An excerpt of Murder, Actually by Stephanie McCarthy, a cozy mystery debut featuring a romance novelist who suddenly finds herself surrounded by bodies—and not the kind busting out of bodices (available February 14, 2013).
Romance novelist Elspeth Gray doesn’t have time for mysteries. She’s too busy concocting the next sweet offering in her popular line of dessert-inspired romances to waste time reading about dark and stormy nights and bloody daggers. But when the body of her nemesis, Jasper Ware, is discovered during her book reading, Elspeth is forced to give the mystery genre another look. After all, it was a dark and stormy night and the murder weapon turned out to be a 15th-century antique dagger! As Elspeth and her mystery-loving friend, Julia, race to stop a murderer, they discover the seemingly sleepy town of All Hallows harbors blackmail, passion and deadly secrets. Add to the excitement Elspeth’s scheming ex-husband and a handsome antiques dealer with a weakness for sweets, and Elspeth quickly learns that romance and mystery go hand in hand.
My notoriety began with a single announcement tucked in a corner of page 2B of the All Hallows Gazette. If you were reading fast you might’ve skimmed right by the four-inch square of copy under an invitation to St. Anne’s Rummage Sale. The fact that I’d been expecting to see my name didn’t make it any less painful.
Famed romance novelist, Elspeth Gray, will host a book reading from her latest novel, The Cheesecake Diaries, followed by Q&A and cocktails on Monday evening 6:00 p.m. at Inkwell Books. All fans and prospective authors are encouraged to attend this special event.
I put down the paper and sighed.
I had moved back to All Hallows after an acrimonious parting from my ex-husband, Grant, and was anxious to keep a low profile. But I’d always been a little intimidated by independent bookstore owners, and the owner of Inkwell Books, Charlotte Whipple, was an extreme case. She’d inundated me with phrases like ‘community responsibility’ and ‘fiscal synergy’ until I caved and agreed to host a ‘community event.’ It sounded exhausting, and as I glanced down at the blank screen on my laptop I sighed again.
I really didn’t have time for a book reading. I was at least fifty pages behind on my new book, and the deadline was quickly approaching. Maybe there are authors who don’t agonize over every word, but I’m not one of them. I firmly resolved to work for at least two hours (no Twitter, no blog, no email, I wouldn’t even turn on The Weather Channel). I’d just made my third cup of coffee and eaten my second Danish when the phone rang.
“What’s cooking, good looking?”
My best friend, Julia Berry, always asked me what was cooking, but she did so with an ironic tinge to her voice. Although I’d been touted as the ‘Queen of Dessert Romance’ (Romance Publisher Quarterly, June 2009), I wasn’t a baker. I found my recipes on-line or in old cookbooks and sent them to Julia, one of the finest pastry makers this side of the Hudson. If the recipe made it past a first-read (Julia was amazingly snobbish about desserts), it proceeded to her test kitchen for tweaking. If it passed that test, I considered including it in my book.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just working.”
Her tone was suspicious. “Are you eating something?”
I swallowed my last bite of Danish. Julia was my diet partner and seemed to take deep satisfaction in depriving me of the earth’s bounty, or in this case, Sweet Annie B’s Bakery.
“I’m just having some hot lemon water,” I said.
“You sound pretty peppy for someone drinking lemon water.”
“It tastes terrible,” I said, and made a retching noise for effect.
That seemed to satisfy her. “Are you ready for your reading tonight?”
I pondered the question. My public speeches were…awkward, and my last reading had been a testament to long pauses, throat clearing and an unfortunate water incident that had left me stained and demoralized.
“I thought I’d just read from chapter one until people look bored.”
“Just don’t make it too long,” Julia warned. “No one wants to listen to anything for more than twenty minutes.”
I figured she’d know. Julia was the public relations director at nearby Essex University and had spent years listening to potential grantors, donors and first class bores.
I assured her I’d be refreshingly brief and hung up. I wanted to get in a thousand words by ten, but I’d barely written more than a few lines when I was interrupted by a knock at the kitchen door.
“I hope I’m not interrupting?” Rose Elliott asked.
