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A Malignant House

The second in the Suzie Fewings series.

Suzie Fewings is a keen family history researcher. She jumps at the chance to visit a stately home, where she is given the run of the document chest. Is there a chance that she might be related to the Hereward family? Or does she belong with the tenants and agricultural labourers? Which side were her ancestors on when Hereward Court was sacked in the Civil War?

     What she hasn't bargained on is that there might be present-day conflicts running beneath the surface of this olde-worlde estate. Are her son Tom and his African friend Philip indulging in teenage fantasies? Why does the sinister man in the leather coat want her to stop visiting? Why have their reports to the police fallen on deaf ears?

     Soon it is the Fewings family themselves who are in trouble. As the plot thickens, even Suzie's children are in danger.

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    She was unprepared. As she turned the curve which would bring her in sight of the house, he was almost upon her. Tall, burly, swift-striding. He was dressed as before in that flowing black leather coat. The sunshine glinted on his shaved head.

    He checked, visibly as surprised as she was. There was no mocking greeting.  His eyes were hard, shrewd, assessing her up and down.

    'You here again?' The Estuary vowels were aggressive, lacking the slow warmth of the West Country.

    'Yes,' she said, feeling the need to justify herself, in answer to his sharp, accusing tone. 'I'm on my way to see Mrs Hereward. She invited me.'

    'Did she now? After she caught you trespassing on her husband's property in the middle of the night. Rather odd that, wouldn't you say?'

    His use of pronouns disconcerted her. 'It wasn't me; it was my husband. And it wasn't Mrs Hereward who caught him; it was a man called Marchant. A gamekeeper or something. Anyway, Nick had a perfectly good reason. He'd seen a . . .'

    'A white stag. Go on, pull the other one. It's got bells on it.'

    She flushed, angry with herself, as well as with him. How did he know all this? Who was he, to hold her and Nick to account?

    'If you'll excuse me, it's none of your business. We've aplogized to the Herewards and they've kindly agreed to overlook it. I've been invited  back. So if you wouldn't mind letting me pass . . .'

    He stood too close, too big, looming in front of her.

    'Oh, but I think it is my business. I don't think I want you here, Mrs Nosey-Parker. I think you'd  better give back your papers and go home and stay there.'

    He knew why she'd come. She hadn't told him.

    'That's a matter for Mrs Hereward.'

    He looked around him slowly, at the grounds of Hereward Court, with exaggerated surprise. 'I didn't know Mrs Hereward owned this. That's news to me.'

    It was on the tip of her tongue to say, 'And you don't own it, either. But prudence - no, if she was honest, fear - held her silent.

    She side-stepped to get past him. He moved his bulk to block her. She heard the creaking of his leather coat. He smiled, but said nothing.

    She dug her nails into the palms of her hands. She would not turn back. 'Excuse me, I need to return these documents. I have an appointment at two o'clock.'

    He looked down at her reflectively, for what felt like a long time. Then, 'Make this the last time. Don't say I didn't warn you.'

    She knew from his shrug that he was releasing her, giving her grudging permission to proceed. He did not move. She had to walk round him. She must not look back, but she heard no sound of his footsteps, striding on up the drive. He was still watching her.

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Why I Wrote "A Malignant House"

When I talk to children about writing, I often ask them to shut their eyes and imagine a colour they have never seen before. Try it. You can't do it, can you? You can only imagine the ones you've already seen.

   Imagination isn't really inventing things out of nothing. It's like a kaleidoscope. My mind is full of thousands of little coloured pieces of memory. What I do when I write a book is to give that kaleidoscope a shake and see what new patterns those scraps of memory fall into.

   The inspiration for this book was the invitation to visit a stately home and help myself to documents from their chest which I then transcribed. In that respect, the generosity of the fictional Hereward family is true to life. Needless to say, the characters of Alianor, Floridus and their children are my own invention apart from that.

   Hereward Court draws on features of several houses and castles I have visited, from Devon to Durham.

   I have also drawn heavily on my own family history research. Nearly all of Suzie's visits and discoveries have their parallels in my own journey of discovery. I have listed these at the end of the book.

     I am enjoying writing these geneaological thrillers as much as I enjoy the family history research. With family history, it's not just the colourful information I discover. It's the thrill of seeing the documents, buildings and places which are the primary sources. And it's also the challenge of problem-solving. There's a lot of that, when the usual lines of enquiry draw a blank and you have to to think how else you could get round the barrier.

     It hadn't occurred to me when I started that the Suzie Fewings novels are really two detective stories for the price of one. There is as much detection in her genealogical hunt as there is in solving the modern crime. I believe it is this which makes the books different from all those other novels, in which a story from the past becomes intertwined with one in the present. I really hope that readers will find ideas in this book to try for their own family history research.

    It wasn't a conscious decision not to use the common procedure of alternating between scenes in the present and scenes in the past. But when I think about it, I can see why it wouldn't work in this case. Family history is not an exact science. You never know exactly what happened. All you can do is assemble as much evidence as you can about these people, and make the picture as vivid as possible. And that picture often shifts. You think you know what happened, and then a new piece of information comes along which changes things. If I wrote scenes from Suzie's ancestral past, it would be as if I and she really knew what happened then. Instead, there is the same uncertainty about the truth which is true of criminal investigations while they are still in progress.

   One of the madddening things I find about this uncertainty is that I can rarely be sure which side my ancestors were on in the Civil War of the 1600s. I may know that the town or village where they lived was mainly for King or for Parliament. But even so, communities and even families were divided.

    As the past generations proliferate, the Civil War crops up repeatedly. I particularly like the title, A Malignant House. It works on two levels. "Malignant" conjures up something sinister and dangerous, suitable for a crime story. It is also the word the Parliamentarians used for the Royalists. A Royalist stronghold like Hereward Court would indeed be "A malignant house".

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