An intricate plot set in the 1920s English countryside and Frances Brody's "refreshingly complex heroine" (Kirkus) Kate Shackleton make Death of an Avid Reader an absorbing 6th installment in this mystery, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear and Agatha Christie.
The Search for a Daughter
Lady Coulton gave up the baby that would have ruined her marriage, born when Lord Coulton was abroad. Now that her husband is dying, she asks Kate to find Sophia.
A Haunted Library
It is forty years since the ghost of a dead librarian haunted the old library, yet the stories have begun again. Kate does not believe in ghosts but obligingly takes part in a ceremony to expel the restless spirit. Shockingly, there is a body in the basement, strangled, and covered in dusty volumes from a fallen bookcase. It is Dr. Potter, a mathematician.
A Killer on the Loose
Dr. Potter’s body is taken away. The police find a sick man sheltering in the basement. He is an Italian, Umberto, an organ grinder and owner of a lively Capuchin monkey. Umberto becomes the prime suspect and will be charged with murder. Kate goes with Umberto to the infirmary. But he is too weak to be a suspect. And now Kate must set out to find the real culprit...
About the Author
FRANCES BRODY lives in Leeds. She is the author of the Kate Shackleton mystery series, starting with Dying in the Wool, A Medal for Murder, and Murder in the Afternoon. Before turning to crime, she wrote historical sagas, winning the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin Award for most regionally evocative debut saga of the millennium.
Read an Excerpt
Death of an Avid Reader
A Kate Shackleton Mystery
By Frances Brody
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Frances McNeil
All rights reserved.
The newspaper item had been clipped, framed, and now held pride of place on the library's landing.
June 21, 1923, Leeds Herald
In a momentous discovery, the Leeds Library on Commercial Street has added the finest of jewels to its crown. Founded in 1768, this venerable institution already houses Selby's Ornithology, rare and magnificent coloured plates of birds; the works of St Thomas Aquinas; an enviable collection of Reformation and Civil War pamphlets and two hundred and one volumes of the Encyclopédia Méthodique. Scholars and visitors will now flock to our fair city from London, Edinburgh, from across Europe and beyond for a mere glimpse of its latest treasures.
A bequest was made to the library by a local gentleman, recently deceased and whose family remain anonymous. A tea chest of books was unpacked. Among the volumes lay the rare 1825 reprint of the first edition (1603) of Hamlet. The astonished and delighted librarian, Mr Samuel Lennox, reports that he has already dusted off several other much-prized volumes, including Captain William Bligh's Narrative of the Mutiny on the Bounty (1790), and Richard Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough, both beautifully bound by Edwards of Halifax.
"We are privileged to have such a cherished and priceless collection in our midst," said Mr Lennox. "Researchers and scholars will be assured of the warmest welcome."
Dr Potter stood at the top of the library stairs. He read the article and scratched his head. 'What will Lennox do next? Send a personal invitation to every book thief in the country?'CHAPTER 2
The letter came by first delivery, along with the usual bills and charitable requests. The envelope was of good quality, neatly addressed and with a London postmark. I resisted until I had eaten a slice of toast, and then slit it open with my Present from Robin Hood's Bay paper knife. Embossed paper bore the Coulton coat of arms.
22 October, 1925
Dear Mrs Shackleton
On a matter of delicacy, I pray you will meet me on Tuesday next. Knowing you are a member of the Cavendish Square Ladies' Club, I suggest we meet there.
Folded inside the note was a cheque, drawn on Coutts Bank. One hundred guineas! This must be serious.
My Aunt Berta once pointed out Lady Coulton when we were at some long ago charity auction, an evening do at Claridge's. 'She turns heads, Kate. Study her.'
Study her I did. She was beautiful, with an air of dignity and slight reserve; tall, with a good figure, graceful neck, regular features, and something I described to myself as brilliance, crowned by abundant coppery golden hair decorated with diamond-studded combs that sparkled under the glow of the chandelier. Cousin James was there that evening. He turned unusually poetic. 'Her eyes, such a greenish-blue, as of the sea and sky on a grey day.'
