Kate Ellis, author of the Wesley Peterson mysteries, had an interesting newsletter this week. It focused on Devon and textile mills, and her descriptions seemed to work perfectly with the Agatha Christie and English country house focus this week. Here’s what she had to say in her newsletter.
“As I live in the north of England I’m familiar with textile mills and their archaeology. I’m also fortunate enough to live near a large cotton mill lovingly restored by the National Trust and visiting the property has given me an insight into the noise and atmosphere of a working mill. I’ve watched the large water wheel go round and thought ‘what if a body was to get caught up in that?’ Many crime novels, I find, are triggered by the question ‘what if?’
“You might wonder what all this has to do with the beautiful county in the south west of England where my Wesley Peterson novels are set, but Devon also has an impressive industrial history. The cloth trade thrived there until the nineteenth century and the fine houses built by many wealthy cloth merchants can still be seen in the county’s historic towns. Woollen mills, however, eventually fell into decline although some survive today as heritage attractions (rather like Petherham Mill in The Burial Circle) – although without my fictional mill’s murderous history. I couldn’t resist including a supernatural element in the story because of the Victorian interest in spiritualism and contacting the ‘other side’. This fascination with death became quite an obsession and ostentatious mourning was made fashionable by Queen Victoria herself who spent many years grieving for her late husband, Prince Albert. In the nineteenth century people saw death as a constant companion and if you walk around any old churchyard (I love visiting historic churches) you will see elaborate memorials to the dear departed. One thing, however, we would definitely find macabre today is the fashion for photographing the dead, alone or posed with living relatives. Of course I was very tempted to include this in The Burial Circle (with an added twist of course) – and I can resist everything except temptation, as a great man once said!
“Queen Victoria’s reign saw the rise of the Burial Club. As a crime writer, the very name ‘Burial Club’ whetted my curiosity and my research told me that they were set up for poor families who feared they wouldn’t be able to give their loved ones a decent funeral at a time when death rates (particularly for children) were high. For a weekly payment the club covered funeral expenses, regardless of how long the person had been a member, relieving people of the fear of seeing their loved ones buried in a pauper’s grave. However, human nature being what it is, the system was sometimes abused. Knowing a sick child was unlikely to survive for long, some people enrolled them in several clubs at once, all of which would pay out with no questions asked. One man was said to have put his child in nineteen clubs, thus making a large profit when the unfortunate infant died. This gave rise to the suspicion that people were enrolled in clubs before being murdered. Perhaps my imaginary ‘secret’ burial circle in Petherham might not be so far fetched after all.”
It’s not always easy for The Poisoned Pen to get Kate Ellis’ books from England. Check the Web Store for availability. https://store.poisonedpen.com
Today’s post seems particularly appropriate to follow yesterday’s blog about the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Connie Berry is our guest author today. She’s the author of the two Kate Hamilton mysteries, A Dream of Death and A Legacy of Murder. They are both country house mysteries available through the Web Store. https://bit.ly/2w8VlGd You’ll also want to check the Web Store for the English country house mysteries that she lists. https://store.poisonedpen.com/
That’s exactly what she’s going to talk about today – English country house murders. Thank you, Connie.
AN ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE MURDER
by Connie Berry
One of the best things about these troubling days of social separation is more time to read, and what could provide a better escape from reality than an old-fashioned English country house murder mystery? An isolated setting; a limited number of guests (each with his or her own demons); a colorful cast of suspicious characters below stairs; a gentleman detective (often with a bumbling sidekick); a complex plot, usually involving the placement of bedrooms; and a body—what more could we ask for? Well, how about locked doors, hidden rooms, secret passages, and the ghosts of the past?
Generations of escape-fiction fans have turned to mysteries set in the great country houses of England. The first modern detective novel, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868), was set in a country house in Yorkshire.
Called the finest detective story ever written by Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, The Moonstone introduced a number of elements that have become classics of the genre—the private detective, a plethora of red herrings and false suspects, a reconstruction of the crime, and a final twist.
Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, was set in an English country house, and she went on to write at least ten more with similar settings.
Other classic mystery writers joined the party—Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, P. D. James, Georgette Heyer, Patricia Wentworth, Josephine Tey, Martha Grimes, and Elizabeth Peters, to name a few. Interest in the English country house setting was magnified by post-WW2 nostalgia. By 1955, one county house was demolished every five days in Britain, victims of death duties and the financial demands of a way of life no longer sustainable.
Here is a short list of my favorite country house mysteries—all readily available as e-books and audible recordings as well as traditional print versions:
The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christine
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
The Body In The Library by Agatha Christie
Clouds Of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers
Tied Up In Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Crime At Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird
Curious Affair Of The Third Dog by Patricia Moyes
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
A Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet
The Intrigue At Highbury by Carrie Bebris
Murder at Madingly Grange by Caroline Graham
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Twelve Clues Of Christmas by Rhys Bowen
Murder On A Mystery Tour by Marian Babson
But how about writing a mystery set in an English country house? April could be the new NaNoRiMo. After all, Shakespeare is reputed to have written both King Lear and Macbeth in 1602, during a self-imposed exile from the London plague.
Here are a few possible scenarios from history to spark your imagination:
1. The cash-strapped aristocrat who can’t say no to a ridiculously extravagant guest
Setting: Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, country seat of Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armory during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Background: Every summer the queen would leave her London palaces and embark on a “progression” through the countryside with a mile-long train of carriages, carts, and courtiers—three hundred souls to house, feed, and entertain.
In 1602 when Sir Henry Lee learned of the queen’s intention to grace him with her presence, he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, complaining the visit would bankrupt him. Would regicide save the day?
2. An attempt to impress that goes horribly wrong
Setting: Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, the county home of Robert Dudley, 1st East of Leicester and Elizabeth’s reputed favorite.
Background: In 1575 Dudley welcomed the queen with an extravagant pageant that included music, masques, dancing, elaborate banquets, a fireworks display, and a volley of cannonballs that went awry, setting fire to several houses in a nearby village. Imagine one of Kenilworth’s footmen, intent on revenge.
3. The country house host who turns out to be halfway ’round the twist
Setting: Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland, inherited in the eighteenth century by Captain Frances Blake Delaval, who threw house parties famous for gambling, scandalous behavior, and practical jokes.
Background: Guests at Delaval Hall might be undressing in their assigned bedroom when mechanical hoists would raise the bedroom walls, exposing them to their hosts. In one room, a four-poster bed could be lowered into a tank of water. In another, guests would wake to find the room upside down, with chairs and tables stuck to the ceiling. Is humiliation a motive for murder—or a red herring?
4. A spy for the WW2 Axis powers, intent on bumping off Winston Churchill
Setting: Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, the same country house where Queen Elizabeth I was an unwelcome guest more than three hundred years earlier.
Background: Churchill’s family home, Chartwell, was set on a hill south of London, an easy target for German aircraft; and his country retreat, Chequers, had an entrance road clearly visible by moonlight. Ditchley Park, surrounded by foliage and lacking a visible entrance road, was an ideal alternative when the moon was high. What would happen if a German spy insinuated himself into the household? Who would notice and save the world as we know it?
As you might have guessed, history is my favorite backdrop for murder, and there’s never a shortage of background material. Myths, legends, history’s mysteries, and real-life scandals—all can be found in the iconic English country house.
I write the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the modern-day UK and featuring American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton and Detective Inspector Tom Mallory of the Suffolk Constabulary.
Book One, A Dream of Death, is set in a country house hotel in the Scottish Hebrides, famous for its connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Book Two, A Legacy of Murder, features Finchley Hall, a crumbling stately home in Suffolk, famous for the unearthing in 1810 of an Anglo-Saxon treasure trove known as The Finchley Hoard.
Book Three, to be published in the spring of 2021, centers around Hapthorn Lodge, home to a reclusive widow who decides to sell her husband’s collection of art and antiques. I’m not sure where Book Four will take Kate and Tom, but one day I know they’ll visit his Uncle Nigel, owner of Fouroaks, a country house in the wilds of Devon.
