Tag Archives: Amazon Kindle

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback

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Novel Landscapes: Green Grow the Rushes

I have just seen the trailer for what looks a wonderfully naff film about the burgeoning romance between a certain Kate and William. What strikes me about it is the complete lack of sense of place – in this case St Andrews, which really ought to be the star of the piece as an all round very romantic place.

This got me thinking about place in my work and how I like to use places that I know or visit as a jumping off point for my imagination. I have talked a bit about this process here for The Daughters of Blane, so I thought it would be fun to have a look at some of the other locations I’ve used. Being your own location manager is one of the best bits of writing fiction and much easier than fanatasy casting.

I shall try not to give away too much of the story as I do this, in case you haven’t read it.

Green Grow the Rushes starts in the Scottish Borders, in a country house called the Quarro. The location and general setting of the The Quarro is Traquair House

but the house described in the book is Errdig, near Wrexham.

Errdig is a complete time capsule of a house with all the staff quarters beautifully preserved and has the most extraordinary other worldly quality to the place which seemed perfect for the opening phase on the novel, when the characters all fall in love with the wrong people.

The next phase of the story is in Edwardian Edinburgh and I had my heroine Jessie and her new husband set up home in a flat in Marchmont Road that actually belonged to some friends we had at the time. But the best place to get the idea of a middle class flat in a Scottish city of the time is to go to the Tenement House Museum in Glasgow.

Ralph Erskine and his family live on the other side of Edinburgh in Rothesay Terrace, in a house that was in fact built for the owner of the Scotsman newspaper.

It is now the Melvin House Hotel and currently being refurbished. I shall go and have a look when it is done!

Alix, Ralph’s sister goes off to study at St Andrews University, where she lives, like many respectable women students of her day in the all female hall of residence, University Hall.

I lived here myself for 2 years. When my mother (ex Newnham College) dropped me off for my first term she remarked “This is just like Newnham” which is what the founder, also ex-Newnham, intended.

The Erskine family decide to retire to Fife and buy an old mansior near Cupar, which they hire Philip Winterfield (the architect hero of my first novel) to remodel for them. This house is called Allansfield and is inspired by the very wonderful Hill of Tarvit, also near Cupar.  Sadly, because of financial squeezes, the house is now closed but the gardens are still open.

In fact, I love this house so much I have included it in my only contemporary novel so far, The Wild Garden, (coming soon as an ebook) and the house still belongs to the Erskine family.

It features a wonderful, state of the art Edwardian kitchen and adjoining Butler’s Pantry (with a wooden sink) as well as some incredibly beautiful rooms for the family to live in. It is terribly sad that it’s closed and I can’t send you all off for a day trip there.

If any of this takes your fancy you can find out more about where to buy Green Grow the Rushes here.

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How to read Ebooks

A guest post by Dr Julian Smart

Finding ebooks a bit of a minefield? It’s an exciting time for digital book technology but there’s plenty of scope for confusion and decision-making paralysis. In this article I’ll try to lay out the major alternatives for reading ebooks.

Why go digital?

First, a little bit of a puff for ebooks – skip this bit if I’m preaching to the converted!

Basic book technology hasn’t changed significantly for hundreds of years so it’s natural that there will be some resistance to a reinvention of them. Admittedly, less resistance given that most of us have been habituated to reading words on screens for the last few decades. We’re also getting used to the fact that the way our content is delivered is changing – the advent of CDs, DVDs, digital movie downloads and streaming catch-up services have all made us less concerned with the physical media, and more aware that it’s the content that is important. People also have limited space for books, and for some kinds of content, if you’re only going to consume the book once and move on to the next, why accumulate the physical carcasses of your past reads? Of course, the pleasure of books as physical objects is never going to disappear, but not all books are destined to be kept.

