Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons State Library of Queensland, Young women running over a sand dune on an unidentified beach, ca. 1935, Photographer unknown
I am really excited to talk about a new short story Helena Beecham Investigates which introduces Helena and her friend Reggie Prendergast in a tribute to the detective stories of the 1920s and 30s - my favourite vintage! Please read on for the first chapter...
The sound of the whimpering coming from the room next door reminded Helena Beecham of a fretful poodle. She didn’t like poodles particularly – nervy creatures with no sangfroid. No, give her a real dog any day – a retriever or pointer, a wolfhound, now, there was a real dog; none of those cosseted creatures, whose nerves and digestive systems had been irrevocably spoiled by a diet of bon-bons and caresses.
Helena wrinkled her nose as the whimpering continued. It was a nice nose, tilted up at the end and covered with a smattering of freckles. Helena looked a little like a dog herself, something with pedigree – a springer spaniel perhaps, with her dark, liquid brown eyes.
Helena Beecham and her friend Reggie Prendergast had motored up to Norfolk from town and had arrived at Carrick Lodge rather later than anticipated, Reggie’s disreputable two-seater having blown a fuse at some point just north of Ipswich. Major and Mrs. Murray had greeted Helena fondly; having known her since she was an egg, as Helena liked to say. Helena’s father, Doctor Beecham, had been stationed with the Major in India and Mrs. Murray had befriended Helena’s mother when she arrived, pale and interesting and fair too delicate for the inferno that was the Indian summer. Helena and the Murray children had almost grown up together. Barbara Murray was also staying that weekend, along with her friend Philip Cardew, an impecunious young architect, and a Mr. and Mrs. Archer and their young sons.
‘Shirt studs,’ Reggie whispered to Helena as they had sat down to dine earlier that evening. Helena had suppressed a smile. Mr. Archer was a ruddy faced man with the self-satisfied double chins of a bulldog and a belligerent air. ‘Bet you five bob,’ Reggie murmured, ‘shirt studs or sardines – or soap.’
‘Barbara tells me he’s in mines,’ Helena said in a low voice. ‘Gold and precious stones, in Kenya. But I agree, he does look rather like a Soap King.’
Mrs. Archer, on the other hand, looked timid; her only claim to beauty was her necklace of ruby droplets that glowed magnificently, drawing attention away from her rather uninteresting face and her sad eyes. ‘It would suit a darker woman more,’ Helena thought, appraisingly. ‘A woman with Mrs. Archer’s colouring ought to wear pearls, or perhaps sapphires to bring out the deep blue of her eyes.’
Mr. Archer was obviously enormously proud of the necklace.
‘I see you’re admiring my wife’s necklace,’ Mr. Archer boomed across the table. ‘As well you might, I don’t mind telling you that necklace has a long and bloody history.’
‘It is a beautiful piece, Mrs. Archer,’ Helena replied with a smile. ‘The stones are remarkable.’
‘I can see you have an eye for the good stuff,’ Archer continued with a grunt of approval. ‘It wasn’t easy finding those stones, I can tell you. It took me ten years to get my hands on those rubies.’
Silent, Mrs. Archer pushed the food around her plate in a distracted manner. Periodically, she glanced at her husband and then away again, seemingly unwilling to catch his eye. She held herself awkwardly, Helena thought, as though the weight of the necklace was unpleasant.
‘Do you enjoy life in Nairobi, Mrs. Archer?’ Barbara enquired. All eyes turned to Mrs. Archer whose neck flushed scarlet, clashing with the darker red of the precious stones. Mrs. Archer looked from face to face, stricken.
‘I, yes, I like Nairobi very much,’ she said, weakly. ‘I –’ she paused, clearly uncomfortable at being the centre of attention.
‘I spent some years in Nairobi as a boy –’ began Philip Cardew, attempting to divert attention away from Mrs. Archer who was writhing under the withering stare of her husband.
‘Go and look after the children, Mildred.’ Archer said, sternly.
Mrs. Archer immediately stood, her napkin falling disregarded to the floor. Excusing herself, she fled from the room, leaving behind her an awkward silence.
Barbara and Helena exchanged glances. Helena gave a small sigh. It was going to be a long weekend.
Now she was lying in bed listening to Mrs. Archer whimpering in the next room.
