The murder of a college professor has its roots in the Cold War: the new Oxford Dogwalkers mystery from award-winning YA writer Annie Dalton.
Shortly before Christmas, Professor James Lowell is found brutally attacked in his rooms at Walsingham College, where Anna Hopkins works as an administrator. Baffled as to why anyone would wish to harm such a gentle, scholarly man, Anna discovers that Lowell had a connection with her fellow dogwalker, Isadora Salzman, who knew him as an undergraduate in the 1960s, a co-member of the so-called Oxford Six. It turns out that Isadora has been keeping a surprising secret all these years. But someone else knows about Isadora’s secret: someone who has sent her a threatening, frightening letter.
Could the attack on Professor Lowell have its roots in a 50-year-old murder? And who is targeting Isadora and the surviving members of the Oxford Six? Anna, Isadora and Tansy, the dogwalking detectives, make it their business to find out.
About the Author
Annie Dalton is the author of more than thirty novels for children and young adults, including the Agent Angel series. She has twice been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. She lives in Norfolk in a cottage with a ruined castle at the bottom of her garden, with her three cats and a dog called Riley.
Read an Excerpt
Written in Red
An Oxford Dogwalkers' Mystery
By Annie Dalton
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton
All rights reserved.
It was a few minutes after eight on a bright frosty morning and Anna Hopkins was walking her dog on Port Meadow. She was dressed in her old parka, jeans, muddy boots and a knitted scarf with a repeat motif of Jack Russell terriers. It had been given to her by her friend Tansy 'as a ridiculously small thank you for letting me stay at your place till I sort myself out!' All the terriers were bright pink, except for one tiny black Jack Russell that faced stubbornly in the opposite direction. Tansy had watched anxiously as Anna unwrapped her gift from its layers of tissue. 'It's meant to be a joke?' she'd explained. 'Because of us being the dog walking detectives? Don't feel you have to wear it. I know you're more of a monochrome girl.'
It's true that Anna had once seen herself as monochrome. Her palette of caramels and charcoals had seemed like the safer choice; the same with living alone. For sixteen years, just surviving had used up so much energy. There'd been little left for engaging with the outside world.
And then she'd risked a change, such a small unthreatening change, or so she'd told herself. She'd adopted Bonnie, a White Shepherd who carried the hidden scars of her own traumatic past. And in a matter of weeks Anna's monochrome life had transformed into chaotic full-spectrum colour. Terrible and wonderful things had happened. And now here she was, wrapped warmly in a shocking pink scarf, her honey-coloured hair tucked under her grey slouchy beanie, boots crunching on frost, breath smoking in the midwinter cold, as Bonnie ran around her in joyous circles.
Port Meadow was an easy walk from Anna's home in Park Town, a space where she could let Bonnie run off her excess energy; and so Anna had recently resumed their walks here. She wondered whether she would ever be able to see a young woman out jogging without feeling her heart leap in the irrational hope that it was Naomi running towards her, glowing and alive.
Someone was coming towards Anna, in fact, but she wasn't glowing so much as puffing with effort. Dressed in a shapeless coat and leggings, a young woman was toiling over the uneven ground behind an enormous off-road buggy. The faint wails from inside the buggy grew louder. Drawing level with Anna, she stopped in her tracks. She threw Anna a despairing look. 'You wouldn't like to swap your beautiful dog for my baby, would you? You might have more luck getting him to sleep.' She jiggled the buggy back and forth on the frosty grass.
An intensely private person, Anna had been unprepared for the startling intimacies she elicited from complete strangers when she started walking Bonnie. Tansy said it was the same when she'd been minding her friends' poodle, Buster. But Tansy wouldn't see this new mother as an intrusion, Anna thought. She'd see a sleep-deprived young woman longing for contact with another adult, any adult, and so Anna reluctantly stepped up. 'I'm sure you're doing a much better job than you think,' she managed.
The woman threw her a grateful look. 'God, I really hope so,' she said fervently. 'If I'd had any idea how hard this would be, I never would have dared.' She had to raise her voice as the yells from the buggy increased in volume. 'My husband's away on business and last night I broke all the baby book rules and took Louis into bed with me.'
'Did it work?' Anna asked.
The woman shot her an exhausted grin. 'For two and a half hours. Suppose it's got to get better at some point?'
'I'm sure it will,' Anna said, striving to be upbeat.
