The Marx Sisters (Brock and Kolla Series #1)

The Marx Sisters (Brock and Kolla Series #1)

by Barry Maitland


View All Available Formats & Editions


This first book in the Brock and Kolla Mystery series was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s John Creasey Award for best first mystery and met with wide acclaim. It introduced the team of Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla, with Kathy a neophyte to Scotland Yard. And her first case was one for the books. Meredith Winterbottom, a great-granddaughter of Karl Marx and a longtime resident of Jerusalem Lane—a Dickensian section of London inhabited by Eastern European immigrants—is found dead in her apartment. Along with her two sisters and other Lane residents, she had been seeing red over a real estate developer’s plan to gentrify their neighborhood. Six months after Meredith’s death, a second sister is murdered. Are they victims of money-hungry developers or were they killed for the politics of another age? And why would David Brock, a notorious curmudgeon, assign himself to help Kathy on a relatively small case?

As Kathy and Brock delve into the Lane’s eccentric melting pot, they find unknown letters from Marx to Engels, a possible fourth volume of Das Kapital, a long list of suspects ranging from Meredith’s shady son to a Princeton professor and a Polish veteran of World War II—and a plot to make Kathy’s first case her last.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade, Yucca, and Good Books imprints, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in fiction—novels, novellas, political and medical thrillers, comedy, satire, historical fiction, romance, erotic and love stories, mystery, classic literature, folklore and mythology, literary classics including Shakespeare, Dumas, Wilde, Cather, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628723731
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Series: Brock and Kolla Series , #1
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Barry Maitland was born in Scotland and raised in London. He was a professor of architecture and dean at the University of Newcastle in Australia, but relinquished the position to become a full-time writer. He has written twelve Brock and Kolla novels. He lives in Australia.

Read an Excerpt

The Marx Sisters

A Brock and Kolla Mystery

By Barry Maitland

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Barry Maitland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-373-1


'Something ain't right.' Meredith glared at her two sisters, sitting facing each other at the far end of the table, in front of the window. Eleanor looked at her carefully, recognizing the pouted lip that signified she was being stubborn.

'Well, your apple sponge was beautiful, as always, dear.' Peg dabbed her mouth meticulously with her napkin.

'What do you mean, "Something isn't right"?' Eleanor said.

'The way the Kowalskis decided to up and leave, just like that, all of a sudden. They should have discussed it.'

'They're retiring, Meredith. They don't have to discuss it. They're getting on, and the bookshop couldn't have been making them much of a living.'

'Adam Kowalski is a hopeless businessman, that's true,' Meredith conceded ungraciously. 'Anyone could have made a better job of selling second-hand books than Adam Kowalski. But what about Konrad Witz next door? His camera shop has been doing well enough. He told me so, after the Christmas season last year.'

'He's at an age to retire too, dear. They sold together to get a better price, so someone can knock the two shops together if they want. That's what Mr Hepple said. You remember.'

'I don't like empty shop windows, Eleanor. It gives me the creeps.'

Looking at her two sisters, Meredith was struck by how little they had all changed since they were girls. Eleanor, the youngest, was the same headstrong child she had been then, always certain she knew best, all elbows and knees, head in the clouds and holes in her socks. Meredith was irritated to find herself wondering, exactly as her mother had done sixty years before, whether Eleanor had remembered to put on fresh knickers that morning. And Peg was still the neat, sweet little girl who could always find a way to get other people to do things for her.

'Adam Kowalski looks more and more like a beanpole every time you see him,' Peg piped up.

'Have you ever noticed,' Eleanor said, 'how he always runs his hand over the plaque in the wall beside his shop, every time he passes? I wonder if he is a secret believer.'

'No.' Peg shook her head. 'I saw him do it and I asked him why, and he said he did it for luck. He said that Karl Marx might be the most famous man in the world, and he, Adam Kowalski, the least, but Marx was dead and he was alive, and that, in the end, was all that really counted.'

'That,' said Eleanor severely, 'is a matter of opinion.'

Peg suddenly gave a little shiver. Meredith, thinking of the electricity bill, snapped, 'It's not cold, Peg. Look at the sun out there.'

