A sturdy young woman with a knack for home repair and a practical sense of Marxism, Lydia is renovating her London townhouse while her husband finishes law school. To bring in extra money, she rents her upper floors to the exiled government of Livonia, a Baltic state that was long ago absorbed into the Soviet Union.
One day, as Lydia is taking up the floorboards, the Livonians carry a coffin through the house. It bears their housekeeper, who is to be honored with vodka toasts and a solemn funeral. After the ceremony, Lydia returns to her floorboards. Beneath the rotted wood is dirt—and in the dirt, she discovers a corpse that never reached the graveyard.
Identifying the body and finding the person who stashed it there draws Lydia into a tangle of spies and counterspies as her quiet little boardinghouse becomes a new front in the global Cold War.
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About the Author
The author of twenty-one crime and mystery novels for adults, Dickinson was the first to win the Gold Dagger Award of the Crime Writers’ Association for two books running: The Glass-Sided Ants Nest (1968) and The Old English Peepshow (1969). Dickinson was shortlisted nine times for the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and was the first author to win it twice.
Dickinson served as chairman of the Society of Authors and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2009 for services to literature. Peter Dickinson died on December 16, 2015, at the age of eighty-eight.
Peter Dickinson was born in Africa but raised and educated in England. From 1952 to 1969 he was on the editorial staff of Punch, and since then has earned his living writing fiction of various kinds for children and adults. His books have been published in several languages throughout the world.
The recipient of many awards, Dickinson has been shortlisted nine times for the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and was the first author to win it twice. The author of twenty-one crime and mystery novels for adults, Dickinson was also the first to win the Gold Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association for two books running: The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (1968) and The Old English Peepshow (1969).
A collection of Dickinson’s poetry, The Weir, was published in 2007. His latest book, In the Palace of the Khans, was published in 2012 and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal.
Dickinson has served as chairman of the Society of Authors and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2009 for services to literature.
Read an Excerpt
The Lively Dead
A Crime Novel
By Peter Dickinson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Peter Dickinson
All rights reserved.
Bending to adjust the claw of her crowbar against a joist, Lydia saw the man's feet. The Building Inspector from the Borough Council, she thought, come about that beam and high time too. She didn't turn round because it amuses most men to see a woman struggling with a man's work, and consequently it amused Lydia to startle them. She heaved firmly on the crowbar and relished the mandrake-screech as the nails came up that vital first quarter-inch.
Then she worked along the board, using the crowbar in her right hand and the claw-hammer in her left. It came out more cleanly than some. If it wasn't infected she could use it again. She flipped it over on its back above the cavity and worked along it with the hammer, banging the nails half-way out so that she could turn it over once more and claw them free. A male workman would have let them fall into the cavity, but Lydia collected them in an old coffee-tin, not because they were any use but because she didn't like the idea of bent and rusty nails littered below her floor. When at last she looked up, pretending to notice him for the first time, she found it was not a bloke from the Council but a gentleman from the Government—little Mr Obb, currently Minister of Maritime Affairs, waiting there dapper and sad.
"I interrupt, I fear," he said.
"I'm in a bit of a hurry," said Lydia. "If I don't get the floor back down before I fetch Dickie he'll insist on exploring the whole cavity, and get stuck probably and filthy certainly. I don't really mind him getting dirty, except that it's not too easy to clean him up again at the moment."
Mr Obb smiled, but even that was sad. He was a small, freckled, shiny old man with very pale eyes. The dust and the dank odour from the cavity and the dreary light from the bare bulb seemed like a stage atmosphere, created to enhance his central melancholy. Bloody hell, thought Lydia. He wants me to do something.
"It is not nice to be stuck under floors," he said. "I have hidden for five weeks in much such a place, under a cabin in the woods. The ground was marshy so that my clothes rotted off my limbs. Only I did not rot."
"Is something the matter, Mr Obb?"
"Yes, yes. The duplicator will not function."
As Lydia rose from her knees echoes of that first "bloody hell" diminished down the tunnels of her resentment. But it probably wouldn't take ten minutes, and it might be useful to see what sort of a mess the Government were making of their rooms since Mrs Newbury had died.
"OK, I'll see what I can do," she said, beginning to peel off the rubber gloves and kick off her wellingtons at the same time.
