As part of World Book Day 2006, Minette Walters took part in the Quick Reads initiative, designed to encourage developing readers and adult learners as they explore the exciting world of books. Chickenfeed, Walter's contribution, is a crackling tale based on the true story of the 'chicken farm murder' that took place in Blackness Road, Crowborough, East Sussex in December, 1924.
Although Norman Thorne never confessed to killing his girlfriend Elsie, he was tried and hanged for the crime. Minette's fictionalised account of their relationship is told from the points of view of both Elsie and Norman, from the time of their first meeting at chapel when Norman is 18 and Elsie is 22, until the eve of Norman’s trial for her murder just over four years later.
In the real-life case, an exchange of letters between the lovers, in which Elsie told Norman that she was pregnant, formed part of the evidence that suggested Norman's motive for murder. When the lovers grow apart, Elsie creates a fantasy to replace the reality of their fractured relationship. Meanwhile Norman has fallen for another woman yet cannot bring himself to tell Elsie that he no longer wants to marry her. Burrowing deep into an English legend, Walters creates a suspenseful tale of fiction based in fact, leaving it to the reader decide whether Norman was guilty of the heinous crime.
The Tinder Box
In the small village of Sowerbridge, Patrick O'Riordan has been arrested for the brutal murder of elderly Lavinia Fanshaw and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins. As shock turns to fury, the village residents form a united front against the O'Riordan family, while friend and neighbour Siobhan Lavenham remains convinced that Patrick has fallen victim to a prejudiced investigation. Jeopardizing her own position within the bigoted community, Siobhan stands firmly by his family in defense of the O'Riordan name.
Yet when terrible secrets about the O'Riordans' past are revealed, Siobhan is forced to question her loyalties. Could Patrick be capable of murder after all? Could his family's tales of attacks be devious fabrications? And if so, what other lies lurk beneath the surface of their world? As the truth unravels, it becomes clear that beneath a cunning façade, someone's chilling ambition is about to ignite.
Praise for Innocent Victims :
"Fans of Edgar-winner Walter will welcome this collection... the poignant Chickenfeed , based on an infamous 1924 murder case in East Sussex. [And] The Tinder Box , a compelling tale of prejudice and gossip [where] everything falls into place to produce a shockingly different picture than expected."- Publishers Weekly
"Walters is a Gold Dagger and Edgar award winner (among other honors), these two works were both No. 1 best sellers in the UK, and you were wondering whether to purchase?" - Library Journal
" The Tinderbox question of whether the execution of a man was justified is never answered in the novella Chickenfeed , and since this is based on a real criminal case, it makes it all the more fascinating."- Washington Times
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Minette Walters is the author of fourteen suspense novels and the winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the CWA John Creasey/New Blood Dagger Award, among others. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in Dorset, England.
Hometown:Dorchester, Dorset, England
Date of Birth:September 26, 1949
Place of Birth:Bishop¿s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England
Education:B.A. in French, Dunelm (Durham University), 1971
Read an Excerpt
Kensal Rise Methodist Church, north London — winter 1920
The skies were dark with ice-filled clouds the day Elsie Cameron first spoke to Norman Thorne. Perhaps Elsie should have taken the gloom as an omen of what was to come. But could any girl predict that a man she met in church would hack her to pieces four years later in a place called Blackness Road?
Outside, the wind and sleet beat against the Gothic spire of the Kensal Rise church. Inside, the flock huddled in their coats and listened to the preacher. He thundered against the demon of drink, which stole a person's moral sense. Cursed would be the man who hit out in temper. Or the woman who had sex before marriage.
Elsie Cameron, a small, plain twenty-two--year-old with chewed fingernails and thick glasses, barely listened. She had heard it all before. It was a message of grinding despair to a lonely girl who suffered from depression. Elsie wanted to be loved. But the only love on offer in the chapel was God's, and His love came with conditions.
Her gaze slid sideways towards the young man who sat with his father and stepmother in a nearby pew. Each time Elsie saw him her heart beat a little faster. He was four years younger than she was — eighteen — but he was handsome and he always smiled if he caught her eye. His name was Norman Thorne and he worked as a mechanic at Fiat Motors in Wembley.
Norman's real mother had died when he was eight. At sixteen, he'd joined the Royal Naval Air Force to serve in the Great War. The war had ended three weeks after he arrived in Belgium and he never saw any fighting. But that didn't matter to Elsie. Any lad who stood up for his country was a hero.
