In The Beginning, There Was a Murder: An Amateur Female Sleuth Historical Cozy Mystery 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:: Young Adult and up
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I've always loved murder mysteries where the amateur sleuth catches the villain when the police are floundering. My particular favorite is Agatha Christie's, Miss Marple. Probably because she reminded me so much of my many aunts when I was growing up. However, Agatha Christie doesn't ell us much about how Miss Marple became the super-sleuth of later life so I decided to create my own Miss Marple but with complete history. This book shows my Miss Riddell setting out on her career.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
As I mentioned, Miss Marple reminds me of my aunts when growing up. Miss Riddell is modeled on them. The cynical, weary Inspector Ramsay is very much me and Miss Riddell's large group of siblings is my own family of cousins when we were growing.
Newcastle, England, 1953
AFTER A LUNCH of ham and pease pudding on a stotty bun with too much tea because the sandwich was rather dry, Pauline left her office on her way to the ladies’ toilet. She rounded a corner in the corridor to find her way blocked by Hindmarsh.
“Hello, Bob,” Pauline said, as evenly as she could though her heart was racing. “What are you doing here?” He was a long way from the drafting offices and should have no sensible reason for being here. Had he discovered she’d gone to the police about him just yesterday? Even for the regular gossip mill, that seemed unlikely.
“I came to see you,” Hindmarsh said. “I want to know what’s going on. Why you’re following me.”
“Why do you think I’m following you?”
“Because someone saw you doing it.”
Those two mothers, Pauline thought angrily. “Does this person know me?” Pauline asked.
Hindmarsh shook his head. “No, but they described you perfectly.”
"There are many people who look something like me in the city,” Pauline said. “You have no reason to believe I’m following you, except maybe your own guilty conscience.”
Hindmarsh’s whole frame appeared to stiffen, and his hands became fists. “Don’t play innocent with me,” he said. “It was you and it was you who set that reporter on me.”
“What reporter? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now get out of here. You shouldn’t be here, as you well know. This is the Executive Suite, and you are stopping me from going about my business. Someone will come soon, and you’ll be in trouble.”
“Aye, mebbe,” Hindmarsh said, his carefully practiced socially climbing accent slipping back into his natural dialect in his agitation, “but ye’d better watch yoursen.” He turned and strode quickly away.
When he’d turned the corner of the corridor and was out of sight, Pauline continued her own progress. She had much to think about and she was going to a quiet place to do just that.
Back at her desk, she still had no good plan of what to do. If just thinking she was spying on him made him this bold and aggressive, she hated to think what seeing the Herald article would do. She could only hope the police would investigate and lock him up soon before she was murdered. But were the police investigating? Ramsay’s cool dismissal when she’d told him what she knew hadn’t been promising. It almost seemed he was considering her as a suspect.
That thought froze her. She was the last person to see the victim alive. Wasn’t that what they said in detective movies? He did suspect her. Her eagerness to help the police had made her a suspect, maybe the number one suspect. She could feel terror rising inside and fought to steady herself. She was imagining things. He was just being neutral, not giving himself away before he was sure her information was good. Another lesson, she thought, to add to the one about speaking to the press. This one was – be careful speaking to the police. She must learn to give information in ways that didn’t look like she was pointing someone out as guilty, even if she thought they were.
Her phone rang, breaking into her wild thoughts and its normalcy calmed her at once.
“Engineering Director’s office,” she said.
“It’s Janet over at Research,” the voice on the other end said. “Is Dr. Enderby there?”
“He is,” Pauline said.
“Can you ask if he could join Dr. Mullins and Dr. Wagner in the research conference room?”
“Certainly. Just one minute.” She put the phone down and knocked on the Director’s door. On being told to come in, she explained.
Enderby thought for a moment and then nodded. “Tell them we’ll be there right away,” he said. “I want you to come and take notes.”
“Yes, sir,” Pauline said, pleased at the break in her routine. It was normally only when the Director hosted meetings she got to take notes and do the minutes.
She confirmed the appointment and prepared what she needed. Enderby was there in a moment and they set out for the meeting.
“I want the notes because I don’t trust Wagner,” he said, as they walked. “And it’s not because I was in the RAF and his fellow Germans were trying to kill me only ten years ago.” He gave Pauline a fierce look as though she’d been about to accuse him of anti-German feeling. “The last few times he’s been here,” he continued, “he’s been shifty. Don’t know what it is but I want whatever is said, particularly by him and me, recorded and kept. Got that?”
“Yes, sir,” Pauline said. She understood what he’d said but had no context to understand what was meant by it. All
she cared about was that she appeared to be back in his good graces and for that she was truly grateful.
The meeting was uneventful, but there was no comradeship between any of the three main players, Enderby, Wagner, and Mullins. There was even less with Wagner’s assistant who sat quietly at his side without speaking to anyone, which Pauline thought odd. He handed Wagner documents when required and occasionally made Wagner aware of items in other documents but took no part, which puzzled Pauline though she couldn’t say why.
As they left the meeting, her boss said, “Type up your notes immediately. I want to go through them before I leave today and my memory fades.”
“Certainly, sir,” Pauline said, “I’ll have them to you within the hour.”
Back at her desk, she commenced typing, her fingers skipping over the keys as she transcribed the notes. As she did so, the notes took her mind back over the meeting and the people present. She saw what her boss meant. Wagner did seem ill-at-ease and not just because he was pointing out the poor performance of the company’s newest armored vehicle in the recent trials. It was something different, personal perhaps, not technical.
She handed over the notes to her boss, who said, “Sit down, Pauline. I may need you to remind me of some of this.”