Reading a book on a regular computer screen is a somewhat unsatisfactory experience. The fixed nature of the screen, the distractions of other applications and the eye-strain-inducing LCD monitor technology all degrade one’s enjoyment and concentration. So the arrival of dedicated reading devices can be seen as a massive boon for book-lovers, who now have the flexibility and immediacy of digital book delivery combined with a portable and eye-friendly way to consume content. You can travel with a choice of hundreds of books now, and you can adjust text size to suit your eyesight. You can even have your book read out to you if your eyes are not up to it. Far from reducing the status of the book, the dedicated ebook reader is the ultimate compliment to the form: it turbo-charges your reading.

For authors, of course, the advantages are enormous since it allows circumvention of the conventional gatekeeping roles of publishers, agents and (to a lesser extent) retailers. The consequences of opening the floodgates presents a quality and marketing challenge that will not easily be solved, but the freeing of the book from the conventional arbiters of taste has to be an extremely positive force on balance.

Dedicated reader devices

The company making most of the running at the moment is Amazon with their Kindle reader, now at version 3 which means the new purchaser gets the advantage of many improvements over the previous generations. For an affordable price, the Kindle 3 provides a 6” grey-scale screen that’s readable in sunlight, speech synthesis, a mini keyboard, and both USB and wireless links (WiFi and optionally 3G) giving almost instant access to 400,000 books to purchase from Amazon and many more free books from a variety of sources.

Unlike most ebook readers, the Kindle uses a proprietary book format, Mobipocket, and does not support the open standard Epub. This is probably the most glaring downside of the Kindle; there’s a lock-in that you have to accept if you go the Kindle route. However, you can read Mobipocket books on the Kindle that have no DRM (Digital Rights Management) and you can easily convert files from other formats to Mobipocket, to read on your Kindle without going via the Amazon Kindle store. Also, most mobile and not-so-mobile devices have a Kindle app that allows you to read all your Amazon-purchased books. So you can read them on your PC, Mac, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, Android device and other gadgets, all synchronized so you don’t have to worry about copying purchased files between devices. Buy “The Butchered Man” on your PC and you’ll immediately be able to read it on your iPhone or Kindle. Stop reading a title on your Android phone, and pick it up at the same place on your iPod Touch later. This all works very smoothly, and Amazon have pretty much perfected the whole process of purchase and instant delivery to the consumer. The addition of a web browser and audio file support are icing on an already very tasty cake. (Don’t expect to use the web browser a lot, though; it’s a bit fiddly to navigate, but it’s fine for accessing free books on web sites, checking your email or getting a quick news fix.)

You’ll need a cover for the Kindle, although you’ll initially wince a bit over the price. Amazon’s covers do make it easier to hold the gadget without pressing buttons accidentally, and they provide good and stylish protection.

If you’re not sold on the Kindle and Amazon way of life, you will probably be interested in the Sony readers. They’re metallic and therefore shinier than the Kindle, so that’s a plus right there if you’re a magpie. One of the Sony’s more serious advantages is the provision of a touch screen. As many people have commented, in this age of the touch screen, it’s so tempting to try to prod the Kindle screen to turn pages or access options. Alas this will be in vain on the Kindle, but not on the Sony reader, which arguably has the edge in making digital book reading feel natural. However Sony have rather wiped out this advantage by not providing wireless internet, so all books must be transferred by a cable attached to your PC or Mac, or via a memory card. Maybe I’m lazy, but this feels very last-century compared with getting your books immediately over the ether wherever you are in the house (or in the case of the 3G Kindle version, anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal). The Sony readers are also considerably more expensive than the basic Kindle 3 model, which might be more forgiveable if they had WiFi on board. Sony readers do have expandable memory, but that’s not really an issue when the Kindle has several gigabytes of memory and a much easier way of getting books onto the device.

Stateside, the book giant Barnes & Noble have taken an interesting path with their Nook reader, which now has a colour LCD screen instead of an E-ink display. So it’s more like a general-purpose tablet device – they’re sacrificing battery life and long-term readability for the ability to display magazines, comics, children’s picture books and so on. It depends on what you’ll use it for but if you’re mostly a novel reader, it’s probably not the best choice.

