O Gentle Deathby Janet Neel
In the midst of this turmoil
Faraday Trust, a fashionably liberal boarding school with a reputation for musical excellence is struggling in the face of exams. Poor test scores have prompted several withdrawals, and as a result, the trustees are beginning to worry. The headmaster has been asked to step down and a raging battle for his position is about to begin.
In the midst of this turmoil a troubled young pupil is causing her parents and the staff a great deal of concern. Disruptive, moody, and sexually precocious, Catriona Roberts is struggling academically and depressed about her relationship with the school's musical star, Giles Quentin. She has slashed her wrists on more than one occasion, and no one is surprised when she is found dead at a party, immersed in a tub of bloody water. But Detective Chief Inspector John McLeish and his wife, Francesca Wilson, are also guests at this party, and McLeish-too experienced to accept the obvious conclusion-quickly determines that this was not a suicide. The fact that Catriona was three months pregnant only confirms his suspicions.
One of the first to be questioned is Giles Quentin. Could he have killed the troubled girl to save his burgeoning singing career? Or was it Piers Miller, a favorite for the headmaster position, whom Catriona had accused of harassment just hours before her death?
A grave threat to Francesca and her family brings the investigation to a thrilling and unexpected end.
Author Biography: Janet Neel won the John Creasey Award from the British Crime Writers' Association for her first novel, Death's Bright Angel, and has since been short-listed twice for their Gold Dagger Award. She has studied law at Cambridge, worked in the United States designing war games, and served as an administrator in Britain's Department of Trade and Industry. She is now the director of a bank and two public companies as well as an adviser to the Ministry of Defense. Ms. Neel has three children and lives in London with her husband.
"Maybe they don't write whodunits anymore with the meticulous craftsmanship and psychological depth of O Gentle Death--but they should." --Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
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Monday, 17th April
'Me, me and none but me, dart home, O gentle death.'
Detective Chief Superintendent John McLeish, who had just let himself into his house, glanced irritably up the stairs. He had hoped to find his wife and small son alone, but he could hear the piano.
'And quickly, for I draw too long this idle breath'
the high, clear voice continued, with passion
'Oh how I long till I may flee to heaven above unto my faithful and beloved turtle dove.'
This was the more annoying since he had brought home a new, remarkably young Detective Inspector Camberton, just arrived from Hull, so they could both pick up some clothes prior to getting to a double murder on the western edges of the Met's territory. He looked back, apologetically, but his new DI appeared to have been turned to stone, as the voice started again:
'Like to the silver swan, before my death I sing And yet where my fatal knell I help to ring Still I desire from earth and earthly joys to fly He never happy lived that cannot love to die.'
'It's probably one of my brothers-in-law playing around,' McLeish said, crossly.
'One of them is a counter-tenor? An alto? I thought they were tenors.'
So they were, McLeish recollected. So what on earth was a counter-tenor? Someone who sounded more like a boy or a woman, hedecided, listening to the voice. 'My wife's an alto it must be her.'
Camberton gave him the cautious look of one dealing with a rather slow child, and he decided he probably had that wrong too. The voice was stronger and louder than his wife's. He stamped upstairs. If Francesca had adopted another child musician to add to Jamie, for whom she often had to stand in loco parentis, and their own William and the baby expected in three months' time, he would put his foot down.
He pushed open the door of the big first-floor living-room which, like all the houses in Francesca's family, had a piano at one end. His wife walked over to him, all smiles, the bulge of the baby already conspicuous. Her godson, the eighteen-year-old Jamie Miles Brett, who appeared to have grown again since he had last seen him, three weeks ago, rose from the piano with cries of welcome, but McLeish's attention was on the three strangers, two boys and a girl of about Jamie's age. One boy was also tall, over six feet, though he could give him a couple of inches. And a personality, dark blond with wide blue eyes, a full-lipped mouth and square cheekbones, slightly puglike if you were being perfectionist, but this boy's easy relaxed grace suggested that people did not usually exercise critical faculties in his vicinity.
'Giles Quentin. How kind of you to have us here to rehearse,' the boy said, gracefully. 'I'm one of Jamie's Faraday friends.'
'And this is Damien Fry, also at Faraday's' Francesca said, prodding forward the slight, dark boy, 'and Catriona Roberts, who is another school friend.'
Miss Roberts, dark, not pretty, very tense, with lank hair, severely bitten fingernails and, he observed, every nerve sharply alerted, bandaged wrists. He shot his wife a look of enquiry and reproach which she ignored in favour of taking them to the other end of the room, handing over a suitcase and asking if he and Inspector Camberton were honouring them for lunch.
