In England in the late 1920s, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, on a convalescent trip to the countryside, goes to visit three old school friends in the area. The three, all unmarried, have recently bought a house together. They are a part of the generation of "superfluous women"brought up expecting marriage and a family, but left without any prospects after more than 700,000 British men were killed in the Great War.
Daisy and her husband AlecDetective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, of Scotland Yard go for a Sunday lunch with Daisy's friends, where one of the women mentions a wine cellar below their house, which remains curiously locked, no key to be found. Alec offers to pick the lock, but when he opens the door, what greets them is not a cache of wine, but the stench of a long-dead body.
And with that, what was a pleasant Sunday lunch has taken an unexpected turn. Now Daisy's three friends are the most obvious suspects in a murder and her husband Alec is a witness, so he can't officially take over the investigation. So before the local detective, Superintendent Underwood, can officially bring charges against her friends, Daisy is determined to use all her resources (Alec) and skills to solve the mystery behind this perplexing locked-room crime.
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A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery
By Carola Dunn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Carola Dunn
All rights reserved.
Daisy awoke gasping for breath. Her racing heartbeat thudded in her ears. For a frightening moment she had no idea where she was.
Just a nightmare, of course. She had dreamt she was shut up in an airless room with no doors or windows where a faceless figure was trying to smother her. As memory returned, her heart quieted, but her breathing was still laborious. Her chest ached. She started to cough.
Raising herself on one elbow, she reached for the glass of water beside the bed and took a sip. She had gone to sleep sitting up, as the doctor had recommended. The hotel's inadequate pillows had slipped off the bed during the night. The chambermaid would bring her a couple more if she asked. The staff of the Saracen's Head had been very friendly and helpful when she arrived in Beaconsfield yesterday.
The pale light filtering through the blue cotton curtains told her she had slept through the night for the first time in weeks.
Getting out of London, out of the Thames Valley, clearly was a good idea. The smog of October 1927 wouldn't count among the worst to afflict the metropolis. However, the southerly breeze that broke it up wafted the noxious mixture of coal smoke and river fog up the hill to Hampstead, usually happily above the miasma. Daisy's mild cold had turned to bronchitis.
The doctor ordered her out of town. She didn't want to impose her illness on friends and she felt too rotten for a long journey. Beaconsfield, a small town on the edge of the Chiltern Hills, seemed ideal.
The air was clean; she was breathing more easily already.
She was about to leave the warm nest of her bed to retrieve the pillows when she heard a tentative knock on the door.
"Who is it?"
"Your tea, madam."
"Come in." Calling out set off another fit of coughing.
"Oh, madam, you don' half soun' ba'." The local speech featured unvoiced final consonants, much easier to understand than some dialects Daisy had encountered. She very soon stopped noticing. "You better have a cuppa, quick."
The maid, a sturdy, sandy-haired, freckled young woman of about Daisy's age, set down the small tray and poured. "Here. Carefu' now. You don' wan' it to go down the wrong way."
Daisy managed to stop coughing for long enough to sip, and then to empty the cup. It soothed her throat a bit. "Thanks. Weren't you waiting in the dining room yesterday evening?"
"That's right. I'm a waitress, really. I don't do the cleaning and such, but I live in so it's easy to help out with early morning teas, and sometimes on reception, to oblige. And to earn a bit extra, too," she confided. "I'm saving up to go to London and learn to type. I want to work in an office."
"Good for you. What's your name?"
"Sally, madam. Sally Hedger. Properly, Sarah. There's another cup in the pot if you want it. And a couple of biscuits. I saw you di'n't eat enough dinner to keep a flea alive."
"I was too tired, and my throat's a bit sore from coughing. I haven't been very well, so I came to Beaconsfield to breathe the country air. It's already doing me good. Would you mind awfully picking up my pillows? I seem to have knocked them off in the night."
"Here you go." Sally plumped them up and put them behind Daisy's back. "That'll be comfier for you."
"I don't suppose you could scrounge a couple more for me? I'm supposed to sleep sitting up."
"I 'spect so. Can you manage till I've done the rest of the teas?"
"Of course. Whenever you have a moment."
"And how about breakfast in bed? You didn't ought to be rushing to get yourself up."
