The Dark Mirror Murder – summing up

Confession time in The Dark Mirror Murder, with a twist at the end so do keep reading. You, dear audience, need to know whodunnit, whydunnit, whosolvedit and who the victim was.But first, a glimpse of the location:

 

Now, whodunwot? 

Mrs Swingle, the housekeeper. Her alibi is provided by multiple visitors, all able to quote her memorable guided tour of the house. She’s received a full apology from the force and given them all pots of greengage jam to show her forgiveness.

Clarice Bell, the piano tuner (or is she?) No, she isn’t. She’s the London detective, skilled in the psychology of cosy crime characters, who watched, listened and probed until the murderer revealed HIMself (for a he it was). She is linked with Marcus Righter – he plays Watson to her Holmes or would if this novel was set in 221b Baker Street.

Gary Leadthighs: We’ve found our victim. Done in on behalf of fed up neighbours everywhere. Nobody will miss him – not the cheated-on girls, not the unpaid band members, not the forest birds whose songs were drowned out. The band members will take gentler, acoustic careers on cruise ships, the many love children will benefit from his estate, and the birds will chirp anew.

The furniture restorer – or is he? Yes, he is. Mrs Swingle called him in and he was busy repairing the grandfather clock all day.

Eva Dorada: She’s only in the story because every country house crime mystery needs a beautiful young woman. A recluse who is always hiding in her wardrobe, she sees and does nothing. So she’s a red herring, but better looking.

The ghost: Well obviously it wasn’t him. He doesn’t exist, and anyway, he’s benign.

The visitors: Nah.They never got out of the bottleneck to the car park. They should have taken the ferry or the steam train, or reserved a parking space in advance.

Which leaves Neil Stephens, the murderer and Young Robbit his accomplice.

Neil Stephens was reading Dostoevsky in the boathouse as usual, pressing his people counter every time a visitor entered. To his irritation, the heavy metal form of Leadthighs suddenly cast a shadow over his Kindle. His annoyance turned to rage when Leadthighs produced a microphone for an impromptu gig in the tranquil boathouse. Seizing his opportunity, he pulled a lever by his chair, à la Sweeney Todd, and dispatched the ageing rocker to the depths of the Georgian bathhouse below. With the splash came a strangled cry – he hadn’t realised Young Robbit was in the act of hiding contraband at the very moment of his evil deed! But Young Robbit, who’s long coveted the position of lead singer in the local band, volunteered to ensure the body was never found, and all would have remained an eternal mystery had Marcus Righter not fancied taking a plunge to impress Clarice Bell that he was investigating every angle. Somehow though, as always, she got the credit for solving the case and all he got was pond weed in his beard.

DollHow to account for the DNA traces? Neil Stephens also volunteered to care for the house at times, and would pass his hands lovingly over the treasured memorabilia. And Young Robbit had attempted on numerous inept occasions to steal them. The important family heirloom turned up in the wardrobe with Eva Dorada. It’s her comfort object, and she keeps it with her always.

Now the twist you’ve been waiting for,which is my excuse for this nonsense. Well, in August we visited Greenway, the holiday home of Agatha Christie and I thought an homage would be an enjoyable way to blog about it. She and her husband were great collectors, as seen in part 1. We arrived by boat with a ferryman of great charcater. We toured the house, were invited to play the Steinway and kept well informed by the wonderful National Trust Volunteers, especially in the room with the World War II frieze.

We explored the Battery and the boathouse, with bath house below, where Christie’s novel Dead Man’s Follygreenway 2 is set (it’s a best seller in the NT shop). Here we met another volunteer who was reading Dostoevsky on his Kindle but had to keep stopping to count and advise visitors. To compensate for turning this pleasant and helpful man into “Neil Stephens” the murderer, I’ll give a shout to his son’s book promotion business, which he told us about when I said I was a novelist too (only 90 short of Christie’s tally).

