Frances Brody captures the atmosphere and language of 1920s England while delivering a captivating plot in Death in the Stars—the ninth book in the Kate Shackleton historical cozy mystery series (available February 13, 2018).
Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party on the grounds of Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.
During the eclipse, Selina's friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can't help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs. Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths—and whether there is a murderer in the company.
When Selina's elusive husband Jarrod–who was injured in the war and is subject to violent mood swings―comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame.
8 June 1927
(In transit – Off to New York!)
Mrs Kate Shackleton
Batswing Wood Lodge
Dear Mrs Shackleton
Please forgive this hasty and confidential courtesy note. We met in Wakefield while you were undertaking certain investigations of a delicate nature. I was performing there at the Theatre Royal during a nationwide Gilbert and Sullivan tour. Our company is about to set sail for America where we have many engagements. We hope to impress the Midwest and find a welcome there.
To the point – I hope you will not mind that I recommended you to a friend and gave her your card. My friend is in the same business as I, though her star gleams far more brightly. Songbirds shush at the sound of her silver-sweet voice.
I told the lady that you are discreet and if ever she needs discretion and investigation, she could do worse than turn to you.
Expect her dulcet call.
With kindest regards,
The Northern Star
A week after receiving Mr Barnardini’s letter, I was sitting by the window in my drawing room, picking out a tune on the piano. It was a lazy blue sky and white clouds afternoon, the sort that artists like to paint. The garden looked at its best. A robin perched on the firethorn shrub. Bees and a tiger moth butterfly hovered over the buddleia blue chip.
I was playing a music hall song, ‘The Empress of Ice Cream’, and realised that it was because the letter was at the back of my mind. Mr Barnardini had not named his friend but there was just one performer who fitted that bill: Selina Fellini, known as The Silver Songbird. ‘The Empress of Ice Cream’ was one of the songs she had written herself and was a favourite with theatre audiences. I had also heard her sing it on the wireless.
As I played, I watched a Bentley glide by. At first I thought it must be heading for the big house at the top of my street. Mine is a modest dwelling, once the lodge house of the adjacent larger estate, sold when the previous owner’s fortunes dwindled. However, a few moments later the car came by again, this time on my side. It stopped by the gate.
It was the kind of car that my housekeeper Mrs Sugden says ‘will get you in anywhere. It’d take you through the gates at Buckingham Palace.’
A man, wearing a linen suit and Panama hat, stepped out of the driver’s seat and came round to the passenger side. He opened the door.
Glad to have resisted Mrs Sugden’s desire to put up net curtains, I stared, blinked and stared again, before deliberately turning my gaze back to the piano. In spite of her hat and veil, I recognised the woman in the linen costume. It was as if, by playing her signature tune, I had summoned the magnificent Selina Fellini. I have seen her perform twice, most recently last year at the Palladium. She is an artiste who crosses boundaries and yet, by all accounts, never forgets her humble beginnings.
She and the man in the linen suit looked at the house and exchanged a few words. The two of them walked up the path. Fortunately, they looked at the door, not the window and so did not catch me ogling. By his gesture, I saw that he would not come in, but that she would. Hastily, I withdrew, ready to answer the door.
I was already in the hall when the knocker tap-tapped. Miss Fellini was standing at a little distance from the step, the man a couple of paces behind. She apologised for calling unannounced, introduced herself and her linen-suited manager, Mr Trotter Brockett.
She is an impressive woman. The briefest way I can describe her is to say that she has a vivid presence. In a crowded room, she would be the one to turn heads.
Mr Brockett would not have been out of place on the Riviera. His shirt was the same bright blue as his eyes. He wore a striped navy silk bowtie and a navy handkerchief in his top pocket, a cigar tucked beside it.
I invited them in. Mr Brockett demurred. ‘Today I am the chauffeur. I shall take a short walk while you and Miss Fellini talk.’
Somehow, and this never happens with other clients, we ended up in the kitchen, a pot of tea and a plate of Mrs Sugden’s homemade biscuits between us.
* * *
As she lifted the veil from her hat, I noticed her wedding ring. Without a trace of make-up, Miss Fellini looked striking, and possibly beautiful, with dark eyebrows, high cheekbones and full lips. She wore her long dark hair in a chignon. A strand had come free and she began to twist it around her finger.
As I poured milk into a jug, she turned her head and looked through the window. ‘You have a wood. How exciting!’
‘I call it Batswing Wood. It used to belong to the family who lived at the top of the street. They sold it to the city about the same time as we bought this lodge house.’
‘It’s lovely here! We lived on Grimston Street when I was growing up. Our door opened straight onto the street. In the summer holidays, our little gang would go adventuring, wandering off to parks and woods. We’d pass houses with great long paths and drives. I always thought about the postman and what a long walk he had to push letters through the door, but your house is just right.’
