Arsenic with Austen: New Excerpt

Arsenic with Austen by Katherine Bolger Hyde is the 1st book in the Crime with the Classics Series (Available July 12).

When Emily Cavanaugh inherits a fortune from her great aunt, she expects her life to change. She doesn't expect to embark on a murder investigation, confront the man who broke her heart 35 years before, and nearly lose her own life.

Emily travels to the sleepy coastal village of Stony Beach, Oregon, to claim her inheritance, centered in a beautiful Victorian estate called Windy Corner but also including a substantial portion of the real estate of the whole town. As she gets to know the town's eccentric inhabitants—including her own once-and-possibly-future love, Sheriff Luke Richards—she learns of a covert plan to develop Stony Beach into a major resort. She also hears hints that her aunt may have been murdered. Soon another suspicious death confirms this, and before long Emily herself experiences a near-fatal accident.

Meanwhile, Emily reads Persuasion, hoping to find belated happiness with her first love as Anne Elliot did with Captain Wentworth. She notices a similarity between her not-quite-cousin Brock Runcible, heir to a smaller portion of her aunt's property, and Mr. Elliot in Persuasion, and her suspicions of Brock crystallize. But as she and Luke continue to investigate and events speed toward a climax, Emily realizes that underneath the innocent-looking rocks of Stony Beach lurk festering jealousies that would have shocked even the worst of Jane Austen's charming reprobates.

one

“Change of scene might be of service—and perhaps a little relief from home may be as useful as any thing.”

—Mrs. Gardiner to Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

A gentle late-spring breeze ruffled the tender leaves of the maple and cherry trees on Reed College’s front lawn, flirted with the skirts of the graduates’ robes and tugged at the edges of their mortarboards, then swirled up three stories to tease Emily’s upswept hair as she stood at her open office window. Of late this scene had become the favorite of her whole teaching year, because it meant the year was over.

She shrugged gratefully out of her heavy doctoral robes and smoothed the lace-trimmed ivory linen dress she wore underneath. When had teaching literature ceased to be a joy she looked forward to each morning and become instead a dreaded chore? When had her students and colleagues become a band of indifferent strangers instead of her own beloved community? Sometime after you left me, she said aloud to Philip, whose presence was one only she could perceive. None of it means anything anymore.

You only get out of it what you put into it, his voice reprimanded her. He never seemed to say anything new these days—only things she’d heard him say a thousand times before. Death must put a damper on one’s creativity.

Maybe I need a sabbatical. Time to write that book, finally. She’d been planning it for years: the definitive work on Dostoevsky’s conflicted relationship with his Orthodox faith. But Reed’s emphasis on teaching over publication had allowed her to keep putting it off.

Philip, for once, was silent. What would he say? You can’t run away from your problems; you have to face them. Or: It’s about time you stopped talking about that book and actually wrote it. Or, most maddeningly:You must do as you think best, my dear.

Too late to ask for a sabbatical for next fall, anyway. She could defer the decision awhile. As she seemed to be deferring all action these days.

She straightened the few remaining papers on her desk, filing some, placing others in her briefcase. Among them was a pile of mail she’d picked up from her campus box on the way up. Lit and Lang Department memos, a sweet handwritten note of thanks from a thesis advisee, next year’s academic calendar—and one stiff white envelope that had come through the regular mail.

The return address was in Tillamook: MacDougal & Simpson, Attorneys at Law. What on Earth…?

She stared at the envelope in her hand until Philip’s voice nudged her. Only one way to find out, my dear.

Apparently, the letter opener had left for vacation ahead of her; it was nowhere to be found. She ripped the flap open and extracted a folded letter.

Dear Mrs. Cavanaugh:

As the legal representatives of your great-aunt Beatrice Runcible, it is our melancholy duty to inform you that Mrs. Runcible passed away on May 22 of this year. Her funeral will be held at two P.M. on May 27, 2013, at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Stony Beach, Oregon, with interment to follow.

As a legatee under Mrs. Runcible’s will and coexecutor of her estate, we beg you will visit our office at your earliest convenience, preferably before the funeral. Please telephone 503-555-1407 to confirm a time.

Your obedient servant,

James P. MacDougal, Attorney at Law

Emily stared at the letter, unable to realize Aunt Beatrice was dead.

She’d been in—what, her early fifties?—a thousand years ago, when Emily’s father used to dump his children on Beatrice’s doorstep each summer while he toured the Northwest in search of his next teaching job. So she must be well into her eighties now. Must have been, when she died.

Emily was surprised by the strength of the pang that drove her into her chair. Aunt Beatrice, dead. That vibrant, seemingly ageless woman whose will and energy galvanized the entire village of Stony Beach, most of which she owned. How could she be dead?

And how could Emily have neglected her all these years? She’d written from time to time, but they hadn’t seen each other since—great heavens, could it be since Emily and Philip’s wedding?