It was true. The golden light was gleaming on the chimneys and slate roofs of the buildings on the other side of the Lane.

'It is a beautiful day, dear,' Peg replied wistfully. Then impulsively she added, 'Why don't you come with us today, Meredith? Just this once?'

'Why should I want to go for a walk in a flippin' cemetery?' Meredith sniffed. 'I'll get there in a box soon enough, I dare say. No, thank you, I'll put me feet up as usual and have me glass of port and forty winks.'

'Come on,' Eleanor said to Peg, getting to her feet. 'We'll clear the table and do the washing-up before we go.'


Kathy came running down the stairs to the mortuary feeling like a school kid late for classes. This is ridiculous, she thought, it's my case, and stopped to get her breath. She pulled her sweater straight over the pleats of her skirt and ran a hand across the fair hair pulled to the back of her head, then stepped forward and pushed open the plastic swing doors.

There were half a dozen people in the room. She recognized the pathologist, Dr Mehta, standing by an open filing cabinet, writing on a clip-board, while his assistant, greenoveralled and already kitted out with rubber gloves and cap, was sorting through nasty-looking tools on a stainless-steel tray. The anxious woman in the dark suit was probably from the coroner's office, and a photographer sat near her, looking bored and hung-over.

In front of Kathy, and with his back to her, a big man in a surprisingly smart suit was leaning forward, peering at the table in the centre of the room. His hands were clutched behind his back, and from their fingers hung the straps of a Polaroid camera. Less like a Legend of the Yard, she thought, than an overdressed tourist. He straightened as the doors flapped closed behind her, and turned, peering at her over the top of the half-lens glasses perched on the end of his nose. She hadn't expected the almost boyish thatch of hair, and the beard. Both hair and beard were grey, almost blue-grey in the cold fluorescent light.

'Detective Sergeant Kolia,' she said brightly, extending her hand, expecting some put-down for being late, knowing his reputation among the junior officers at Division. But he just beamed at her, a big bear of a man, twice her weight, and took her hand, introducing himself disarmingly without rank. 'David Brock,' he said in a low growl.

They both turned their attention back to the body.

The old woman looked smaller and more frail here, naked on the table, than when Kathy had seen her yesterday, lying peacefully on her bed in her woollen cardigan and skirt and thick stockings. Now her face was tinged grey on one side, and her eyes seemed to have sunk back into their sockets behind the wrinkled lids. Her dowager's hump was quite pronounced, forcing her shoulders forward as she lay on her back on the stainless-steel surface. Kathy's eyes skipped quickly down her body, over the withered breasts, the pubic hair ginger unlike the silver hair on her head, to the feet gnarled with arthritis.

Dr Mehta broke the silence. 'You'll make the identification, Sergeant?'

'Yes. This is the same woman I saw yesterday at 22 Jerusalem Lane, WC2, at' – she consulted her notebook – '16.56.'

'How do you spell your name?' he asked. She told him, watching Brock bend lower again until his nose was within a few inches of the old woman's face.

'I'm damned if I can see any spots, Sundeep,' he muttered.

'On the scalp, just inside the hair line, Chief Inspector. In any case,' he continued, addressing himself to Kathy in his precise, formal manner, 'petechial haemorrhages don't prove anything. They can be a sign of smothering, but they're also seen in other conditions of terminal lack of oxygen and congestion, such as heart failure, so they're not diagnostic of asphyxia in the forensic sense.'

He returned to filling in his form.

'Her skin is pretty tough,' Brock remarked.

'Yes. I'd say she spent some years out in the sun, in a warmer climate than we are blessed with in these blighted shores.'

'Oh now, it hasn't been a bad summer,' Brock murmured absently, continuing his detailed inspection of the corpse. 'What about these faint bruises on the upper arms? Could somebody have held her down?'

Dr Mehta shrugged. 'Perhaps she got so excited watching the gee-gees on TV she gripped her own arms too tightly. They bruise very easily, these old dears.'

'But you've got the bag?' Kathy broke in, and turned to Brock. 'We found a plastic bag in her kitchen rubbish bin which had moisture inside, and a couple of silver hairs.'

