‘A country murder? In a big old mansion, plenty of house-guests and servants? Better set it before the War, then. How many bodies? Four? Five? Have you the odd family ghost you could throw in for good measure?’
Julia mentally heaved a sigh of relief. The ‘talk over tea’ was progressing better than she had expected, with her editor lapping up the storyline she had cobbled together at the last minute. She had set it in her aunt’s house on an impulse, reasoning to herself that she would at least have an excuse to retreat there, on the pretext of research and peace and quiet. She found she had an increasing desire to return, in fact. The mild excitement of earning enough to live on the edge of a crowded metropolis was beginning to pall; the traffic and endless round of theatres and clubs held little attraction for her after all, whereas one more cocktail party with the effete and affected of the literary elite might result in her committing violence.
As if reading her mind, Mr Williams leaned forward confidentially to say: ‘Do you remember that last do at Ashton’s? Miss Vane was there too.’
‘Yes, I do remember.’ Julia had found Harriet Vane somewhat intimidating. As for that beau of hers, thrashing out articles on free love and anarchy – yet always with his hair brilliantined in a singularly unappealing fashion. Somehow brilliantine and speeches on a new world order did not quite go together, at least not for Julia.
‘Well, she’s written an essay, lamenting the dearth of good crime fiction, and suggests the crime novelists get together to form a club of sorts; she intends to start a magazine or such-like. Ashton is right behind her, they’ve managed to rope old Chesterton in, and Ashton was wondering if you might be able to contribute?’ Ashton was Chief Editor at Petrel Books and held frequent gatherings at his home in Kensington for writers and editors alike. His influence was such that one did not refuse his requests lightly.
‘Sounds perfectly terrifying. What do they want from me? Not another essay, I hope.’
‘I think it might be more interesting than that – why don’t I arrange a get-together, see what is in the air, so to speak? It’s quite true, after all – hardly a soul out there to write mysteries – even Mrs Christie’s Big Four only received very mixed reviews … so it’s up to us to make a difference, eh?’
Julia did her best to respond with conviction and enthusiasm. She managed to divert the conversation:’ And what of Miss Vane’s latest?’
‘Haven’t read it. Haven’t even heard much about it – which makes me wonder whether she might not be taking refuge in this magazine idea. We all know what the Muse does to writers at times, don’t we?’ Julia felt a quiet pinching at the stomach, a reminder of her own fallibility. Had he in fact swallowed whole her excuse for a plot? She tried not to think about that.
I can at least say you are interested in knowing more?’ Williams looked almost pleadingly at her. Julia dutifully undertook to write something and made her exit gratefully. If only she could escape London now with equal ease.
She was about to cross the street when she felt a friendly pat on her shoulder; somebody in the same sort of anonymous cloche hat and long straight coat as she was wearing.
‘Hello, May,’ she said, still in chirpy frame of mind from her meeting. ‘They’ve let you out for half an hour, then?’
May chuckled. ‘Oh it’s not that bad. Listen, why don’t we catch up - are you free for tea at Lyons’?’
The teahouse was a little full, but they managed to squeeze in between the crowded, clinking, murmuring tables, and caught up with each other’s news while they waited to be served. May was sympathetic about the editor’s meeting, even if she had little experience of the process. She was a dispenser and avid reader of crime fiction. Julia often had recourse to her when a visit to the Poison Section in the Library proved too far.
‘So, are you brimming with ideas?’
‘In a sort of a way, I think I am. But it’s not awfully clear yet – I need more material. Sounds dull, I know. But I have been feeling a trifle dull recently.’
‘You are looking a trifle peaky – sounds to me like going to the country would do you good.’
Tea arrived and talk turned to reminiscence: ‘Do you remember that business about Mrs Clyssum’s necklace? I was just reminded of it the other day at Gracie’s; she had one just like it, very convincing. Why did she do it, really?’
‘Panic. She’d pawned the originals, remember.’
‘I do. but even so… poor thing. Still, it was fun, working it out, and I am glad we stopped the maid losing her job.’
‘That must have been the first time we actually put our heads together. Wonder what they’ve got up to since then …’
They had met at a house party, where a case of petty pilfering within the household had caused them to apply their wits – successfully, as it turned out – and they had become close friends. When not engaged in deciphering motive and means, they often exchanged occasionally biting comments on the latest detective novel.
