailwayDetective: In some ways I expected to enjoy this more than I did. I love railways and know something about their history and development, but I found this was at least initially lacking in humanity. The detective inspector is supreme, and apart from a very devoted fireman, Pike, everyone else is rather unappealingly described, usually as a defensive fool. Colbeck is not sympathetic, however hard his sidekick Leeming tries. I did like the way the engine driver is portrayed, his love for his locomotive, his devotion to duty, and the subtle difference between his world and his daughter’s. I also enjoyed the research that had gone into not only the railway aspect of the book, but also local industry, Chubb locks, the Royal Mint … But it was quite hard going, as if one were trying to befriend lumps of wood. The descriptions of Devil’s Acre were a little more human, and as the book progressed the characters slowly rounded, so that I have hopes of the later books in the series.

Away with the Penguins

Away with the Penguins, Hazel Prior: Not my usual fare, though the title grabbed me straight away, and then I realised the author was someone I knew at university, so it was good to have a reason to reconnect. Veronica, an elderly but sprightly lady, is looking for a destination for her considerable fortune. Finding her longlost grandson less than appealing, she heads off to the South Pole to see if Adelie penguins are any more deserving. She’s a very well written character, at once irritating and sympathetic, and further exploration of her history reinforces this. There’s a sound environmental message to this, though it’s incidental to the main, heartwarming theme of reconciliation and redemption.

Time to Kill

Time to Kill, Roger Ormerod: Straight into the action here and catch up as you go. This is set in the 1960s or 1970s in London, with a touch of gangland style. Dave is a cop brought up in the old school but soon finds his retired boss murdered and himself in the frame, even though the boss’s wife is also suspect. The first person narrative is compelling and there are touches of humour, particularly with regard to the thug detailed to tail the hero.

All the Tears in China (Rowland Sinclair, #9)

All the Tears in China, Sulari Gentill: Rowland is a communist sympathiser sent off from Australia in 1932 to Shanghai by his wealthy brother to represent their wool trade and evade his local political problems. However, that does not mean that he will lack problems when he gets there: he has taken his closest, artistic, Bohemian friends with him and while they have issues of their own he is nearly kidnapped as soon as he lands on Chinese soil. Then he finds a body in their hotel suite. This is one in a series with these characters and while there is reference to earlier events in the series, on the whole I felt it worked well as a standalone. The setting of jazz-age Shanghai is well done, a melting pot of European, Russian, Chinese, American and Australian with great wealth and desperate poverty, and the ever-present danger of opium. The newspaper stories that start each chapter give a good context (I haven’t checked to see if they are genuine but they ring true) and if anything add to the impetus of the plot. I also very much enjoyed the characters of Wing Zau and Ranjit Singh (the latter in particular) and their perspectives on Shanghai and their part in it. Slightly surprised to read of an actress playing Beatrice in As You Like It, but heigh ho, mistakes happen, as I well know.

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club, #1)

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club – to be honest, I listened to this on the wireless rather than reading the book. Enjoyable, unbelievable, definitely cosy and fairly satisfying book.

THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER a cozy Welsh murder mystery full of twists (WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries Book 1)

The Case of the Dotty Dowager, Cathy Ace: The author here is at great (and slightly annoying) pains to describe her team of investigators as representing all four British nations – not sure who does that outside the Lions rugby team. However, they are quite interesting characters – a retired nurse, a debutante and a couple of other women it would be harder to sum up all fallen together into an investigative agency. The title alone tells us this is a cosy mystery, and the setting, a stately home with accompanying dower house by an attractive village in Wales reinforces it. Most interesting is probably Alexander, a man who started on the wrong side of the tracks and has come up good enough to be able to pursue his hobby of collecting antique dentures … it’s good fun, and I’d read another.

The Marlow Murder Club

Robert Thorogood, The MarlowMurder Club: The author of Death in Paradise has here come up with another gentle murder mystery, this time led by an eccentric crossword setter. The setting on the Thames feels convincing and the characters are strong and amusing. The plot was perhaps unsurprising, in the setting, but it was well done and the denouement was dramatic.

Reign of the Marionettes

Reign of the Marionettes, Sheena Macleod: A royal historical novel in the tradition of Philippa Gregory and others, not so much of a romp as a detailed religio-political thriller. This is set in the reign of Charles II and centres, subtly, around the Powis family, Catholic and trying to pursue their faith under threat of a returned persecution. Religion is hard bound into the machinations of the court, the nobles, their wives and their chances of producing heirs. The punctuation bunnies have had a bit of fun with this book, but the story is compelling and the characters very memorable. 

