Catriona McPherson's critically acclaimed mystery series set in 1920s Scotland and featuring plucky and laugh-out-loud-funny heroine Dandy Gilver is perfect for fans of PG Wodehouse, Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie.
In A Deadly Measure of Brimstone, Dandy and the whole Gilver clan travel to a spa town for a weekend of relaxation which is quickly interrupted by a slew of mysterious— and deadly—events.
The men of the Gilver family have come down, between them, with influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia and pleurisy. The family repairs to the town of Moffat, there to submit to the galvanic wraps and cold salt rubs of the splendid Laidlaw Hydropathic Hotel.
But all is not well at the Hydro, and the secret of the lady who arrived but never left cannot be kept for long. And what of those drifting shapes in the Turkish bath? Just steam shifting in the air? Probably. But in this town the dead can be as much trouble as the living.
About the Author
CATRIONA MCPHERSON was born near Edinburgh. Dandy Gilver and The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains won the Sue Feder Memorial Award in 2012 and Dandy Gilver and An Unsuitable Day for A Murder won the Agatha for Best Historical Novel in the same year. The series won the Bruce Alexander Award in 2013 and 2014. Catriona lives in Davis, California, with her husband and two cats.
CATRIONA MCPHERSON was born in Scotland in 1965 and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010. Her Dandy Gilver historical mysteries have won numerous awards, including two Agathas, and her contemporary novels have won two Anthony awards and been Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark finalists. Catriona is a proud member of MWA and a former national president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Davis, California, where she writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
A Deadly Measure of Brimstone
A Dandy Gilver Mystery
By Catriona McPherson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Catriona McPherson
All rights reserved.
Thursday, 26th September 1929
Dante believed, and has had some success dragging public opinion after him, that the ninth circle of hell, the last and lowest, the blackest and bleakest, the icy innards of Lucifer's mouth itself, would be the worst one. After recent events, I am unconvinced. Once having been besieged by foul weather with the gluttons, and sunk in ordure with the flatterers, could one really raise a shriek about a serpent or two? One would be numb, surely, long before one were bound in chains with those giants down there – poor giants, anyway: hardly their fault – and long past caring.
So it was with me by late September of 1929. Hugh and the boys had been ill with influenza for more than a month. Or rather, they had all started off with flu but had soon parted company: Hugh to a rumbling bronchial cough, Teddy to the sharp hack of pleurisy and Donald, always so much more trouble than his brother, to a full-blown case of putrid pneumonia which melted the flesh from his frame like candle wax and left him tottering.
I resisted all infection but not, more's the pity, because I had swept off to an hotel at the first sniffle (as had been my unmaternal and unconjugal impulse). No indeed, I had remained, mopping fevered brows, holding cups of broth to trembling lips and even removing noxious handkerchiefs with laundry tongs to carry them out to the boiler, but my eyes were as bright and my cheeks as rosy as ever. Which is to say, rather sallow, but rouge is a wonderful thing.
Not everyone was so stalwart. A few weeks in, maids and footmen were dropping like grouse on the Twelfth and even village women began refusing to come in and do the rough lest they succumb to our pestilence.
'Good thing,' croaked my husband when I told him. 'This accursed germ must have come from the village in the first place. Let them keep it there.'
I set down the cup of broth smartly enough to make a little of it slop onto his bedclothes and then hurriedly dipped the corner of his napkin in his water jug to dab it away, for washing blankets was far beyond the current skeleton crew.
'Honestly, Hugh,' I said. 'You spent eight hours out-of-doors on the filthiest day of the year and refused to wear mackintoshes. You have no one to blame but yourselves.'
'Mackintoshes on a grouse moor!' said Hugh. 'Why not umbrellas?'
'Why not umbrellas?' I snapped back. 'I put Donald on the bathroom scales this morning and he weighed nine stone three.'
'What bathroom scales?' replied Hugh, shamelessly changing the subject.
'Nine stone three at six foot one,' I said. 'Which—'
'News to me we had such an article,' he went on. 'Mind you—'
I did not like the glance he cast at my frame as he said this and, although I knew very well he was baiting me, I rose.