‘Oh, bother!’ Helena exclaimed and bounded out of bed, pulling her crimson bed jacket on over her pale blue silk pajamas. Major and Mrs. Murray did not believe in indulgences such as central heating and Helena noticed that the heavy curtains moved in the arctic breeze coming in around the window frames and she could see her breath. Her feet were icy as she crossed the rug, listening as best she could through the adjoining door.
Helena paused. Would Mrs. Archer welcome an intrusion? Was Mr. Archer in the room? Unable to listen to the crying any longer, Helena knocked on the oak door. The crying abruptly stopped.
‘Mrs. Archer? It’s Helena Beecham. Are you alright?’
Mrs. Archer’s voice was raw but made an attempt at dignity. ‘I am quite alright, thank you.’
‘Can I get you anything? Are you ill?’ Helena persisted.
‘No, no, thank you, I am quite well. Goodnight.’
Helena returned to her bed. She stretched out, in search of the place at the end of the mattress where the warming pan had been. ‘I don’t blame the woman for crying,’ Helena thought. ‘If I were married to that boor, I should absolutely howl.’
Anyone who knew Helena Beecham would have scoffed at the idea of her reacting to bullying with tears. She was more likely to blow out the man’s brains with her pistol or arrange for a convenient drowning accident. Helena listened for a few minutes before turning out her light but there was no further sound from the adjoining room. Tired from her long drive, Helena closed her eyes and fell asleep instantly.
Mrs. Archer did not come down to breakfast the next morning. Mr. Archer did not improve by daylight, Helena noticed. He had drunk rather freely of Major Murray’s excellent brandy and was looking distinctly seedy. He helped himself to a plate of kidneys and a cup of black coffee in moody silence. Seated next to Mr. Archer, looking pale and unhappy, were two boys of around twelve or thirteen years old. Helena smiled at them.
‘Hello, I’m Helena Beecham. I didn’t see you last night. What are your names?’
Casting a nervous look at their father, the older looking boy, a fair-haired child with his father’s thick neck but his mother’s frightened eyes, spoke first.
‘I’m Gilbert Archer,’ he said.
‘And I’m Freddie,’ answered the younger boy. He blushed scarlet and looked down at his plate.
‘Delighted to meet you. Are you having a pleasant stay? I suppose you’ve been out tobogganing and so forth? There are some terrific runs on the hill near the Church – but I expect you’ve found your own secret places, haven’t you?’
The boys smiled weakly. It was evident to Helena that they did not wish to be drawn on the subject of tobogganing, or any other, in the presence of their father.
‘We are having a super time, thank you Miss Beecham,’ Gilbert answered, one wary eye on his father who had picked up The Times and begun to read. Thus assured his father’s attention was elsewhere, Gilbert said, in a low voice: ‘Major Murray let us borrow some ice skates,’ he said, his brown eyes gleaming momentarily, ‘we skated on the farm pond. It was wizard!’
Freddie, a piece of toast halfway to his mouth, fervently nodded his agreement.
‘Well, perhaps you’d like to come out with me after breakfast,’ Helena said. ‘I’m looking forward to stretching my legs. We could take out the sledge or skates and I dare say my friend Mr. Prendergast would show you his Buffy-Porson if you ask him nicely. Do you like motorcars?’
Gilbert eagerly opened his mouth to reply but Mr. Archer lowered his newspaper and quashed any hopes the boys might have had.
‘I am afraid the boys must help their mother after breakfast, Miss Beecham – perhaps another time.’
Helena looked across the table at the boys. The light had gone out of their eyes and they sat motionless as dolls. Mr. Archer poured himself another cup of coffee.
‘Of course, perhaps later, boys,’ Helena said, breezily. ‘Just let me know. I’m sure to be around somewhere.’
After some muttered words of thanks, the boys excused themselves and left the room, presumably to go to find their mother; Mr. Archer left shortly thereafter. Helena leant back in her chair and sipped her cup of darleeling thoughtfully. What a thoroughly unpleasant man Archer was; clearly a bully of the first order. What a brute he must be to bring his wife to tears and to have his sons so obviously terrified of him.
‘I can’t understand why on earth the Murrays would have him to stay. Barbara will know. Now, I really ought to find Reggie and see how that wretched motor of his is faring. I hope he’s fixed it, I don’t fancy a prolonged visit.’ Helena wrapped herself in a thick overcoat and strolled to the stables where Reggie had left his car the night before. The sun was bright and she whistled cheerfully as she went, happy to be out of the oppressive atmosphere of the house.
