Bridesmaids Revisited (Ellie Haskell Series #10)by Dorothy Cannell
“Rosemary, Thora, and Jane lived at the end of/b>/i>/i>/i>
In this “entertaining gothic tale” (Chicago Sun-Times) that “reads like Wuthering Heights on steroids” (Publishers Weekly), amateur sleuth Ellie Haskell gets caught up in the drama of a trio of ancient spinsters—and the ghosts of murder past.
“Rosemary, Thora, and Jane lived at the end of the lane, one was thin, one was fat, and one was very plain.” This is how Ellie Haskell remembers her grandmother’s three childhood friends, known collectively as “the bridesmaids.” Ellie once asked her mother where the nickname came from and her mother replied, “It’s a long story, best forgotten.” After all, every family has its secrets.
Now, thirty years later, a letter from the bridesmaids arrives informing Ellie that her grandmother, Sophia, wishes to make contact. This might have been heartwarming news but for one small detail: Sophia is dead. Ellie sets out to visit the bridesmaids, expecting to set the record straight. What she gets is a life-changing journey into the unknown, from a séance and a hidden diary to a mysterious death that took place more than fifty years ago.
Praise for Bridesmaids Revisited
“Witty . . . [Dorothy] Cannell fleshes out an entertaining gothic tale, old-fashioned in structure, sprinkled with . . . wacky humor.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“The tale sometimes reads like Wuthering Heights on steroids. . . . Cannell’s smooth narration and her appealing, smart-mouthed characters charm you into suspending disbelief. The result is a thoroughly delightful puzzle.”—Publishers Weekly
“Full of gothic touches and the ineffable sweetness of memory, this is clearly Cannell’s best so far.”—Booklist
Praise for Dorothy Cannell and the Ellie Haskell series
“A thoroughly entertaining series.”—Cosmopolitan
“It is the absurd predicaments of her central characters that readers find themselves recalling, and Cannell is cunning at devising outlandish situations for them.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“Cannell is a master of subtle wit and humorous asides that lift her cozies to great heights. Before the influx of writers trying to out-humor Janet Evanovich, there was Dorothy Cannell. Long may she write!”—Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
I HADN'T THOUGHT about the bridesmaids in years. My only meeting with them occurred when I was about seven or eight years old and my mother took me to their house for the day. Their names had sounded to me like the start of a nursery rhyme: "Rosemary, Thora, and Jane." From a child's vantage point they had seemed middle-aged. But they could only have been in their forties. My memory of that day's visit was a little fuzzy around the edges. The house was old with a gate that creaked. There was a parrot in a cage by the fireplace and a dark red cloth with a balled fringe on the table, and a jug of lemon barley water on the sideboard. I vaguely remembered sitting on the edge of a hard chair when the one in the kitchen bent to give me a kiss.
Afterwards I asked Mother why she called them the bridesmaids. It was a long story, she said, best forgotten. So I stored that visit and my curiosity away like scraps of black-and-white photographs in some attic corner of my mind, where they gathered cobwebs along with other childhood memories. But when I was seventeen my mother was dead, and so many things I might have asked her would be forever left unanswered.
Now on a wet and windy morning better suited to midwinter than June, I stood in the hall of my grown-up house, reading the letter that had just dropped onto the flagstone floor with the rest of the post. The handwriting was neat and precise. One sensed the ghost of a teacher, with ruler to hand, leaning over the shoulder of Rosemary Maywood, for that's whom the letter was from. In opening she said she hoped it reached me and found myfamily and me in good health. Then she went into a paragraph of detail about how she, Thora, and Jane had managed to track me down, by way of talking to someone who knew someone who had a friend who knew Astrid Fitzsimons, the widow of my mother's brother Wyndom. Why the bridesmaids had gone to such trouble was the burning question. I had to read page two to find out. Here Rosemary explained that her purpose in writing was to inform me that my maternal grandmother was anxious to get in touch with me. And, that she, Thora, and Jane would be pleased to arrange matters if I would come as soon as possible for a long-neglected reunion at the Old Rectory.