It was his period for falling in love with figures from paintings. He had waxed lyrical over Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia and so I could see why Lady Coulton enchanted him.
That must have been thirteen years ago. I was twenty-one, and nothing bad had ever happened.
Lady Coulton must be fifty years old now.
I pushed away my breakfast plate, reached for the writing case and replied to her letter, agreeing to meet on the day she suggested.
My house is of a modest size being the old coach house that once formed part of a grand estate in Headingley, North Leeds. The whole dwelling would fit easily into Lady Coulton's entrance hall, leaving a ballroom-size space for dancing.
I keep newspapers and magazines for far too long, according to my housekeeper. They are in a pile on the piano. Lifting down back copies of The Times, I turned the pages, looking for a mention of Lord or Lady Coulton; he speaking in the House of Lords, she at some social event. Nothing.
I would have liked one clue, however tiny.
Why is it that useless snippets of information lodge in the brain? It did not help to remember that, when in the country, Lady Coulton bred Beagles. Did she now prefer the country and her dogs, I wondered. Perhaps some squire or gamekeeper had caught her eye. I could not imagine Lady Coulton allowing herself to be blackmailed. Had the staid Lord Coulton taken up with a Gaiety girl? They had sons. Perhaps one of them had turned to gambling, or espionage for a foreign power.
* * *
When I bought the railway tickets, deciding to go to London and back in one day made me feel important, adventurous, and superbly discreet. I would lessen the chance of bumping into friends, arousing curiosity and having to come up with an explanation for my visit.
Now the day arrived. I dragged myself out of bed before daylight, recognising my plan as the worst idea since going to the fancy dress party as Vladimir Lenin, just because I had that false beard.
What if Lady Coulton's task required me to stay in London? I would need to shop for underwear, and arrange to have a trunk sent.
I dressed and stumbled downstairs. Fortunately, my trusty housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, was already up and about. An early riser, she was thoroughly dressed in her dark serge skirt, hand-knitted twinset and tightly-laced shoes, her grey hair done up in plaits.
Standing at the kitchen table, I drank tea while Mrs Sugden wrapped slices of bread and butter and a piece of a cheese and packed them with an apple in a brown paper bag.
Although her hair has turned grey and her bossy fussing would win her a gold medal, she is not yet forty.
'Ladyship or not, she has a cheek, asking you to rush off to London. If it's so important, why doesn't she come here?'
'Because she is paying, and paying well. And thank you but I don't need to take a snack. You have it. I'll eat breakfast on the train.'
'I can't imagine a breakfast on the train will be worth eating. How can it be?'
'I'll let you know.'
'I'll put this food in your satchel.'
'I was going to take my black bag.'
'It's elegant but it holds nowt. You don't have to impress them London types.' She picked up The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 'Is this little book going in?'
'Yes, just for amusement. I'm going to Cavendish Square, and it features in the story. Dr Lanyon, Dr Jekyll's former best friend lives there.'
'Then let's hope you don't bump into him.' She pulled on her coat.
'Are you going out, at this hour?'
'I'm walking up the road with you, Mrs Shackleton, to see you off safely and shut the garage door behind you.'
It was very kind of her. Such thoughtful gestures remind me that I made a fortunate choice when I engaged her all those years ago, at the end of the war.
Sookie the cat looked up from her spot on the hearth, opening a sleepy eye as we left the kitchen.
As she closed the door behind us, Mrs Sugden gave a hearty sigh. 'It's a pity I can't drive. You should have asked Mr Sykes.'
'No need. I can park by the railway station and then drive myself home.'
In early morning darkness, we walked in silence to my garage. There was a sharp chill in the air. Spectral grey mist curled through hedges, as though some celestial giant had blown ghostly smoke rings. It gave me a strange feeling to witness this gossamer vapour that in another hour would be gone. A small mound of dead leaves had gathered where the cobbles dipped. The leaves scattered when a sudden breeze whooshed them to nooks and crannies new.
My sage green autumn suit with its warmly lined three-quarter jacket has deep pockets. I touched my train ticket with gloved fingers, to make sure it was still there.
