In The Beginning, There Was a Murder by P.C. James
When her best friend is murdered, Pauline Riddell finds she must take the law into her own hands if she is to see justice done.
It’s northern England, 1953, rationing is still in place and the Cold War is heating up. Her fiancé is out in Korea, where thankfully that war is winding down, and she’s just setting out in adult life working at a local armament factory. She’s hard-up, everyone is, but Pauline can see better times ahead, a home, a family, a responsible job, and she’s preparing for that future. Then her friend, Marjorie, is stabbed to death.
At first, Pauline is only concerned with helping the police. She’s intelligent and resourceful but also inexperienced, just out of school and still believing the world runs in trustworthy ways.
Then she finds the police think they’ve caught her friend’s killer and they’re winding down the investigation. Pauline now realizes this is a world where you can’t always leave things to others, you have to get involved yourself. But, as she investigates and puts pressure on the police for more action, she finds the killer wants her out of the way and the police have come to suspect she killed her friend.
Can she catch the killer before she either faces the same fate as Marjorie or is hanged for killing her?
Targeted Age Group:: YA and older
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I love Agatha Christie's, Miss Marple. She reminds me so much of my aunts when I was a child. However, Christie doesn't tell us anything about how Miss Marple lived before she became a super-sleuth. I've always imagined her, like my aunts, as having responsible jobs regular lives while solving the odd mystery that came her way. As her reputation grew, she would be invited to help out whenever a more serious mystery arose. That's the background to the Miss Riddell series of mysteries.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
As I mentioned above, Miss Riddell is based on my aunts when I was a child. The cynical Inspector Ramsay is very much me. Miss Riddell's family is very much like my own family during those long-ago days.
No one challenged them and there were no sounds from the house, so they continued around the perimeter, examining each window in turn. They learned very little other than it was a place where office people appeared to work. Rooms had desks and filing cabinets, another a drawing board. Frosted glass on a thin window told them there were toilets too. After fifteen minutes of snooping, they were back to the main entrance.
“I want to see upstairs,” Pauline said. “That’s where we’d really learn something.”
“We’d see more offices and possibly a bedroom where staff stay if they work late.” Poppy said.
“The top part of the toilet window was open,” Pauline said. “If you boost me up, I could unclip it from the pin and reach down and open the main window.”
“And we could be looking at five years for housebreaking by teatime,” Poppy reminded her.
“The hedge and shrubs would keep us unobserved,” Pauline said.
“No, they wouldn’t. Companies have security people who check this stuff out. You’ll find the window is visible to the outside world.”
“Let’s go back and check.”
“See,” Pauline said, when they were once again beneath the frosted windows. “They’ve let the shrubs grow up and hide this window from the street. If they ever had a security check, they would have been told to keep this greenery trimmed and they haven’t.”
Poppy looked all around and nodded. “You’re right,” she said and clasped her fingers together to make a step.
Pauline held Poppy’s shoulders, stepped into her friend’s clasped hands and raised herself up. The upper window wasonly finger-width open, but it was enough for her to push up the handle and open the window. She stepped onto the windowsill and stretched up on tiptoes. Even with that, she couldn’t get her shoulders through the small opening. She could get her head in and look down. As she’d guessed, the lower, larger window was the same design as the upper one. A bar with holes and a pin that enabled the window to be locked at various degrees of open. A simple catch, halfway down the window, held it fastened.
She wriggled her arm into the window and reached down to open the catch. It opened easily. Now the bar at the bottom needed to be lifted. Pauline got her head and arm out of the window and took off her headscarf.
“What are you doing?” Poppy said.
Pauline grasped two opposite corners of the scarf in her hands and spun the scarf into a thick rope. She quickly tied a loop in one end and pushed her arm and head back into the small opening. It took two attempts before she was able to hook the bar with the loop. A moment later the bar was off the pin and she gently pushed open the window. She jumped down to the ground and grinned at Poppy.