How peculiar! My grandmother had been no more than a name to me and I had never imagined having any sort of contact with her. My immediate reaction was to rush into my husband's study, where he was usually to be found at nine in the morning, already hard at work on his latest cookery book. Unfortunately I was out of luck today. Ben not sensing I was about to need him desperately had left at the crack of dawn for Norfolk. Even the children weren't available to me. He had taken our four-year-old twins, son Tam and daughter Abbey, and sixteen-month-old Rose on a fortnight's holiday so that I could finally finish my last bit of decorating. Therefore, I took the next best course of action, which was to head for the kitchen intent on confiding in my daily helper, Mrs. Roxie Malloy. Luckily she was just where I hoped to find herseated at the kitchen table with a feather duster in one hand for appearance's sake and a cup of tea in the other.
"Make yourself at home, Mrs. H.," she proffered kindly. "If you're looking for Tobias, I just let him out into the garden. And don't go telling me it's not fit weather out there for man nor beast, because I already told him. If ever a cat had a mind of his own that one does. Meowed at me something dreadful he did until I just gave in." She shifted perfunctorily in her seat. "When all's said and done, there's only so much a woman can be expected to put up with in these enlightened times."
"Very true," I said.
Ours was not the typical employer-employee relationship. Mrs. Malloy and I had been through a lot together since the day I changed my name from Miss Ellie Simons to Mrs. Bentley T. Haskell, and she showed up to help hand round plates of mushroom caps on toast points at the wedding reception. Over the years she had come to behave as though Merlin's Court was her home and I was someone in the habit of dropping in unannounced in the hope that there might be a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the offing. She'd also made it clear that she didn't think much of how I'd decorated the place, despite the fact that I'd been in the interior-design business before I married and had been working part-time for the past year or so. According to her, the kitchen's quarry-tiled floor was hard on her feet, the glass-fronted cupboards looked silly with just a couple of eggcups sitting in them, and a fireplace in the kitchen was a nonsense. Nevertheless, as was the case this morning, she was usually the one to set a match to the logs at the first hint of a chill in the air.
There was no denying that I was fond of her, but Mrs. Malloy could be a royal pain at times. Presently she was looking even more long-suffering than usual. But I wasn't about to let her get started. Call me selfish, but I felt entitled for once to unload on her.
Fetching a cup and saucer from the Welsh dresser, I sat down across from her and reached for the teapot. "Mrs. Malloy, I just received a rather disturbing letter."
"Well, if that isn't a coincidence, one came for me this morning." She nodded her jet-black head with the two inches of white roots. This was for her a fashion statement, along with the neon eye shadow, magenta lipstick, and the taffeta frocks. My cousin Freddy, who lived in the cottage at our gates, had once noted with an admiring grin that she managed to create the impression that life for her was one long cocktail party. Still, as she frequently informed me, there was a lot more to her than her glamour-puss image might lead one to suppose. "Don't let me go dwelling on my problems," she now continued magnanimously. "Just because my life is in ruins, there's no call for you to bottle up whatever's got you upset, Mrs. H.; you pour it all out, have a good snivel if it'll help."
"Oh, no! You first," I said, resolutely stuffing the envelope back in my skirt pocket. "It's not bad news about George, is it?"
"Who?" Mrs. Malloy frowned, putting a few more cracks in her makeup, which this morning appeared to have been applied with a trowel.
"Your son." We didn't often speak of George, who had been married briefly to my alluring cousin Vanessa, Aunt Astrid and Uncle Wyndom's daughter. Only to discover that the child he thought was his wasn't. This being how Ben and I had come to have Rose with us.