Other ebook readers to consider include the Elonex eBook, Bookeen Cybook Opus and Libresco Iliad (see links below). They may well be good, but they will find to hard to compete with Amazon and Sony, so one has to wonder about their long-term future and support.

Reading on existing devices

Of course, you don’t have to use a dedicated ebook reader; as mentioned, you can use the Kindle app on most gadgets including the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets. Or you can buy your books from Apple’s bookstore and read them in the Apple iBooks reader app. The iPad doesn’t make the best ebook reader since it’s relatively heavy and (except in the dark) the screen isn’t so nice to read for long periods. Forget reading in direct sunlight, too. But then you probably weren’t thinking of taking an expensive gadget like the iPad to the beach…

On the desktop you can use Kindle for Mac or PC, or Adobe Digital Editions if you want to read Epub books from the Sony store, for example. On Linux, Windows and some mobile devices, you can use the open source FBreader application for non-DRM’ed books.

Summary

To keep your purchasing decision simple, consider the Kindle 3 and the Sony PRS series, and give the other machines a look if you’re feeling adventurous. Tablets, iPod Touch and phones make reasonable casual reading devices. However, if you mostly read monochrome books, don’t assume that that an LCD-based tablet device will substitute for a dedicated reader – it’s partly a matter of taste, but there’s a reason that E-ink screens are used in dedicated readers; the consequent readability and long, long battery life are important, as you will find if you are a keen reader. Besides, do you really want the distractions of the web and apps when you’re reading a book? The odds are high that you’ll find your dedicated, E-ink-based ebook reader a relaxing and treasured companion.

Links

Hardware

Amazon Kindle 3 (US): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002Y27P3M/ref=kindlesu-1

Amazon Kindle 3 (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B002Y27P46/ref=kindlesu-1

Amazon Kindle 3 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/06/review_e_book_reader_amazon_kindle_3/

Sony PRS-350 (US): http://www.sonystyle.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?storeId=10151&catalogId=10551&langId=-1&productId=8198552921666257813

Sony PRS-350 (UK): http://www.sony.co.uk/product/rd-reader-ebook/prs-350

Sony PRS-350 Pocket Edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/13/review_e_book_reader_sony_reader_pocket_edition_prs_350/

Elonex eBook: http://www.elonex.com/products/ebook/621eb-ebook.shtm

Barnes & Noble Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/index.asp

Samsung E60: http://www.samsung.com/uk/consumer/pc-peripherals/ereader/ereader/LD06ESWPWW/EN/index.idx?pagetype=prd_detail

Samsung E60 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/09/30/review_e_book_reader_samsung_e60/

Bookeen Cybook Opus: http://www.bookeen.com/en/

Bookeen Cybook Opus e-book reader 2010 edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/06/04/review_e_book_reader_cybook_opus_2010_edition/

Libresco Iliad: http://www.iliadreader.co.uk/

Software

Adobe Digital Editions: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/

FBReader: http://www.fbreader.org/

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The Butchered Man – Felix Carswell arrives in Northminster

This is the first chapter of my historical crime novel, The Butchered Man.

Chapter 1

17th January, 1840

Felix Carswell climbed down from the train at Northminster in a giddy, befuddled state brought on by the novel sensation of travelling at twenty miles an hour. It was raining heavily and he was wondering if he should be extravagant and hire a fly or risk a long walk in the rain when he noticed an elegant, low-slung, travelling carriage, drawn by a pair of natty greys. It was painted a distinctive chocolate brown with cream-coloured trim and Felix did not need to look at the coat of arms on the door to know to whom it belonged.

The many-caped footman, who stood by the carriage, caught sight of Felix, opened the door and let down the steps. With the mixture of deference and insolence peculiar to flunkeys he indicated that Felix was to get in. Felix considered walking straight past him but decided it was better to get the business over with, sooner rather than later, so climbed in as he was bid.

“These railways are wonderful things,” said Lord Rothborough, snapping shut the cover of his watch. “One can predict almost to the minute where a man will be.”