God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath

God and the Pandemic, Tom Wright: A fairly short read, written in the first British lockdown. Wright examines the various dilemmas facing Christians in the time of pandemic, comparing it with previous times of crisis. Not all his conclusions are firm – why would they be? – and I particularly liked his discussion of whether or not places of worship should be closed, which is a thorny topic with many strong arguments on both sides. The parallels with the disciples’ experience just after the Crucifixion – fear, locked rooms and doubt – was a very interesting one, well explored, and his decision that the correct, basic Christian response to a crisis should be lament, prayer and action was a comforting one (taking into account Martin Luther’s caution that one ought not to rush in if it’s going to make matters worse, for example by spreading disease further). A good and thoughtful book.

Willa Cather : O Pioneers!

Willa Cather, O Pioneers: Set in the American West among Swedish settlers trying to farm unsympathetic land, the story centres on Alexandra and her little brother Emil. As Alexandra betters her father’s investment in land for the sake of Emil’s future, her old neighbour Carl turns up to make her wonder which is better, the country and stability (and perhaps stultification), or the town and freedom (and obscurity). Emil’s ‘college’ fitness does not equip him for farmwork. But when tragedy strikes Alexandra works out what is most important to her, and the book is, in the end, upbeat.

There we are - and as for my own progress, I'm past the halfway mark with the latest Hippolyta, The Corrupted Blood. For once I'm actually enjoying writing this one! There are lots of little in jokes to myself, unlikely to be visible to the reader, and it's keeping me going quite well. I'm aiming for publication in April. Very shortly there will be a new, improved book cover for Service of the Heir to make it more in keeping with the rest of the Murray series - it's very smart! I'll gradually have the others changed to fit, too.

And later in the year there will be a new Hippolyta box set (the first three books) and a new cover for the Murray box set, too! And as for the audiobook of Tomb for an Eagle ... watch this space!

Monday, 22 February 2021

Granite Noir Day Three


A late start on Sunday and I popped into an event with Candice Gaines and Isla Traquair, talking to Theresa Talbot about their rather different true crime podcasts. I hadn’t originally intended to go to this as I’m not so interested in true crime, but I was intrigued by their different approaches to what they do and the reasons they do it. Having been tangentially involved in a project a few years ago highlighting the many missing First Nation women in Canada and the unidentified, unclaimed murder victims from the First Nation peoples, I was interested in Candice Gaines’ efforts to bring similar cases to light in the U.S. concerning people of colour, using a podcast – she is approached by family or friends of a victim, rather than going out looking for cases. Isla Traquair on the other hand goes back to older cases and subjects them to a very detailed ongoing investigation – not necessarily unsolved crimes, but ones where perhaps our perspectives and attitudes might have changed since. They covered how they deal with the traumatic things they read and the possible dangers of what they do, and how they seek some kind of resolution for all those concerned.

Then it was time for a panel on revenge, with Alex Clark interviewing Lesley Kara, Stina Jackson and Eva Bjorn Aegisdottir about their most recent books. A good discussion on the instinct for revenge, the best revenge plots, the harm revenge can cause even to the avenger, and the distinction between revenge and vigilantism. So nice to see Stina’s cat!

Next Peter May. This is an author I haven’t read much of – only his Lewis trilogy – but I think it might have been my favourite event. Bryan Burnett is excellent at ‘just chatting’, even though I know he’s done his research. I loved how May spoke about ‘writing for’ his characters, as if he were helping them out, and I loved how he valued the depths of his own research. The account of how he had written his most recent book was fascinating, and he was amusing (if clearly still a little irritated) at the antics of his own publishers over the years. As someone who has also always known that they wanted to write I enjoyed his account of that, too. A session where you really felt you learned something.

That was my last session – I might listen to Baldacci later, maybe not.

My verdict this year? It was easy to become distracted, particularly after a few sessions, and check what was going on elsewhere on the web while continuing to listen (and call it multi-tasking). I couldn’t help wondering what it was like, too, for the authors, doing this in their studies / sitting rooms / kitchens, conscious of other members of the household listening in, perhaps, and very conscious of not knowing how the audience was reacting. And no off to the bar afterwards to chat, no flopping for a post mortem in the green room. Yet I felt the organisers came up with a great programme and created the atmosphere of the real-life festival as well as they could, and the additional pleasure of watching it remotely with friends and relations who can’t normally be here for it was welcome. The interviewers were stoical in dealing with the quirks of online conversations and kept everything flowing remarkably well. But I hope we’re back in the Lemon Tree, the Library and everywhere else next year!