"That's right; me one and onlythe pride and joy of his mother's heart. George is fine, thanks ever so for asking." Mrs. Malloy let the feather duster fall from her hand and sat exuding a most unnerving humility. "Course, I don't hear from him as often as I'd like, but it's not to be expected, is it? Not from a busy man like him. Quite the businessman is my George. Anyhow, you can ease your mind, Mrs. H., the letter weren't from him."
"But I wouldn't mind if he wanted to see Rose," I protested. "I understand how terribly hurt he was on finding out he wasn't her father."
"We all get a reminder once in a while that life isn't all it's cracked up to be; not for none of us it isn't." Mrs. Malloy passed me the sugar bowl. "Look at yourself, left all alone while Mr. H. goes bunking off with the kiddies for a fortnight's fun and games at that holiday camp place. Or so he says. Let a man off the lead for two minutes and there goes your marriage, you mark my words! It's the story of me third husband, Leonard, all over again." Her sigh created a whirlpool in her teacup. "Off he goes to the butcher's one Saturday morning for a pound and a half of stewing steakI remember particularly I'd been fancying a nice meat puddingand that's the last I sees or hears of him. Until this morning, some twenty years later, when he writes to say as how his reason for not coming home was the fault of a rare form of amnesia."
"Not the common or garden kind?" While sipping my tea I thought about the bridesmaids. They hadn't mentioned my mother, except in reference to that long-ago visit. Did they know she had died? Had they thought it in poor taste to mention the fact? Was the parrot still alive?
"There was never nothing common about Leonard." Mrs. Malloy's eyes took on a dreamy glow. "A gent through-and-through he was. Always went to a proper tailor he did; no buying his clothes down the market for him. Hair styled every week with a lovely deep wave in front. And you couldn't count the shoes in his wardrobe, polished the like you've never seen. Oh, yes, he was something to look at, was Leonard. Even when he was in the altogether, which is where most men come up short. Course"her sigh would have done a whistling kettle proud"he carried on something terrible with other women, but on the bright side, they was all classy types."
"That counts for something," I conceded, wondering if I was right in thinking that Rosemary was the tallest of the bridesmaids.
"It certainly does, Mrs. H., seeing as one of me other husbands went off with a real cow that was got up like a streetwalker. I'll have you know, Mrs. H., that sort of thing takes a lot of living down for a woman like me that's always taken pride in presenting herself right." Mrs. Malloy pursed her butterfly lips, and pressed a hand to the cleavage revealed by her sequined neckline. "And when all is said and done, Leonard is my George's father."
"Really? I thought your second husband was his father."
"Well, maybe it was that way." She eyed me somewhat coldly. "It's easy to lose track when you've been married as often as I have. What it comes right down to is that Leonard had his good points. And now here he is writing to say he wants to come home to me."
"With or without the pound and a half of stewing steak?"
"There's no need to take that snippy tone, Mrs. H. Can't a man say he's sorry?"
"For keeping your meat pudding waiting twenty years?"
"Put like that, I would be a fool." Mrs. Malloy tottered to her feet, the very picture of tortured womanhood. Her black suede shoes had three-inch heels and were at least a couple of sizes too small for her. But I could tell that only a fraction of her anguish was physical.
Draining my second cup of tea, I forced myself to stop thinking about the bridesmaids. "Of course it would be a mistake to even consider taking him back," I told her. "I expect Leonard is down-and-out and needs somewhere to stay until he has another win at the dogs or whatever is his usual means of getting by. Try telling yourself how well you've done without him all these years and write back saying you've got amnesia. There's been a lot of it going around lately."
"That's easy enough to say." Mrs. M. retreated into the pantry and emerged with a bottle of gin. For a moment I thought she was about to drown her sorrows by getting busy washing the windows. She was a great believer that gin was the best all-purpose household cleaner. Instead, she poured a good slosh into her teacup and sat back down at the table. "Leonard didn't put a return address on the letter. And I know what that means. He's going to show up on me doorstep in the next day or two and I won't have the heart to send him away, not once I get a whiff of that lovely cologne he always wore."
