A big welcome today to Helen Hollick, a truly gifted writer of historical fiction, non-fiction and now, historical mysteries. Helen also runs Discovering Diamonds, an absolutely brilliant website highlighting and reviewing historical fiction books. I loved the first Jan Christopher novel, and I’ve got my eye on this one for the post-Christmas lunch curl up on the couch time! Thanks for sharing a delicious extract, Helen!
A Mystery of Murder
(Jan Christopher Mysteries, Episode 2)
By Helen Hollick
‘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?
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Jan Christopher is spending Christmas 1971 with her boyfriend DS Laurie Walker and his parents who live in an old farmhouse in Devon. Evidence of a murder has been found. Laurie and his father have gone to the local police station, Laurie’s mother has had an accident and been taken to the hospital with Gran – and Jan is all on her own…
A HUNGRY DOG AND A FLYING BEAR
Was it any surprise that I felt uneasy? I was alone, in a house I didn’t know, with it being dark and unfamiliar outside. The nearest neighbour, a quarter-of-a-mile away, was an unfriendly, antisocial nightmare with a daughter to match, and the other neighbour, half-a-mile away further down the hill, unknown to me. The grandfather clock struck six. I slid the front door bolt home, then went to check that the scullery door was locked, checked the French doors in the sitting room, too. While I was there, I shoved a few more logs on the fire. The room was quiet, but warm and cosy, the Christmas lights on the tree twinkled prettily. So quiet. Too quiet. Apart from a rather loud grumble from my stomach. Hungry, I wandered to the kitchen, found the biscuit tin and devoured four digestives. Should I think about preparing something to eat for dinner? Everyone would be hungry when they got back. If they got back. Elsie had said something about a casserole that she’d prepared earlier.
What if they kept her overnight at the Infirmary and Gran Ethel stayed with her? What if Barnstaple police arrested Alf and Laurie? Unlikely, surely? Then even more urgent questions. When would Laurie be home with Alf? I didn’t fancy cooking something just for myself – although there was also Bess. Poor Bess was looking mournfully at me, her brown eyes conveying that she was wasting away to skin and bone. I rather wished I hadn’t been reminded of bones… Succumbing to her doggy telepathy, I found some tins of dog food in the scullery and opened one for her. PAL: Prolongs Active Life. A rather macabre thought entered my head. Whoever had been those bones, should have tried eating some dog food. I wandered back into the cosy sitting room, my thoughts returning to Reverend Passwith as I passed through the hall. He’d said he was delivering a Christmas card. Well, he hadn’t given me one. Perhaps he’d put it in the postbox. Should I go and look?
I peeped behind one of the drawn curtains, peering out into the night through the glass of the window. Maybe not. It would still be there in the morning. Something else caught my eye, a fluttered movement. Then another. Leaves falling? Goodness! It was snowing! I stood at the window watching as the few haphazard flakes grew more in number, swirling and dancing as the gusting wind huffed and puffed. None of the snowflakes seemed to be landing, just little whirlpools of flakes twisting around and around, then skittering sideways before twirling crazily again. It reminded me of a flock of starlings when they perform their intricate in-flight dances. A murmuration of starlings. A murmuration of snow? What if it snowed hard? What if I got snowed in, all on my own? I suppose I could always walk up to the village, ask for help?
The snow stopped. It had only been a flurry.
I pulled the curtain closed, put another log on the fire and went upstairs to my bedroom. Thinking about unanswerable question after unanswerable question was silly. Find yourself something to do, Jan. Something positive!
I’d brought some wrapping paper, scissors and sticky tape from home, so amused myself for half-an-hour wrapping up and labelling the couple of little presents I’d bought from the market, including the photograph album. Laurie had hidden the hyacinths in a shed somewhere, out of his mum’s sight. I flipped through the book I’d bought for myself then put it safely in my empty suitcase, along with a leftover piece of wrapping paper and the roll of sticky tape.
I looked at the writing pad next to my bed. I could jot down some ideas for the next chapter of the science-fiction novel I was writing. I’d left my hero, Radger (rhymes with Badger) Knight hiding from a unit of elite Starforce Five soldiers in an Albaldah tavern basement in the Sagittarius Sector. While hiding, he’d found a few kegs of highly valuable Venusian Vino. I had to help him figure out how he could a) steal them, b) smuggle them out of the star system, c) stay alive while doing so. Unfortunately, I was as stumped for ideas as he was. I sat for a while, pen in hand, gave up. I had no concentration for my masterpiece future bestselling novel.
“What are you looking at, Bear?” I grumbled at Teddy, giving him a mock punch to his nose, then swept him into my arms for a cuddle. Still clasping him, I wandered to the window. There had been a little more snow, a scatter of white on the hedges, trees and the edges of the path where the wind had blown it. The sky lit up and I saw the headlights of a car sweep past the house – I opened the window, leaned out… and promptly sent Bee Bear flying into the night air…
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…
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Thank you so much Elizabeth – blushing a little here…