Major and Mrs. Murray had repaired to the library to have their coffee after breakfast. Mrs. Murray sat on a chair in front of the fire and Major Murray stood and looked out through one of the large mullioned windows across the snowy expanse of park.
‘Terrible man, Archer,’ he growled.
‘Yes, dear,’ said his wife, with feeling. She rose and handed him his coffee.
‘Terrible fellow,’ the Major repeated.
Mrs. Murray nodded her agreement. With a sudden burst of passion, she exclaimed: ‘You did speak to him, didn’t you, dear? You did tell him he had to go?’
‘I tried to. Blasted fellow said he’d leave when he chose to and not a day before. Reminded me that some people would be very grateful for what he’d done for their son and what a pity if the career of a promising young doctor were cut short because of a scandal. Impudent hound! Did you hear him talking to Victor Talbot the other night? As good as asked him to go in with him on that new mine of his within minutes of meeting the man! Talbot was most put out by it, told me I’d better drop Archer and that some of the chaps were talking at the Club; said Archer’s reputation left something to be desired. I wish to goodness that Henry hadn’t got mixed up with him.’
Barbara Murray entered the library and heard the end of her father’s speech.
‘What’s Henry been up to now?’ she asked. She sat on the arm of her mother’s chair and placed her arm around her mother’s shoulder. ‘Cheer up, Mummy. You know what Henry’s like, whatever it is is bound to blow over. I say, why are you crying? Whatever’s wrong? What’s going on?’
‘I’m afraid your brother has been rather foolish, darling,’ Mrs. Murray began, with an attempt at a smile.
‘He got himself involved with some woman in Nairobi,’ the Major said in a low voice. ‘The woman’s husband cut up pretty rough and Archer managed to get Henry out in one piece and smoothed things over with the husband. We’re grateful, of course,’ the Major said, gruffly, ‘but then Archer appeared on the doorstep in London with a letter of introduction from Henry asking that we put Archer and his family up, introduce him to our friends and what have you.’
‘Henry is the absolute limit,’ Barbara exclaimed. ‘How dare he foist this awful man and his wretched wife upon us? Where’s Henry, I’d like to know, while we’re hosting these ghastly people of his?’
‘Hush, Barbara,’ admonished her mother, with a nervous glance towards the door.
‘Why are you so scared of him? I think he’s nothing but a nasty little bully. Philip knows all about him. He loathes the man.’ Barbara asked. ‘I think we should tell Archer to pack his bags. Did you hear him berating that little wife of his last night? The man’s a cad.’
‘We can’t make him leave, I’m afraid, darling,’ Mrs. Murray said with a sorrowful smile. ‘He told Daddy he’d publicize Henry’s indiscretion and that would mean the end of things for Henry in Nairobi and you know how hard Daddy had to work to get Henry that post after all the trouble in London.’
‘Well, I think you should let Archer talk and be damned. Sorry Mummy, but I do. Let Henry fend for himself for once.’
Mrs. Murray’s response was cut short by the entrance of Philip Cardew.
‘Hello, all,’ he said, hesitating in the doorway. ‘I hope I’m not barging in on a family conference?’
‘No, of course not, Philip. Do take a seat. Would you care for coffee?’ Mrs. Murray asked, rousing herself and smiling brightly.
Philip took the cup and sat down. He looked around, eyebrows raised. ‘Why the long faces?’ he asked Barbara. ‘Anyone would think the housemaid had run off with the second footman or that the oysters for lunch were off at the very least.’
Barbara attempted a weak smile.
‘You know Archer, I believe, Cardew?’ the Major enquired, abruptly. ‘Barbara said you dislike the man?’
Philip looked uncomfortable and appeared to search for words. ‘My Grandfather had dealings with him,’ he said at last. ‘I don’t suppose Archer knows who I am but I’ve got more reason to hate him than any man alive. He owned the mortgage on my Grandfather’s farm. There was a drought and the harvest failed. Archer refused to change the terms and my Grandfather was forced from his farm. Archer took over there shortly before a seam of gold was found crossing a corner of the property. It destroyed my Grandfather. I’ve always suspected Archer knew there was gold there all along and that’s why he forced Grandfather out. It wasn’t until Archer started boasting about his exploits in Africa last night that I realized who he was.’