'The children are staying,' she pointed out. 'I thought you were away. I'm rehearsing Giles and Jamie for tomorrow, and Damien and Catriona were waiting to take them off for the afternoon.'
'What is tomorrow?' Kevin Camberton asked.
'Recital. In the Wigmore Hall. The boys are doing a set of songs, mostly Dowland and some Purcell. Jamie should be playing a lute, but you can't have everything.'
'So it is Mr Quentin, who is the counter-tenor?' Camberton asked.
'That's right. And a very good one too. So, can you wait ten minutes while we finish, or are you starving?'
'Oh, that's very kind of you, but I have to get to my flat and pick up a bag,' Camberton said, reluctance in his voice, and she considered him.
'Do you want to wait while we do the last song?'
'I'd love to,' he said, avoiding McLeish's gaze, and she waved him to a sofa next to Catriona Roberts and Damien, placed herself by the piano at Jamie's elbow and nodded to the boys to start.
It was another Jacobean hymn to the pleasures of Death, every word audible, and to McLeish's critical ear totally implausible, coming from the lips of the self-confident Giles, who knew he was good and wasn't in the slightest bit interested in dying before everyone else had had a chance to appreciate him. But it was an extraordinary voice, in a totally different place from the lad's light baritone speaking voice. It had a flat purity, almost inhuman except for the passion with which he was infusing the unlikely sentiments of the lyric.
'Tears, sighs and ceaseless cries alone I spend My woe wants comfort, and my sorrow end.'
The eerie, pure sound died away on the long-held last note, leaving total silence in the room.
'Well, you won't do better than that,' Francesca observed. 'Just right, keep it there. Lunch?'
McLeish looked to Camberton, but the young detective was transfixed, watching Giles Quentin.
'He is wonderful, isn't he?' It was the worrying Catriona who spoke, pushing back her sleeves just so they all got a good look at the bandages; a sight, he was pleased to see, not lost on his new underling.
'Extraordinary,' Kevin Camberton said, seriously. 'Has he recorded anything yet?'
'No, but there are plans,' Francesca said. 'Do you sing?'
'Yes. Yes, indeed.'
They looked at each other with interest, and McLeish decided to intervene before his new DI got into the act.
'So, Kevin. You take the car and come back for me.'
'Sir.' Camberton rallied to his duty, said goodbye to Francesca and managed to get Giles's slightly sardonic attention long enough to wish him every success before taking himself off.
'Lunch then,' Francesca said. It's steak, so you can all come downstairs now and I'll take orders.'
Catriona followed them downstairs and sat at the top of the table, biting her fingernails, casting a pall of gloom around her. If Francesca was even thinking of taking this one under her capacious wing, he would fall on the plan from a great height. As you had to, and quickly; with the family he had married non-intervention was always taken for consent.
He felt better, sitting down with the best and largest steak in front of him, in deference to his status as Father and Principal Breadwinner. The boys watched him hungrily until Francesca popped three plates in front of them and a fourth in front of the sulking Catriona. He had poured himself red wine which he offered around, being covertly pleased when the boys refused. Catriona, inevitably, accepted and drank it too quickly, bringing uneven smudgy patches to her pale face. Francesca, hospitable to a fault, pressed her to another but Jamie refused it for the girl and got her some Evian from the fridge, teasing her gently. Not his girlfriend though, McLeish observed with relief, no sexual element at all in the patient brotherly approach. The tiresome Catriona was not at all grateful for Jamie's kind attentions, being patently desperate for any crumb of notice from Giles Quentin, who was studiously ignoring her. And she was, in her turn, ignoring the slight, dark Damien, who was politely but distractedly answering Francesca's enquiries about his A-levels.
He finished his own steak but refused the offer of pudding. `I have to get on. Kevin Camberton will be back with the car in ten minutes,' he said, meaningfully, hoping to extract Francesca from her teenage associates. 'He moves fast and I need to keep up with him.'
'He's gay, isn't he? I didn't realise they were acceptable in the police force,' Giles Quentin said, conversationally, badly startling him. He was, as it happened, in no doubt about Kevin Camberton's sexual orientation; the man had insisted on having the fact of his homosexuality recorded on his file when he had applied to join as a graduate entry. In Hull five years ago, that had taken guts. But if Camberton had been trying to conceal or to suppress his sexuality then this casual statement to a senior colleague was either seriously malicious, or a near psychopathic absence of empathy with other people.
'Excellent man. And sensible not to try to hide it,' McLeish said, briskly.