"Have I behaved carelessly, coming down here in ordinary clothes?" asked Mr Obb.
"It's all right," said Lydia, slipping her feet into her Scholl sandals. "There's a lot of mumbojumbo about dry rot—the spores are all over the place anyway, so it doesn't make much difference if you spread a few more around. What matters is leaving infected timber about. I wear these things to keep myself in decent nick. Shall I go first?"
The Government occupied the top two floors of the five-storey house in Devon Crescent, W.11, of which Lydia was the landlord. They had their own brass plate and bell at the front door, and again at the inner door at the bottom of the flight up to the fourth floor. By the time they reached this point Mr Obb was gasping with the climb, so that Lydia knew that despite her hurry she'd have to stop and let him rest. Poor old boy, she thought; he'd already been something in the Livonian Government when the Russians had taken over the Baltic States in 1940; say he'd been fortyish then, he must be well over seventy now. But even a septuagenarian male face has to be saved, if possible. She nodded towards Mrs Newbury's door, on the right of the landing.
"Have you found a new cleaner yet?" she asked. "You'll miss Mrs N."
"We are interviewing candidates," said Mr Obb, a little distantly, as if wishing to imply that the engagement of a charlady was an Internal and not a Maritime Affair.
"It won't be the same, I'm afraid," said Lydia. "She was very fond of you."
"A good servant. To such people one has obligations."
Again, despite the panting, Lydia heard a tone of mild reproof, as if Mr Obb didn't admit the relationship of "fondness" between master and servant. Silly old driveller, she thought, but her impatience with him was suddenly exorcised by his sweet smile.
"We have made all arrangements for the funeral," he said.
"Yes, I know. It's very kind of you."
"It will be in the Liv fashion. The coffin comes here to-day, at noon."
"Back here!" Lydia claimed to be squeamish not about death itself but about the trappings and fuss of burial.
"That is our fashion. I understand that she had no kin except this daughter who is in prison, so it is for us to sit and watch with the body while the Long Candle burns and the soul goes to God. Then to-morrow is the burial. You will attend?"
Lydia shrugged. It was the last thing she wished to do, but she was grateful to the old man for taking all this on. Almost her first thought when she was coming out of the shock of Mrs Newbury's death had been that she'd have to find the cash to give her even a half-decent funeral, such as she'd longed for, and that would mean cutting down on the plasterer's wages and doing some of the plastering herself, which would have been infuriating as Lydia knew she couldn't do it up to professional standards. And then Mr Obb had taken over. So she could hardly refuse to attend the dreary ceremony.
"Of course I'll come," she said. "And I'll ring up the prison and see if they'll let the daughter out."
"Excellent," said Mr Obb after a slight pause. "I understand she is very beautiful."
Panting no longer he fished a key out of his waistcoat, opened the door and led the way up.
Lydia had never discovered whether all Livonians were mechanical morons, or whether it was just a coincidence that the members of the Government were. Their Gestetner was a servant almost as old as Mrs Newbury and no less faithful, but they treated it without respect. One small error and they panicked, twiddling knobs at random and when that failed applying extra ink to the rollers. The gaunt, grey widows who did their typing would not go near the machine. Lydia, soon after she had bought the house, had come in on one of these scenes of grimy desperation and had sorted things out for them. Since then they had tended to come down about once a month to ask for help.
This time heaps of crumpled paper lay around, streaked with great black lines round the edges. General Busch was standing by the window, tense as a weightlifter, as though making up his mind to throw up the sash and leap to oblivion. Count Linden was kneeling amid the mess, apparently praying. Lydia cleaned up the roller, reset the spacers and eased the stencil smooth. As she adjusted the pile of paper in the rack she saw what was wrong.
"This isn't duplicating paper," she said. "You can't use this."
Mr Obb translated. General Busch swung round from the window with his great slab of a face frowning and his pale eyes glaring at Lydia. He spoke in Livonian.
"The Prime Minister insists that we use that paper," said Mr Obb. "It is high quality paper, for respect. Aakisen is dead."
"Dead!" said Lydia.
"The President of the Livonian Republic is dead," said Mr Obb. "It will be in your newspapers to-morrow, if you can make the duplicator function. The Muscovites have never admitted that they captured him, but we knew. And now further news has reached us. He died two months ago at a camp in Sredne Vilyuysk in Siberia. Only now can we announce this horrible murder to the world. But we must use dignified paper."