"Sally, could you really? That would be marvellous! You're a treasure."
"Don't tell anyone or they'll all be wanting it, too."
She was as good as her word. Daisy didn't get up till after ten. She was able to take a leisurely bath instead of the usual hotel scramble to get out of the way of other guests queuing up. Back in her room, she went to the window.
Last night she had been too exhausted to bother about the view. Now she looked out over back gardens to meadows where black-and-white cows grazed, and ploughland with winter wheat just beginning to green the pale, chalky soil. A few trees were bare already, but oaks clung stubbornly to the brown leaves they would keep all winter and the bright gold of beeches stood out against the grey sky.
Not the slightest breeze stirred the leaves. Daisy decided she felt fit enough for a short walk. She dressed warmly, a flannel petticoat under her tweed skirt and a flannel vest under her blouse and pullover — her fashionable friend, Lucy, would have been horrified, she thought with amusement. Stout walking shoes, a warm coat, and a blue muffler and hat her stepdaughter had knitted for her, pulled down over her ears: she might well stun the local citizens as well.
She hadn't paid any attention to the town as she was driven through the streets from the station, but she had noticed a church right opposite the Saracen's Head. A stroll round the churchyard would be a good start to regaining her strength.
Dressing had tired her. On second thoughts, she took off the hat and stuffed it into the coat pocket, then tidied her hair. It was after eleven, time for morning coffee.
The residents' lounge had only two occupants, who looked like commercial travellers. Deep in discussion over papers spread on a low table, they scarcely looked up as she passed through to the ladies' parlour beyond. There, three elderly women were seated at a round table by the fire. They glanced at Daisy and, obviously deciding she was a stranger of no interest, returned to their chatter. Not so many years ago, a woman staying alone at a hotel would have caused disapproving stares. With two million more females than males in the country, most of whom would never have a chance to marry, single "girls" were no longer noteworthy.
Coffee and a cream cake restored Daisy's desire for a little gentle exercise. (She didn't even feel guilty about the cream cake as she had lost several pounds while ill. Well, a few at least.)
She went out. Slowly, feeling like a tottery old lady, she crossed the wide street to the church. She stopped to look at an elaborate war memorial. Bronze plaques on all four sides each listed twenty names: eighty men lost from this small town and the surrounding rural district. Daisy noted several pairs of names, including two Hedgers who must surely be related to Sally, the waitress, as well as a few trios, and six surnamed Child — six killed in one family.
Filled with melancholy, she trudged through the churchyard, right round the church. In spite of the grey sky, the day was now warmish for October. She unwrapped her muffler and undid the top button of her coat.
As she completed the circuit, a ray of sun broke through the clouds to strike a wooden bench near the memorial. Daisy accepted the implicit invitation. Though she had coughed only once or twice, her legs felt a bit wobbly. She was glad to rest and contemplate the scene.
Opposite, on the corner, stretched the gabled west front of her hotel, the Saracen's Head, a centuries'-old coaching inn. The exposed timbers of the first floor looked much too straight to be the originals, though. The few other half-timbered buildings in the vicinity looked more genuine; most were typical Home Counties, mellow red brick with red-tiled roofs.
All four streets meeting at the crossroads were unusually wide for a town centre. They formed the intersection of the main route from Windsor to Aylesbury and the London to Oxford road, now the A40. Daisy had often driven through, in fact, without taking any particular notice of the town.
She wondered whereabouts Willie lived. Wilhelmina Chandler, a friend from school, had very recently moved from the North to Beaconsfield. They had exchanged occasional letters over the years, but never met since leaving school. Daisy hoped to call on her and refresh their friendship, once she'd recovered a bit more strength and was sure the coughing spells were a thing of the past.
The letter with the address was in her room. When she felt up to a visit, Sally would probably be able to direct her to the street.
She returned to the hotel. Climbing the stairs brought on another spate of coughs and she was glad to collapse onto the bed. A glass of water followed by a cough pastille did the trick. The taste of horehound, wintergreen, eucalyptus, and menthol lingered in her mouth, making the prospect of lunch unappealing.