'They are Grant's. I borrowed them.'
Hugh said nothing, but settled back against his pillows with both hands cupped around the broth and a look on his face that one could only call mischievous. My husband cannot hide his views of Grant, my maid, and my dealings with her: he thinks her above herself and me under her thumb; he deplores her taste in modish clothes and despises me for wearing them; he thrills to remember the many times in our early married life when he instructed me on the dangers of getting chummy with the servants. He imagines (I imagine) that I regret not listening and obeying and that I try to hide my regret to lessen his triumph. Marriage would be so exhausting if I really gave it my all but I rather let things wash over me, from maid and husband both, and find life easier that way.
Besides, Grant was another who had remained in peak form through the plague and I was feeling very kindly disposed towards her just then. She had taken on all manner of unseemly duties and the previous afternoon I had actually seen her carry a bucket of coal.
By such means had the household limped along for a month – soup at luncheon and the like – until without warning lightning struck us. Pallister, the butler, Gilverton's lynchpin, was seen to be red-faced and glassy-eyed one night at dinner and was heard at breakfast the next morning to issue four or five great whumphing sneezes. By tea he was in his pantry, wrapped in a shawl and shivering.
I went to the kitchen to tell Mrs Tilling and there found that the lightning had struck twice. She was blowing her nose into a linen square big enough to line a picnic basket, and was coughing carefully with a hand pressed against her bosom, a pleuritic cough if ever I heard one (and by then I had cause to know).
'My dear Mrs Tilling!' I cried, sweeping across the floor and pressing her into the Windsor chair by the range. 'You must—Gosh!' I had put the back of my hand against her forehead – the household had become a sort of Russian commune in the last few weeks, where such liberties were taken and no one to blink at them – and was rattled to feel the waves of heat and the high drumming pulse in her temple. 'Off with you!' I commanded. 'Straight to bed with a hot bottle.'
'Dinner ...' she said in the weak voice of high fever.
'Rarebit for the invalids, and I shall go to Mr Osborne's,' I replied. 'Now not another word out of you.'
She filled a bottle and one for Pallister and took herself off towards the servants' staircase and the steep climb to her bedroom, leaving me standing in the silent kitchen meeting the huge startled eyes of the scullery maid with, I suspect, a huge startled look of my own.
'Yes,' I said. 'Now then. Go and see that Mrs Tilling has a fire in her room, please, Norah, and then send Becky to see me in my sitting room.' Becky, the head parlourmaid, was unbowed. I had moved the other two maids out of the room they shared with her as soon as temperatures started climbing, had instituted, in fact, a ruthless quarantine all round. There were all manner of bunk-ups going on in the attics now – that Russian commune again – and pride was going to have to be restored by a perfect flurry of extra wages and little gifts when we were on our collective feet again, but the segregation was working.
At least, I thought with a groan, sinking down into Mrs Tilling's chair, it had been. Without her and Pallister, we might as well be rats in a sewer.
Upstairs in my sitting room, therefore, I tried to make myself ring the agency in Edinburgh again, to beg a cook, a housekeeper, even an extra maid or two, but I held out no great hopes of success. The gorgon in charge of the telephone knew how things stood at Gilverton and appeared to view the girls on her books as orchids to be tended, not as labour for hire at all. It was too disheartening to be borne and in the end I rang the doctor instead, to arrange what was beginning to feel like a standing order.
It was then, at that moment, that the ninth circle of hell was unleashed upon me and, as I say, benumbed by misfortune, I took it calmly.
'He's no' in, Mrs Gilver,' said his housekeeper. 'Have you no' heard?'
'Heard what? I don't think so,' I said, suspecting misfortune.
'It's all over Dunkeld. Scarlet fever. Thirteen cases and that was this morning.'
'It was a birthday party. And one poor wee soul has been carried away.'
'But she'd been bad with the flu already. Laid low, you know. And it's a terrible fearsome strain of it, I'm thinking.'