‘What have you been reading lately?’ Julia asked. May pulled a wry face and rummaged in her bag, producing a slim volume depicting on its cover a man peering out from under the lid of a wooden crate or box, with another man’s shadow falling across it. Emblazoned across the top half of the cover was the title ‘The Red House Mystery.’
‘I read it ages ago. Think I enjoyed it more the first time round. Wish you’d hurry up and get your next one finished; I’m running out of favourite authors.’
‘We were just talking about that; apparently Miss Vane considers it a distinctly uninspiring time for crime fiction in general.’
‘I’m not surprised. Even Mrs Christie’s last one fell a bit flat.’
‘Yes, my editor mentioned her too. I wonder if there is some contagious detective’ flu going around, which reduces the creative flow to pulp. I certainly think I have been infected.’
‘That doesn’t sound like you. Definitely in need of a change of scene, I should say. We both could do with something to wake us up a bit. Wish we had another mystery of our own to work out, like the Clyssums business.’
Julia looked at her. ‘So do I. Easier than writing the wretched things. We could set up an agency: Warren and Downe - Domestic Panic and Hysteria our speciality.’
‘Yes – likewise, Purloined Pearls and Pawnbrokers.’
‘Purses and Pusillanimity.’
‘Peripatetic Parrots and Peevish Pomeraniels.’
The flow of irreverent banter was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the waitress with laden tray.
They both tried to pick up where they had left off, but somehow today their usual flow of conversation slowed to a halt. Julia briefly allowed herself to be swamped by the voices from the surrounding tables instead – and soon wished she hadn’t:
‘I thought those emeralds were paste, I still do. As for her taste in art ...’
‘More Art Nasty than Art Nouveau! Mind you, I suspect they would be worth something at auction…’
‘Did you read about her niece in the Tatler? Hardly surprising though, the poor girl must have been only too glad to escape, even if it was with the son of a greengrocer.’
‘A very wealthy greengrocer. It’s all money, after all…’
Julia enjoyed May’s company, and gossip did often supply a lot of material. But, stuck in the middle of the crowded room with its jarring sounds and cheap chatter, she now felt the tawdriness of smoky, grimy London.
There were gladioli in Aunt Izzy’s garden, they would be coming into bloom soon: she could picture the late afternoon sun falling across them, turning them a soft apricot gold, and she wanted to be transported back to it at that moment, that very second. She was pulled back from her brief reverie by a squawk from May.
‘Look at the time! I must dash – now don’t forget, I want to know the minute you have decided who the villain is, and if there is poison involved … well, you know where I am !’
There was a hurried dispute over the bill, which Julia insisted on paying, then May scuttled off, leaving Julia on the pavement outside with promises of another get-together before long.
The brilliant blue sky prompted her to return home by tram. She climbed to the upper deck just so she could sit away from crowds and enjoy the trees lining the avenue. She craned her neck up and gazed at the leafy branches, and for a moment imagined herself back at home. Finally all those little scraps of dreams that had been hiding away all day returned tenfold to delight her, butterfly-like, with colours and warmth – the walks, the glades, the running hare and cheeky sparrow, the slow-witted blackbirds, sunning themselves in the middle of the lanes; all the whirling memories of the past crowded into her mind and she decided she had stayed away too long. What had seemed a pretext now became necessity. London was stifling her with its relentless gaiety, misery and recklessness.
A deep sleep that night restored her even further, to the point where she lifted the cover of her typewriter with actual enthusiasm, something she had not done in weeks.
She spent a good part of the day jotting down further ideas in her notebook. By the evening, she felt she had devised something more to her liking. A crime novel with a difference. Some mystery from the past, waiting centuries to be resolved. So long as there were plenty of dead bodies in the meantime – possibly even the odd family ghost thrown in for good measure, as her editor had suggested. There might be. There surely must be. Several hundred odd years of unbroken family history could hardly pass by without something being left behind: old letters folded up inside books, diaries hidden away in old writing desks. Aunt Izzy would know. She would write and ask. She hesitated, looking at her telephone. It might be quicker to call, but that depended on what Aunt Izzy happened to be doing at the time. A letter besides would allow pause for thought.
Julia picked up her pen.