This past month has been another of those times when I exist in a fuzzy state of being on reaching the end of a book, this one Death in Dovecote Hatch, which follows Murder at Mullings published last year by Severn House. This new series featuring Florence Norris, housekeeper at Mullings, and George Bird, owner of the local pub is set during the early nineteen thirties in England, a world for me as a writer with appealing differences from today. One of these is that car and cell phones did not exist, avoiding the question: Why on earth does the nincompoop sleuth not summon help on instant dial when he, or she, stranded in a stalled vehicle on a lonely country lane, beholds the armed villain emerging through the dusk? Another appealing difference is the speech patterns and mannerisms of the period, the readier acceptance of class distinctions to be scrutinized.
What interests me, particularly so with women, is the desire of some amongst the ‘lower orders of society’ to improve the lot accorded them by the supposed importance of knowing one’s place in life. And yet, again as a writer, there is nostalgia for the vanishing world of the gentry and nobility with their ancestral homes and vast estates. Much of what occurs in Death in Dovecote Hatch revolves around the village of that name with its postman and his wife amongst the central characters. For the past couple of weeks I have been back at Mullings, the great house of district occupied for hundreds of years by the titled Stodmarsh family; though not of course by the same members of it, the human age span however generous to some being woefully short.
This is the world that has absorbed me in my basement hideaway to the point where reality has become decidedly fuzzy when taking a break to unwind my fingers.
Yesterday (or could have been the one before) I summoned my husband Julian into the drawing room. He did not knock before entering but I refrained from criticizing because he would have pointed out that there is no door between the kitchen where he’d been standing and where I was seated on the sofa – it is all one room. Also butlers are hard to find these days.
“Ah, there you are Cannell! Took your time getting here!”
“I beg your pardon, Madam,” he inclined his head. “I was in pursuit of the washing up.”
“Was it running away?”
“Oh, no, Madam, ‘pursuit’ was the wrong word; I should have said ‘engaged’.”
“To what? The crockery or the cutlery? This modern thinking is deplorable! Pray do not tell me they are likely to have knife fights over you, or I will have the vapours!” His hearing is not what it should be.”
He cupped an ear. Some member of the lower crust is invariably cupping an ear in Death in Dovecote Hatch. “Did you say, Madam, that it’d get in the papers?”
“No, I did not!” I’d forgotten what topic we’d been on. With all I have to do each day languishing on my sofa this is more than understandable. “And here I was, Cannell, about to compliment you, despite your occasionally over familiarity, for stepping up to the plate recently.”
“A pleasure, Madam. Not to boast, I wonder if you happened to observe that I actually stepped on one this morning – you having placed placed it on the floor after partaking of the breakfast I’d brought in for you. And very sensible if I may presume to say so, objects not getting knocked off floors.”
“Thank you, Cannell.” I graced him with a patrician smile. “When speaking of your stepping up to the plate I meant in regard to Master Simeon.”
“Ah, yes! The Siamese kitten.”
“If you must refer to him in that dismissive, one might say, derogative way, yes.”
“I beg your pardon, Madam. As you instructed I have been teaching him to drive.”
“Not in the Bentley, I trust.”
“Most assuredly not. One of those small, circular, robotic vacuum gadgets. Master Simeon having finished his Russian lesson, he is presently practicing the violin, endeavoring to master Three Blind Mice.”
That is pleasing to hear, although I had hoped he would have moved on to Bach. “What is that you’re holding, Cannell?”
“The grocery list you wrote out for me, Madam. All items are clearly written, but I am somewhat perplexed by the one for small, flat frozen people. I had thought you leaning towards vegetarianism this week.”
“So I am, Cannell. How tiresome of you this is! You must know I wanted the cheese only kind.”
“As I undoubtedly wrote!”
“I’m afraid not, Madam!” He had the impertinence to tap the paper. “I must say this comes as a vast relief. I was picturing myself going up and down the frozen aisle, stopping other shoppers asking if they knew where the small, flat, frozen people would be.”
I waved a dismissive hand and he retreated outdoors where undoubtedly in another era he would have jammed a cigarette in his mouth and smoked his head off. This reminded me that during the period of which I am writing smoking was encouraged, thus providing for some physical action during passages of dialogue or reflection. I was happy in my retreat to Dovecote Hatch, where Inspector LeCrane, elegant and aristocratic, has a slim silver cigarette case, and even that worthiest of men, George Bird, smokes the occasional pipe.