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Granite Noir Day Two


Granite Noir day two:

Never have I had time to bake eighty-nine ginger biscuits (they keep for ages and it’s between two households, anyway, honest) on the morning of Granite Noir. Yet this year I could have my laptop chattering to me as I finished off the last few batches, then set the yogurt going and retire to knit another sock while listening to Theresa Talbot interview three newcomers, Femi Kayode, Saima Mir and Susie Yang. All three books sound pretty interesting – if I were there I suppose I might have splashed out on the paperbacks and had them signed (well, not Saima’s as it’s not out yet), but instead I looked on Amazon and thought one was a bit pricey but ordered the other. Not so good for book selling. I’m feeling a bit mean. But on the other hand I often don’t have time to queue to have books signed, and I’m not a great collector of signed books, so I might not have bought them anyway. I thought Theresa did a good job of balancing the three authors and coping with the occasional glitch.

Right, midday and I’ve realised I should have read more small print – I wanted to go to a workshop on developing characters over a series but it was limited numbers. There’s always something I forget to book! Shame, as the chap leading it is also a historical crime fiction writer, D.V. Bishop. I don’t know about him, but I need mutual support!

A terrific session at 2pm with S.J. Watson, Catherine Ryan Howard and Will Dean, chaired by Bryan Burnett whom I met last year. I remember seeing Will Dean’s first ever event at Granite Noir a few years ago and he’s gained assurance since then – all three of them were amusing and informative. I liked Will saying that the most valuable thing he ever wrote was his first novel, which he worked on and worked on and sent to agents and it never went anywhere – he’ll never publish it, he says, but it was his writing school.

 Straight on from that was Val McDermid talking with Andy Miller and John Mitchinson about Josephine Tey, chiefly about her book Miss Pym Disposes, which was one I’d never read (loved Brat Farrar, The Singing Sands and Daughter of Time, but I can’t remember The Franchise Affair so I’ll go back to that, too). A strange woman, Tey, leading a double life of domesticity in Inverness and theatrical weekends in London, different friends, different clothes, everything.

Then at 6, when I’d sorted out a new batch of knitting (taking a pause from socks) I watched Camilla Lackberg interviewed by Alex Clark. Entertaining, though she looked very monochrome in her black and white room! She’s a productive author with, she says, a strong work ethic, and she seems to be into everything – a film company here, an investment company there, five children, two series and standalones. I’m feeling like an under achiever …

Lastly, while we ate pizza, we had Jo Nesbo, interviewed by Jackie Collins (Dr. Noir) who had some technical problems to start with and had to recover from a flustery beginning. Some good questions came up about language, translations, and different perceptions of words in different countries. I wish my Norwegian was as good as his English – and I also rather wish he had taken his cap off. It was a bit distracting.

Zoom headache – enough for one day.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Granite Noir Day One

 Traditionally I write something for Granite Noir - traditionally, however, it isn't on line and I'm running back and forth to the Lemon Tree or the Music Hall or the Central Library or wherever and grabbing a cafe coffee in between. 

This evening, however, I'm in my armchair with a hot toddy, watching on my laptop. The cat is occasionally watching over my shoulder, there's no one coming in late to squirm into an empty seat beside me, and there's no to and fro between speakers and audience, sadly. But here we go:

Not the typical Granite Noir and Day One is really Friday evening, not Thursday evening. Being able to go and top up my hot toddy between sessions, but having to involve No.3 Cat in the entertainment, is definitely odd. The first session was Stuart MacBride and Ian Rankin, chaired by Fiona Stalker – Stuart against a strange greenscreen of a sideways cat. I felt Stuart didn’t come across as humorously as he usually does – Zoom makes us all more sententious – and it took a while for these two prominent authors and broadcaster to relax and settle into the whole business of being away and present at once, and to work round the ‘here we are in a pandemic’ subject to things we’re actually interested in.

Next session – Alex Clark interviewing Attica Locke. I’m not saying I want politics to swamp Granite Noir, but this was a good session, looking, with remarkable balance, at Trump, modern America and black lives mattering, but not without reference to writing and reading and crime fiction. Lots covered here! And I think I want to sit down and have a coffee, or glass of wine, with Attica Locke. She just seems like great company.

And now I don't even have to walk home!

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

January's reading

 I might have missed a few here moving between laptops, but they can always be tagged on to February!


Wilding, Isabella Tree: I made the mistake of reading the introduction, which I think is usually to be avoided. But moving past that this is a tremendously readable account, if alarming in the details about current farming practices. There is more in the way of statistics than of poetry, but that is not what this book is about: it is more about a possible way forward, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, in making farming and conservation work together for the benefit of both, in terms of biodiversity, water management, soil enhancement, and food improvement. I hope those with power in the right places pay a bit of attention.

