Some time ago I wrote four murder mysteries – Murder By The Dozen, Murder By The Book, Murder At The Seaside and Murder In The Woods – featuring a character called Gertrude Laurent de Marigny. I must admit, here, that I did not invent the character, but only borrowed (and altered) her to fit in my books. She was in fact created by a good friend of mine called Adrian Lucas, and she featured in a long-running Kult RPG which I ran.
I used Gertie because I wanted, for my novels, a character who was different, and Gertie had an occult background. I had decided to write some pastiche of the Agatha Christie Miss Marple novels, but I had wanted my main character to be something other than some pale imitation of the St Mary Meads detective. There is no point in just producing second rate rip-offs of something which has already been written. Thus, enter Gertie, to give these novels a slightly different flavour.
The novels are set in St John’s Green (pronounced Sinjen’s Green) in the 1950s. St John’s Green dos not exist. You will not find it on any map of the area, no matter how hard you look. It, and a few other villages mentioned in the novels, were created specifically for the books. As you may construe from what I have written above, it is my version of St Mary Mead’s. It represents the ideal, bucolic, little English village, of the sort which hardly exist any more. Considering how few people live there, it is also the murder capita of Britain – at least by the end of the four novels.
Each novel has a seasonal theme: Murder by the Dozen is set in the Autumn; Murder by the Book is set in the Winter; Murder at the Seaside is set in the Summer; and Murder in the Woods, is set in the Spring.
I decided early on to write four novels, and no more, as a tribute to the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies. She did four films, after all; and while they may not have kept closely to the plot of the books, they were enjoyable to watch, anyway.
Extract From Murder By The Dozen
It was another perfect day in the bucolic, somnolent village of St John’s Green (pronounced Sinjens green). The church rang out its bells, the peals summoning old maids on their bicycles to come and worship. They cycled down the twisting, hedge-lined roads, ringing their bells as they went, as the war, summer sunshine beat down on their dark clothing and their sensible hats. What did those maidens dream of, as they made their way to the thirteenth century church of St John’s? Whatever it was, they told nobody, especially not while they were in church.
Elsewhere, English gentlemen, the church bells a pleasant and distant tinnitus, did that most English of English activities: they mowed the lawn. They sweated under the early evening sun, as the blades of the lawnmower murdered the innocent green leaves of the grass. Would they have preferred to be stuck inside the old stone church, perched on those hard pews, listening to old Reverend Wilkins drone on and on, his sermons known for excavating some of the most obscure sections of the Good Book? No, they would rather be in their pretty little back gardens, pushing their lawnmowers, going beetroot red under the sun, sweat dripping from their brows.
Perhaps once it was too late for them to consider turning up for the evening service in church they might put away, and go to the local tavern, to celebrate a job well done. A few beers, rather than a few prayers, sounded just the business on this hot late summer day.
Outside the thatched tavern called Jack-In-Irons those of less Christian tastes sampled the ales on sale, as they lazed in the drowsy heat of the summer day. Men looked up at the cerulean blue sky, with not a single cotton wool cloud to be seen. Yet conversation did linger on the weather, despite the fact that the weather could hardly have been finer. But then search a topic was exhausted, and these profound, ale-inspired discussions moved on to weightier matters, such as the fact that the young did not know how lucky they were, and how things were much better today than when these greybeards an savants had been growing up. What, some of these gentlemen, their arses swelling on the wooden benches, had lived through not one, but two world wars. Oh, they had known hard times, these retired warriors, and not just rationing. Why, anybody could have a banana now. The young did not know they were born.
The sign of the tavern hung straight down, despite it being hinged. There was not the merest of breezes to stir it, with its painted picture of some semi-naked giant all chained up. But the drinkers in the tavern, in the garden around the back, no longer gave a thought to the sign, or the strange name of the hostelry. They had grown up here, and seen it all of their lives. At the moment all that those gentlemen cared about was who was going to get the next round in.
The men seated in the garden of the tavern heard the roar of some sports car in the unseen lane beyond, the sight – but not of the sound – hidden by the tall hedge of the Jack-In-Irons which surrounded them. That would be the American who had not gone home after the war. Everybody knew who he was, and the sound of his car, for no other car had such a throaty roar to disturb this tranquil scene. Brad Brady, that who it was going far too fast down the little country lanes around St John’s Green. He would do himself a mischief, was the general opinion, going that fast, with not a care in the world.
