A beguiling new mystery set in the unpredictable world of a long-running soap opera by Diamond Dagger award winner Robert Barnard.
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Robert Barnard is the winner of the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievemetn and the Nero Wolfe Award, as well as the Agatha and Macavity awards. An eight-time Edgar nominee, he is a member of Britain's distinguished Detection Club, and in May 2003, he received the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in mystery writing. His most recent novel is A Stranger in the Family, published by Scribner in 2010. He lives with his wife, Louise, in Leeds, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Bert -- I'm home," Gladys Porter called up the stairs, when she had let herself into the hallway of her terraced house. "I'll put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea."
She was about to potter through to the kitchen when her face registered that there had been no reply.
"Bert? I said I'd make a nice cup of tea."
Still there was silence from above.
Gladys put down her shopping bag and rushed stumbling up the stairs. Seconds later she was running down them, through the door, and out into Jubilee Terrace, where she fell into the arms of her neighbor Norma Kerridge.
"It's my Bert," she sobbed, her face a picture of distress. "Help me, Norma. I think he's...dead."
The viewing public, all the nine million who switched on regularly at 7:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, already knew that Bert was dead. Vernon Watts, who for the past ten years had played Bert Porter in Jubilee Terrace, had had a heart attack while crossing a road, had been hit by a bus, and had died shortly after in hospital. That was two months ago, in Highgate. Since then he had been written out of the soap, apparently confined to bed with a vague, undisclosed illness. Now, having been written out by the Almighty, he had gone the way ordained by a script conference.
The public had been grieved by Vernon's death. He had once been a comic around the Northern clubs and smaller music halls, and his public image was of a plump, genial man, a bit of a card. St. Stephen's Church in Highgate, where Watts had not worshiped, was ablaze with flowers from his fans, most of them addressed to the fictional Bert Porter. His real-life widow received very little media attention, but his Jubilee Terrace widow had been lovingly photographed sobbing as she came out of the church. His real widow did not mind her neglect. She was glad not to have had to pay public tribute to her hated husband.
"He was like a second husband to me," his television widow was quoted as saying to a Daily Star reporter.
In the studio canteen, after filming the scene of Bert's demise, Marjorie Harcourt-Smith, who played Gladys, dabbed at her eyes with a little lace handkerchief.
"I've been dreading doing that scene," she said, in her impeccably Mayfair normal voice. "And it was awful. Thank God it's in the bag. It was really upsetting."
Carol Chisholm, who played Norma Kerridge the neighbor, sipped at her tea and kept her eyebrows firmly unraised.
"But you and Vernon never really...got on, did you?" she said, trying to be tactful.
"I hated Vernon Watts more than anyone in my whole life -- barring my husband, God rest his soul. That's beside the point. We had a professional partnership. The fact that we also had a personal guerrilla war is neither here nor there."
It was a distinction Carol Chisholm grasped easily. She nodded her professional understanding.
"Of course it's different with Philip and me. We get on quite well. I don't mean I'm in the least attracted, or him to me, or that we'd marry if my husband and his wife died or anything like that. But we do enjoy each other's company. We have a lot of drinks together, as you know, and a lot of laughs. That means that filming the Kerridge family scenes is usually a pleasure."
Marjorie tucked a cigarette into an immensely elegant ivory holder. It was a demonstration against the fact that smoking was now forbidden in the canteen. The gesture was weakened by her failure to light up.
"It's Susan you can't abide," she said shrewdly.
"Now that's not fair. We're always perfectly polite to ach other. She's still young. There's lots of time for her to grow out of her..." Carol's voice faded away as she azed over to the other side of the canteen. "Look at her now. Snotty little bitch."
The Porters and the Kerridges were next-door neighbors on Jubilee Terrace, and (barring occasional upsets) bosom friends. They were fixtures for as long as the powers-that-be would allow them to be on Britain's most popular soap. The Porters had had just the one son, a ne'er-do-well youth who had emigrated to Australia, where he was said, as even Mr. Micawber was said, to be doing well. The Kerridges had a son and a daughter. The son was in the Merchant Navy. The actor who wants out of a soap is usually either killed or sent to the colonies. If he wants out with the option of occasional return spots he is as often as not sent to sea with the Royal or Merchant Navy. The fact that Britain hardly has a fleet of any kind these days has not impinged on the world of soaps. The next the great British public hears of him is likely to be at Christmas, when he stars in pantomime, that most degraded of musical fairy stories for children.