"It wasn't the hairspray that got to you?"
"I'll choose to ignore that crack, Mrs. H., seeing as how it's understandable you're down in the dumps." Mrs. Malloy could at times take the high road. "Clearly it don't need saying that I know better than most what it feels like having a husband bunk off to Greener Pastures. And what's worse in your case is that he took the kiddies with him."
"The holiday camp is called Memory Lanes," I corrected her.
"Well, it said a lot about greener pastures in the brochure. Sounded more like a nudist colony to me than a place for decent family fun. But if it really is about sitting around the campfire singing songs in the rain, I doubt Mr. H. will be having the time of his life. It's just another of the vicar's potty schemes, if you ask me."
The Reverend Mr. Ambleforth was indeed inclined to be eccentric but, to be strictly fair, Mrs. Malloy must have been thinking of another brochure; one she had herself picked up at the travel agency. Also, it was the Reverend's wife, Kathleen, who had organized the fortnight's holiday in Norfolk. There were now several of these Memory Lanes holiday camps scattered around England. The brainchild of a financial wizard named Sir Clifford Heath. At first, like Mrs. Malloy, I gained the wrong impression. I had imagined that Memory Lanes provided all the joys of sleeping in leaky tents and whiling away the afternoons making daisy chains or learning to play "Little Bo Peep" on the dulcimer. The concept didn't appeal to me much. I've never appreciated being organized into having a good time by a large woman with a badminton racket waiting to swat me if I failed to find a four-leaf clover, or whined about gnat bites. Initially I thought it said much for Kathleen's forceful personality that she had persuaded a dozen men at St. Anselm's parish that here was a thoroughly jolly way to spend quality time with their children. Leaving their wives at home to enjoy a relaxing couple of weeks turning out cupboards, repapering the kitchen, or whatever else gave them a sense of true domestic fulfillment. Ben, having always been a hands-on father, manfully assured me that he was genuinely excited about the trip. And after thumbing through the brochure provided by Memory Lanes, I began to think it wouldn't be so bad. It turned out that Sir Clifford Heath's vision incorporated village settings, complete with thatched cottages and cobbled streets, tearooms and haberdashery shops, duck ponds and bowling greens. The emphasis was on nostalgia, a return to a simpler way of life. Entertainment included poetry readings and musical evenings, nature walks, sketching and crocheting classes, cricket matches, and gatherings in the assembly hall listening to nineteen-forties-style programs on the wireless. To enable parents of very young children to participate fully in activities unsuited to their offspring, fully trained nannies were provided around the clock. Ben might well have the time of his life. It was selfish of me to wish he were here.
The grandfather clock in the alcove under the stairs struck the half hour10:30. Was it possible he had been gone for two hours? It felt like the tail end of the fortnight, not the beginning. I pictured myself going into the study and perching on the edge of his desk while he sat pegging away at the old manual typewriter that he refused to abandon for an electric one, let alone a word processor. I would sit absorbing those little things about him that I loved. His crisply curling dark hair, the intent line of his jaw, the endearing way his glasses slid further down his nose every time he hit the carriage return. Very likely he wouldn't notice me at first. He would be in the thrall of his muse; totally absorbed in getting down on paper the ingredients and instructions for preparing Roasted Grouse with Prune and Walnut Dressing. I would wait until the keys slowed from a rapid clackety-clack to a tentative tap or two before interrupting him.
"Darling," I would say, very softly so as not to bring him back to reality with a jolt that would send his chair into a tailspin. "I've just received rather an odd letter from the bridesmaids."
"Who?" He would look perplexed; charmingly sowith a lift of an eyebrow and a slight tilt of the head. And instantly life would be sane and serene again. The feeling that a goose had gone waddling over my grave would become something for the two of us to laugh about.
"Rosemary, Thora, and Jane."
"Who?" Mrs. Malloy's voice came back at me from across the kitchen table.