‘Oh, Philip, and you didn’t say anything!’ Barbara took Philip’s hand and looked at her father. ‘I told you the man’s a rotter,’ she said. ‘Now will you turf him out?’
‘My hands are tied, Barbara. I’ve told you that,’ her father replied, tersely. ‘Sorry if the situation is awkward for you, Cardew, but I’m afraid I have no option but to have the man here. We’d understand if you’d rather cut short your stay. Sorry to see you go and all that but quite understand.’
‘It was rather a shock to find him here, sir, but I can stick it… I say, when does Henry arrive?’ Philip asked, attempting a change of conversation. ‘I was sure he’d be here by now.’
Mrs. Murray looked at Philip with a startled eye. ‘Whatever do you mean, Philip? Henry is in Nairobi.’
Philip looked confused. ‘But I saw him on Thursday morning in the Strand,’ he said. ‘Large as life. He said he was coming here directly. I was sure he’d arrive before I did.’
Barbara and her mother exchanged bewildered glances.
‘Why on earth would Henry be back in England?’ Barbara asked.
Major Murray turned back to the window with a face like thunder.
The remaining chapters will be sent to subscribers to my monthly newsletter. Please click on the box on the top right of this page to sign up!
I have a real fascination with old photos (as you can see on my Bellamy Bird page of this website). I can spend hours looking at black and white photos from the 1930s and 40s on Flickr Commons. I found the above photo during a recent trip to Seattle and I fell in love with the character in each little face. The boy on the far right in the flying helmet should certainly have his own story - as of course he did. To me, it looks as though these children were outside running around when they were corralled to have their picture taken. I can sense their urgency to get back to their game.
I have gradually come to the realisation that the writing I am most enjoying nowadays is nature writing and this initially came as a surprise. I wondered if Robert Macfarlane’s masterpiece Landmarks was responsible. However, on reflection, I have always loved books which evoke a strong sense of place - including weather and landscape. Alexander McCall Smith's books about Botswana with Mma Ramotswe’s appreciation and love of the dry lands and the Botswanans’ attunement to and gratitude for the coming rains have long appealed to me as has Margery Allingham's writing about the estuarine coast of East Anglia where I grew up, so evocative I can almost smell the mud at low tide.
I recently wrote of my admiration for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing - Between the Woods and the Water in particular - this book is many things, travel writing, history, political analysis, reflection on literature and linguistics - all of which appeal to me - but it is also nature writing and I urge everyone to get their hands on a copy of any of PLF's books and devour it.
So, I have always loved writing with a strong sense of place including landscape and weather but during this last month I came across a book which is clearly labelled ‘Nature Essays’; not perhaps something I would usually pick up but I bought Braiding Sweetgrass by Native American author and Professor of Botany Robin Wall Kimmerer for my daughter who is fascinated by the historical uses for plants and also native peoples. However, once I started reading I couldn’t hand over the book until I had finished it. Not that it is a book one can rush through. It is such a thoughtfully written and thought-provoking book that I relished taking my time over each chapter. It is a moving and powerful book which stays with you well after you have finished reading it and I highly recommend it.
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Photo copyright Clare Havens 2016
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The new film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons has come out to great acclaim in the UK and I urge everyone to see it and to buy Arthur Ransome's book. Swallows and Amazons was a great inspiration for my traditional children's adventure The Bellamy Bird. Modern children will watch the film and read the book and marvel at the freedom children once had to explore without adult intervention. I am hoping the new film inspires a new generation of writing about adventure for middle grade readers. Take a look at this list of Ransome-inspired works on Goodreads for more ideas of what to read next, vote (please!) and add more titles!
Head over to my Author page on Amazon for free ebooks! The Bellamy Bird, Writer's Block and The Bella Street Mysteries Trilogy are currently FREE! For a limited time only!
Here is an excerpt from my July newsletter. To read more please sign up in the box on the right of this page!