It must be. Aunt Beatrice hadn’t wanted to leave Stony Beach for anything less than a wedding or a christening. There had never been any christenings. And Emily had never been able to bring herself to return to Stony Beach. Not since the summer she was sixteen. Not since Luke …

A tidal wave of emotion flooded her body, stinging her eyes and clenching her gut. A wave far stronger than her grief for Aunt Beatrice. She’d kept thoughts of Luke at bay for so long, she would have sworn she’d forgotten him.

But clearly she hadn’t. And probably never would.

His face sprang before her, undimmed by any trick of memory, unchanged by the passage of years. His thick dark hair and sun-reddened cheeks, his teasing smile, the deep gray eyes that could shift in a heartbeat from laughter to longing. Eyes that could render her breathless in one glance.

“Luke…” she whispered, but his image faded on her breath. How could she go to Stony Beach and risk seeing him again?

But no. He wouldn’t be there. He’d left at eighteen, vanished, untraceable. And Stony Beach wasn’t a place people went back to when once they’d gotten away.

She’d go and pay her respects to Aunt Beatrice. She owed her that much. After all, it was Aunt Beatrice who’d opened the world of literature to Emily in the first place—the world she’d inhabited peacefully and, in the main, contentedly for the last thirty-five years.

Emily read the letter again, wincing at the dangling modifier (which would have horrified Aunt Beatrice) but this time taking in its meaning: legatee and coexecutor. Clearly it was her duty to go, whether she wanted to or not.

Legatee. Aunt Beatrice had been a wealthy woman all those years ago. Some of the property, Emily vaguely remembered, was tied up under Beatrice’s late husband’s will, but the house was not—nor the library it contained. If Aunt Beatrice had left Emily her books…! That would be a legacy well worth claiming.

Funeral on May twenty-seventh. Emily glanced at the calendar on the wall. May twenty-seventh was tomorrow!

With shaking fingers she fumbled for the telephone, pressed 9 for an outside line and then the number of the lawyer’s office. A youthful, high-pitched male voice answered, and Emily pictured a Dickensian clerk, a Guppy or a young Bob Cratchit, slaving away with a quill on a high stool. Only, of course, such a clerk wouldn’t have had a telephone.

She introduced herself and heard the young man’s tone shift into full attention mode. “Oh, Mrs. Cavanaugh! I’m so glad our letter reached you. We weren’t entirely sure we had the right address.”

“I just got it today. Pretty squeaky timing. Tomorrow is not only the funeral but my first day of vacation—I might not have gotten the letter till August if it hadn’t come today.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that. But as I say, we couldn’t be sure.… At any rate, you will be able to come? For the funeral?”

“I’ll be there. I can meet with Mr. MacDougal on my way down, if that’s convenient.”

“Certainly. Would ten o’clock suit you?”

Tillamook was about ninety minutes from Portland. Not too early a start. “Fine.”

Emily finished packing up and paused in her office doorway for a last look around. Well, Philip, it looks as though I’m going to get a change whether I want one or not.

A little change will do you good, my dear.

But something told Emily that whatever lay before her, “a little change” would hardly be an adequate description.

*   *   *

Tillamook lay in a green bowl between the coastal mountains and Tillamook Bay. A placid town, as quiet and unhurried as the dairy cattle that peppered the rolling slopes to each side of the road. You had to love cattle to live in Tillamook—their reek pervaded the air, their milk fueled the cheese industry that kept the town alive. Cheese, of course, was essential to life, but Emily preferred to obtain it from a grocery store well removed from its pungent source.

Luke used to tease her about her aversion to cows. What’s not to like about cows? he’d say. Gentlest creatures in the world.

They’re big and scary and they stink, she’d insist.

He’d laugh, slinging his long burly arm around her summer-freckled shoulders. One of these days I’ll take you to my uncle’s and introduce you to Bessie. Nobody could be scared of Bessie.

One of many promises he never kept.

She shook off thoughts of Luke like a cow flicking its tail at a fly. He was gone. This trip was not about him. It was about Aunt Beatrice. Aunt Beatrice, who was dead and whose lawyer wanted to speak with her.

She found the lawyer’s office with no difficulty in Tillamook’s regular, numbered grid of downtown streets. At ten o’clock precisely, she tried the door of MacDougal & Simpson, only to find it locked. She stepped back in annoyance but then saw a slight young man with a violent shock of red hair and a dense coating of freckles bustling up to the door.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh?” he asked. She nodded. “I’m so sorry—had trouble starting my car.” He nodded toward an ancient Honda parked next to her PT Cruiser. “Just give me a sec.”

He got the door open and ushered her into an office that looked more like a professor’s than a lawyer’s. Two venerable wooden armchairs faced an enormous battered desk piled high with leaning stacks of papers, while books overflowed the bookcases on the back wall to form piles on the frayed carpet.