Afterwards we were wandering peacefully in the beautiful gardens when decibel hell broke loose. The Stones, Bowie…great songs murdered by a deadly dose of distortion and volume. The source was idyllic (looking) Dittisham village across the river, famous for its beauty and its plums, and home to the Dead Man’s Folly ferryman. Fortunately the non fictional ferry was due and “Bob Robbit” delivered us back to Dartmouth and a perilous Kingswear walk along a narrow path perched between the tracks of a steam railway and a steep drop to the beach – but that’s another story.

Greenway 4
leaflet from Greenway ferry and National Trust

 

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The Dark Mirror Murder, part 1

Dark mirror fianl

Setting: An imposing Georgian house in the West Country, white stucco fronted and full of curios and family history. The property welcomes many visitors, who come to see both the house and the shrubs – some poisonous – and herb gardens, tennis court, lawns, peach house and fountains. The site slopes down to a river that flows to the sea only a mile away. Half way down there’s an old gun emplacement site with crenellations. A picturesque village nestles in a cleft on the opposite bank of the river. It’s a pleasant sunny day in August, just right for reading in a deckchair – what could possibly go wrong?

Here are the main characters present on or around the site that day. 

Bob Robbit the ferryman. Lean, wrinkled, fit, knowing. With a relishing wink he describesFerry the  village produce: “Red plums, and very good they are too.” Likes a pint of Redemption in the Cherub. Motive? He knows all the smuggling secrets of this stretch of the river.

His son (“Young” Robbit). Rather middle aged to be an apprentice on the ferry run. What ties him to this dead end job? What dark secret keeps him in the area and why won’t his father let him use his phone? Motive: he wants to be the ferry owner himself.

Mrs Swingle, the housekeeper. She’s a fount of knowledge mixed with surmise, gossip and repetition. She’s devoted to the house and its history. She’s a kind and generous old retainer who loves to make jam from the produce of the gardens, which she often gives to people who appreciate her unselfish work to preserve the house. Motive: she thinks disrespectful visitors who try to edge away before she’s finished her anecdotes should be taught a lesson.

Clarice Bell, the piano tuner (or is she?) Strangely unable to play the Steinway in the drawing room. The discordant noises she makes distract anyone entering the room, and eventually drive them away. At Acs pianoMotive: she envies the fame and financial success of the person who once lived in this house and will stop at nothing to get it, including an attempted takeover of her persona.

Neil Stephens, who sits pretending to read Dostoevsky on his Kindle, but really he’s counting the people in and out of the boathouse on behalf of the Inland Revenue who think the house owners are dodging tax on their income from visitors. His location also means he’s guardian of the dank bath house below, whose slimy steps lead into the dim murk of high tide. (In Georgian times people thought it was a healthy way to take the waters.) Motive: he’s fed up with being interrupted in his reading in what would be an idyllic peaceful spot had the house not been opened to the public. If it gets a reputation for violence and mysterious disappearances maybe people will stop coming. He also needs to account for why one fewer person leaves the boathouse than entered it today.

Marcus Righter, a literary agent. His clients provide him with only a modest income and he’s seeking a bestselling crime novel that would pay for his retirement to the Cornish riviera. He’s trying to write it himself but needs to act out some scenarios before it will come to life for him. Well mannered, quiet, a dark horse. Is currently growing the first beard of his life and seems pleased by how quickly it is disguising his face. Seems to be acquainted with the piano tuner but now you see him, now you don’t.

Motive: he needs money fast! 

Gary Leadthighs, lead singer of rock band “The Red Plums”, a Mick Jagger lookalike gone to seed, who practises and performs at the highest amplification possible to combat his worsening tinnitus. He lives this side of the river in the old gate lodge, but spends most of his time in the village opposite. Motive: fed up with having to turn his music down for old fogies wishing to enjoy the quiet of the river.