Whether she meant the fever or the flu I could not say for sure, but I withdrew my appeal for the doctor's attention – pressed it hard upon her that he was not required – and rang off. Neither Donald nor Teddy had had scarlet fever and, while I would not ordinarily worry about great lumps of eighteen and sixteen, I could not get the picture out of my mind of Donald shivering in his pyjamas as he stood on those bathroom scales.
'Come on then, my darling girl,' I said to Bunty. 'Let's walk down and shut the gates, eh?' She was fourteen now, a tremendous age for a Dalmatian, and the loss of her daily romp while I was nursing had not been the privation it should have been to her even a year ago. Still, she got to her feet, stretched, shook her ears and came to lean against my legs with her tail waving. I put a hand down and felt the just of her pelvis under her warm fur, the slight scrape of bone against bone where all other tissue was gone. As Alec had said, 'if you boiled her for stock these days, she wouldn't set to jelly'. Just the sort of remark that the owner of a five-year-old dog will let drop unthinking. I had stored it up meanly deep inside and planned to use it on him when Millie, his spaniel, was toothless and threadbare, that way that spaniels go.
'Not like you, my love,' I said, letting her step ahead of me into the breakfast room, off which my sitting room opens. 'You are as beautiful as ever. Aren't you, my darling? Hm?'
'Oh, madam!' Becky had entered the breakfast room by the other door. 'She is that but she's awful stiff in the mornings. And when you think!'
She referred to an incident early in Bunty's life when she had just grown from a fat bundle of puppy to a lolloping, seemingly boneless creature with easily eight enormous paws, three tails and half a dozen affectionate tongues. Becky had opened the garden door at dawn one day and Bunty had jumped clean over her head to escape, knocking Becky flat on her back and out cold when her head hit the flagstones. This was better than the garden, of course, and Bunty wheeled round to make the most of it – a human who lay there obligingly to be trampled over and saluted with the moistest kisses a dog could muster. When Becky came round she was bruised but giggling.
'I can't bear to contemplate it,' I said. 'Well, Becky, it looks as though you're in charge. I won't be in for dinner, so eggs on trays or whatever seems best, and no visitors, I'm afraid. There's scarlet fever in the village.'
'I've had it,' said Becky.
'Good. I'll cancel all deliveries and perhaps you could go down in the dogcart and collect them instead.'
'It's just the fish tomorrow,' said Becky. 'Will I tell Miss Grant you're away a walk then, madam? She was getting ready to come up to you.'
'I shan't be dressing,' I said. 'Tell Grant she's free.'
* * *
Alec Osborne rarely uses his dining room. It's a miserable crypt of a place (even as dining rooms go, and they are, to my mind, the least inviting chamber of any house) with dark oak panels to its ceiling, mossy green wallpaper all round, and only two small windows facing due east on its short side. Add to that the usual measure of ancestors in oils and sideboards like mastodons, and a party would be stone dead before it had half begun. For that reason, Alec times what few dinners he cannot escape hosting for the summertime and spreads his board in a little temple by a pond with room to seat twelve in comfort and a fireplace which throws out heat like a steam engine. (I wish the mason who built that summerhouse chimney had built a few of ours, is all I can say.) Out of season he restricts himself to cocktails in his drawing room and on ordinary evenings Barrow, his valet, sets a table for one or two in the library as cosy as cosy can be.
'Still,' Alec said, as Barrow withdrew and left us with the soup, 'I usually manage to wriggle out of my tweeds, Dandy. Are you making a point?' He raised his eyebrows at my coat and skirt and then at his own smoking jacket.
'Of course not,' I said. 'When did I ever do anything so mealy-mouthed as that? I've just crossed some kind of Rubicon. Be glad I crossed it after tea or I might be here in my bedroom slippers and nightgown.'
'Better than poor Miss Havisham at least,' Alec said. 'She'd have been much more comfortable over the years if the clock had stopped when she was in her nightie. What's shoved you over the line then?'
'Scarlet fever,' I said. 'The boys haven't had it and it's all over the village, so the butcher and baker are forbidden the gates and I'm going to have to go shopping for pounds of tea and legs of lamb like a housewife.'