“I’m opening the window,” she said. “Are you coming in?”
“One of us should stay here on guard.”
“It would be safer for us both to be inside with the window pulled closed behind us,” Pauline said.
“No, it wouldn’t. If there’s anyone in there, two of us would never get out while being chased. It’s better with only one inside.”
“Chicken,” Pauline taunted her.
“I’m the reporter. I’m the one supposed to do desperate things for a story,” Poppy said. “I should go inside. I might get away with it.”
Pauline shook her head. “Nice try,” she said. “I’m the detective and this is my case. You stand guard. I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“Lamb’s tails are cut off,” Poppy reminded her. “Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.” She clasped her hands again to assist Pauline’s step up to the window.
Once inside, Pauline listened carefully in case the noise she’d made scrambling over the sill had alerted someone. All was quiet. She made her way quickly to the staircase of the house and ran up to the first floor. Two rooms had their doors open and she could see they were offices, as Poppy had guessed. A third room, however, had its door closed and she hoped Poppy would be right about that too.
She was. It was a bedroom, nicely though not opulently furnished with all the usual bedroom fixtures and fittings. Pauline quickly searched through drawers, the wardrobe and cupboards. There were clothes – but all for a male. Poppy was right about that as well. It was a place for the men to stay if they worked late or had an early start in the morning. She searched the rest of the room, the trinkets on the mantelpiece, the grate of the fireplace, under the bed, behind the wardrobe and dresser, but there was nothing to show any woman had been here, let alone Marjorie.
Returning to the ground floor, she looked through the rooms, avoiding getting too close to the bay window that looked out onto the street. It was a regular, though remark- ably tidy, workplace with everything she would see in the engineering offices at work. Frustrated, she returned to the toilet and its obliging window, through which she saw a fran- tically waving Poppy who dropped down out of sight a moment later.
Pauline heard rather than saw people just the other side of the hedge. Their conversation was muffled but seemed untroubled, so they hadn’t seen Poppy or the open window.
Pauline crouched down below the sill and listened intently. The voices receded.
“Have they gone,” she whispered, hoping Poppy would hear.
“Yes,” Poppy replied, “but let me check there’s no one else about.”
She appeared a moment later, saying, “Get out quickly. People are beginning to come out for their afternoon stroll. The street is getting busy.”
Pauline climbed back out of the window and pushed it closed. She couldn’t lock it again but to a passerby, it would look locked. They crept round to the driveway at the front of the house and peered around the gates. When they were safe, they stepped out into the street and walked quickly, but not so quickly as to arouse suspicion, back to the car.
“Well?” Poppy asked when they were safely inside and driving off.
“It was as you said,” Pauline replied. “Two more offices upstairs and a bedroom. I searched it pretty thoroughly but there’s nothing there to show Marjorie was there.”
“Told you so,” Poppy said, “now let’s get out of here before we’re arrested.”
As they drove home, Poppy said, “Did you get anything at all from your spot of trespassing?”
“Even though I found nothing of Marjorie’s in the bedroom, I think I’ve confirmed Wagner’s affair with her. His car matches the description I remember Marjorie giving and now I have a local place they could meet. Marjorie could walk from work to that house, even if he didn’t pick her up.”
“All that proves is they could have had an affair,” Poppy said. “Not that they did.”
“If he didn’t kill her, why hasn’t he come forward to the police?”
“Erm,” Poppy said, “because he isn’t the ‘Eric’ we’re looking for or, even if he is, because he’s a married man in an important position and has too much to lose. In his mind, he didn’t kill her, and him coming forward won’t help. It will just cause him endless, needless trouble.”
“But that’s not true, it would help,” Pauline said. “And he’s obviously the Eric we’re looking for. Why wouldn’t he be?”
“Pauline,” Poppy said. “Things aren’t so because you want them to be. You may be right and he’s the Eric we’re looking for, but we don’t know that for sure.”
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