"I'm sorry," said Lydia.
She thought of Mrs Newbury and her horror of a pauper's funeral. She thought of these old men, hearing that their national hero, their Churchill-figure, was dead at last, but still finding time and reserves of decency to see that their servant was buried with respect.
"OK," she said, sighing. "I'll see what I can do."
Each sheet needed to be fed individually into the machine. The ink supply had to be exactly right, because the paper was barely absorbent. For the same reason each sheet had to be separately lifted clear and draped somewhere to dry. At first Lydia wasted two sheets in three, but two hours later she had got the ration down to one in three, and then the job was done. She was dead beat, far more than if she had spent the morning heaving up floor-boards.
"We are truly grateful," said Mr Obb, shirt-sleeved and streaked with ink, but smiling still.
"Varotnisho!" shouted General Busch.
Count Linden, lean and wispy and grey as a mouse's belly, hobbled next door and came back with a heavy decanter and four small tumbler-shaped glasses. The liquid was paler than cider. Lydia sniffed her tot with curiosity and caution, and found it smelt like a milder version of the solvent used in her dry-rot fungicide.
"Aakisen!" snapped General Busch, making the name sound like a snuff-taker's sneeze.
"Aakisen," said the other three, Lydia a little late. The men downed their tots at a gulp.
Lydia sipped. As her eyes unblurred she saw swimmingly before her the last sheet she had printed.
AAKU AAKISEN DEAD
President of Livonia, Hero and Patriot, dies in secret Siberian Labour Camp.
After seventy-six years of fighting and suffering for his country, the great Aaku Aakisen is dead at last. The hero who, from his marshy hide-out among the Baltic lakes, for nine years defied the might of Stalin's armies, and who since 1955 ...
Lydia didn't want to know any of that. It was over. She sipped again at her glass and found that she relished the stuff, fiery but smooth, with a strange, clean, piny flavour.
"I'm afraid I can't drink it at a gulp like you do," she said.
"Good, good," said Count Linden. "That is for men and peasant-women. A lady takes only little sips. I regret that we have no smaller glass."
Hell, thought Lydia, watching the little grey creep serve out another whack to the men, next time I'll get it down in one, and I bloody well won't choke either.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Vodka," said Mr Obb.
"But I thought ..."
"Muscovite vodka is a liquid designed to make swine drunk without effort," explained Count Linden. "This is the vodka of the Livs. Varosh, we call it. It is distilled like vodka, but flavoured with hazel nuts and pine cones and some herbs. Of course ..."
"Leh dillidyat immish!" snarled General Busch, raising his glass.
"Lady Lydia Timms," echoed Mr Obb and Count Linden.
Lydia's own glass was half-way to her mouth before she grasped what they'd said. She felt the tide of blushing race up her neck and encrimson her face. The General, smacking his fat grey lips over his empty glass, bellowed with laughter.
Lydia sipped quickly at her drink to hide her shame and fury, gulped and spluttered but managed to control the explosion without doing the nose-trick.
"We are truly most grateful," she heard Mr Obb saying. "Now we will come and assist you with your flooring."
"No, no!" she gasped, thinking of these old men heaving at crowbars, smashing the boards into unusable splinters, falling between joists and breaking ankles. "It's quite all right. I ..."
A bell rang.
"The bottom door," said Count Linden.
Lydia slipped round the Gestetner and was at the door before any of them had moved.
"I'm going down anyway," she said, brisk as a March wind. "I'll let them in. If it's anything I can't cope with I'll ring your bell three times. OK? Thank you very much for the varosh."
Escape from them made her feel remarkably happy. Or was it the booze? Or some gland switching itself on at random? The wooden soles of her sandals made a lively tap-dance on the stairs. Mrs Pumice's baby was awake and starting to whimper. That's what, thought Lydia, when I've finished with this dreary fungus I'll have another baby. Right. That's settled. She was humming Pin-Ball Wizard by the time she opened the door.
The man on the doorstep was dressed all in black.
"At least somebody's happy," he said, and before she could answer turned and waved like a butler summoning a train of footmen.
