The Blood of an Englishman: An Agatha Raisin Mystery (Agatha Raisin Mysteries)

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9780312616267: The Blood of an Englishman: An Agatha Raisin Mystery (Agatha Raisin Mysteries)

The Blood of an Englishman continues the tradition in M. C. Beaton's beloved Agatha Raisin mystery series―now a hit show on Acorn TV and public television.

"Fee, fie, fo, fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman..."
Even though Agatha Raisin loathes amateur dramatics, her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife, has persuaded her to support the local pantomime. Stifling a yawn at the production of "Babes in the Woods," Agatha watches the baker playing an ogre strut and threaten on the stage, until a trapdoor opens and the Ogre disappears in an impressive puff of smoke. Only he doesn't re-appear at final curtain.

Surely this isn't the way the scene was rehearsed? When it turns out the popular baker has been murdered, Agatha puts her team of private detectives on the case. They soon discover more feuds and temperamental behavior in amateur theatrics than in a professional stage show―and face more and more danger as the team gets too close to the killer.
The Blood of an Englishman is Agatha's 25th adventure, and you'd think she would have learned by now not to keep making the same mistakes. Alas, no―yet Agatha's flaws only make her more endearing. In this sparkling new entry in M. C. Beaton's New York Times bestselling series of modern cozies, Agatha Raisin once again "manages to infuriate, amuse, and solicit our deepest sympathies as we watch her blunder her way boldly through another murder mystery" (Bookreporter.com).

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About the Author:

M. C. BEATON has been hailed as the "Queen of Crime" (The Globe and Mail). Chosen as the British Guest of Honor at Bouchercon 2006, she is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-four previous Agatha Raisin novels, the Hamish Macbeth series, and an Edwardian mystery series. Born in Scotland, she currently divides her time between Paris and the English Cotswolds.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

 

“Fee, fie, fo, fum. I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

As the giant ogre in the Winter Parva pantomime strutted across the stage, uttering the old familiar words, Agatha Raisin stifled a yawn. She loathed amateur dramatics, but had been persuaded to support the pantomime by her friend, Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar’s wife. The two women were in odd contrast: Agatha with her smart clothes and glossy brown hair, Mrs. Bloxby in faded tweeds and wispy brown hair streaked with grey surrounding her gentle face.

Agatha began to feel sulky and trapped. Why was she, a private detective of some fame, wasting her sweetness on the desert air of the Winter Parva village hall?

The pantomime was Babes in the Woods, but there were also characters from other pantomimes from Old Mother Hubbard to Puss in Boots.

At last the interval arrived. There was no theatre bar but mulled wine was being served in the entrance hall. Agatha grabbed a glass and said, “Going outside for a cigarette.”

Fog lay heavily on the car park and water dripped mournfully from the trees surrounding it. “Still smoking? Dear me,” said a voice behind Agatha. She swung round and found herself looking down at the gossip of her home village, Carsely, Mrs. Arnold.

“Yes,” said Agatha curtly.

“Do you know that only twenty percent of the people in Britain now smoke?” said Mrs. Arnold.

“I never believe in statistics,” said Agatha. “Have they asked everyone?” She surveyed Mrs. Arnold’s small round figure. “Anyway, what about overeating? What about a ban on fat people?”

A tall man loomed up out of the mist. “What do you think of the show?”

Agatha bit back the word hellish that had risen to her lips and said instead, “I think the chap playing the ogre is very good. Who is he?”

“That’s our local baker, Bert Simple. I haven’t introduced myself. I recognise you. I’m Gareth Craven, producer of the show. That’s the end of the interval. I’d better get backstage.”

“I’m Agatha Raisin,” Agatha called after him.

Quite tasty, thought Agatha, watching his tall figure disappear into the fog. Well, hullo hormones, I thought you had laid down and died.

*   *   *

She shuffled along her seat beside Mrs. Bloxby. The hall smelled of damp people, mulled wine, and chocolates. A surprising number had brought boxes of chocolates. Pen lights flickered, voices murmured things like, “I don’t want a hard one. Are those liqueur chocolates, you naughty man!” Children, used to slumping on comfortable sofas in front of the television, screamed and hit each other.

The curtains were drawn back and the comedian came on. “Hullo, hullo, hullo!” he yelled.

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,” muttered Agatha.

The comedian was a local man, George Southern, who owned a gift shop in the village.

He was slightly built and rather camp with thin brown hair and a large nose which overshadowed his small mouth.

“I hope you’re in good voice tonight, folks,” he said. A screen came down behind him. It’s the compulsory sing-along, thought Agatha bleakly.

Sure enough. The words of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” appeared on the screen. Why an old First World War song, wondered Agatha, and then came to the conclusion that they were possibly frightened that anything more modern would incur royalties. From previous experience, she knew that amateur dramatic companies seemed to think the eyes of the world were on them. It seemed to go on forever. He got the men to sing, then the women, then the children. “Follow the bouncing ball,” he yelled, strutting about the stage in his moment of glory.