"Oh, sorry!" I blinked and reached for my empty teacup. "I didn't realize I'd spoken out loud."
"It wasn't speaking." She could be a real stickler on some things. "It was more like singing. And not very good singing at that. The kind, like when you're a kiddie and out skipping rope on the pavement."
"It's a rhyme that popped into my head after I met them." I spoke to her from the attic inside my head, parting the cobwebs and lifting out the memory. "Rosemary, Thora, and Jane,/Lived at the end of the lane,/One was thin, one was fat,/And one was very plain."
"And you was how old when you wrote it?"
"Seven or eight."
Mrs. Malloy looked relieved. "Well, you've had time to grow out of it. Lots of kiddies go through a nasty stage. And now you'd better get what's troubling you off your chest. For it's clear to me, Mrs. H."glancing regretfully down at the feather duster lying by her chair leg"that I won't be able to get started working meself to death until you do. And to be fair, I do remember how just as I was drawing breath to tell you about Leonard, you started to tell me about some letter you'd got. It was from them, was it? These three women that I've never heard you mention in all the years I've worked for you?" She made a commendable effort not to sound overly miffed. "Now who exactly would they be, if it's not too much of an impertinence to ask?"
"Friends or they could be relatives of my grandmother. They live in a village called Knells, not far from Rilling. That's in Cambridgeshire. They live together, have done for years, in an old house."
"At the end of the lane?"
"Yes, it's called the Old Rectory. I hadn't heard from Rosemary, Thora, and Jane in years. Maybe they got in touch with Daddy when Mother died, but they didn't come to the funeral. And now they've asked me to come and see them right away."
"As soon as possible."
"All that distance, at a moment's notice!" Mrs. Malloy looked thoughtful as she graciously filled my cup, adjusted the spoon, and passed it back to me.
"It's not all that far. It shouldn't take me more than a couple of hours in the car if I stick to the motorway."
"Unless the weather continues as bad as it's been these last few days. And I doubt you're allowing for traffic. They all drive like maniacs down there, bound to with all those university kids out on larks." She handed me a plate of biscuits and encouraged me to take two. "You'd end up having to stay overnight; there's no sense in thinking otherwise."
"That's the idea," I said. "They want me to stay for a few days. They suggested a week, but I really couldn't. I've so much to do here; I promised Ben I'd finally finish Rose's room. I've got the walls to paper, her chest of drawers to strip and refinish, her little table and chairs to sponge-paint, and the floor to stencil to match the Mad Hatter's Tea Party design on her toy chest."
"We can't always think of ourselves first, Mrs. H.; from the sound of them, those three women have to be getting up in years. Poor old things! Maybe they want to talk to you about leaving you a little something in their will."
"That's not it."
"Then what's it all about?" Mrs. Malloy stopped looking soulful to shoot me a piercing glance. It was my moment to produce the letter but I found myself suddenly reluctant to do so. The kitchen was warm and cozy with the firelight gleaming on the copper pans hung around the Aga. It was the sound of the wind howling around the house, in an unlikely manner for June, that chilled me inside and out. For a moment I was a little girl again, feeling my hands grip the sides of my chair when a strange woman bent down to kiss me.
"Spit it out, Mrs. H.; why do these old girls want to see you?"
"Rosemary said my grandmother wants to get in touch with me."
"Well, I think that's nice, I do." Mrs. Malloy could be family-minded when she chose, but she quickly remembered to take umbrage. "Course it cuts me to the quick that I've never heard mention of her neither until now. What happened? Had a falling-out with your old gran, did you? Cut you off, did she, when you upped and married Mr. H. against her wishes?"
"No, nothing like that."
"Then what's the problem?"
Mrs. Malloy paused to add a drop more gin to her tea. "Now that would tend to put a damper on things. Cuts down on the chances for a nice long chat, doesn't it? Been gone long, has she?"
"Since my mother was tiny. A baby in arms, I think. She didn't speak about it much."