'He's musical too.' Francesca was trying to keep the conversation light, but he could see that she too had been shaken by the manner if not the matter of Giles Quentin's disclosure.
'Well, I could do without that,' he said, straight-faced, and Jamie grinned at him. It was understood in the family that McLeish could do with a great deal less music and musicality than he got.
'You don't like music?' It was Catriona Roberts, sounding priggishly shocked.
'Don't mind a brass band, love,' he said, stolidly.
'Oh, John, you're not as bad as that,' his wife said, reproachfully. `What is your preferred art, Catriona?'
'Well, I love music.'
Francesca's expression said unmistakably that this was not an answer to her question and the girl started to bite the nails on her left hand, hiding behind her lank hair.
'She's doing A-levels in art and theatre studies.' Jamie was sounding defensive while Giles Quentin's absence of comment or contribution was more eloquent than anything he could have said. So this difficult girl was also untalented. In the Faraday Foundation school, famed for the high level of its music, art, design and theatre, which all these four attended, she would be something of an outsider. McLeish found himself reluctantly beginning to sympathise; himself secure in his career he was still capable of feeling like a backward child in the company of the artistically gifted.
'Coffee?' Francesca offered.
'No time. We'll miss the movie.' Jamie got up and beamed at her. `Smashing meal.'
'Have you got your key? Yes, all right, darling, I know you're eighteen and a great big competent lump, but you forgot it yesterday. Damien, Catriona, are you all set?'
'What about me?' Giles Quentin asked, laughing. 'I need lots of looking after.'
'You need to get to bed early tonight,' Francesca told him, briskly. `And not to be in smoky atmospheres. I'll expect you all for supper.' She waved them off and came back to sit beside him and lean against him with a sigh. 'How long have we got?'
'About ten minutes sorry, my love. You're not going to take over that droopy little girl, are you?'
'No. And I wish Jamie hadn't. The trouble is that what with his father he's used to dafties, and they all know that, instinctively, and rush to him.'
McLeish silently agreed with her assessment; Jamie, son of a schizophrenic father who had spent his adult life in and out of mental hospitals, had both the experience and the innate niceness to be an irresistible magnet for the disturbed.
'You saw her wrists?' he asked, just to make sure.
'Yes. And I'd heard about her from Jamie. She slashes them quite often, apparently. I can't think why the school keeps her I mean imagine the trouble they've laid up for themselves if she actually does herself real harm. But they're very high-principled there, of course it's in their charter and they're trying to shelter her through her A-levels. Which are only about six weeks away for all those four ...'
'Mm. I didn't terribly care for Jamie's musical friend either.' He considered her. 'I suppose you don't mind because of the voice. Like Kevin Camberton, who would have forgiven him anything.'
'Well, your new inspector understood what he was listening to. Giles is not just a magnificent counter-tenor, but a massive expressive talent, appallingly well developed for someone of eighteen. He's Sir Andrew Quentin's son, of course. Dad left Mum when Giles was about three and since Dad jet-sets around conducting about three orchestras at opposite corners of the world, Giles was largely brought up by his mother, Susie Miller, who is head of music at Faraday's. Married to someone slightly younger, called Piers, who, come to think of it, looks rather like Giles, large, blond, snub-nosed.'
McLeish, stirring himself reluctantly to check his suitcase, was reminded of his original question. 'Fran, what is a counter-tenor? No, sorry, wrong question I know what it sounds like now, but why does it? The lad speaks perfectly ordinarily. Can anyone do it?'
His wife gave him just the ghost of the missionary-faced-with-savage-tribe look but pulled herself together. 'No. In the old days ... well, until the late eighteenth century, promising trebles were castrated so that their voices never dropped, or not much, they just became stronger and developed a deeper tone.'
'But now that we don't do that any more?'
'Chaps have to work very hard. It's an artificial voice for a normal man and not everyone can do it. But if you've always sung and your natural grown-up voice isn't useful and you can do alto, then I guess that's what you do, and work at it. Jamie now, as you know, has settled between bass and baritone which isn't useful for a soloist. But he is a superb violinist, and can make his living in music. If all he could do was sing, since he must express himself musically, he might have tried to develop an alto voice when his treble voice went.' She stopped to consider, 'Giles found he could do it straight away; he was a treble too and he went straight on into being a counter-tenor, so there must be a lot of nature as opposed to nurture.'
'Is Giles gay?'
'Indeed no. That's an assumption people tend to make about counter-tenors while in my experience it's the heavy-duty basses who turn out to be living with a boyfriend. Giles is very heterosexual, Jamie says. And I see your car outside, blast it.'