I house my car in a former stable, rented from the owners of the mansion at the top of my road. I opened the double doors and handed the keys to Mrs Sugden. The motor started without complaint. I edged forward, turning onto the narrow road.
Mrs Sugden closed the garage door. 'Have a good journey.'
'Be careful of them Londoners, Mrs Shackleton. If this business was straightforward, her ladyship wouldn't be sending two hundred and more miles for you.'
I waved goodbye, and drove away. On Woodhouse Lane, the pavements were busy with men and women walking to work. The lucky ones wore winter coats and the unlucky, or hardy, huddled in their jackets and home-knitted scarves. They wore caps, trilbies, berets or headscarves. One jaunty young woman sported a fine tam o' shanter with a big red pom-pom.
Carefully, I waited to proceed as a blinkered horse patiently drew its cart into Cardigan Road.
A tram rattled by, both decks packed, standing room only. Cyclists dodged daringly across the tracks.
It took me another fifteen minutes to reach the station. As I drew into the yard, an elderly porter came to the car.
'No. I'll be returning this evening.'
He stared. 'Is that so, madam?'
This would be a tale for the supper table when he arrived home. 'You'll never guess what happened to me today. I parked a motorcar for a mad woman, off to London and back in a day.'
I slipped him a florin.
The Ladies' Waiting Room was empty. A small fire gave out very little heat. Sitting on the bench did not melt the ice in my veins. I fetched a chair and placed it almost on the hearth. I was early for the 7.50 a.m. train which would arrive at King's Cross at 11.30 a.m. Since Lady Coulton had failed to state a time, I had telegraphed the club to say that I would be arriving at noon. I settled down to read my book, and wait for the train.
Of course, I could not settle. I bought a newspaper, and went to the platform far too soon. The train was still being cleaned, but since the first class carriages were swept and dusted first, a porter opened the door and directed me to my seat.
Contrary to Mrs Sugden's dire warnings, the cooked breakfast was very good. I chose ham and eggs, which came with fresh rolls.
Through the train window, I looked out onto a landscape of pit shafts and slag heaps. An itchy uneasiness settled like dust in every part of my being.
Mrs Sugden was right to set a big question mark above Lady Coulton's motive in sending for me. I have a well-known London counterpart, with offices in Mayfair. This lady detective prides herself on investigating society cases of infidelity, blackmail and burglary as well as smuggling, and espionage. Her ladyship could have gone to her.
Lady Coulton was taking no chances. Engaging a detective close to home might be risky. Her 'matter of delicacy' must be scandalous, deadly secret and entirely indelicate.CHAPTER 3
Having taken a cab from King's Cross, I arrived at Queen Anne House, number 28 Cavendish Square, at noon. This former hotel was opened in June, 1920, as a club for women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. I was proud to be at the opening ceremony, and visit every time I come to London.
Alfred the porter has worked here from the first. He welcomed me and we exchanged a few words.
'I have a telephone message for you, Mrs Shackleton. Your guest will be here at two o'clock and won't be lunching with us.'
'Thank you, Alfred.'
I smiled. The club has modest fare and moderate charges, for members on a limited income. I doubted that the one and three-penny lunch would suit Lady Coulton's tastes.
In the dining room, not wishing to be drawn into conversation, I sat as far from the door as possible, at a small table. There were two choices for mains and pudding. I plumped for meat and potato pie followed by jelly and custard.
By quarter to two, I seated myself in one of a pair of wing chairs, by the lounge window. I would see Lady Coulton crossing the square.
As the French clock chimed two, Jane Coulton came into view.
A few moments later, a man in a black coat and homburg hat appeared, dogging her footsteps. He kept a steady distance between them, at one moment pausing when her steps became a little slower. When she reached the club's entrance, he waited, watching her as she stepped inside. Who was he, and why had he followed her? He walked on, out of sight. Perhaps I was mistaken.
Jane Coulton swept into the room, led by Alfred. I remembered that quality of confidence and something that I was too naïve to have been able to put into words when I saw her all those years ago: sexual magnetism. Alfred, accustomed to important personages, is not unduly deferential and so it seemed to me that his awed manner towards her stemmed from something else, an acknowledgement of her beauty and elegance.