The curtains were drawn again and opened to reveal a cardboard cottage. The Babes were played by two ill-favoured children, who turned out to be the son and daughter of the head of the parish council, which was why they had landed the parts.

“Here comes the ogre again,” said Mrs. Bloxby.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a witch?” said Agatha.

“Shhh!” admonished a voice behind them.

“Fee! Fie! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman,” roared Bert. “Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

He was a burly man with a big round head and small glittering eyes, wearing built-up boots to make him look like a giant.

Slowly descending on a creaking wire came the Good Fairy. It broke when she was nearly down and she fell on a heap on the stage. “Can’t you bloody bastards do anything properly?” she yelled. The children whistled and cheered.

“Shame!” called a voice from the audience. “Remember the children.”

The Good Fairy rallied, picked up her bent wand and faced the ogre. “I am banishing you to the pit from whence you came,” she said.

There was an impressive puff of green smoke. A trapdoor opened and Bert disappeared. The small orchestra started to play a jolly tune. A chorus lineup of ill-assorted tap dancers thudded their way across the stage. The pantomime dragged on to the close. At the final curtain, there was no sign of Bert.

“It was all right, considering it was an amateur show,” ventured Mrs. Bloxby.

Agatha bit back the nasty remark that was rising to her lips. The two women had come in their separate cars. She said goodnight to her friend, warning her to drive carefully, because the fog was even thicker.

As Agatha was nearing Carsely, police cars heading for Winter Parva raced past on the other side of the road. Agatha did a U-turn and followed them. “Something’s up,” she muttered. “Maybe someone’s murdered that dreadful comedian.”

Soon she could see flashing blue lights outside the village hall.

The thick mist meant she was able to get into the car park before the police taped off the area. Where was the stage door? That chap, Gareth, had left and gone round the side of the building.

She walked round the side of the building and found a small door, standing open. A policeman supporting Gareth Craven came along a corridor inside. “If I could just get some fresh air,” said Gareth. His face was chalk white.

Agatha stepped boldly forward. “I’m a friend of Mr. Craven,” she said. “I’ll look after him. You can come out when you’re ready and take a statement. I have a Peugeot parked outside.”

“Name?”

“Mrs. Bloxby,” said Agatha, fearing that the sound of her own name would alert the policeman to the fact that she was a private detective.

“Registration number of your car?”

Agatha gave it to him and then put an arm around Gareth’s waist. “Come along,” she said. “I’ve some brandy in the car.”

“I thought you were Agatha Raisin,” said Gareth.

“I am,” said Agatha, “but I didn’t want that policeman to know that. Here we are. In you go and I’ll get the heater on.”

Once Gareth was settled in the passenger seat and had taken a few swigs of brandy from a flask Agatha kept in the car, Agatha said, “What happened in there?”

“It was awful,” said Gareth. “When Bert didn’t appear for the curtain call, I went back to look for him. He wasn’t in any of the dressing rooms. I went down under the platform and there he was. Oh, God!”

He buried his face in his hands. Agatha waited until she thought he had recovered and said, “Go on. What happened to him?”

“He was standing there, very still, his mouth opened in a sort of awful silent scream. There was a big pool of blood at his feet. I couldn’t find a pulse. I ran upstairs and phoned police, ambulance and fire brigade. The lot. I couldn’t bear any more. That’s it.”

There was a peremptory rap on the car window. Agatha lowered it and found Detective Sergeant Bill Wong staring accusingly at her. “I’ll speak to you later,” he said. “Mr. Craven. Please come with me. We need a statement. And Mrs. Raisin, please drive your car beyond the taped-off police area.”

Bill must be really cross to call me Mrs. Raisin, thought Agatha. The young detective was the first friend she ever made when she came to the Cotswolds.

She decided to drive home and wait for the news the following day. Whatever had happened to Bert, it would be too late for the morning papers, but there might be something on television. But if it were an accident, then nothing would appear at all.

She was to get the news from an unexpected quarter.

*   *   *

The following day was Sunday. Agatha contemplated making one of her rare visits to morning service, thought better of it, turned over and went back to sleep.

She did not get up until midday. She rose, dressed and went down to feed her cats, Hodge and Boswell, and let them out into the garden. An icy wind was blowing. Both cats turned on the threshold and looked up at her.

“Go on,” urged Agatha. “You’ve got fur coats on, haven’t you?”

Just then, the front doorbell rang. When Agatha opened the door, it was to find a tired-looking Mrs. Bloxby on the step.

“It’s awful,” said the vicar’s wife.

“Come in,” said Agatha. “I’ll put the coffee on.”

She waited until her friend was seated at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee, and asked, “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been out a good part of last night. Mrs. Simple was in a terrible state. She asked to speak to Alf.” Alf was the vicar. “We both went to Winter Parva. The doctor had been called and had given Mrs. Simple a tranquilliser but she was still in a state. She said God was punishing her for being a bad wife.”

“Was Bert’s death murder? Was she saying she killed him?” asked Agatha.