'Don't come out. And don't fuss over those kids. There are four of them, they can look after each other. Promise?'
She smiled at him and plastered herself to him so he could feel the baby kick, and he was several hundred yards away in the car before he realised she hadn't committed herself to nonintervention.
Seventy miles away in Dorset, the most senior staff of the Faraday Trust school were gathered to contemplate and plan for the summer term. The full staff, with visiting specialists, ran to eighty for four hundred teenagers between thirteen and eighteen, but this meeting contained only the headmaster, his deputy, heads of department and four housemasters and housemistresses, which kept it to a more manageable dozen, there being some overlap between the functions. The group was gathered round a large table in the dining-room, dressed eclectically and without particular regard to sex or age in anything from jeans to long cotton skirts to sports jackets. The slim man in his fifties, not much above medium height, hair receding decisively from a round patch at the crown of his head, watched them for a moment with affection, then stepped into the room, and the parrot-house noise of twelve people exchanging news and gossip quietened.
'Hello, Nick! Had a good weekend?'
The headmaster acknowledged this greeting and sat down, waiting for silence as good teachers do then said, without emphasis, that he had just come from a Trustees' meeting, which had not gone at all well.
'What were they worrying about this time?' Amanda Roberts, in her mid-thirties, thick, dark hair, good-looking and an extremely competent head of biology and chemistry, asked impatiently, and he looked at her sadly.
'The usual. Our patchy academic results, past and projected. Oh, and the more financially orientated members were concerned about our enrolment figures. We have had six or seven withdrawals for September.'
'Well, I suppose the two problems are interrelated, Headmaster, aren't they?' Piers Miller was one of the hawks among his staff; ambitious for himself and his pupils, he had not quite adjusted to the Faraday ethos, despite being married for the last five years to Susie, the head of music. Piers had come from Rugby, and he still looked like a conventional public school teacher, tall with dark blond hair, rather too long at the front, with regular blunt features. On all matters academic he was an ally of Amanda Roberts, and Nick found himself wondering whether they were hunting as a pack today. Amanda's husband, Louis Roberts, father of Catriona, now in her last year at school, was a substantial benefactor and had organised the last appeal with brutal efficiency. He was not on the Governing Body, the original founders of the Trust having had the sense to decree that no member of the Governing Body should be related by blood or marriage to any pupil or teacher at the school. His views were however represented there, and at least one member reported faithfully all discussions to him.
'I hope you took a robust line, Nick.' His deputy head, Roland Willis, was looking more like a farmer than usual today, a big shambling man with a thatch of dark hair. His customary outfit of cotton trousers and large chequered shirts and heavy sweaters only reinforced the impression, but he was a dedicated and able teacher. `The school is about the whole child, not only about examination success. The terms of the Trust make that quite clear. And whenever we forget it, the school loses something. We just have to defend the line every time.'
Nick smiled at him; he was right, of course. Roland practised what he preached too. His stepdaughter, Catriona Roberts, was one of the school's most difficult and unrewarding pupils, but he never stopped trying with her.
'I hope you reminded them how staggeringly good our music is this year,' Susie Miller, a plump, energetic woman of forty, blond hair two shades darker than her talented son's said warmly. 'And this isn't all down to the staff, we've got some wonderful young musicians at the moment. And how did we get them? Not by worrying them about passing examinations.'
'Well of course we're lucky enough to have two who can do the exams as well, with your Giles and Jamie Miles Brett,' Roland Willis observed.
'Yes, all right, they are both able, but that doesn't destroy my point. Both those two pass exams easily, because they are in a place where their musical talents can flower. Getting good A-levels in any subject is easy for them because they're both happy and fulfilled and going somewhere.'
Piers opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and started to draw little circles on the pad in front of him. He looked sideways at Amanda Roberts who shook her head.
'Yes, thank you, Susie.' Nick, who had managed a cup of tea and several biscuits during this exchange, took control, feeling better for the sugar in his bloodstream. 'The difficulty as all heads are having to recognise is that universities now operate on examination success at A-level. And parents want their children to go to university, partly because there are not that many credible jobs for people of eighteen.'
'But the children from here do go on to university.'
'Not all of them, and some not easily. And of course it is a consequence of what we teach them here that some of them take a few years to decide what to do and how to do it.'
'Instead of going mindlessly on from school to university to training as accountants,' Susie Miller agreed.