She worried about the age difference because she had a fear of being teased. Would people call her a cradle-snatcher if she persuaded him to walk out with her? But his work as a mechanic had filled him out. No one would guess he was only eighteen. Elsie bit nervously at her fingernails as she tried to think of a way to speak to him.
Her mother had taught her that only "loose" women made the first move. Let the man come to you, she had said. But it hadn't worked. Elsie's brother and sister had no trouble finding girls and boys to "walk out" with. But not Elsie. Elsie scared would-be husbands away. She was too intense, too swamping, too desperate.
She feared the things she wanted, and wanted the things she feared. She had nightmares about being left on the shelf — unwanted and unloved — but she couldn't bring herself to flirt the way other girls did. The perfect man would be content to worship her until he put a ring on her finger. And only afterwards would anything of that sort happen.
There was a stubborn streak in Elsie's nature that blamed others for her problems. It wasn't her fault that she was plain. It was her parents' fault. And it wasn't her fault that she lacked friends. Only a fool would trust people who gossiped behind her back.
Elsie worked as a typist in a small firm in the City, but her colleagues had long since grown tired of her mood swings. They called her "difficult" and grumbled about her mistakes. She resented them for it. She resented her boss, who took her to task for failing to do her job properly.
Once in a while — in the depths of despair — she wondered if her co-workers were right. Was she difficult? More often, she blamed them for making her unhappy. If people were nice to her, she would be nice back. But why should she have to be nice first?
It's on such little things that life and death turn.
Would either have died if Norman hadn't smiled?
* * *
As the congregation filed out of church, Norman Thorne was a pace or two ahead of Elsie. Deliberately, she trod on the back of his heel while pretending to search through her bag. His startled face turned towards her.
She gave a squeak of dismay. "Whoops!" she exclaimed, clutching at his sleeve.
Norman put out his hand to steady her. "Are you all right?"
Elsie nodded. "I'm ever so sorry."
"Don't worry about it." He prepared to move on.
"I know who you are," she said in a rush. "Norman Thorne. I'm Elsie Cameron. We live quite close. My mum says you were in the war. That makes you a hero."
Norman gave a shy smile. "Not really."
"I think so."
The boy was flattered. And why not? He was young and no girl had ever looked at him this way before. Raised by a strict father, Norman neither drank nor smoked. He helped with the local Scouts, taught in the Sunday School and was involved in all kinds of chapel work.
His smile widened to one of welcome. "Nice to meet you, Elsie."
Norman's father wasn't pleased when his son told him he had a girl.
"You're too young for such nonsense," Mr. Thorne said. "You should put your energies into working."
"I'm not planning to marry her, Dad."
"Then watch how you treat her, lad. We don't want any shotgun weddings in this family."
Nor was Elsie's mother pleased. "He's still a boy, dear. You'd be better off with someone older."
"He doesn't look eighteen."
"Maybe not, Elsie ... but he'll make you unhappy in the long run. He'll grow bored and leave you for someone else. Boys of that age always do."
Mrs. Cameron was bent over the kitchen sink, washing clothes. Her arms were deep in suds and Elsie stared at her stooped back with loathing. "Why do you always have to ruin everything for me?" she asked.
"I don't mean to," her mother said with a sigh, "but Dad and I both feel —" She broke off abruptly. She was too tired for arguments that day, and Elsie never took her advice anyway.
She had lost heart over the girl. There were no grey areas in Elsie's life. Love must be total. Support tireless. Fault-finding zero. Mild criticism, designed to help her, led to tantrums ... or worse, threats of suicide. Elsie could go for weeks without speaking to either of her parents. Other times she fawned on them.
Conflict played a part in all her relationships. At home and at work. She could like a person one day and hate them the next. But she never understood why that turned people away. "It's not fair," she would say, bursting into tears. "Why is everyone so beastly to me?"
Neither of her parents could see a happy ending for her. Mrs. Cameron prayed she'd meet an older man who would put up with her moods. Mr. Cameron said no such man existed now. If he ever had, he'd died in the war.
The war had killed so many men. It meant a generation of young women would not find husbands. For every Norman Thorne, there were five young girls begging to be noticed. And Mrs. Cameron knew Elsie well enough to know that she was too needy to hold Norman's interest for long.
