DEBORAH CROMBIE: I’m in London researching (and writing) Kincaid/James Book #17. (I do have a title. I love it, my editor loves it, but until it goes in the publisher’s catalog, I think it’s better not to put it out in the Ethernet…)
I thought about calling this piece “Pubs and Clubs in London” but was afraid that would give the impression that I’m not actually working. Not true! Nothing is more important to a London detective novel than pubs. My characters need places to gather information, to meet and talk, (some of those meetings might be clandestine…), and sometimes to interview “persons of interest” in a setting less formal than the police station. And sometimes, things that happen in pubs can have very bad consequences…
But back to research. I had a pub in mind for a very important scene, and although I’d seen it from the street, I’d never actually been inside. So last Friday my daughter and I met some friends there. Strike one. A very nice pub, but very loud and painfully trendy and absolutely packed, not at all the sort of place I need for this scene. Back to the drawing board on that one. Tonight I’m having dinner with a friend at a place in Bloomsbury that I’m hoping will be somewhere two people could have an unremarkable but very important chat in a quiet corner. See, research is essential!
So, with that in mind, I’ve visited some old favorites in the pub category. There's The Duke of Wellington in Portobello Road, my ritual stop after a long day at the market. Then, The Jolly Gardeners in Putney, which is just across the road from my detective sergeant Doug Cullen’s house. Aren't their little sheds in the front cute? (One of the houses just beyond them is Doug's, but I'm not saying which one...) And there's The Bleeding Heart in Hatton Gardens (below The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, where Duncan is a member.)
I’ve also discovered a couple of new gems; a place called Koha in Soho, from which one can see the stage doors of TWO famous theaters! (To my disappointment, I didn't recognize anyone going in and out, although I think one guy with a lovely Tudor beard must have been a principal in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE...) And I popped in The Hansom Cab in Earl’s Court Road, which just happens to be next door to the Kensington Police Station. Hmmm. (I think I know just who is going to meet whom there…)
But not all the book takes place in pubs! Here is a little snippet in an entirely different setting, from somewhere in the first chapter. (I’m writing in Scrivener so things often get moved around.)
Jean Armitage never set an alarm clock. She had awakened at five a.m. every morning of her adult life, winter or summer, rain or shine. She took great pride in this. To her mind, people who weren’t ready to meet the day were somehow lacking.
When her husband had been alive, she’d slipped carefully from the bed, tiptoeing to the bathroom to dress. Now, she enjoyed the freedom of switching on the bedside lamp, of dressing as she pleased, of making the bed with boarding school neatness. On this May morning, she fluffed the pillows and gave the rose-patterned duvet cover a final, satisfied pat. Crossing to the window, she pulled open the drapes and stood for a moment, looking down into the communal garden. The sky was a clear, pale rose and the first rays of the sun were just gilding the tops of the trees.
Her pleasure was marred, however, by the sight of the half-finished extension jutting into the garden proper from the back of her neighbor’s house. Jean frowned and gave a tsk of disapproval. Just because the people had suffered a loss didn’t give them an excuse to encroach on garden land. Notting Hill might not be Belgravia, but its communal gardens were just as important, treasures that must be preserved from the greedy and the careless.
She’d complained to the Council, as had some of the other residents on the garden, but so far no action had been taken. Well, she’d never been one to back down from a challenge. It was past time someone did something about it.
A few minutes later, armed with coffee, she let herself through the iron gate that separated her small private garden from the communal space. In fine weather, she liked to stroll the path that wound round the garden’s perimeter, sipping her coffee and taking stock. The perfectly raked pea gravel crunched under her feet and she caught the heady scent of the blooming Cecile Brunner roses. Clive Glenn, the gardener, had surpassed himself this year. The hedges were perfectly clipped, the trees were in full leaf, and the late spring flowers were in full glory. The garden had never looked more perfect.
She tugged her cardigan a bit more firmly over her shoulders as she walked. A slight chill lingered in the air, but the day promised warm and sunny. Perhaps it would give her a good chance to canvas some of the other residents for support. Jean Armitage was not given to sighs of contentment, but she couldn’t prevent a small expulsion of breath as she paused, gazing at the brilliant green swath of lawn that meandered through the garden’s center.
Then she frowned. Something white was bundled under a plane tree in the heavily wooded area she thought of as the grove. Those Polish builders working on the extension, she thought, leaving rubbish where it could blow about. Or had there been a burglary, she wondered, her heart quickening. Whatever the object was, it lay in the grass not far from the garden shed, and there had recently been a rash of break-ins in London’s communal garden sheds.
Any burglars would be long gone, she chided herself, setting off across the dew-damp grass with renewed purpose. She slowed as she drew nearer. What had looked like a large white bundle of plastic or paper had begun to resolve into a human shape. It was, Jean realized, a girl. A girl in a white dress, stretched out beneath the great branches of a plane tree.
The girl lay on her back, her face turned slightly away, but Jean recognized her profile and the dark shoulder-length hair. It was the nanny from two houses away, on the Ladbroke Road side of the garden. What sort of a prank was this? Sleeping in a private garden after a night on the town? Taking a breath, she readied herself to scold as she charged forwards. Such behavior was not to be tolerated in Cornwall Gardens, not among civilized people. She would have a thing or two to say to the girl’s employer.
Suddenly, the sun climbed over the tips of the treetops, the light falling across the green grass, the white dress, and the girl's outstretched arm in a tableau that might have been a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Jean stopped, her shoes squeaking on the wet grass, clutching her chest as what she saw registered more clearly. There was something not quite natural about the girl’s position. And she was still, so still. A sparrow swooped down, almost brushing the girl’s dark hair, and yet she did not stir.
The girl was not sleeping at all.
So, REDS and readers, who do you think will investigate this case? And what can you tell me about Jean Armitage? (Other than that a visit to the pub would do her a world of good...)