The ghost – an airman artist billeted in the house during WWII, who painted frescoes around the friezes of the drawing room showing scenes from the war and ending with a pin-up that Mrs Swingle thinks resembles Jane Russell for the troops to ogle. Motive: fed up with having his work described by the housekeeper as a contemporary Pirelli calendar. Worried the owners may paint over his work.

The furniture restorer – or is he? caning chair seatHe quotes 80p a hole for recaning chairs, but has no business card. This seems cheap – is he the right man for the job of restoring priceless antiques or is he just casing the joint? Motive: he ships stolen antiques abroad and thinks he may have been rumbled. 

Eva Dorada, a reclusive, beautiful but conflicted young girl – possibly an heiress? She has a phobia of having her photo taken and will not even keep a functional mirror in the house due to her fear of her own appearance. Motive: someone did take her photo and she needs to stop any possibility of it being published.

The visitors who have arrived by car without booking a space to park, and can’t get in. Motive: anger at wasted journey – they came all the way from Minnesota to see the home of their idol.

The story so far: Clarice Bell and Marcus Righter, who may or may not be romantically entwined, arrive on the first ferry as the house opens for the day, before the usual crowds have finished their huge hotel breakfasts. She avoids the entry fee by claiming she’s here to work on the Steinway. They stake out the joint, inside and out, and try the deckchairs. She reads the visitors’ book, he inspects the Mesopotamian artefacts, Mrs Swingle tells them about each room and dusts the piano for Clarice. They wander down past the gun emplacement, where they photograph two Japanese tourists at their request and note the the stand for a cannon, to the boat house, where they chat with Neil Stephens. Events unfold and…

…following the discovery of the body/bodies, the items below all show traces of DNA from the victim(s) and the perpetrator(s): the main entrance boot scraper; a ceramic lobster; an embroidered firescreen, and a collection of cigarette cases.

 

Detectives have elucidated that an important family heirloom has been removed from the victim’s possession but with the site sealed off, it must still be on the premises. Possible hiding places for incriminating evidence include the grandfather clock, an occasional table with hanging pocket, the lavatory, and a whatnot guarded by  Buddha.

However there are getaway possibilities. The ferry is still sailing despite the detective ordering it to stop. The steam train that runs to the coast is heard to whistle at its regular times. There are a very few cars on the estate, though they often get stuck in a bottleneck on the narrow track leading to the car park. And a fit hiker could march off across the steep forest terrain.

Steam train

 

And there we stop! Your comments will inform the conclusion of this story, to be posted next week. Can YOU guess the identity of the victim(s), the murderer(s), and/or the detective(s). What is the nature of the heirloom that has disappeared, and who can identify the real setting? Can you (and I) wait till next Friday to find out….

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

Words from the wise: writing with Marina Warner

Dartington courtyard

In the warmish summer of 2016 there was a wise and beautiful lady who ran a writing course in the grounds of the medieval hall at Dartington, among the trees and flowers where music plays and voices sing from dawn until the moon rises shimmering over the river.  I stumbled onto Marina Warner‘s course by accident, having been too dreamy to read my brochure attentively, and expecting only music in this enchanted place. But her welcome was as gracious to the wandering stranger as to the more studious participants, and this is what happened over the next five magical  days.

Replete with a breakfast of local fruits and meats, we passed through fertile gardens and followed a green slope shaded by a spreading mulberry tree.writng hut outside Steep stone steps led to a small wooden hut whose interior swelled Narnia-like to encompass a bay window and another storey below. Here we descended to write our stories on days when the rain lashed the leaded panes and the clouds grumbled through the grey skies. But such times were few: in sunnier hours we found secluded dells and tranquil shade wherein to nurse our newborn words.