'Oh yes, I've got it,' said Dr Mehta, 'and of course we'll test it against the swabs. Anyway, we'll have a good look at blood fluidity and, of course, the condition of the heart, dilatation of heart chambers, oedema of the lungs, congestion of organs, et cetera, et cetera, but I'm not in the least sanguine, Sergeant, that in the end I'll even be able to establish the cause of death, let alone provide you with clues.'

He turned to Brock. 'As you know, Chief Inspector, evidence of asphyxia is often uncertain, and if it was a plastic bag ...' He shrugged. 'And to tell you frankly' – he lowered his voice and switched off the tape recorder that had been running at his elbow – 'I find it difficult to have much confidence in the judgement of her doctor, whatever his name was, who called us out, although I couldn't say that at the time.'

'He was a bit of a character.' Kathy smiled and the pathologist rolled his eyes, returning to his paperwork.

After a while he put the clip-board down and pulled a packet of rubber gloves out of a drawer. Kathy knew the procedure – first the Y-shaped incision on the front of the body, from shoulders to crotch, and the taking of blood from this cut for alcohol analysis before opening the body cavities; then the systematic opening of skull and body cavities and inspection of organs in place, and their removal in turn for individual examination. Just thinking about it seemed to drain the thing on the table of what was left of its humanity, as if its soul were shrinking from the approaching knife.

'You all right?'

Kathy started, then nodded at Brock. 'Yes, sir. I was in Traffic for two years.'

'Ah, yes. Blood enough for a lifetime. All the same, not much point in our hanging about, eh?'

He waited for her to agree before speaking to Mehta. 'We'll leave you to it then, Sundeep. Anything occurs to you, we'd appreciate an informal opinion.'

'I always oblige when I can, Brock. But this time, I would not hold my breath.'

They left, closely followed by the woman from the coroner's office.

It was a fine September morning, and after the chill of the mortuary the city seemed soaked with warmth and life by the glittering sunlight, although the leaves of the plane trees were already curling yellow and showering down with each gust of breeze. Traffic was heavy, and Kathy made slow progress across town.

Her passenger said nothing for a while. She wondered what she had done to deserve this; there was enough to think about in running a murder investigation without having a Detective Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard's Department SO1 – the Serious Crime Branch – following your every move, let alone one with Brock's reputation. Inspector McDonald had been evasive when he had called her in this morning, and that wasn't like him. She had heard detectives at Division discussing Brock in the past. People who made a practice of remaining studiously unimpressed by senior officers apparently had difficulty doing so in his case. He was good, it was said, but difficult, often secretive, ferociously cranky and impatient. He didn't look that way now, she thought, as she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, slumped comfortably in his seat, a benign look on his face, enjoying the sun through half-closed eyes and sniffing at the autumn smells through the open window.

'So you feel convinced it's murder?' he said suddenly.

'Not yet.' Kathy was cautious. 'But I could be. The whole set-up was rather odd. I had the same reaction as Dr Mehta to the woman's doctor – Dr Botev.'

'He called the police in the first place?'

'Yes. She was found by her two sisters who live in rooms upstairs in the same house. They called Dr Botev and he then phoned us after he had examined her. A patrol car responded, and they called in CID. I arrived with DC Mollineaux about twenty-five minutes later – maybe three-quarters of an hour after she was found.'

'That would have been soon after 4, then.'

'Yes. The sisters had been out since about 2 on a Sunday afternoon outing to the cemetery to visit departed relatives. Apparently they did that quite often. They'd said goodbye to their sister Meredith when they left, and when they got back they looked in on her and found her lying on her bed, not breathing. They called their doctor. When I got there, one of the sisters had gone upstairs to her room to lie down – in shock, apparently. The other was with Botev and quite coherent, although upset of course. The doctor insisted there was nothing wrong with Mrs Winterbottom's heart – she'd had a thorough check-up only recently. He was quite stroppy about it, and I thought a bit unnecessarily so in front of the sister. It must have been upsetting for her to hear him demanding a post-mortem, and telling me to get on to the coroner's office, although she stayed quite calm. Actually she was rather good. Seemed a lot more sensible than he did. I asked her to make sure her sister was all right, and then argued a bit with him, about people dropping with coronaries ten minutes after being told their heart was perfect, but he wouldn't hear of it. Eventually I did as he asked.'