Emily glanced pointedly toward the door that she assumed led into an inner office. “Will Mr. MacDougal be in soon?”

The young man blinked at her from behind the desk, where he’d been searching for a clear spot to lay down his briefcase. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Jamie MacDougal.”

Emily forgot her manners and stared. This was the lawyer Aunt Beatrice had chosen to manage her affairs? There must be some mistake. He hardly looked old enough to be out of high school, let alone law school.

A flush crept up his neck. “My father was your aunt’s lawyer for many years. He passed away a few months ago, and I took over. Please don’t be concerned; I am fully qualified. Passed the bar and everything.”

His apologetic smile was so winsome that Emily relented. She had a soft spot for young redheads anyway—they always made her think of the children she and Philip might have had. “I’m sure you’re doing a fine job, Mr. MacDougal.”

“Oh, please—call me Jamie. When people say Mr. MacDougal, I still look around for my dad.”

Emily dimpled at him and sat down. “Jamie, then.”

He opened his briefcase and fumbled inside. “Just give me a second to find the papers.… Here they are.” He closed the briefcase and sat behind the huge desk. With his suit coat hanging off his shoulders and his shirt collar loose on his skinny neck, he looked like a second grader playing teacher. “Would you like to read the will, or would you just like me to summarize it?”

“I suppose I’ll have to read it eventually, but just a summary for now, please.”

“Okay.” He held up a thick document, on the back of which Emily could read The Last Will and Testament of Beatrice Worthing Runcible.

“Some of the storefront properties in Stony Beach go to Brock Runcible under the terms of Horace Runcible’s will. Then there’s ten thousand dollars to Agnes Beech, Mrs. Runcible’s housekeeper, and a hundred thousand to a trust for the purpose of establishing a clinic in Stony Beach. One of the storefront properties is willed to that trust also. We have a few small bequests to various charities, and then—the rest is yours.”

Emily was sure she couldn’t have heard correctly. Why would Aunt Beatrice have left all the rest to her? They’d had little contact beyond Christmas cards for the last thirty-five years.

“The—the rest? What is the rest, exactly?”

“Well, let’s see. There’s her house, Windy Corner, of course, and all her personal property. A number of beach rentals—I’ll get you the list in a minute. Three blocks of storefronts she acquired after her husband’s death. And, after taxes, I’d guess about”—he shuffled some papers—“six million dollars in cash and liquid investments.”

“Six—million?”

“That’s right.” Jamie grinned, his eyes dancing. “You have just become a very wealthy woman.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Katherine Bolger Hyde.

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Katherine Bolger Hyde has lived her life surrounded by books, from teaching herself to read at age four to majoring in Russian literature to making her career as an editor. She lives in California with her husband. Arsenic with Austen is her first novel.

Comments

  1. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Life is interesting! Yes!

  2. Katharine Kan

    I haven’t read all the classics, but a lot of them, and I agree with your post. And this excerpt – oh my, now I’m really looking forward to the book!

  3. Darlene Slocum

    I would like very much to read your first novel and many more to come. It looks like one that keeps one up too late.

  4. Joanne

    I love many classics, but always hated being told I HAD to read them in school. Glad I read them now as an adult. I can’t wait for your book! It’s on my “to read” list.

  5. peter greene

    It sounds interesting. Many Victorian novels seem to have this kind of twist, a young worthy person becomes suddenly rich and complications ensue. The one that comes to mind first is ” Great Expectations”. Is Emily Cavanaugh Pip?

  6. Tanya Sutton

    I’m adding this to my TBR! I love a good cozy and this sounds delightful. I agree with Mrs. Hyde – Poe, Doyle, and Collins have written some of the best mystery novels. I can’t wait to see how she incorporates the classics in these mysteries!

  7. Elena R Thumma

    Would love to win this book!

  8. Judy Dewall

    I always like to find a new author. book looks like it would be good

  9. Barbara

    The book sounds so interesting. I would love to read it.
    Barbara

  10. Cecile Fleetwood

    Yes! This is definetly my kind of book!!! Can’t wait to read more!!!

  11. Pat Dupuy

    That was a great excerpt! I need to read the rest of the book. It is a shame kids aren’t reading the classics. I don’t know if seeing a movie inspires them to read the book it was based on or not.

  12. Wilifred Alire

    Can’t wait to read Arsenic with Austen and follow Emily Cavanaugh in her search for the murderer.

  13. Margaret Heidtbrink

    I’m always looking for a good cozy or new author. But, I’m a little leary of books tied to classics. I’m never sure what the author’s intent is – taking advantage of the “known” work or just good fun. But this doesn’t seem to be an incorporation or retelling of Austen, so I’ll give it a try. Who knows, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

  14. CarolT

    Austen, the Brontes, what could be better?

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