“No, not at all. But it appears to have been a particularly vicious murder. And well thought out, too. A small square had been cut out of the elevator platform. Evidently it always descended a bit too quickly and landed with a bump. Well, when Mr. Simple descended, a long steel spike had been embedded in the floor so that it went up through the hole in the platform, right between his legs and up into his body. Alf and I managed to persuade Mrs. Simple to go to bed and we sat and talked quietly to her until she fell asleep.”

“Doesn’t Winter Parva have a vicar?”

“No, Alf takes services there twice a month.”

“Wait a bit,” said Agatha. “I don’t get this. How on earth would anyone have time to fix that spike and not be discovered?”

“Mr. Simple was killed the first time he descended. That was towards the end of the pantomime. Evidently he had been complaining about the speed it went down and said he would only do it the once.”

“But there would be a dress rehearsal!”

“I suppose so. His son, Walt, told us that no one goes down there except the blacksmith.”

“Do we have blacksmiths in this day and age?”

“Yes, of course. We have three hunts around here. And Mr. Crosswith, the blacksmith, also does wrought-iron gates and things. Bert had been complaining that the trap was a bit dangerous. Mr. Crosswith designed a star trap from some old Victorian drawings.”

“What is a star trap?” asked Agatha.

“Star traps consist of a permanent stage floor, made up of several triangular sections of flooring meeting at the centre, which may be lifted but which naturally fall flat. Under the stage is an elevator using counterweights that are heavier than the weight of the performer.

“To make an impressive entrance, the elevator platform is first lowered, at which point a brake is applied, to stop the counterweight falling. The performer steps onto the platform. On cue, the brake is removed allowing the counterweights to fall. The performer is thrust through the star trapdoor. When the platform hits the highest point the performer leaps upward clearing the trapdoor sections, which then fall back into position at floor level. With a puff of smoke, the illusion is complete. Then in reverse, the flats open and Mr. Simple descends. Do you understand all that?”

“Sort of,” said Agatha cautiously. “How do you know all this?”

“The Mothers’ Union was given a tour of the hall earlier this year to show how it had been used back in the Victorian days. The blacksmith gave us a lecture on the trap.”

“Do you think someone tampered with the brakes so that the platform would go down extra fast?”

“Maybe. But it went down pretty fast anyway.”

“How does anyone get in under the stage? Is there an outside door?”

“You can get through under the platform at the front. I know that. But whether there is another entrance, I can’t say. I know Bert only made one entrance through the trap, so it could have been tampered with any time earlier.”

Agatha lit a cigarette and watched the smoke drift up towards the kitchen ceiling. “Wait a minute. In order for Bert to disappear, someone below the stage must have operated the elevator.”

“I gather that the stage manager pressed a button at the side of the stage, which opened the trap and sent the green smoke up.”

“But the stage manager—or Gareth Craven, the producer—surely checked on the apparatus before the show.”

“If things went all right at the dress rehearsal, Mrs. Raisin, maybe a check wasn’t considered necessary,” said Mrs. Bloxby.

We really should start to call each other by our first names, thought Agatha. We called each other by our second names in the Ladies Society. But the society is long gone.

“What about the spike, or whatever it was that killed Bert?”

“I don’t know about that. Someone must have really hated him,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “Such an elaborate way of killing him!”

“The blacksmith must be the obvious culprit,” said Agatha.

“I believe he is a quiet, sensitive man,” said Mrs. Bloxby.

“Oh, well,” said Agatha. “I’ll need to leave this one to the police. I’ve got my own business to run and I can’t see anyone in Winter Parva wanting to pay me to investigate the murder of a baker.”

*   *   *

On a Monday morning, a week later, Agatha, as usual, greeted her staff before settling down to have her usual breakfast at her desk—one cup of strong black coffee and two cigarettes. Her staff consisted of young, blond and beautiful Toni Gilmour; white-haired gentle Phil Marshall; lugubrious ex-policeman Patrick Mulligan; young Simon Black with his jester’s face; and secretary, Mrs. Freedman. Simon had left briefly to work for another agency when he thought Toni had resigned. But when he heard Toni had returned, he had promptly asked for his job back. Agatha did not like Simon much, but had rehired him in a weak moment.

Agatha blew out a smoke ring. Mrs. Freedman gave an admonitory cough and switched on an extractor fan she had insisted on having installed.

“Let’s see,” said Agatha. “Toni and Simon, you have Mrs. Fairly’s case. She wants proof of her husband’s infidelity. Phil and Patrick, you’ve got two missing teenagers. You’ve got their details and photographs?”

Both nodded.

“Right,” said Agatha. “I’ve got Berry’s supermarket. Valuable goods have been disappearing from their electronics section and so far there’s been nothing on their CCTV cameras. I’m going to spend the day there.”

“Someone’s coming,” said Toni. “Might be something interesting.” Toni hoped it might be a job that she could do on her own. She did not like working with Simon. He was constantly asking her out on dates and she found it all embarrassing.

The door opened and a man Agatha recognised as Gareth Craven walked in. He was even better looking than Agatha remembered. She did a frantic mental check. Did she have coffee-stained teeth? Had her lipstick faded? Why had she opted for trousers and flat shoes?

Gareth Craven was a tall man with thick brown hair, clear grey eye...

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