But, like her daughter's co-workers, she'd had enough of the petulant mood swings. "Do as you please," she said, drawing a pillowcase from the water and thumping it against the wooden washboard. "Just don't come running to me when Norman Thorne lets you down."CHAPTER 2
North London — summer 1921
Norman scuffed his feet along the pavement. He'd been given his cards by Fiat and was living on ten shillings (50p) a week dole money. "Everyone's been laid off," he told Elsie. "It's happening all over. Dad says there's three million out of work and it's going to get worse."
Elsie had to walk fast to keep up with his longer legs. "What will you do?"
"I don't know."
"You'll have to do something, pet. You can't live on the dole forever."
(She meant: "If you don't find another job soon it'll be ages before we can marry." But as usual Norman dodged the issue.)
"We were lied to," he complained instead. "Us lads who went away to war were told we'd come home to 'a land fit for heroes.' Remember that? They promised us jobs and money" — he took a swipe at a bush as he passed — "and we haven't got bloody either."
Elsie let the "bloody" go. Now wasn't the time to take him to task for cursing. She felt like saying she was more upset than he was. Things had been going well while he was earning. So much so that her hints about marriage had brought a smile to his face. Then he lost his job and everything changed.
There could be no talk of weddings while he was out of work. Wives and children cost money. A man should never make promises he couldn't keep. There was more to marriage than kissing. Hardship and poverty led to anger and hate.
These weren't messages that Elsie wanted to hear. Her romantic streak said love could overcome all problems. What did it matter if they were poor as long as they had each other? She knew her feelings for Norman were stronger than his for her. She called him her "lovey," her "pet," her "treasure," but he only ever called her "Elsie" or "Else."
She tucked her hand through his arm and put on her brightest smile. "You're always telling me there's money in chickens. Why don't you start a chicken farm?"
"Where?" He sounded annoyed, as if he found her idea foolish. But he didn't push her away.
"Not in London. Somewhere outside. Sussex or Surrey maybe. Land's cheaper away from the city."
He slowed to a halt. "How would I pay for it?"
"You could ask your dad for a loan. You said he's been careful all these years. You never know. He might give you the money instead of making you wait till he's dead. He's got no one else to leave it to."
"Do you reckon?"
"I don't see why not. Raising chickens is better than living on the dole."
It was amazing how quickly his depression lifted. "You could be right, Else. He said he'd give me a hand if I needed it."
"There you are then."
He gave her fingers a quick squeeze. "We wouldn't see so much of each other. Sussex is a fair lick from Kensal Rise."
"We'll manage," she said. "We'll write every day. It'll make our love stronger."
Mr. Thorne surprised Norman by the speed with which he stumped up £100 for the project. Elsie said it was because he had faith in his son. But Norman thought it had more to do with parting him from Elsie. Mr. Thorne was a little too eager to see his boy move to Sussex. Perhaps he hoped that out of sight would mean out of mind.
"The change will do you good," he said cheerfully. "It's time you met new people and spread your wings. You're stuck in a rut here, lad."
Sometimes Norman felt that, too. He was fond of Elsie. He even wondered if he was in love with her when she was in a good mood. But he could never predict when that would be. It got him down. There were days when she was happy, and other days when she wasn't. But it was always him who had to match his mood to hers. Never the other way round.
She called her ups and downs her "nerves." "I worry about things, pet. It makes me jumpy. Mum says it'll wear off when I have a family. I can't be fretting for myself when I have children to look after."
Norman doubted that. Surely a baby would give her more to worry about? But he didn't say so. Elsie was easier to get on with when she was making plans. She took it for granted that her future would include him.
Once or twice, he tried to suggest differently. "I'm not the only bloke in the world, Else. Maybe you'll find someone better."
"How can I? You're my own sweet darling."
"Maybe I'll find someone better," Norman teased, not completely in jest.
She put him through hell when he said such things. An older man might have used the sulks as an excuse to end the affair. But not a church-going boy of nineteen who was both flattered and trapped by Elsie's devotion.
Which may explain why the idea of a chicken farm outside London was as welcome to Norman as it was to his father. He hoped a breathing space would help him make up his mind.
He bought a field off Blackness Road in Crowborough, Sussex, and took it over on August 22nd, 1921. In the hope of blessing the project from the start, he named the plot Wesley Poultry Farm. (John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church.)