For the next thirty minutes, Enderby read and questioned her. The questions were odd too.
“When he said this, did you see his face?”
“Not really, sir. I was concentrating on my shorthand.”
“Did Wagner seem uncomfortable to you when Mullins
talked about his last visit?”
“I couldn’t say,” Pauline replied. “I don’t know Dr. Wagner at all, so I don’t know what is normal for him and what isn’t.”
“What did you think of him?”
“Wake up, Pauline. Who else?”
“I thought him cold and stand-offish. His accent makes him sound very Germanic. He looked at me a lot, I thought.”
Enderby snorted. “Trust a woman to think that,” he said.
Pauline flushed. “That’s not fair,” she said. “I never think men look at me a lot. Quite the reverse, actually.”
“Then maybe you were the right person to take along,” Enderby said slowly. “Maybe it isn’t about our weapons and trade secrets, which is what I’ve been thinking. Maybe it’s him who has secrets.”
He smiled wolfishly. “Well, well, well. Thank you, Pauline.”
He paused and then added, “Finish up the changes I’ve made and get them back to me before you go. And, Pauline, say nothing about our conversation.”
She left his office and settled at her desk. The changes wouldn’t take long and would give her time to think. Wagner had looked at her a lot and she wasn’t any ‘Force’s Sweetheart’ kind of a girl. So why? An idea was forming in her mind that would be easy to check once she’d completed the minutes. Her fingers flew as she finalized the notes and rushed them back into her boss.
He took them and put them in his briefcase. “I’m leaving for the rest of the day,” he said. “Tell anyone who calls I’ll get back to them in the morning.”
When he was gone, Pauline called Janet.
“Dr. Enderby has asked me to type up his notes,” she said. “I can’t read his writing for Dr. Wagner’s first name and he’s gone for the day. Do you have it there?”
“It’s Gustav,” Janet said, “though he goes by Gus.”
“Oh, so it is,” Pauline said. “I can see it now. Thanks.”
She hung up, bitterly disappointed. She’d been sure his name was Eric. Deflated, she slumped in her chair and returned to the meeting and her boss’s unusual behavior, which led her to thinking about her own feelings about the meeting. Wagner did look at her a lot and what was in that gaze? Not lust, she was sure of that. It was a searching examination but of what? Her person? She thought not, but then what? It bothered her she was being so obtuse. There were things about that meeting she should have picked up on and didn’t until her boss had asked her opinion. With this level of performance, she could never be a detective. Yet another reason her fanciful dreams of being a private investigator were nonsensical; she had no intuition about people.
She placed the cover over her typewriter and left the office early, something she had never done before. When the cat is away, she thought, the mice, even a small country mouse such as herself, can play.
Once outside, she made her way to the nearest phone box. For the first time, Poppy was in the office and she was put through.
“Have you got a camera?” Pauline asked, not waiting for the usual niceties.
“A camera?” Poppy said.
“Yes, do you have one?”
“Oh, I thought reporters would have cameras,” Pauline
“Photographers take the pictures. Reporters write the stories. Demarcation, brother, or in this case, sister.”
“Could you get a photographer to take a photo of Hindmarsh?”
“He would need paying and it would be expensive.”
“I thought maybe you could say you were writing a story or something like that.”
“What is this photo for?”
“I want to ask the staff at the pub where the fight was if they recognize him and his friends.”
“And you think they’ll tell you?”
“I’ll tell them I’m a freelance reporter doing a story.”
“Maybe I should do this. I at least have some accreditation,” Poppy said.
“If you would, yes,” Pauline replied, “but you still need a photo.”
“It’s the Newcastle Races on Thursday,” Poppy said. “Our photographer will be going. I’ll suggest a story idea and go into town with him. He’ll take the photo if I ask.”
“Wonderful,” Pauline said. “I want to go with you though, to be sure he photographs the right man, and also two more.”
Pauline told her what she’d seen.
“So, three possible suspects then,” Poppy said. “I see a story here already. When can we meet on Thursday?”
“If you and the photographer can meet me outside the western gate of the factory, I’ll meet you there at three-thirty and we’ll see all three as they leave.”
The wait until Thursday quitting time felt like a lifetime, but now, as she waited with Poppy and the photographer, watching the men streaming out of the plant, she was dismayed. From where they were hidden, all the men leaving the plant looked unidentifiable and this precious opportunity was going to be lost.
“We have to get closer,” Pauline said. The three left the shelter of the buildings and moved down toward the oncoming line of men.
“There,” Pauline said, pointing at Hindmarsh as he met his two friends. Her movement seemed to catch his eye and his eyes met hers in a furious glare of recognition. The photographer began snapping as the three men began heading toward them. They backed away with the camera still clicking but the three men began running toward them.
“Run,” Poppy said, pushing Pauline.
Pauline ran, though she knew this could only end one way. Her shoes, sensible enough, weren’t suitable for running and her skirt was too constricting. She heard Poppy and the photographer arguing with Hindmarsh and the others. She ran on up the street and away from the noise.
At the top, where the street met a wider road, she saw a bus approaching a nearby bus stop. It was heading out of town, but it was a lifesaver. She caught it and it pulled away before Poppy, the photographer or Hindmarsh and friends appeared around the corner.
She’d escaped for the moment, but her life now really was in danger. Hindmarsh knew exactly where to find her and there was no escape when she was entering or leaving the factory gates. By the time she’d left the outward-bound bus and boarded a city-bound bus, she’d decided to go straight to see Inspector Ramsay. Then she’d talk to her boss first thing in the morning about using an executive entrance for getting to work.
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