Frequent visitors to my blog will know I am something of a Helen Hollick fan. Partly because no one wears a hat like she does – at least not among my acquaintances. Mostly, it’s because of Jesamiah Acorne, pirate and scoundrel extraordinaire. Plus, there’s her depiction of Harold Godwinson and his sad end that I makes me bawl like a child. And then, more recently, there is Jan Christopher, a young librarian in the south of London who ends up entangled in one murder after the other. The poor girl can’t even go on a vacation without stumbling upon a corpse – which is effectively what happens in Helen’s recent release A Meadow Murder.
In today’s post I’m treating you to both an interview, an excerpt AND a review. But less us start with the essentials – I give you the blurb!
Make hay while the sun shines?
Summer 1972. Young library assistant Jan Christopher and her fiancé, DS Lawrence Walker, are on holiday in North Devon. There are country walks and a day at the races to enjoy, along with Sunday lunch at the village pub, and the hay to help bring in for the neighbouring farmer.
But when a body is found the holiday plans are to change into an investigation of murder, hampered by a resting actor, a woman convinced she’s met a leprechaun and a scarecrow on walkabout…
A Meadow Murder is the fourth tale in the Jan Christopher cosy murder mystery series, the first three being A Mirror Murder, A Mystery of Murder and A Mistake of Murder… see what I (Helen) have done there? Yes, I’ve created a proper puzzle for myself because now every tale in the series will have to follow the same title pattern of ‘A M-something- of Murder’ (Suggestions welcome!)
And now, let’s meet Jan, our intrepid if somewhat unfortunate protagonist. (Because stumbling over bodies isn’t exactly fun)
Jan Christopher: (a little shyly) Hello. I’ve never done a tour interview before, I hope I don’t mess things up.
Helen: (smiling encouragingly) Of course you won’t! We’ll just chat about things, like do you enjoy working as a public library assistant in north-east London?
Jan: Oh yes, most of the time, although some members of the public can be a bit cranky. It can be hard work, though – armfuls of books to be put back on the shelves; I reckon I must walk a good few miles each day, so comfortable shoes are a necessity. Of course my time is the 1970s, so things are very different from where you are in the future. I’ve no idea what a mobile phone is, for instance, or Facebook or the Webnet, or whatever it is. Filing information cards in the catalogue drawers by hand takes ages, (I hate filing!) and each book that is loaned out has its own numbered ticket that is slotted inside the borrower’s own ticket – they have to be put in number order in long wooden trays every evening and counted. I’m quite quick at this – nimble fingers!
The library is in the London suburb of Chingford, which has the advantage of being on the border of Essex and boasts Epping Forest, so although we’re officially London, we are also quite green and leafy.
Helen: What’s the best thing about working in a library?
Jan (laughs): Well, if this was a job interview, I’d say something like ‘oh, the chance to meet people and be helpful’ but the real perk is access to all those books! We’re the first to see the new books when they come in, so we get first choice. The hitch is… my staffroom locker is bulging with books I want to read!
I also deliver books to the housebound. Most are elderly people, but I have one disabled lady. I enjoy selecting good books for them, and it is nice to be out and about – although there was one nasty episode, which I would rather not talk about. [Helen: in A Mistake of Murder]
Helen: And one not so good thing?
Jan: Closing time! You can guarantee that someone will come in five minutes before and beg to be able to choose more books – or the people already there will not hear ‘Closing soon!’. I often have nightmares where people are climbing in through the windows and I’m shouting and shouting ‘We’re closed!’
Helen: Your uncle and your fiancé are policemen, is that right?
Jan: Yes. Uncle Toby is a Detective Chief Inspector, he is also my guardian as my mum and dad died when I was young, so Uncle Toby and his wife, Aunt Madge, adopted me. Laurie – Detective Sergeant Lawrence Walker – is my uncle’s ‘bagman’, that’s a police term for trusted assistant. Laurie was only a Detective Constable when I first met him. He was driving Uncle Toby’s car and as they happened to be passing the library at home time, stopped to give me a lift. (Blushing slightly…) It was love at first sight really. Laurie is ever so handsome. He looks quite like a young Cary Grant. [Helen: in A Mirror Murder]
Helen: Being the fiancée of a policeman isn’t always easy though is it?
Jan: We discovered a murder on or first proper date, a lady I knew from the library [Helen: also A Mirror Murder] That was a bit scary, but I suppose I’m used to police work because of Uncle Toby. When a serious crime is committed that takes priority over daily personal life, although as a senior officer Uncle Toby doesn’t have to drop everything instantly. (Though he often does!)
Helen: Some of your adventures are in Devon aren’t they?
Jan: Yes, Laurie’s parents, Alf and Elsie, live there so we go to stay with them when we can. I first met them at Christmas 1971, and they were so lovely and welcoming (despite a body turning up!) [Helen: A Mystery of Murder]
In the summer of 1972 we had another holiday and went to see the horse racing, and look round a racehorse training yard. We had some wonderful walks, and a delicious Sunday roast dinner at the local pub. A pity there was also that incident – but what can you expect when your fiancé is a policeman? [Helen: A Meadow Murder]
READ AN EXCERPT:
We soon reached Newton Abbot, and with a short walk from the station we were at the racecourse along with, or so it seemed, the world and his wife. Hundreds of people, all of us anticipating a good time, although I wondered how many would be going home poorer than when they arrived. We had set ourselves a strict budget of one modest bet each per race, with any winnings going into the ‘pot’ towards the Sunday Roast Lunch, booked for the next day at Chappletawton’s homely pub.