'Your guest, Mrs Shackleton,' he announced in hushed tones.
He glanced sideways at her, hovering as she slipped the mink coat from her shoulders and handed it to him. I greeted her.
Before she took a seat in the wing chair opposite mine, her eyes darted about the room, which, apart from us and the fleeing porter, was empty.
'You have come up to town today?' She spoke as if for the benefit of any person or persons hiding behind a sofa.
'Yes, by the 7.50 train.' I resumed my seat.
'The North was once so very far away.'
She did not appear greatly changed since the last time I saw her, at the charity auction. Perhaps we fix a first image so firmly in our minds that we go on seeing it the same way. If anything, she looked more striking. Her coppery golden hair, under the neat hat, was a little grey at the temples, her cheek bones more prominent. In this intimate setting, her dignity and reserve gave way to an ease of manner that comes naturally to my mother and aunt. They would have been brought up in the same circles, and came out into society a few years sooner than Lady Coulton.
She had a fragile, almost brittle quality that I had not noticed before. Her face bore traces of powder and a touch of rouge. Perfectly bowed and gently pencilled eyebrows raised a little as she appraised me. I hoped my own appraisal was not so obvious.
She thanked me for coming and enquired about what sort of lunch the club served, all the while making a shield of a shiny crocodile-skin handbag, as if it might escape from her and find its way back to the Zambezi.
'I asked to meet you here because it is close to home. I can slip out unnoticed.'
Had she been unnoticed, though? I wondered whether to tell her that I thought someone had followed her.
'My Aunt Berta probably mentioned to you that she and I lunch here occasionally.'
'She did. But she knows nothing of this meeting. Shall you be seeing her during this visit?'
'I shall see no one, except you. A taxi will take me back to King's Cross.'
It would be the four o'clock train, if she was quick about it; or the 5.45 if she took her time. The 5.45 did have the advantage of a restaurant car.
'This is a delicate matter.'
'You are assured of my discretion.'
She placed her bag on the low table. 'It is not always easy for me to get away these days. If someone discovers that I was here, it is because I am in sympathy with the idea of a club for girls and women and may take some sort of interest, you understand?'
'I understand.' She had no interest in the VAD club but preferred not to be seen with me at the Ritz or the Savoy, where her chums would gather. I did not mention the man who may have followed her. I could be mistaken. If questioned at home, she had her story carefully worked out. But why was leaving the house so difficult?
She glanced at her kid gloves, as if considering whether they had become part of her hands.
'Is there anything you wish to ask me before you give me your confidence?'
'Be a dear, order me a gin and tonic and something for you. I can't just plough on cold as it were.'
The club has no bar, but I knew that Alfred would be willing to oblige. Since there have been complaints about the availability of alcohol, he does not provide drinks for everyone who asks, only for those he knows will be discreet. I found him in the corridor and whispered my request, making hers a double and mine a straightforward tonic. She need not know that I intended to remain stone cold sober.
Lady Coulton drew off her gloves. 'Perhaps you know my husband is an invalid?'
'No. I had not heard, though I did notice that he has not lately been reported as speaking in the Lords.'
She smiled. 'Yes, he always had to make his views known, never one to snooze through the sessions.'
'How is he now?'
She made a hopeless gesture. 'Critically ill, but being nursed at home. His room is full of contraptions and frightfully efficient nurses. He is sleeping, but asks for me constantly, for no reason. Sometimes in the afternoon he has a burst of energy and imagines he could stroll across the square without becoming exhausted.'
Alfred brought our drinks on a tray. He lifted the glasses onto dainty mats, surreptitiously gazing at my guest as if memorising her beauty.
Excerpted from Death of an Avid Reader by Frances Brody. Copyright © 2014 Frances McNeil. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well written with good characterdevelopment. Very enjoyable. I will buy more by this author.
I really enjoyed reading this story. I have not read any of the previous books in the series but that was okay. I could easily follow along and I was getting to know Kate and her friends. I liked the humor in the story, it kept it a bit lighter when things would get a little dark. I definitely recommend this historical mystery! I received a free digital copy from Netgalley in exchange for my review.