Norman lodged locally. During the day he built chicken sheds and runs. The weather was warm in September and the work was hard. His only transport was his bicycle and he was careful what he spent.
After the purchase of land, he had to buy timber and wire, while keeping enough in reserve for chickens to stock the farm. It meant he spent most of his time alone and never treated himself to a night out.
Of course he missed Elsie. She wrote to him every day so that he wouldn't forget her. "My own darling Norman ..." "Oh, my treasure, how I adore you ..." "Do you think of me as much as I think of you, pet ... ?" "Does absence make your heart grow fonder of your little lovey ...?"
It did. Every Friday evening he cycled the fifty miles to Kensal Rise to spend the weekend with her. But the round trip was tiring, and he warned her that he wouldn't be able to do it once the poultry arrived.
"I can't abandon them, Else. They'll need to be fed and watered Saturdays and Sundays, same as during the week."
She became tearful, so he told her he was planning to build a hut to live in. "It won't be much," he said. "Maybe twelve feet by eight feet, but there's a well for water and I can make a bed along one wall. I'll cook on an oil stove and light candles when it gets dark."
Elsie said it sounded romantic.
Norman shook his head. "It's the way the lads lived in the trenches," he told her. "Hard and rough ... but it'll be cheaper than paying for a room every night. I'll add to it as things get better and one day it'll be a proper house."
She was already thinking ahead. "I can visit at weekends."
"It's not built yet."
"I'll come down by train and walk from the station."
"You won't be able to stay overnight, Elsie. It'll look bad."
"I know." She gave his arm a teasing punch. "Silly boy! I'll sleep in lodgings and spend the days with you. We'll have fun, pet. I'll do the cooking while you look after the chickens. We can pretend we're married."
It did seem romantic when she put it like that. And Norman was lonely. Sussex folk were wary of strangers and the new friends his father had promised had never appeared. So far, his only reward for "spreading his wings" was hard work. And hard work was joyless when there was no one to share it with.
In any case, he was a healthy young man. He still had strong chapel views, but the thought of being alone with a woman excited him.
He built his live-in shack to the same design as his hen houses. The walls were made of wood and a high-pitched roof gave a feeling of space inside. Two beams, one above the other, ran across the centre to hold the structure rigid. At one end, a mattress on a platform served as a bed at night and a sofa during the day. At the other end, a small window let in some light.
He furnished the room with bits and pieces to make it more homely. A table and two chairs, an oil stove, a tin bowl for washing, and some matting on the floor. But, otherwise, it was just as he had promised Elsie. Rough, hard living. Made worse by the cold as the days shortened and winter drew in.
He refused to let Elsie visit until the spring of 1922. "The weather's too bad," he wrote to her. "It's hard to keep warm and most days I don't bother to wash. I sometimes think the chickens are better off than me. At least they can huddle together."
He kept from her that the farm wasn't going well. Few of his hens were laying. Some were too young, some were offlay, but most were affected by the rain. A local man warned him that the weather might stop the birds producing eggs for two months.
Norman was shocked. "I can't afford to wait that long," he said. "I need something to sell. I'm living from hand to mouth as it is."
The man shrugged. "It was a bad time to start a poultry farm, lad. Chickens don't like the winter. Eggs are scarce now, but you'll have more than you can sell when the spring comes. You'll be lucky to cover the cost of the chickenfeed."
"What will I live on?"
"Eggs?" the man suggested with dry humour. "You'll come to hate the taste of them ... but they'll keep the wolf from the door."CHAPTER 3
Wesley Poultry Farm,
Blackness Road — summer 1922
Elsie loved Norman's little shack. She'd never been so happy as on the weekends that she spent at the farm. She took a room down the road with Mr. and Mrs. Cosham, and walked to the field every day. She helped with the feeding and the collecting of eggs, but she wouldn't clean out the hen houses.
"The smell makes me sick," she told Norman, wrinkling her nose. "And I can't go back to London reeking of chicken mess."
Norman didn't mind. He was content to let Elsie sit and do nothing as long as she was there. Her joy rubbed off on him and he began to think the project could work after all. True, he was producing more eggs than he could trade, but the cockerels and the broody hens were doing their jobs well. He now had plenty of young chicks to fatten and sell for the pot.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Innocent Victims"
Copyright © 2006 Minette Walters.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note, vii,
The Tinder Box, 115,