'You had no choice.'

'That's what I thought. Dr Mehta arrived at 5.40.'

'Between one and a half and three and a half hours after she must have died.'

'Right. He took her temperature straight away, and he did seem surprised that it was as high as it was. But it was a warm afternoon, and she was well wrapped up.'

'Do you know what the temperature was?' She shook her head.

'It'll be in his report. After asphyxia the body temperature can actually rise for a while before it begins to drop.'

'He didn't tell me that.'

'Sundeep enjoys being a sceptic – and keeping his cards close to his chest.' He growled at the car in front trying to make an illegal right turn and blocking their lane. 'You checked the place over, of course.'

'Yes, Mollineaux and I had a look round, and then the scene-of-crime crew arrived and did it properly. There was no sign of forced entry, but there wouldn't need to be – the place was wide open. The sisters habitually leave the front door on to the street on the latch apparently, and Meredith's door to her apartment was the same. Also there's a fire escape at the back, and the window on to that was open, too. A couple of drawers in her bedroom were open, but apart from that nothing looked disturbed. It all looked so peaceful, as if she'd just lain down for a nap after lunch with a glass of her favourite tipple, and then passed away. Dr Mehta will analyse the drink of course, but it was hardly touched.

'Apart from the plastic bag in the kitchen, there was one other thing that made me begin to wonder if Botev was right. Meredith's shoes were on the carpet at the foot of the bed, toes pointing away. There's an end-board, so she couldn't have sat on the edge and taken them off. They would have to have been taken off somewhere else and placed there. But if she'd done that, she would have held them by the heels and put them down with the toes pointing towards the bed, most likely. On the other hand, if she lay down with her shoes on, and someone tidied things up afterwards, that person might reach across the end-board, slip them off, toes pointing towards them, and set them down that way on the floor.

'At least,' she said, taking a deep breath, 'it seemed a possibility at the time. Maybe it's a bit far-fetched.'

'Hmm,' Brock grunted non-committally, 'worth bearing in mind, anyway. SOCO's printed the shoes?'

'Yes, and the glass of port beside the bed, and the rubbish bin in the kitchen, and all the usual places.'

Brock smiled. 'Sorry.'

Kathy flushed and was quiet as she turned the corner into Marquis Street and pulled up on to the pavement against the bollards that closed the south end of Jerusalem Lane.

Barely a dozen paces wide and a hundred long, the Lane crossed a city block, from Marquis Street through to the tube station on Welbeck Street to the north. Because of its skew angle however, and because its alignment gave a little kick to the right halfway along its length, it wasn't possible to see directly through from one end to the other. Like most of the buildings around the perimeter of the block, those facing on to Jerusalem Lane were built of yellow London stock bricks, faded and stained black by over a century of smog and soot. But whereas the terraces around the perimeter formed orderly rows with uniform roof lines, the buildings on the Lane were much more varied in height, as if no two neighbours had been able to agree on whether they should have two storeys or four, or even whether their plots should be laid out to the line of the surrounding streets or to the angle of the Lane. Despite this they were packed together as tightly as the perimeter terraces, and the sense which this gave of jostling anarchy beneath the common surface of blackened brickwork was confirmed by the explosion of chimneys, parapets and cross-walls which burst through the dark slate roofs against the sky. Glancing casually at this disorder, someone passing the end of the Lane might assume that it had been built as a service alleyway or mews, yet a second look would show that the shop fronts at the base of every building were original, and that it had always functioned as a thoroughfare. It was in recognition of this that a local by-law was enacted in 1893 to erect the bollards at the south end of the Lane to close it to wheeled traffic, and to repave it in York stone slabs. That was the last, unsuccessful attempt to gentrify Jerusalem Lane.


Excerpted from The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland. Copyright © 2014 Barry Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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.

Customer Reviews