“Cross-currents in the Ocean of Stories” was the theme: Marina led our journey through stories past and new, across oceans and deserts, from Mount Olympus through Arabian nights, crusades and silk roads and Celtic woodland, widdershins through conflict and desire and the eternal plight of the refugee. In safety we met monsters and explored the byways of fairy tales. We were a varied group of ages and styles, with backgrounds in writing and teaching and radio and television, psychotherapy and the visual arts. One of us could say with proud truth:”I was born in a place called Drama”. And because Dartington is a meeting place for young and old, raw and persevering and gifted and internationally famous musicians, we were also viol players and lutenists and singers, and when we were not listening, reading and writing, we were making music together.writng hut with flowers

Marina spoke of realism and fantasy, how Ted Hughes and Philip Pullman make the fairy-like corporeal and psychological, of the highly valued slave musicians of the caliphs and of the souls of trees. In our hut in the garden, we considered plants: no respecters of borders, cross fertilising, blow-ins without language. We agreed that fairy tales can be told and retold ad infinitum, in an oral tradition that seems everlasting but is yet vulnerable, a tradition that is bottom up, but used and reused by the gods of literature, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Boccaccio and Dante, Kafka in his “fairy tales for dialecticians” and in our own times by Angela Carter and AS Byatt.

We considered riddles, quests and prohibitions, objects that come to life and speak, (magic carpets; violins strung with the hair of murder victims), astrology and imprisonment, the princess who says no and the princess who yearns, the ghost and the creature transformed. We found love, hate, desire, and shame and redemption in these stories; curses and physical deficiencies; possibilities that break all known rules and yet reside within a universally recognisable framework.

And what of language? There were proverbs, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, rhetoric…strange languages and onomatopoeia. We learned from admonitions and fables and received advice. We told the time: predictive, recollection, time stopped as in the Sleeping Beauty, time postponed as in the Arabian Nights. Who is the narrator and what does she know? Is the child reliable; does the old crone tell the truth; can the messenger be believed?

We talked of modern fairy tales, making sense of horror. Marina told of a Nobel Prize winner writing of Chernobyl and of the Last Wolf of Extremadura. Does cruelty in fairy tales incite, or comfort? She is working at present on storytelling projects with refugees; some psychologists do not want to add to their trauma by using fairy tales; others see it as cathartic. But refugees are not a blank slate: they disseminate and collect their own tales on their journeys, as did the men (and women?) who accompanied Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. (See more details of the Palermo based project here.)

writing hut inside

Marina set us tasks. We’d to find an object in the garden and set a riddle; we’d to use repetition as in a traditional tale (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house down). We’d to write of an item precious to ourselves: jewellery proved popular here, but one man chose the participant badge without which he would not be fed, instructed or entertained at Dartington and I chose my glasses which enable me to see. We were asked to write a piece of persuasive dialogue.Some of us faltered, some of us omitted it, nobody failed, most of us bloomed. This was not a modern course, with aims and objectives and evaluations at the end, or if it was they were well disguised: it appeared that we meandered from curious to fascinating, from touching to heart-rending, from personal to universal, but in the terrible world of today it all made perfect sense. Marina quoted André Jolles: “The miraculous is here the only possible guarantee that the immorality of reality has stopped.”

It’s too early to say that we all wrote happily ever after, but we were set on our way, and I cannot recommend highly enough a reading of Marina Warner’s work. If you can combine it with a visit to Dartington, you will be in a fairy land of your own. May your good wishes be granted and bless you for reading.

Dartington window seat

 

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

A Dartington bonne bouche

I didn’t post last week because I was away on a music and creative writing week at Dartington International Summer School, of which much more when I’ve unpacked. But here’s a riddle from the writing course, inspired by a tree in the wonderful grounds.

 

A gaping mouth, one sabre tooth and heart shaped blackened eye

Skin wrinkled lines, arrayed from rigid neck

Hide turned to grey and white, once brown (a trace remains)

Rhinoceros top lip; muck growths along the snarling jaw.

 

I stroke the roughened neck along the grain

This armoured beast will live to strike again.

DSC_0631_2

This bark formation seemed quite terrifying when I took the photo; now home in suburban London I can hardly spot what I saw then. An example perhaps of the magic of a place that can inspire, and of the difficulties of keeping that inspiration alive?

©Jessica Norrie 2016