The whole atmosphere was buzzing with the expectation of excited pleasure; how the trainers and jockeys remained calm I’ll never know. The horses were prancing and jogging, tossing their heads and swishing their tails. The crowd watching the parade arena laughed as one of the young jockeys pretended to prance and skitter like his horse was doing. He grinned and waved as he prepared to mount, then set off at a crab-wise canter towards the starting post. Elsie had put her bet on him, and to our delight, he was the winner. His horse was the favourite, though, so I guess that wasn’t too much of a surprise, but I did think that the rider of the horse which came second didn’t make much of an effort to try to overtake during the last few yards before the winning post. A bit of extra push might just have altered the result.
Leaning on the rails by the parade paddock before the second race, Alf noticed someone he knew and waved. The man strolled over to us.
Alf introduced us. “This is Jack Woollen. He owns the training yard down in the valley, Four Horseshoes.”
I shook hands enthusiastically. “Laurie’s told me a lot about you, Mr Woollen. We saw your stables from the train, and I can see some of the buildings from my bedroom window at Valley View.”
“That’s right,” Jack replied, as enthusiastically. “Equally, I’ve heard a lot about you, Miss Christopher. Gossip soon gets round in our small community.”
He took my hand and kissed it, then did the same to Elsie and Aunt Madge. All these gallant gentlemen I was meeting; we didn’t seem to have them in London.
We were delighted to chat for a short while about the beautiful horses imperiously stalking round the parade ring, their lead ropes held tight by their grooms. Mr Woollen kindly explained the good or poor points of various horses – deep chest, strong bones, pedigree and such; Aunt Madge and I asked general horsey questions, my aunt’s being more sensible and useful than mine.
I blushed bright red when I (stupidly) asked, “What happens when a jockey falls off?”
“Protects his head and bits, and hopes a trainer doesn’t kick him in the same place for being b-useless,” came the immediate answer.
The jockeys trooped out from the weighing room, having changed into the appropriate colours for the different owners they were riding for, and verified that they were carrying the right weight for each race.
Mr Woollen excused himself to join one of them, who didn’t seem too happy as he was scowling and shaking his head. I had to look twice, but I was sure that I recognised him. When he mounted Mr Woollen’s horse and I got a good look at his face, I was certain. This jockey was the Irishman I had seen in the village arguing with Oliver de Lainé, the one who had pushed past me and was rude. The horrid man. I realised, too, that he was the jockey who had come second in the previous race. His name was announced over the Tannoy as Ruairi O’Connor. I was pleased that I’d not chosen his horse to place my modest bet on, despite it being one of Mr Woollen’s. And maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I was equally as pleased when he came seventh out of eight runners. Judging by Mr Woollen’s sour face, the trainer did not, understandably, share my pleasure.
In this fourth book about Jan Christopher, it is summer, and Jan is excited to be spending her holidays in Devon, more specifically with the parents of her fiancé, Detective Sergeant Laurie Walker.
Jan is a city girl. But narrow lanes lined with hedgerows, walk paths through shaded woodlands and burbling streams weave their magic on our Jan—and on the reader, seeing as Ms Hollick does an excellent job of painting the peace and quiet of the bucolic surroundings. Well: peace only until the first dead body is discovered, but still . . .
Yet again, Jan, Laurie and Jan’s uncle, DCI Toby Christopher, find themselves in the midst of a murder mystery. This time, things are made somewhat more complicated by the fact that neither Toby nor Laurie have jurisdiction in Devon, and instead have to stand to the side with gritted teeth as the local police force start investigating the case. There is no love lost between Laurie and the local DS—their antagonism goes back to their early schooldays. The relationship is not exactly improved when it becomes evident the local DS is bungling the case—so much so that Toby feels obliged to talk to his superiors.
By now, Jan has become accustomed to coming across dead bodies. She is also a pragmatic young woman with a sharp eye for details—always useful when solving a mystery.
A Meadow Murder is, in my opinion more cozy than mystery. For me, it is the vivid imagery of ripening hayfields, of sloping hills and dark rivers, that lingers—evidence of just how much Ms Hollick loves this corner of the world. And as to Jan, well it is more or less impossible not to succumb to her first person chatty narrative, casually weaving in details firmly setting the story in the 70s.
Further to Jan, Ms Hollick has a well-developed cast of supporting characters—all the way from Laurie to Aunt Marge, so collected in an emergency, so good at embracing the good moments in life.
A Meadow Murder is one of those books that does not expect too much of the reader, but rather lulls them into some hours of enjoyable distraction, hours best accompanied by a cup of tea and a Devon scone—complete with clotted cream first, jam second. Warmly recommended.
Grab your own copy of A Meadow Murder, and immerse yourself in country life during the summer of 1972 … and maybe solve a murder along the way?
Amazon Universal Link: this link should take you direct to your own local Amazon online store https://mybook.to/AMeadowMurder
Also available worldwide, or order from any reliable bookstore
All Helen’s books are available on Amazon: https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, HelenHollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/supernatural series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler.
She lives with her husband and daughter in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, enjoys hosting author guests on her own blog ‘Let Us Talk Of Many Things’ and occasionally gets time to write…
Subscribe to her Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Main Blog: https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @HelenHollick https://twitter.com/HelenHollick