In the end, telling herself firmly that she must keep up her strength, she went down to the restaurant just before they stopped serving lunch. Only half a dozen people were there, and most of them were just finishing their meals, so Daisy was able to chat with Sally.
The waitress brought a bowl of oxtail soup. "This'll do you good, madam. If I was you, I'd have the shepherd's pie after. Nothing in it to scrape a sore throat. It'll go down a fair treat. Stewed apple and custard for afters?"
Daisy assented. The soup was rich enough to banish the cough pastille taste, and the shepherd's pie was delicious.
When Sally returned with the pudding, Daisy asked, "Do you know where Orchard Road is?"
"Oh yes, madam. I can tell you how to get there."
"Is it far?"
"Maybe ten minutes to this end, 'bout the same again or a bit less to the other end. Which end was you wanting?"
"The house is called Cherry Trees."
"I know it. There's three ladies just moved in. My Auntie May cleaned for Mrs. Gray, that sold the house, and the new ladies kept her on. Friends of yours?"
"One of them, Miss Chandler. I hope to make the acquaintance of her friends."
Sally looked doubtful. "When you're feeling more yourself, madam," she said firmly. "It's down the New Town end, too far for you to walk yet awhile. Unless you was to hire a car?" She sounded even more doubtful.
Daisy laughed, which made her start to cough. After a sip of water, she shook her head and ventured to speak: "I'll wait a bit."
She waited two days, two days of early nights, late rising, and afternoon naps, eating and sleeping well, walking a little farther each day. On the morning of the third day, Thursday, she wrote a note to Willie Chandler and gave the Boots, a skinny youth, sixpence to deliver it.
An answer came the same evening. Willie was sorry Daisy had been ill. Assuming she didn't like to stay out late, would she care to come to tea the next day, to meet Willie's friends and housemates, Vera Leighton and Isabel Sutcliffe? If she arrived at about half past four, Isabel would be at home. Vera, a teacher, was usually home by five at the latest. Unfortunately Willie herself often didn't get home till six thirty, sometimes seven, but if Daisy felt up to staying that long, they could talk as Willie walked her back to the hotel.
Edward, the Boots, earned another sixpence taking Daisy's acceptance to Cherry Trees.
The next afternoon she set out early, reckoning that Sally's twenty-minute walk would be at least a half hour for her. The weather was still good, cloudy but with the sun breaking through now and then. It was a pleasant walk along Aylesbury End, a slight downhill slope. She hoped she would still consider it slight when she had to walk up it going back.
Once she left the shops and cottages behind her, high beech hedges, bronze-leaved, hid many of the houses and gardens along her way. On the opposite side of the street occasional roofs were visible through treetops. They seemed to be quite big houses, fairly modern. The railway hadn't come to Beaconsfield till the turn of the century. Sally had told her about being taken as a little girl to the opening of the station. The New Town had sprung up around it and now spread to meet Old Town.
Where Orchard Road forked off to the left, Daisy saw a bench on the far side. She crossed and sat down for a minute or two. Not far now, she assured herself as she trudged onward.
On either side of the street, the beech hedges continued, allowing only occasional glimpses of largish houses and gardens. At last she came to the green-painted gate she was looking for. A white plaque declared in black script that this was Cherry Trees. She paused for a moment, leaning against a gatepost, to catch her breath.
She had made it, without dropping dead on the way. So much for her doctor's gloomy prognostications!CHAPTER 2
A stout, red-faced woman came down the garden path towards Daisy, the yellowish gravel crunching beneath her run-down shoes, bulging with bunions. She wore a lime green, polka-dotted head scarf over greying hair, and a shapeless, shabby black coat nearly to her ankles.
Daisy opened the gate as she approached, and stood aside. The woman gave her a suspicious look and grunted what might have been an acknowledgement.
Mrs. Hedger, Daisy assumed. Sally, without saying anything derogatory, had given the impression that her Auntie May was a bit of a curmudgeon.
As Daisy stepped through the gateway, she saw that the gravel path led to a brick and timber house, the timbers silvery grey with age and the roof tiles lichened. The façade was rectangular but asymmetrical, with the front door off- centre, a small window to its left, a large one to the right. Yellow climbing roses, still in bloom, flanked the door and spread to meet above it. On each side of the path grew a cherry tree. Long, narrow scarlet leaves still clung to the branches, though many had already fallen.