'Is every maid down?' said Alec.
'Not quite but they always make such a jaunt of it whenever they get away and Pallister and Mrs Tilling have got the flu.'
He dropped his spoon, but it was a plum-coloured smoker and Alec's valet-cum-cook doesn't allow so much as a sprig of parsley into the consommé so no harm came to him.
'Remus and Romulus have crumbled?' he said. 'You seem remarkably calm.'
'Yes. Good soup.'
'You can take it home in a jar if they haven't finished it up in the kitchen.'
'That's about the size of it,' I agreed. 'The kindness of my neighbours is all that stands between me and destitution now. I only hope the range doesn't go out because no one left standing knows how to relight it.'
'Mrs Tilling won't be off her feet for long,' said Alec. 'She's an ox. And Pallister ...'
'Exactly,' I said. 'Pallister ill is so far outside human understanding that no one could hazard a guess as to how it might go. Like those tiny objects the physicists keep falling over that are never doing what they ought to be. My worry is that as soon as they're better the winter will set in and you know what that house is like in winter.'
'Bracing,' said Alec.
'Bracing to the hale and hearty,' I said. 'Flattening to the convalescent.'
'Are you thinking of going away?' Alec had an odd tone in his voice, hopeful-seeming in a rather unflattering way. 'Taking them off to the seaside and building them up with salt air and beef jelly?'
'It's a thought,' I replied. 'It would get us away from the scarlet fever and actually it might go along very well with what I was intending.'
'Although we'd have to go a long way south to find seaside that wasn't a trial in October. France, perhaps? The mountains? But I'd spend all the money I'm hoping to use for my grand idea.'
'Central heating,' I proclaimed. 'A boiler and pipes and radiators and every room in the house like a fireside nook from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.'
'Hugh must be ill,' said Alec.
'Hugh doesn't know,' I told him. 'So you see, getting him out of the house would be pretty handy.'
'Can you afford it?'
'Well,' I said, 'the thing is, you see, that Hugh has just offloaded some shares.'
'Really?' Alec cocked his head. 'He's selling? Everyone's buying.'
'That's what Hugh says too, but he won't tell me what. What are you buying?'
'Oh Dandy, join the modern age,' Alec said. 'One doesn't buy shares in things any more. One buys securities on margin with a broker's loan.'
'What does that mean?' I asked.
'I don't know,' said Alec. 'I think it's an American invention.'
'Aha! Then you are both at the same game. Hugh offloaded these shares, as I said – ancient old things he's been holding for sentimental reasons more than anything; I think his father first bought them – and he offloaded his London broker too and got one in New York.'
'Sounds like it then,' said Alec. 'Good for Hugh.'
'So we're sloshing in actual cash for a change, until he spends it on these New York securities. Only with the flu and bronchitis it's been the last thing on his mind. Or maybe he thinks I've done it for him. I couldn't say.'
Alec's face betrayed a not uncommon mix of emotions; he is my friend – mine, not ours – and his loyalties lie properly with me, but every so often when it comes to such things as farming, shooting and evidently money too some deep masculine chord begins to thrum in harmony with Hugh.
'You can't possibly be serious, Dan,' he said. 'Hugh thinks you've stepped in and carried out his business for him whilst he was ill – as he has every right to expect you to, by the way – and instead you're planning to fritter away shares in a gold mine just so you can waft about in backless frocks and not get gooseflesh?'
'I don't see it that way at all,' I said. 'I think if I choose to spend money wisely on solid goods instead of gambling on ticker-tape fairy tales Hugh should be thankful for my sound sense.'
'Sound sense?' Alec cried. 'Dandy, this is the biggest year the stock market's ever seen!'
'Why?' I asked.
'I haven't a clue,' said Alec. 'But the brokers and bankers do. That's good enough for me.'
'Well,' I said, 'I hope your trust in them is warranted.'
We tore bread, drank soup and glared for a minute. Alec gave in first.
'The mountains? The Alps, you mean? For the air?'
Excerpted from A Deadly Measure of Brimstone by Catriona McPherson. Copyright © 2013 Catriona McPherson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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