'Oh, well, I'd better get back. Enjoy your walk.' The woman set off trudging behind her buggy, watched warily by Bonnie. The White Shepherd had come to sit at Anna's feet as soon as she saw the woman approach. This worrying new behaviour, dated from the night when intruders had broken into her flat with the intention of adding her to their list of undiscovered homicides; a list that included Naomi Evans. Trying to save Anna's life, Bonnie had almost died herself.
'We're probably more likely to win the lottery than run into another psychopath,' Anna told her dog as they continued on their way. 'We were just really unlucky. I think we should view that as our lifetime's quota and move on, sweetie.'
Bonnie appeared to give her suggestion serious thought, gazing up at Anna with the luminous intelligence that made her resemble a white wolf out of a fairy tale. 'Come on, lazybones,' Anna told her. 'You're here to let off steam! So go, go, go!'
Bonnie didn't need telling twice. She shot away at top speed, looping back to Anna, before zooming away again like an exuberant puppy. She couldn't move quite as fluidly as she had before her injuries, but she certainly wasn't letting it slow her down.
There were other dog walkers dotted over the wide open space. Her grandfather would love this scene, Anna thought. A talented artist, who'd only discovered his gift late in life, he'd know how to render the hats and scarves in streaks and blobs of pigment, the sooty shapes of rooks circling and tumbling overhead, the colours of the different dogs against the sparkling frost.
Anna was getting to know some of the other dog walkers by sight. There was the strident woman who treated the meadow like her personal boot camp for her misbehaving Border collies; the slow-moving man in the tweed cap with his elderly liver-and-white spaniel. One day Anna had heard him coax, 'Come on, old girl, just a bit further then you can go home and snooze.' And she'd realized that he had been tenderly adapting his pace to his valiant little spaniel's so as not to tax her joints.
She was oddly fond of the spaniel man, even though they'd never spoken. Other people Anna had disliked on sight, like the forty-something woman who was always raging tearfully at someone on her phone (an ex, Anna had decided, or a soon-to-be ex), as her West Highland terrier pattered stoically beside her. Seeing her now, Anna swerved discreetly in the opposite direction. She spotted another Port Meadow regular in the distance: a stocky young man walking a cream-coloured Staffordshire bull terrier on a short lead. The first time Anna had encountered him on the path he'd quickly stepped aside with his dog to let Anna and Bonnie pass. She'd thanked him and he had stopped, shy but friendly, to make the usual jokes about Bonnie, asking if she wasn't really a wolf.
'I'd love to let Blossom off for a run,' he'd said wistfully. 'But when you're out with a Staffie you can't afford any misunderstandings.' He'd gone on to relate Blossom's short but painful history so far as he and the vet had been able to piece it together. Apparently kept for breeding purposes at what must have been a particularly hellish puppy farm, she'd been found dumped, heavily pregnant and in need of medical attention, by the side of the motorway.
Every rescue dog came with a story, Anna thought now as she returned the young man's friendly wave, and some of those stories really made her loathe her fellow humans. She decided it was time to go home. Today was also Tansy's day off, and Anna had left her weighing out ingredients for a batch of muffins. 'Experimental Christmas muffins,' she'd confided.
Like Anna's, Tansy's life had recently changed for the better. She'd ditched her waitressing job at the vegan cafe, found a job she loved at a friend's art gallery and, after years of dating 'losers and abusers', in Tansy's words, had become romantically involved with the young police sergeant they'd met during the investigation into Naomi's murder. 'I'm not counting chickens,' she'd told Anna. 'Liam's so sweet and normal. I've never done sweet and normal before. How do I know that something won't suddenly trip my switch and turn me back into Mad Maxine McVeigh, the gangster's daughter?'
Anna had been faintly puzzled by those chickens; Tansy was always coming out with these funny little proverbs. But she'd just said soberly, 'You don't know.' She understood Tansy's fears too well to wave them away. That's why her inbox was filling up with unanswered emails from Tim Freemantle.
Tim belonged to Anna's old life, her lost life; the life in which her parents, her two brothers and her little sister were still alive. But now, for the first time since her teens, Anna felt she had a future. She couldn't risk getting sucked back into that nightmarish black hole where she'd existed for so long.