I pushed back my laptop and smiled at my neighbor. Rose and her sister, Sabrina, lived next door and had greeted my arrival in town with a pan of brownies from the recipe in my first book, The Tuesday Morning Brownie Club.
“No, come in,” I said. “I was just about to make some more coffee. Do you want a cup?”
For those of you who’ve never lived in the country, warning: it’s perfectly acceptable for friends and neighbors to ‘drop by’ for a friendly chat even if you’re on deadline. Moreover, you can’t tell them you’re busy. No one is ever busy in the country.
“I can’t wait for your book reading tonight,” Rose exclaimed. “This is the most exciting thing to happen since the Museum of Animal Husbandry opened last year.”
I had to smile. You couldn’t be irritated with Rose. She gave an impression of old-fashioned sweetness with her honey brown hair and gentle expression. Rose was the head librarian at All Hallows Public Library and ran things there with a vague inefficiency that alternately baffled and irritated its patrons. She also wrote an article for the Gazette, ‘Ask The Librarian’, and was the founding member of the Fuzzy Slippers Book Club.
Rose took her coffee and sat down. “Sabrina and I love book readings. They’re becoming a hobby of ours. We’ve already attended five this year.”
“I’m surprised you’re not tired of them.”
Rose looked embarrassed. “It seems like everyone’s writing a book now, with e-publishing, and when it’s someone you know you feel a certain obligation… but sometimes I think just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The last one was metaphysical literature and I could barely understand one word in three. I much prefer your style, Elspeth. I like books that don’t make me think.”
Before I could express my appreciation for this sentiment, the door opened again and Sabrina Elliot stepped in the kitchen. She was about forty-five, with vivid green eyes and abundant, tawny gold hair. Sabrina taught poetry and women’s studies at nearby Essex University and frequently lectured me on incorporating the ‘female consciousness’ into my work. I had no idea what she was talking about.
I thought they made an odd pair, with Rose traditional and sweet and Sabrina flamboyant and modern, but neither had married and they appeared cozily content in their house on Point Savage.
“There you are, Rose,” Sabrina exclaimed. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You’re blocking me in and I’m late for my lecture.”
Rose got up from the table and gave my arm a comforting squeeze. “Don’t worry about tonight. Just do your best and don’t ask for comments.”
They left and I sat down again at my laptop. I’d been hoping ten thousand words might have magically appeared on the screen, but it was the same expectant blank I’d left twenty minutes before. I barely had time to register my disappointment when I was interrupted again. It was the doorbell this time, and I mouthed an obscenity and raised my eyes to the ceiling in a silent prayer. Please go away. The bell rang again… and again. I sighed and pushed myself away from the kitchen table. Apparently my mention in the newspaper had made me a minor celebrity, and as I went to the door I suppressed a moan.
It was Jasper.
Jasper. Freakin’. Ware.
Jasper was the only other writer in town and I hated him.
I know what you’re thinking: sparks fly, witticisms are exchanged a la His Girl Friday; we fall in love, etc. If you think that then you’ve been reading too many of my books (thanks, by the way). It wasn’t that kind of hatred. It was rock-solid and dark, like a piece of obsidian, and intensified every time Jasper openly ogled my neckline and disdained my writing. Jasper was always asking me to come to his studio to brainstorm, but since I was convinced only one of us had a brain I suspected it would be more of a brainfart.
“Hello, Jasper,” I said resignedly. “Please come in.”
He walked into the hallway followed closely by his assistant, Violet Ambler, a small, washed-out looking creature with mousy brown hair and prominent teeth.
I led them into the front room and we sat down on the creaky ladder-back chairs (another country note: friends go to the kitchen; enemies, relatives and acquaintances go to the front room).
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked.
Jasper smiled and smoothed back his hair. He was handsome in a dissipated way, with receding blond hair, hawkish features and bold, dark eyes. Jasper affected a pseudo-academic wardrobe, which today consisted of a tweed jacket with patches, gray flannel pants and a cashmere scarf, and I watched as he adjusted a large signet ring on his pinky.
The man wore a pinky ring. That should tell you everything you need to know.
“I heard about your book reading tonight, Elspeth, and as a fellow writer I felt it incumbent on me to stop by and offer you a few tips.”