Look for Connie Berry’s mysteries, and your favorite English country house mysteries, in the Web Store. https://store.poisonedpen.com/
While HarperCollins provided the above information, and additional information below, The Poisoned Pen is the place you should look for Agatha Christie novels. What better time for an Agatha Christie fix than right now? They’re familiar, somewhat comforting mysteries, perfect to read while staying home. Check the Web Store for Agatha Christie books. Now might be a good time to introduce them to a teen in your family as well. https://bit.ly/3bK6uMU
“New research has revealed that an estimated 32 million Americans have read an Agatha Christie book and in 2019 alone over 900,000 people bought an Agatha Christie book in the US. Additionally, Agatha Christie is the introduction to mysteries for 3 out of every 10 readers in the nation.
The research was commissioned by HarperCollins to mark the centenary of Christie being in print and was conducted by an independent research agency. It included 4,500 nationally representative fiction readers in the UK, US and Australia.
Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist in history. With over one billion books sold in English and another billion in over 100 languages, her popularity has never waned; last year her English language sales exceeded two million copies.”
“2020 marks 100 years since Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a Hercule Poirot mystery, was first published. The story was serialised in The Times’ (London) weekly edition from February to June 1920 and later published as a novel in America in October 1920. The book was the result of a challenge between Agatha and her older sister, who bet that Agatha couldn’t write a detective novel. While she was working in a dispensary during World War I, Agatha came up with the idea for the story using her knowledge of poisons.
After that, she conquered the publishing world for more than 50 years, releasing works that defined the genre including And Then There Were None, the world’s best-selling crime novel.”
The centenary year will see celebrations across the book world and beyond, culminating in the release of 20th Century Studios’ highly anticipated film adaptation of Death on the Nile directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot.
Do you know the plot summary of Death on the Nile? Here’s the description as it appears in the Web Store.
DIRECTED BY AND STARRING KENNETH BRANAGH
Following the success of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh returns to direct and star in this adaptation of the classic Hercule Poirot mystery for the big screen, also starring Gal Gadot.
Beloved detective Hercule Poirot embarks on a journey to Egypt in one of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries, Death on the Nile.
The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.
Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.
Thank you to HarperCollins for some of the above information. They also provided the following “Surprising Facts About Agatha Christie”.
Agatha Christie’s personal life was just as interesting as her professional work. During World War I, she worked firstly as a VAD nurse, and then as a qualified dispenser in the pharmacy at Torquay’s wartime hospital, where she acquired her knowledge of poisons. It was during this time that she devised the plot for her first detective story – a result of a bet from her elder sister Madge, who said she could never do it – and where she created Hercule Poirot, inspired by the Belgian refugees in her home town.
In 1922, she spent 10 months travelling the world with her first husband Archie, on a research mission for the British Empire exhibition. During this Grand Tour, she learnt to surf in South Africa and Hawaii, and is credited with being the first Western woman to stand up on a surfboard.
She was also an amateur archaeologist. Over two decades, she attended digs in the Middle East and North Africa with her second husband Max Mallowan, living on the excavation sites where aside from writing her novels, she photographed the artefacts and cleaned them using her own face cream.
- Over 2 billion books published, with as many published in foreign languages as in English.
- Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
- Her books continue to sell 4,000,000 copies every year.
- A writing career spanning six decades, with 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels and over 150 short stories.
- The most successful female playwright of all time, holding a world record as the only female playwright to have three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End.
- Wrote around 25 plays, of which the most famous, The Mousetrap, is the longest running play in the world, having debuted in 1952.
- Since first publication, her books have been published in over 100 languages, making her the most translated writer of all time. Currently she is published in 57 languages and in over 100 countries.
- Her work includes Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and the genre-defining And Then There Were None.
- Created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two of the most famous detectives of all time.
- Received a DBE in 1971.