Beneath one tree a woman was raking the debris into a pile. The gardener was tall and sturdy — robust was the word that came to mind — her dark hair in a severe bob, almost an Eton crop. She was clad in a red pullover, khaki trousers, and stout boots.
At the click of the gate latch, she glanced round in dismay. "Mrs. Dalrymple — I mean Fletcher? Willie still refers to you as Daisy Dalrymple. Good lord, is it half past four already? I'm so sorry." Her voice hinted at a Yorkshire upbringing. She leant her rake against the tree trunk and came towards Daisy, pulling off her gardening gloves. "I'm Isabel Sutcliffe."
"Yes, I'm Daisy Fletcher." Daisy and Isabel shook hands. "How do you do?"
"Come on in. I just don't notice the time when I'm busy, but don't worry, the scones are keeping warm in the oven and it won't take a moment to make tea."
The fragrance of the roses gave way to lingering odours of baking when Isabel opened the front door and ushered Daisy into the entrance hall, floored with redbrick tile.
"Lovely and warm!" Daisy exclaimed as her new acquaintance took off her boots and donned house slippers.
"I made up a good fire in the sitting room because Willie says you've been ill. Let me take your coat, then you can go and thaw out. I'll just put my boots by the back door and dash upstairs and change. I'll be with you in a trice."
"Please don't bother to change for my sake, Miss Sutcliffe."
"Really? Right-oh. Do please call me Isabel."
"And I'm Daisy, of course."
The furniture in the sitting room was Craftsman-style beechwood, upholstered in a modern geometrical dark and light blue print, with blue and white curtains drawn across the wide window. Sinking into a large, well- cushioned chair, Daisy held out her hands to the roaring fire.
The original fireplace had been huge, surrounded by smoke-blackened beams. A good half was blocked off, faced with blue and white Dutch tiles, leaving a good-sized grate in the centre. Looking around, Daisy wondered whether the room had once been part of a farmhouse kitchen. Isabel, having changed boots for house slippers, returned with a tea tray and confirmed her guess.
"The land was once a cherry orchard, as you might surmise from the name of the street and the house." She poured tea. "Here, have a scone while they're warm. Shop jam, I'm afraid, but come again next year and you'll get homemade."
"This house was the original farmhouse, eighteenth century according to the house agent. The previous owner, a London businessman, bought it in 1904 or thereabouts, knowing the railway was coming. He sold off the land for building and pretty much gutted the house to modernise it. He put in gas, then his second wife made him electrify. They left the gas range, though. I'm glad, because it's what I'm used to, what I cooked on at home, in Yorkshire."
"I'm glad, too, since it produced such light scones." Daisy helped herself to a third. "Delicious! You're a good cook."
"Practice. Mother and I turned our house into lodgings when Papa died. That's how I met Willie and Vera. They were among our lodgers."
"How did you end up here in Bucks?"
"You know Willie went from typist to bookkeeper to chartered accountant?"
"Yes. She was always good at arithmetic at school. We didn't go as far as anything worthy of being called maths — unsuitable for ladies and too taxing for our delicate female brains. Willie was probably the only one who actually enjoyed numbers and would have liked to go further."
Isabel grinned. "Incomprehensible, isn't it? A lot of people at her old firm were green with envy, and one old fuddy-duddy of a partner didn't approve of a woman in that position, so she went looking for another job. She got one in High Wycombe and found digs there. Vera and I decided to follow her south. After my mother died, we sort of became a family. ... You know the situation, nearly a million men dead and many more disabled in the war. 'Superfluous women,' they call us."
Excerpted from Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn. Copyright © 2015 Carola Dunn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very downtown abbey ish. So enjoyable I hated to see it end.
The most recently released "Daisy" book. I loved it. I had been reading all the books one right after the other, but had to WAIT for this one to get published. I hated having to wait - but LOVED the chance to have another fun read with Daisy and Alec. It was another fun and interesting story. Number 22 - and now... ... I'll have to wait AGAIN. But I am sure it will be worth the wait. Daisy is just as wonderful as ever in Superfluous Women.