Brad Brady, in his expensive, foreign red sports car, sped past the tavern, sped past the village pond, far too eager to get to wherever he was going.
The early evening sunlight glinted off the village pond, the surface of the water disturbed only by the lazy paddling of a mallard, as he cooled himself down by going for a dip in the water. He quacked appreciatively as he paddled away.
Mrs Tompkins’ ginger tom watched from the far side of the pond, as the avian swam. But Ginger was not thinking about enjoying duck for his evening repasts. He was lying on his side, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his feline form. His eyes looked closed. But one was open a crack, just enough to keep a glint of eye on the duck as it swam. Still, though, Ginger had no real desire to tackle the duck, even if he did come out of the water where he was safe. Ginger left water birds well alone, after he had had a go at a goose once, and come off distinctly worse. He would stick to mice in the future. There were plenty of them in the barn near Farmer Myles’ fields. But, for now, Ginger was too relaxed to go and play. He would enjoy the warmth of the sun while it continued to shine.
The sunlight, from the west, fell through the branches of the old willow tree beside the pond. There was not even the hint of a breeze to stir the branches of the willow, which had stood sentinel over the water for as long as anybody could remember. Anybody living, that was. And the dead had a tendency not to tell.
The old maids had reached the church, the ancient stone building of St John’s. They parked their equally ancient bicycles by the church, leaning them against the rough stone walls of the edifice, knowing that they would be perfectly safe there. They knew that their bicycles would still be there when they came out of the church, for this was sleepy little St John’s Green, in the heart of England’s green and pleasant land. Nothing untoward went on here. You could leave your doors unlocked when you went out, and most people did. Thieves did not come in and make off with people’s most treasured possessions as, for the most part, people had little worth bothering to steal.
The church bells were still ringing, still calling out for people to come and pray. The bells were old, although nowhere as old as the church. Local tales had it that the bells were provided for the church from King Henry the Eighth, due to the support shown for the king from one of the local priests. But that was surely a myth, and the bells more recent than that. But there were more legends concerning the bell in the church of St John’s as though the local people, lacking anything happening in their current lives, imbued St John’s Green with histories that may well have never occurred.
The other main myth concerning these bells was that they rang out in times of need, to warn people that enemies threatened England. People told the tale that when the Spanish Armada first set sail, in 1588, the bells rang out then, by themselves, with nobody pulling on the ropes. But something which nobody bothered to point out was the fact that when Mr Hitler had invaded Poland the bells had most resolutely remained quiet.
Whatever the truth concerning the church bells, they pealed out at the moment, heard all over the village of St John’s Green, as people answered their insistent call.
It was quieter at the Jack-In-Irons tavern, on the edge of town, where the numbers of people enjoying their ale had been swelled by a couple of part-time, amateur gardeners come to celebrate a job well done. The noise from that annoying sports car had long since faded from earshot, and talk no longer considered American who were still over here, but dealt with weightier subjects such as which cricket team was going to win the County Championship that year (not that there were many matches left). But at least that annoying American had gone from their thoughts.
The shadows had lengthened, and Ginger was no longer in the sun, as the shadow of the willow tree had fallen on him, where he had dozed in the evening sun. Ginger got up, and shook his tail, and decided that he would stalk off to Farmer Myles’ barn, and play with the mice there, at least for a while. Then, when he had tired of this feline sadism, he would return to Mrs Tompkins, the person who he chose to lodge with, for a saucer of milk and maybe a little bit of fish, if he was lucky, from a woman who would not hear a bad word said about ‘her’ cat, who Was definitely not responsible, in her opinion, for that eviscerated rock dove which had been left in Mrs White’s back garden. Yes, life was good, if you were a cat
Old maids went to church: English men mowed their lawns, and drank beer in the local pub; Americans showed off; and cats sunned themselves in the evening sun. Oh, and serial killers went about their business, as they are wont to do.
Yes, it was another perfect day in St John’s Green.
Murder By The Dozen, Murder By The Book, Murder At The Seaside and Murder In The Woods are available as e-books on the Amazon Kindle store.