This month I have been working on two short stories: one involving Kate Summers and the other residents of East Trimley, from my Constable Country Mysteries series and the other a vintage murder mystery set in Norfolk in 1930. In the Constable Country Mysteries story, as yet untitled, I am afraid to say that the much hated auctioneer Brian Fisher meets an untimely end. No one has ever really forgiven him for his outrageous treatment of Anne Venables, you might remember he advised her that a sketch she owned was worthless, only to buy it himself for a song and then 'discover' it was by artist John Constable and worth a king's ransom! There are not too many tears being shed over his death, I am afraid, although there are plenty of suspects.
The vintage short story, Helena Beecham Investigates is the tentative title, was so much fun to write. I find I enjoy writing stories set in the 1930s immensely. It feels very natural to me and the words tend to flow smoothly. Helena and her friend Reggie Prendergast arrive at Carrick Lodge, the home of Major and Mrs Murray, old friends of Helena's family. Major and Mrs Murray are also host to a Mr Archer, an unpleasant character who bullies his wife and sons and who has stepped on a lot of toes to get what he wants. We should not be surprised to hear that Mr Archer is found dead one morning. The problem facing Helena is that there is a whole houseful of suspects!
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Image courtesy Flickr Commons. Ingenues arrive at Central. Sam Hood. State Library NSW
Thoughts from my June newsletter...
I have been reading a diverse selection of books this month including Michael Morpurgo's 'Song for Mrs Pettigrew' which intersperses fact and fiction and which I absolutely loved. I got the book out of the library but will be buying my own copy! Michael Morpurgo's book explores ideas of loss and belonging, a theme also prevalent in Kate Morton's novel, 'The Distant Hours'. A character in this book mentions the word Seledreorig, Anglo-Saxon for 'sadness for the lack of a hall', a sense of lack of belonging, lack of home. As someone who has moved around the world to live in different cities I can identify with this feeling.
'The Anglo-Saxons had a gift for sadness and longing... Seledreorig... sadness for the lack of a hall... there's no word like it in the English language, and yet there ought to be, don't you think?' To read more, subscribe to my monthly free newsletter in the bar on the right.
I have recently discovered a site that features images of many of John Constable's paintings. Anyone interested in seeing more of the work of this wonderful artist and especially the landscape of what came to be known as Constable Country – the inspiration for my Constable Country Mysteries series, should take a look here.
The wonderful actress and founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna, has written a lovely review of The Bellamy Bird! This is such a thrill for me as I absolutely see Virginia in the role of Violet, the beautiful matriarch of the Bellamy family. The other delightful connection is that The Bellamy Bird refers back to Arthur Ransome's classic book Swallows and Amazons. In the film version of the book, Virginia played the children's mother, Mrs Walker, and the character Titty was played by the lovely Sophie Neville, who has also been incredibly supportive of The Bellamy Bird. I feel very fortunate to have connected with both of these talented women. Sophie is also an environmentalist, raising funds and awareness for the Waterberg rhinos and community. Please take a moment to look at both projects which are so near to Virginia and Sophie's hearts. Sophie is about to undertake a challenging horseback safari to raise much needed funds so please consider supporting her! Two inspiring women!
Here is Virginia's quote:
A delightful, intriguing and action-packed children’s adventure story, filled with suspense, that all grown-ups will love too!’
and here is Sophie's:
Who wouldn't love to find they'd traveled back in time and were able to solve the mystery that changed family fortunes! If you've loved 'Swallows and Amazons', 'Just William' and Agatha Christie's Poirot stories, this book is for you. It's charming and would make a great present for young readers, I'd say from the age of about 9 to 90.
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Clare grew up in Constable Country not far from East Trimley where Kate Summers and Detective Vicky Allard solve their local mysteries and where The Bellamy Bird is set. Clare lived for many years on a street in Manhattan just like the street where Bella and Felix live although she was never chased through Central Park at night by a couple of failed fashion-world gangsters. Clare now lives on a high cliff next to a lighthouse in Australia where she plots and writes with her faithful chocolate labrador by her side.
Clare Havens's books on Goodreads
The Secret Formula (Bella Street Mysteries, #1)
ratings: 38 (avg rating 4.08)
Writer's Block (Constable Country Mysteries #1)
ratings: 16 (avg rating 3.62)
Doc Gutson's Revenge (Bella Street Mysteries, #2)
ratings: 12 (avg rating 4.50)
The Bellamy Bird
ratings: 16 (avg rating 4.50)
Still Waters (Constable Country Mysteries 2)
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.83)
Copyright 2011-2016 Clare Havens