‘Thank you! It suits me very well.’
Everyone knew her story, the local girl born in a poor but respectable part of the city, daughter of the Fellini ice cream family, and her rise to fame and fortune.
Her twang is still local, as is her directness. ‘You’re a widow, I believe, Mrs Shackleton?’
‘Yes. I moved here with my husband before the war.’
She sighed. ‘I admire you for staying put, and for setting up your own enquiry agency. Giuseppe spoke highly of you.’
This surprised me just a little because the man hardly knew me. His name came up during an investigation a few years ago. We had spent a very short time chatting together, in a railway station waiting room.
‘That’s kind of him.’
‘He doesn’t say much about it but I believe he credits you with bringing about his very happy marriage.’
I smiled. ‘I never thought of myself as Cupid.’
Matrimonial cases were something that I tried to avoid.
She sensed my wariness. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not here to seek your services in the romance department. I have a husband. He did come back from the war, though much changed.’ A brief sigh gave away more than she intended about her marriage. ‘He is not the carefree fellow who marched away.’
‘Are you here in connection with your husband?’
She looked startled, as if I had asked a question too soon. ‘Oh no, not that.’ She busied herself taking another biscuit. Everything suited her. ‘These biscuits are very good.’
For several minutes, we talked about biscuits. She explained the Fellini method of baking ice cream cones.
By way of encouraging her to say more about her reason for calling on me, I mentioned the letter. ‘Mr Barnadini didn’t say why you might wish to see me.’
‘Ah, no, he wouldn’t.’ She hesitated in a way that made me wonder whether she had changed her mind about confiding in me. Perhaps it was some delicate matter that at the last moment she could not bring herself to put into words.
Only after I poured another cup of tea did Miss Fellini begin.
‘I do have a difficulty.’
It was a difficulty that most people would give a week’s wages to enjoy. At the invitation of the headmaster of Giggleswick School, the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, and his party would be setting up their cameras and measuring equipment there in order to view the eclipse from high ground near the school chapel. Giggleswick is close to the village of Langcliffe. While staying in Langcliffe, I had seen the chapel’s shining dome from a distance. It is visible for miles across the dales.
With the Astronomer Royal’s permission, the headmaster had also extended invitations to others, including Miss Fellini. The date of the eclipse was Wednesday, 29 June – just two weeks hence.
‘Well that’s wonderful.’
‘I should like you to come with me. So much could go wrong. There’s the time the journey would take, and I have a show every night. There might be an accident on the road, or a train could be delayed. I’ve made no arrangements and we’re just two weeks off.’
‘Let me look at my diary.’ Somewhat puzzled by what seemed exaggerated anxieties, I went into the dining room which doubles as an office, and picked up my diary. I had matters to attend to during the next two weeks, but the date of the eclipse was free.
Back in the kitchen, I told her that I would be available for that day, if she needed me to go with her.
She nodded. ‘I do. You see, I’m not sure why I’ve been invited, though I suppose it’s something of an honour.’
It was obvious to me why anyone would invite her. ‘The astronomers will be viewing the sun and the moon. They want to be sure of a star to add to the mix.’
She laughed. ‘That could be one explanation and I would love to see the eclipse but I’m concerned about the journey.’
She explained her worries. Everyone knew the roads would be clogged and the railways packed. Miss Fellini was in the middle of a tour and with performances every evening could not risk being caught up in heavy traffic. Both her manager and her dresser urged her to be home in time to take a nap before the show. It would probably be necessary to take a flight.
She asked would I arrange transport from her house near Roundhay Park, to ensure that she would not be delayed. If I were her companion for the event she would feel confident. Neither her manager nor her dresser, Beryl, would take to the air.
A streak in my nature takes pride in dealing with practicalities and finding solutions. ‘It’s short notice, but I do know a couple of airmen who fly a de Havilland.’
She gave me the smile that shines from posters, picture postcards and magazines. ‘That would be wonderful.’
‘It’s a small plane.’
‘There would just be the three of us, Mrs Shackleton, you, me and Billy Moffatt. He’s a friend and a very funny and delightful man.’
‘Yes, I have seen him perform.’ He was a comedian people loved, one who tapped into life’s disappointments and distress. He turned worries into comedy and drew roars of laughter from misfortune.
‘Miss Fellini, I’ll happily telephone my friends – for three passengers?’
‘Yes, you must come. Billy would be no good in an emergency. He claims his interest is in gathering material for a few jokes. And it’s Selina. May I call you Kate?’
She could call me anything she liked in return for the opportunity to see the eclipse.
That word emergency should have alerted me, but it was said so lightly that I almost let it pass. Truth be told I was delighted to be in the company of such a wonderfully talented person with a reputation for kindness and generosity. Yet my usual caution was not entirely brushed away.