Four other men appeared round the privet hedge, carrying a coffin on their shoulders.
"Know where she goes, Miss?" said the first man. "I was expecting one of them old gents."
"That's all right," said Lydia. "I know where they want it."
Going back up the stairs at the pace of the mourners her sandals sounded like drum-taps.
Mrs Newbury's room had been shifted round. The bed was against one wall, leaving space in the middle for a trestle table draped with the pink and gold flag of the Livonian Republic. The dressing-table which had once been covered with a hundred hideous knickknacks was now something like an altar. One enormous coloured candle stood on the floor by the trestle.
"Hello," said the undertaker. "Full military honours! OK, lads, table seems firm. Down. To you a bit, Dave. Fine. Tell the old gents I'll be on the doorstep to-morrow morning, ten o'clock sharp. Ta ta. We can let ourselves out."
"I'm coming down, as a matter of fact," said Lydia. Some of her suppressed shock and disgust must have crept into her voice and come out as aristocratic chill, because the undertaker's demeanour became noticeably servile as they trooped downstairs. Lydia liked this even less than his previous slightly camp parody of grief, but knew that any attempt to sort out the brief relationship would end in mess.
Down in the basement she fitted the planks back over the cavity and tapped a couple of nails into any that were short enough for Dickie to scrabble up. Then she felt she might as well have lunch, so she went into the front room, which at the moment was the Timms's bedroom, nursery, living-room, kitchen, workshop and study, and boiled herself a couple of eggs. She had picked up the local Trotskyite rag, Get Notted, on her way back from taking Dickie to school, so she was able to perch by the window and dip fingers of brown toast into the egg-yolk while she read a series of flailing attacks on the police, the courts, the Borough Council and the private landlords. There was a writer called Tony Bland who seemed to have a particular gift for the plausible but destructive detail. Food and fervour combined to cheer her spirits, overlaying the gloom of the wasted morning and the coming of the coffin and General Busch's boorish gallantry.
After lunch she rang the prison and pecked away for half an hour at the bleak shell of authority, trying to find a cranny through which she could send her message about the funeral to the human core within. Then there was still an hour before it would be time to fetch Dickie, not enough to do the floor-cavity; nor was there any point in starting on any of the minor jobs in the back room until she'd got the big beam out and seen how far the rot had spread. It would be madness to start mucking around in Dickie's bedroom or here, dismally decayed though both rooms were. Lydia roamed round, stared for a minute at the bedraggled back garden, where the unpruned rose-bed, fuzzy with dead willow-herb, spread itself in gawky gestures. She hated gardening. OK, she thought, I'll go out.
She washed her face in the egg-water, brushed the dust and cobwebs out of her straight, coarse, blue-black hair, dug her sheepskin coat out of one of the polythene sacks in which all their clothes were stored at the moment, and let herself out of the basement door.
The spy was standing on the doorstep, sheltering from the faint February drizzle which had begun during lunch. Lydia caught him by surprise, and he her, so neither of them had a story ready. Lydia tended to be sorry for the spies who sometimes hung about Devon Crescent to watch the Government's futile comings and goings; it didn't matter whether they came from Our Side or Their Side; to her they were simply victims of authority, detailed to come and waste a stretch of their own lives.
However a protocol had been established. Richard Timms had begun it, pointing out that if you spoke to a spy as though you had detected his trade he had to report it, and might get punished; the polite thing was to behave and talk as though he had a perfect right to be hanging about, and was engaged on some other business than spying. As some of the spies were probably not spies anyway, this system was doubly good sense.
Lydia's own fictional gift was weak, unlike her husband's, so she preferred to think out a charade beforehand if she knew she was going to meet one of the men. So now she simply looked at him, stammering. He raised his shabby hat. The memory of the horrid rose-bed inspired her.
"Oh," she said, "are you the bloke who was going to come and see about doing the garden for a bit?"
"Uh," said the man. The grunt sounded almost affirmative.
Lydia glimpsed a vista of tidy organisation, the rose-bed dug out, the leaves swept up, Mrs Schelling's endless complaints about her back avoided, the spy himself provided with an acceptable mask—but she drew back from the brink. She liked to think things through before she took action.
Excerpted from The Lively Dead by Peter Dickinson. Copyright © 1975 Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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