After she and Jake had come back from their trip to the Lake District and he'd driven off to Heathrow, she'd done some soul-searching, forcing herself to acknowledge that she'd probably never know what happened that terrible summer's night. If she was going to move forward, she was going to have to accept that. Harder still, she was going to have to act on it.
And so that's what she'd done. She'd stopped her obsessive online searches. She'd stopped trying to track down Max, her long-ago teenage boyfriend. She'd cancelled every single Google alert relating to the Hopkins family murders. It felt as if she was being torn into a million panicky pieces, but she did it. It was true that she still occasionally found herself in her study, her hand hovering over the drawer where she kept the key to her antique armoire but so far she'd managed to leave the key untouched.
As with any recovering addict there were nights when Anna woke up sweating, in the grip of her old compulsions. But then she'd raise herself up on her elbow and see Bonnie asleep in her basket and her own breathing would deepen and slow and she'd remember that what she had before was not a real life but just a recurring bad dream. That's why she refused to let herself read Tim's emails, or anything else that might feed her obsession with the past.
Anna was halfway home when her phone started buzzing in her pocket. She saw the caller ID and her heart lifted. 'Jake? Where are you? Any idea when you'll be back in the UK?'
'Real soon, I hope,' he said. 'Just got some last-minute meetings lined up.'
'Don't leave it too long to book a flight,' she reminded him.
'Why, are you missing me a little?' Jake's warm southern accent still made Anna go a little weak at the knees.
'Fat chance!' she said, with a laugh. 'I have an extremely extrovert flatmate now, remember?'
'It must be quite cool though, having her stay with you for a while?' Jake said. Tansy and occasionally Liam, Anna thought but didn't say.
Instead she said, 'You know Nick and Leo decided to come back early? They missed their dog! I never would have understood that before I had Bonnie. Not that Buster in any way compares with Bonnie, obviously!'
'Buster always struck me as kind of light on personality,' Jake agreed. 'Must have been a surprise for Tansy though, when they just rocked up out of the blue.'
'It was. She thought she still had months to find somewhere to live.'
'How's it working out, anyway, sharing your space?'
'We just survived our first quarrel,' Anna told him.
'Seriously? You guys quarrelled?'
'I might be exaggerating very slightly,' she said. 'We just found out that we have incompatible ideas on Christmas tree decoration. Luckily, Isadora turned up before things got too tense and we let her have the final say on what went where.'
Anna's friendship with Tansy and Isadora had quickly become such a major part of her life, it was hard to remember they'd only known each other slightly less than three months. One sunny September morning, Anna, Tansy and Isadora had been separately walking their dogs on Port Meadow, when Anna's White Shepherd suddenly took off across the spongy wet ground, still attached to her lead. With Anna grimly hanging on, Bonnie had half dragged her over to some bushes. Sensing that something was wrong, Isadora and Tansy had hurried to Anna's aid and found her staring down at the blood-soaked body of Naomi Evans. For reasons Anna still didn't fully understand, the harrowing circumstances of their first meeting had become the basis of a firm friendship between these three very different women.
'Isn't Isadora Jewish?' Jake was still pondering Anna's remarks about the Christmas tree.
'She is. She also has an alarmingly random approach to hanging up baubles. Tansy and I practically had to sit on our hands until she went home and we could rearrange them all again!'
'And how's our Bonnie?' Jake said. 'Is she behaving herself? She hasn't started digging up the next door neighbours' gardens?'
He was referring to Bonnie's behaviour on the shore at Ullswater, something which Anna and Jake had witnessed with mixed amazement and relief. Since the night of the break-in, Bonnie had lost confidence; but Anna hadn't realized how badly until they set off to drive to the Lake District. A few miles outside Oxford, Bonnie had begun panting and salivating, obviously distressed at being away from familiar surroundings. In her short life Bonnie had survived all manner of dangers, but it seemed that being savagely attacked in her own home had traumatized her. Jake and Anna had agreed that they'd abandon their plans and take her home the next day if this upsetting behaviour continued once they reached the Lakes.
By the time they'd arrived at Ullswater, Bonnie's chest and belly, together with the fleece blanket she was sitting on, were saturated with drool and Anna's nerves were shredded. This was not how she'd imagined the start of their holiday. Trying to lighten the mood, Jake had suggested they took Bonnie down to the lakeside to stretch their legs before they checked into their hotel.