She must have other people who could organise the journey for her. I asked why she had come to me. Waving away my remarks, she said Giuseppe Barnardini had told her that I knew people who operated a small plane out of Croydon and that, unlike many of the barely qualified pilots who were offering jaunts for ten guineas a time, these airmen were highly respected, even in government circles.
‘How did he know about my connection with Croydon aerodrome?’
‘Oh, he has friends all over the place. He said you are the soul of discretion and utterly reliable. I know he has an old school chum in some government department.’
That smile again. Such warmth and intimacy. It was easy to see why people spoke so well of her, and those who hardly knew her thought of her as a friend.
In the hall, I made the telephone call. It took me some time to be connected to Charlie, the pilot. He jumped at the chance of coming to Leeds for a short flight to Giggleswick and back.
‘We’re taking a photographer up there the night before and bringing him back the next day so I can easily squeeze you in.’
‘Thank you! Where will you land? Miss Fellini lives near Roundhay Park.’
There was a slight pause, while his brain ticked. ‘As I remember, there’s a field in Roundhay, Soldiers Field?’
‘Yes. That’s near Miss Fellini’s house.’
‘Then that should be the place. I’ll check for permission and let you know.’
I went back into the kitchen to tell Selina the good news.
She was examining her perfect nails. She had heard my side of the conversation and beamed. ‘I must write to Giuseppe and thank him for putting me in touch with you.’
Again, that niggle of doubt crept in. She must know scores of people who could arrange a flight. It was odd that she should ask an investigator to arrange transport.
‘Giuseppe said that he recommended me in case you ever needed an investigator.’
She picked up her gloves. ‘I was in a blue funk the day I spoke to him. I had a feeling that something bad might happen. If this eclipse passes off smoothly, I’ll know everything will be all right and that I was worrying unnecessarily.’
Trotter Brockett, the manager who drove the Bentley, had found his way into Batswing Wood at the back of my house. I spotted him through the kitchen window, and so did she.
‘Thank you so much, Kate. I’m glad I came. Will you come to an eclipse party on the night of the 28th at my house?’ She gave me her card. ‘Then we can go straight from the party to Giggleswick.’
‘Thank you. I’d like that.’
She moved quickly, pushing back her chair, standing. She intended to avoid my questions.
I was not a slowcoach, nor too star-struck to push for an answer. ‘Selina, what really brought you here? There’s something else.’
She gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘It’s too ridiculous. I’ve been overwrought.’
‘Can you tell me more?’
‘Not really. It was my fevered imagination. We theatricals are good at drama.’
We were walking along the hall towards the front door. Close up I could smell her perfume. It had a musky scent, the kind of scent that might mask fear. In one of those fleeting moments of insight, I wished I had suggested my assistant Jim Sykes go with her to Giggleswick. Perhaps what she needed was not a friendly female detective escort but a sturdy bodyguard. ‘You said, regarding the flight, that your friend Billy Moffatt would be no good in an emergency. Are you expecting some kind of emergency?’
‘Did I say that? I suppose I’m just a little wary about flying. I’m glad you’ll be there.’
I opened the door.
The effusive Mr Brockett came along the path to gather up Selina. ‘What a wonderful little wood you have at the back, Mrs Shackleton. Splendid! Splendid!’
‘Thank you.’ His warmth of manner and congratulations were such that he might be giving me credit for planting every tree.
He escorted Selina to the car and then came hurrying back. I glanced at the path to see whether he had dropped one of his kid gloves.
‘Sorry, Mrs Shackleton. I know I’m a fusspot. Selina just told me that you’ll accompany her to Giggleswick. I’ll be most grateful if you will protect her. She’s very precious to me, and too kind for her own good. Total strangers make demands on her and she is very bad at batting them off, if you take my meaning.’
‘I’ll do my best, Mr Brockett.’
‘And do please make sure she returns in good time for a proper rest before her evening show.’
‘Yes of course.’
He thanked me, and turned to wave from the gate. I felt an odd sense of foreboding as I watched the car draw away towards Headingley Lane. Perhaps Mr Brockett was wise in refusing to take to the skies and make for Giggleswick. Perhaps he knew something that I did not.
It was only later that it occurred to me that she had not mentioned her husband by name. I remembered reading his name once, in a magazine article. Jarrod Compton.
Copyright © 2018 Frances Brody.
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Frances Brody is the author of the Kate Shackleton mysteries. She lives in the North of England, where she was born and grew up. Frances started her writing life in radio, with many plays and short stories broadcast by the BBC. She has also written for television and theater. Before turning to crime, she wrote sagas, winning the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin award for most regionally evocative debut saga of the millennium.