Of course it was incumbent on you, I thought, no one else even used the word. I stretched the skin above and below my lips and hoped it came close to a smile.
“Thanks so much for your support. I’m grateful for any advice you have.”
Jasper wrote mysteries, and when I first moved to All Hallows I forced myself to read one of his books just to confirm I wasn’t missing anything.
Jasper’s books were bloody, formulaic and crude. His main character, Inspector Grimaldi, was misogynistic, vulgar, and used disagreeable words in reference to parts of the female anatomy. Now, every time I looked at Jasper those words danced in my head.
“I think the first thing would be to start with your strongest scene. I know when I do my readings…”
His voice droned on and I looked around the room for a distraction. I noticed my cat, Blue, perched on top of the bookcase, idly licking his butt. I called him Blue because he had one green eye and one blue, and the affect was oddly disconcerting when he gave his unblinking cat stare as he did now. Blue was black-and-white and magnificently fat; so fat he could barely reach around his thick thigh to get to the promised land. He stopped and looked around as if suddenly aware of our existence. His tail twitched once… twice…
I sat up straight in my chair. Blue’s only exercise was what I referred to as his ‘parlor trick.’ He would jump from the bookcase onto the head/back/shoulders of the unfortunate below… Jasper Ware. There was a beautiful symmetry to the tableau and I almost held my breath. I saw Blue’s tail twitch a third time as he marked his quarry, and then he rose to a semi-crouched position, his ears flat and his back hair up-ended.
Jasper, impervious to his impending doom, had reached the point in his lecture where he quoted various past reviews.
“Inspector Grimaldi is a sheer delight from start to finish…”
Go, Blue, Go, I urged silently. Tora! Tora! Tora!
Blue stopped and regarded me blandly. If you want me to do it then I won’t, his expression seemed to say.
“And then the reviews really started picking up. Inspector Grimaldi is an absolute must-read for any dedicated bibliophile…
I forced myself to keep my blandly polite expression when all I wanted to do was gag. Blue’s tail twitched a final time. He had Jasper in his sights. He was really going to do it. He gave his gloriously fat haunch one shake… then two…
… almost ready…
… almost there.
Jasper leaned forward, loudly expostulating on the importance of timing in derivative narrative.
That did it for Blue, he made his move.
Blue crashed onto Jasper’s shoulder and I almost winced. At his last weigh-in he’d been twenty-eight pounds, and it was the closest to sympathy I’d ever felt for Jasper Ware. I watched as Blue sank in his claws, gave a playful squeeze, and then careened down Jasper’s back and out the kitty door.
Jasper yowled and grabbed at his shirt collar.
“That… damn… cat,” he panted.
Violet jumped up and tried to get him to unbutton his shirt. When that didn’t work she began making cooing noises and rubbing his arm. Jasper wrenched himself away and glared at me.
I tried not to laugh as he smoothed back his hair, still cursing.
“I’m so sorry, Jasper. I don’t know what got into Blue. I’ve never seen him do that before.” I rose and extended my hand. “Thanks so much for dropping by and for all your valuable advice.”
Jasper sniffed and regained some of his composure, enough to take my hand and move his thumb across my palm in a super-creepy gesture. “My pleasure, Elspeth. I look forward to seeing you tonight. C’mon Violet,” he barked at her over his shoulder and she scurried past me, her eyes on the floor. At the last moment she glanced up, and my breath caught in my throat. She gave me a look of glittering malevolence, of the kind usually reserved for cats and civil servants. One minute it was there and the next it was gone, passing so quickly I thought maybe I’d imagined it.
The door slammed behind them and I glanced at the clock. Only six hours until show time and I was still at least forty-nine pages from where I needed to be. I calculated rapidly. The reading would take twenty-three minutes, tops, with six minutes allowed for Q&A, and with any luck I’d be back at my laptop by eight.
As my mom was so fond of pointing out, I’ve never been lucky.
Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie McCarthy
Stephanie McCarthy is an attorney and mystery writer living in Peoria, Illinois, with her husband, three wild children, and a 100-plus pound bloodhound who provides daily inspiration. When she’s not writing, Stephanie is cleaning dog slobber, changing diapers, and plotting the intricate deaths of her many enemies (take that, Comcast guy).