The instant Bonnie felt loose shingle slipping and sliding under her paws, she became a different dog, racing around them in circles, then for no obvious reason she stopped dead, let out a single ringing 'wuff!' and began to dig with such ferocious energy that Anna and Jake were sprayed with a shower of tiny stinging stones. If they hadn't forcibly removed her she'd probably still be there, frantically digging in a crater of her own making. But some inner transformation had occurred on that stretch of shingle, because when they'd returned to the car, Bonnie had jumped calmly into the back apparently without a second thought.
'No,' said Anna, wondering if Jake could hear the smile in her voice. 'She hasn't tried to dig up anyone's garden. I think digging is Bonnie's special holiday thing.'
'The digging cure,' Jake said in a musing tone. 'Shame there's no way to market it.'
'Shame it only works for dogs,' Anna added a little wistfully.
'Hush,' Jake told her. 'Like my aunt Mimi used to say, "We're all works in progress."'
When Anna adopted Bonnie, she'd only been told that she'd belonged to an old lady who had died. Now she knew that this lady had been Jake's Aunt Mimi who had been minding Bonnie for her adopted nephew, Jake McCaffrey, a former US Navy SEAL. Jake had found Bonnie in Afghanistan, where she'd been injured in a roadside blast. At that time she was little more than a gangly puppy. He'd tended to her wounds and named her after the first dog he'd ever loved. He'd also taught her excellent canine manners, plus one or two party tricks, like how to open a refrigerator and fetch him a beer. When he'd received a posting to the Philippines, Jake had sent Bonnie to live with his recently widowed Aunt Mimi in Oxford until he could give her a settled home. But Mimi had unexpectedly died and so the White Shepherd had been sent to a rescue shelter. The first time Jake met Anna he'd explained that he had no intention of subjecting Bonnie to yet more upheaval and distress by taking her back; he was just happy to know she'd found such a good home.
Before Anna met Jake, the very thought of love – the terrifying risks involved in loving or being loved – would have made her run a mile. But through Bonnie, she and Jake had immediately found common ground. They loved the same dog, a dog who adored them in return. On that basis they'd quickly grown to be good friends. Yet despite their mutual attraction neither of them had tried to take things a stage further.
'You don't think you and Jake have got stuck in the Friends' Zone,' Tansy had suggested when Anna confided in her. 'Like, you've might have missed your window?' Though she was only her early twenties, Tansy had appointed herself as Anna's more worldly wise agony aunt.
'What happens if you miss your window?' The thought that her flatmate's explanation held more than a grain of truth was depressing.
Excerpted from Written in Red by Annie Dalton. Copyright © 2016 Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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
Anazing characters! I want to be in this circle of ftiends.....and Bonnie....she is the second most amazing shepherd after my own! Cannot wait for the next book in this series.
I eagerly awaited the second book in this series - and was not disappointed. I loved it. I love that we are getting to know more about all the characters in the book. And that the relationships/friendships are getting stronger. And, of course, I love Bonnie!!! (The dog.) Now I have to wait for book 3.
Written in Red is one of those books that after reading once, you know that you will come back to it time and again. It is difficult to know what is most appealing about this exquisite mystery. The central characters, Anna, Isadora, Tansy and Jake as well as Bonnie (Anna's white shepherd) and Hero (Isadora's unusual mutt) are amazingly detailed, and it is clear how the events of The White Shepherd have had an affect on their lives. The story is complex and compelling. A small number of Oxford alums, including Isadora, have been sent poison pen letters. One by one, the members of the so-called Oxford Six are attacked. The letters indicate a link between the attacks and a murder from 50 years before. Cold War espionage plays a major role in this incredible mystery. Then, there are the dogs. Bonnie is so wonderful. Not only is she devote to Anna and Jake, she is perceptive and quick to defend Anna. Several times in the novel, she is jokingly compared to Lassie. Personally I think Bonnie is far more amazing. Hero is a distinctive character with her unusual glassy stare and strange heritage. I loved how she was described as possibly being half-goblin, half-dog. When you read Written in Red, you feel that the characters are real human beings who change and develop based on the challenges they face. The events are not only plausible, they are tangible. I absolutely loved The White Shepherd, Annie Dalton's first Oxford dog walker mystery, and I can easily say the same for Written in Red. If you love dogs and mysteries, Written in Red should have a place of honor on your bookshelf. 5/5 I received a copy of Written in Red from the publisher and Netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review. --Crittermom