It’s not too late to pull out your calender and plan to attend The Poisoned Pen’s upcoming virtual author events, live on Facebook. A number of authors are scheduled to appear to discuss their new books. Check the Web Store to order or pre-order copies of those books, many of them signed. https://store.poisonedpen.com/
Matthew Quick, author of Hour of the Assassin, kicks it off at 6 PM MST on Wednesday, April 1. The first half of April features a full slate of authors. Check out the list below, and the varying times of the events. Hope you can join Barbara Peters and Patrick Millikin from The Poisoned Pen.
Check out our Virtual Events!
Although I already mentioned Don Winslow’s upcoming book event for The Poisoned Pen, I didn’t have the short book trailer from the publisher to share at the time. If you want to own a signed copy, it doesn’t hurt to order it now, before release date. You can order it through the Web Store. https://bit.ly/2UH0ehJ
Winslow’s “virtual” event will happen on Monday, April 6th at 5pm, actually the day before the book is released. Don Winslow will discuss his work with Patrick Millikin and Barbara Peters via Facebook Live. Tune in to watch it in real time, or catch it anytime thereafter. It will also be added to the Youtube Channel.
Here’s the summary of Broken.
“One of America’s greatest storytellers.” – Stephen King
No matter how you come into this world, you come out broken . . .
In six intense short novels connected by the themes of crime, corruption, vengeance, justice, loss, betrayal, guilt and redemption, Broken is #1 international bestseller Don Winslow at his nerve-shattering, heart-stopping, heartbreaking best. In Broken, he creates a world of high-level thieves and low-life crooks, obsessed cops struggling with life on and off the job, private detectives, dope dealers, bounty hunters and fugitives, the lost souls driving without headlights through the dark night on the American criminal highway.
With his trademark blend of insight, humanity, humor, action and the highest level of literary craftsmanship, Winslow delivers a collection of tales that will become classics of crime fiction.
Let’s get it right out of the way that Scott Carson’s debut horror novel, The Chill, is written by Michael Koryta. In his conversation with Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen, he discusses his new name. You can order signed copies of the debut Scott Carson novel through the Web Store. http://bit.ly/2P9S4gb
Here’s the summary of The Chill.
“Wow! This is one terrific horror/suspense/disaster novel. Characters you root for and a story that grips from the first page.” —Stephen King, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Institute
“Horror has a new name and it’s Scott Carson. The Chill is an eerie dive into the murky depths of the supernatural. A story that has you looking back over your shoulder on every page.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Night Fire
“A creepy tale of supernatural terror.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
In this terrifying thriller, a supernatural force—set in motion a century ago—threatens to devastate New York City.
Far upstate, in New York’s ancient forests, a drowned village lays beneath the dark, still waters of the Chilewaukee reservoir. Early in the 20th century, the town was destroyed for the greater good: bringing water to the millions living downstate. Or at least that’s what the politicians from Manhattan insisted at the time. The local families, settled there since America’s founding, were forced from their land, but they didn’t move far, and some didn’t move at all…
Now, a century later, the repercussions of human arrogance are finally making themselves known. An inspector assigned to oversee the dam, dangerously neglected for decades, witnesses something inexplicable. It turns out that more than the village was left behind in the waters of the Chill when it was abandoned. The townspeople didn’t evacuate without a fight. A dark prophecy remained, too, and the time has come for it to be fulfilled. Those who remember must ask themselves: who will be next? For sacrifices must be made. And as the dark waters begin to inexorably rise, the demand for a fresh sacrifice emerges from the deep…
If you’re a fan of Scott Carson, Michael Koryta, or writing in general, you’ll want to watch the conversation.
If you can make it, you’ll want to be at The Poisoned Pen on Monday, February 17th at 7 PM. Meg Gardiner, author of The Dark Corners of the Night, will be in conversation with Tess Gerritsen, author of The Shape of Night. Signed copies of the books are available through the Web Store. https://store.poisonedpen.com/
And, if you get a chance, go back and read the recent interview with Meg Gardiner. She has a great sense of humor. http://bit.ly/37gq3K2