Which left the Kerridges' daughter. Dawn was her soap name, and ten years back she had been an enchanting child -- played by a dire little tot from stage school, now with the Royal Shakespeare Company and infinitely contemptuous of television soaps. Dawn had disappeared from the series for a time, spoken of but not seen, and she had reappeared four years before, a pretty, pouting sixteen, and played by Susan Fyldes.
The two women stared over to where Susan was deep in conversation with Dawn's current boyfriend, a young black actor with a pronounced public school accent.
"I wouldn't mind," said Carol, in a boding-ill voice, "if she didn't keep throwing it at you how bloody wellborn she is."
"Oh yes, we've all been told her family limps back to the seventeenth century," agreed Marjorie. "Who cares? And it's hard to see that as a qualification for working on Jubilee Terrace."
"But she's a good little actress," said Carol, very obviously trying to be fair. "She's got the accent off almost as well as you have, and she does the sweet ingenue to the life."
"But a shade vacuous, don't you feel?"
"Well, but that's not a drawback. The Kerridges in general are hardly likely to produce a mastermind."
"There is a blankness behind the eyes -- the ultimate giveaway," pronounced Marjorie magisterially. "Look at early Elizabeth Taylor films." She watched the young pair's close, conversing heads. "She seems to be getting on better with James at the moment."
"Darling, she detests him. It's just as with you and Vernon. They're good professionals."
"He's certainly wonderfully handsome," said Marjorie. "I could fancy him myself." "Fancy, yes," agreed Carol. "But not like. Considering that the two of them are currently the nation's sweethearts they are neither of them very high in the likeability stakes."
"I know Bill absolutely loathes James," said Marjorie. "He's been like a bear with a sore head ever since James came into the series. Look at him now -- just gazing at them."
They looked toward another table, where Bill Garrett and his Jubilee Terrace wife, Liza Croome, were drinking halves of lager. Bill and Liza played Bob and Sally Worseley, licensees of the Duke of York's. The character of Bob, established as the pub landlord since the series began, was an ex-boxer, now publican, whose barmaid wife was a perpetual source of anxiety and sexual jealousy. Rather unfortunately, life mirrored fiction, for Bill was in fact an ex-boxer whose tarty wife at home, and her goings-on with all and sundry, had provided staple canteen gossip for the Terrace cast since time immemorial. The fact that the wife had an occasional role in the Terrace did not help matters. Liza Croome, however, was the reverse of her television role: her blowsiness was a matter of makeup and accent, and she was in reality a gentle and warmhearted soul who had acted as shoulder-to-weep-on to Bill in his emotional troubles more often than she cared to remember.
"Of course Bill's dislike of James is racial," said Marjorie, with that air of omniscience that many found irritating. "We all dislike James, but Bill dislikes him because he is black."
"How do you make that out?" asked Carol. "I've never heard him use racial epithets, not about James or anyone else -- and he would if that was the way he thought. Bill is rather uncouth underneath."
"He's rather uncouth on top. But it's obvious. Bill was a boxer. All the best boxers are black. He must have been knocked to the canvas -- is that the expression? -- countless times by black boxers, because he was never very good. I'm sure he nurses a grudge."
"You're going off into one of your fantasy worlds," said Carol. "Bill was never a boxer, except to get a bit of money while he put himself through drama school. We all did the same -- waitressing, barmaiding, right down to going on the game. Bill doesn't nurse grudges through half a lifetime, and certainly not about being knocked to the canvas." She leaned forward. "But I think there is a quite different explanation."
"And what is that?"
"I think Bill fancies Susan."
"But he's old enough to be her father!"
"Didn't we just agree we fancied James?"
Liza Croome sat beside Bill Garrett in what once would have been companionable silence. They had often been thus -- or else Bill had sat there, telling her in a low voice and hopeless tones about the latest exploits of his wife. They were exceptionally close, though there was not a spark of sexual attraction between them. Liza knew him through and through, liked being near him, and could predict his every reaction. Almost as if I were his wife, she often thought -- the wife in a long-established marriage that had settled into a comfortable and comforting routine.
But in the last few weeks a new element had entered their relationship, something she did not quite know how to cope with.
"Bill," she said, a clear note of warning in her voice.
Bill sat up and shook himself.
"Sorry, I was miles away."
"What were you thinking about?" she asked, her voice back into neutral.
He turned to her, squared his shoulders, and said, as if he had received a sudden, divine cl...
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