"Funny that, her being so close on the subject. It causes me to wonder if maybe these old girls, Rosemary and the other two, haven't really come to grips with your gran being gone. Could be they've got it into their heads, wishful thinking like, that she's not really dead. Just popped out for a packet of biscuits and will be back any minute, the way I kept thinking about Leonard."
"But what if she truly isn't dead?" I asked. "What if the family made it up? To conceal a truth that they considered worse, such as her abandoning my mother to run off with a married man or pursue a career they considered unfit for a woman?"
"Or it could be"Mrs. Malloy pursed her magenta lipsthat the old girls that live down the lane aren't quite with it mentally. Perhaps they haven't been eating right, not getting their three squares a day and forgetting to take their vitamins and minerals. An old auntie of mine started going around saying she was worried sick that she'd find herself in the family way. Well into her seventies she was at the time. But her doctor got her sorted out and she was back to being right as rain. It was her daughter, Ethel, as wasn't. She's the one that found herself in the family way, because Auntie had been sneaking her birth-control pills and replacing them with the iron tablets. Good for the baby, was how Ethel had to look at it. Forced herself to make the best of things, she did. And that's what you and me have got to do. It'll do me good to get away for a bit to this Knells place in Cambridgeshire. That way, when Leonard comes knocking on me door, I won't be there to fall in his arms, and you'll be glad of the company."
"You're a dear," I said, getting up and giving her a peck on the cheek. "But you're not coming, because I'm not going. I'll find out what the scoop is by talking to Rosemary or one of the other bridesmaids over the phone."
"Okay, Mrs. H., spill the beans. Why don't you want to go?"
"I've told you! I've so much to do. Ben hasn't taken the children to Memory Lanes so I can go off gadding."
"Don't give me that." Mrs. Malloy tapped an impatient foot. "There's something going on inside your head that you're not telling me about, otherwise you'd be bursting with curiosity to find out about your gran."
"I am, but for some silly reason I'm afraid."
"And that's just why I'm not letting you go on your own." Mrs. Malloy spoke as though I were one of the twins, to be gently but firmly dissuaded from climbing into the laundry chute. "It's clear to me you don't know these women from the man in the moon. So who's to say that this business of your grandmother isn't something they've cooked up between the three of them for reasons nice people like you and me couldn't even begin to guess at?" She gave a nicely executed shudder. "Just standing here I can feel the spooky vibes all the way down to me toes."
And as she was fond of saying, those toes of hers didn't lie.
Meet the Author
Dorothy Cannell was born in London, England, and now lives in Belfast, Maine. She writes mysteries featuring Ellie Haskell, interior decorator, and Ben Haskell, writer and chef, and Hyacinth and Primrose Tramwell, a pair of dotty sisters and owners of the Flowers Detection Agency.
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With her family away on vacation, interior decorator Ellie Haskell planned to redo their home. However, a letter from Rosemary Maywood shakes Ellie to her inner core. Rosemary claims that she is in contact with Ellie¿s deceased grandmother Sophia who desperately needs to speak with her. Rosemary, along with Thora and Jane, were called the bridesmaids when Ellie was a child, but no one would explain why they were nicknamed as such. Feeling a bit foolish, Ellie travels to see Rosemary to learn what the woman is talking about. Her housekeeper Mrs. Malloy insists on coming too. Ellie and Mrs. Malloy go the Knells where she learns that a developer plans to turn the village into a theme park because he was mistreated as a youth. As she begins to unravel what the three bridesmaids want to tell her, Ellie begins investigating a half of a century old murder that could end up with a present day homicide, namely Ellie. BRIDESMAID REVISITED is an interesting tale that reads like a well-written gothic who-done-it. The main characters are fully developed and the support cast brings the brooding atmosphere of the Knells to life. The mystery is humorously and enjoyably weird as expected from a Dorothy Cannel tale. Harriet Klausner
Not a gothic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!