Her husband sighed and Nick considered him. Piers was five years younger than Susie thirty-five to her forty and he often wondered why he had chosen Susie instead of the many attractive women in their twenties who had obviously offered for him. Needed a mother perhaps. He nodded to him to speak; better to hear the opposition view stated now. 'The trouble is,' Piers said, to the meeting at large, 'and this is where our defences look feeble, that the more conventional schools like Rugby, indeed push ordinary, untalented children into perfectly creditable A-levels so they can go on to university. Not one of the top universities, but they get degrees and then they can get on with their lives. Here and I know I've only seen three years' worth we just don't seem to manage to push our more difficult or immature kids through even with C or D grades. And that's not acceptable to the average parent who's paid a small fortune for five years here. At a rate rather higher than Rugby.' Several people gaped at him. 'I checked with ex-colleagues. We're charging £500 a term more than they are. And any respectable boarding-school is costing parents £14,000 a year, which is £70,000 over five years, and you don't pay that to have the kid end up with A-levels which won't get them into anything except the University of Tooting.'
'Precisely the point which the governors were addressing this morning, Piers.' Nick tried another biscuit in the hope that he would feel less exhausted. 'Last year five of our eighty odd Six Senior got D or E grades which indeed, as we all know, will only secure entry to places neither they nor their parents wanted them to go to. And I have just had to tell the Trustees that while we expect exceptional success for many of this year's Six Senior, there are once more at least five for whom our hopes are very modest indeed. For various understandable reasons,' he added, belatedly conscious of his deputy.
'Catriona being one of them, I'm afraid,' Roland Willis confirmed. He looked at his big farmer's hands. 'I fear it was a mistake to have her in a school where I was teaching, but Louis wanted it, particularly of course since Amanda is here as well.'
Dear Roland, the head thought impatiently, only you would have stopped to pay a wholly unmerited tribute to Amanda Roberts, second wife to Louis and Catriona's stepmother by that marriage. Able teacher though she was, she was jealous of Catriona's mother a very successful business woman now married to Roland and worse, disliked Catriona with real force.
Roland smiled sadly round at his colleagues. 'We'd probably have done better to send her to Gordonstoun.'
'Oh good heavens, Roland,' Nick protested, gratefully, amid general laughter.
'No, you wouldn't,' Susie Miller said, firmly. 'Children like Catriona are precisely what this school is about. We have not made the success of her which we hoped and that is our failure. Roland, it is the responsibility of us all. But she is better here, she has been happier, she has been more understood and loved than at any other school I can imagine. And the groundwork we lay will stand her in good stead one day.' She glanced across at Amanda Roberts who was looking sour.
Nick smiled at Susie. 'I could not indeed I am afraid did not this morning produce such an eloquent and clear statement of our principles. Thank you, Susie.' He looked down at his papers, trying to decide how to say what he had to, and around him the meeting went very quiet; all fidgeting ceased as twelve men and women realised that something was seriously wrong. He got his head up and looked into the anxious faces. 'At the end of this very difficult meeting, the Chairman made it clear that he thought I should consider my position. As headmaster, that is.' He paused but his colleagues appeared to have stopped breathing. 'I have considered. I have been here for twenty years, ten as headmaster, and I am fifty-five. It is time that someone else had a go at finding a way which must be found or this school will be at risk of reconnecting the ideals of the Trustees with the need to be able to send the children on their way able to fit into the modern world.'
'Don't do it, Nick.' It was Roland Willis, sounding genuinely appalled.
Excerpted from O GENTLE DEATH by Janet Neel. Copyright © 2000 by Janet Neel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Deputy Chief Inspector John McLeigh is unhappy when his wife Francesca hosts several Faraday Trust School students, including a member of his own household. Though musical talent abounds amidst the group, John still fails to appreciate the singing of one of the visitors unlike his grateful wife. John especially finds the sole female of the quartet, Catriona Roberts, quite distasteful due to her dark outlook on life to include the scars that indicates she slashed her wrists in the past. Not long afterward, Catriona is found dead, an apparent suicide. This should not surprise John who felt the girl was self-destructive when he first met her. However, John quickly reassesses his initial reaction as he begins to wonder if someone murdered the coed and made it look like Catriona finally killed herself. To his chagrin, several people at her school, including some close to the DCI, had motive and opportunity. O GENTLE DEATH is an entertaining English police procedural that returns readers to the enchanting McLeigh series. The investigative story line succeeds because the cast seems genuine, especially the varying valid emotions displayed by John during the course of the novel. Janet Neel shows why she is a Creasey award winner with a tasteful tale. Harriet Klausner