Suddenly He Thinks He's a Sunbeam

Suddenly He Thinks He’s aSunbeam, Adey Grummet: An Australian singer finds herself married to a man with a vocation – an actual vocation to become ordained as a priest at the higher end of the Anglican church. This is a very amusing as well as moving account of coming to terms with the effects her husband’s change of life will have on her own career, behaviour and circumstances – just watch out for some slightly dated attitudes to certain parts of society, and believe they are in the end well-intentioned.

Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre: This is very sci-fi. I mean, I know, the setting is a space station, and I was up for quite a bit of technological scene-setting, and I certainly had it. But then the characters kick in and it’s a crime fiction book, so if space stations are not your thing, then just have patience. I thought it lacked some of the humour of his other books, but the plot is beautifully complex and leads you into thoughts about artificial intelligence, the vulnerability of memories and the ultimate ethics of police work in a corrupt society.

The Curator (Washington Poe, #3)

The Curator, M. W. Craven: The relationship between Poe and Tilly is the main reason for reading these books – it is at once hilarious and touching. But there is much more besides: the plot is well woven, the secondary characters lifelike, even the animals real people.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Forensics: The Anatomy ofCrime, Val McDermid: An approachable treatment of the subject for an intelligent beginner. The book is divided into chapters on facets of forensics – fingerprints, blood patterns, forensic anthropology, etc., and the history of the facet is covered before going on to what is happening in the field today. If you’ve already read Sue Black’s All That Remains some parts will be very familiar, but there was plenty still to bookmark and come back to. There is also a good index and bibliography.

Surface Tension (Seychelle Sullivan, #1)

Surface Tension, Christine Kling: I read this because it was free, and set in Florida, which I needed for a reading challenge. I sort of didn’t expect to enjoy it, but I did. It’s based near Fort Lauderdale, and it is action-packed from the start. If, like me, you have little idea of which end of a boat is which, you can just run with the high-tech description for a bit and be reassured when the body is found. But there’s a real sense of the author’s deep familiarity with the whole coastal scene in Florida, historically as well as contemporary. In some ways it bears comparison with Marsali Taylor’s excellent crime novels set on and off Shetland: the heroine is just as scarred by her past, if not more so, but she really knows her boat-based community. The book is much darker, though, and with more in the way of shorts, sex, and mangrove swamps.

Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess

Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, Amanda Owen: Having heard a good deal about the series on television, I felt well-disposed to this lady and her family, and was not disappointed. Apparently this isn’t the first book, but it was very enjoyable: you could be there with the family in their disappointments, sorrows and laughter. I might even look out some more in the series!

See Them Run (Detective Clare Mackay, #1)

See Them Run, Marian Todd: Well, this one feels as if it’s set in St. Andrews, which is a good start. I liked the main character, who is in Fife to escape something awful that’s happened in Glasgow (and why not?), though it’s likely to follow her. Not quite sure about the senior officer who comes tramping in to take charge, or the general dynamics in the police station, but I think they’re likely to develop over future books. For once, the non-police characters are more rounded and interesting, particularly the victims and their families.

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern: A young man finds an uncatalogued book in his university library and in it reads a story about himself. This drags him into a mysterious world of books, of painted doors and hidden doors and lost doors, of underground rooms and bees and swords and keys. The occasional flash of dry humour is very welcome. There is a magical style to this book, a love of stories and intertwined stories, that fills your head with half-caught ideas for stories of your own, and in the end the plot actually works.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #13)

The Limpopo Academy of PrivateDetection, Alexander McCall Smith: I’ve lost track of this series a bit, but enjoyed this one. It’s the mixture as before, with Mma Makutsi endlessly ambitious, Mma Potokwani concerned for her orphanage, the unexpected arrival of the famous Clovis Andersen, and Mma Ramotswe and her lovely, patient husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni behaving with reason and kindness to everyone.

The Wolf in the Whale

Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Wolfin the Whale: There’s a bit of confusing use of capital letters around the beginning of this, but it settles down into a story with a mythical feel to it, full of legends and rituals in a tiny Inuit community that has lost a large proportion of its young men in one bad accident and is no longer viable. The survival of the rest, the desperate longing to meet another community, and the coming to adulthood of Omat, the main character. Some of the description is beautiful, magical and mystical, and some is harsh as befits the hard landscape. When rescue seems to appear it is not the bright future they hoped, and Omat is left alone to try to save the community in the face of more than one enemy. Encounters with Vikings and native Americans lead to confusion and danger, and long journeys across ice, tundra and forest. Some elements of the fantasy side seem to become lost and the whole thing ends rather suddenly, but it was an interesting read.

Well, as I said, more to come next month! Meanwhile I'm nearly a third of the way through Hippolyta VI, The Corrupted Blood, and excitingly an audiobook of Tomb for an Eagle is in production as we speak. It's all go here!