There were times when Felix thought it would be better had Lord Rothborough left him to die in the back room of a Parisian bawdy house. This morning was one such.

“Good morning, my Lord,” Felix said and sat down. He had no wish to sit down but he had no choice. Lord Rothborough had him trapped. The footman had already closed the door behind him.

With gloved fingers, Lord Rothborough plucked a paper from the pile of correspondence that was lying on the seat beside him next to his travelling writing slope and the bulging dispatch cases. His heart sinking, Felix recognised his own careless scrawl on it.

“Now,” said Lord Rothborough, “I know young fellows don’t care much for the art of letter writing, but this -” He let out an expressive sigh which would not have disgraced one of his famous amateur performances in the private theatre at Holbroke. “I wonder you took the trouble to write it at all.”

“My Lord, if I might expl-”

“Explain? So you want to explain now, do you? And only when I have taken the trouble to be here to listen? That’s a little dilatory, to say the least. No sir, you may not explain!”

Felix decided he would to get out of the carriage there and then, and moved as if to do so, but Rothborough reached out with his silver topped stick and barred his exit.

“Sit!” he said. He tugged the cord and they set off. “Let us recapitulate,” he went on, holding up the letter. He began to read: “ ‘My Lord, I write to inform you that I have taken a post as police surgeon to the Northminster Constabulary and will be commencing my duties there on 17th January. Your obedient servant, F.J. Carswell MD’. Such elegant economy! Is that the fashion amongst you young medical men? But of course this is not fashion. This is insolence! Nothing more, nothing less. How dare you, sir? I wonder you bothered to write at all. Why did you do that? To taunt me with it? Is that all this is?” Felix was fumbling for words to defend himself against this onslaught but he did not get a chance to use them. Rothborough was just getting into his stride. “How could you take it in to your head to apply for this post without consulting me? Here of all places! You did not think how it would look for me, I suppose. Or perhaps you did?”

“No-one knows me here. I thought…”

“You are pretending to be naive. You know I am well known here. The connection will be made. What were you thinking of?”

“A man in my position must take what he can get and this is a good post. I had no doubts about it whatsoever,” Felix said with as much bravura as he could manage. “The advantages far outweigh any disadvantages.”

“You speak as if you were casting around for crumbs,” said Rothborough, “when that is scarcely the case. I understood that your prospects in Edinburgh were excellent. What has happened? Were you dismissed?” Felix did not answer and of course his silence incriminated him. “That is what this smells of,” said Rothborough, tapping the letter. “What happened? Did Professor Logan dismiss you?”

“I was forced to resign,” Felix said after a long moment. “My situation became very awkward.”

“In what way?”

“We found we were at cross-purposes,” Felix said.

Rothborough narrowed his eyes. “What does that mean?” he said.

“I really would rather not go into this just now -”

“I am sure you would not,” said Rothborough, “but I advise you to overcome your reticence and tell me. After all, you know that I will find out what happened sooner or later.”

Felix looked away and out of the window, as the carriage shuddered along a narrow and winding cobbled street, past ancient half-timbered buildings that might once have been picturesque. But now they were defaced by dirt, neglect and a most extensive rash of paper bills, shrieking and spitting about everything from wild beast shows to quack medicines. “Parker’s Penny Pills. The Poor man’s friend.” More likely his poison, Felix thought.

Northminster was certainly living up to its reputation for ugliness. He had some acquaintance with the filthier pockets of Edinburgh and was not unduly shocked by what he saw. Yet it depressed him that this was what he was condemned to by his folly. It would surely have been better to sign on as surgeon aboard that whaler. But to have done that would have meant hurting his mother even more than he had already done and he had had enough of the reproachful, tear-stained faces of women to last him a lifetime.

“So?” said Rothborough.”

Felix forced himself to begin. “There was a lady.”

“Ah, now, we have it,” said Rothborough, with a great sigh. “Who was she?”

“Professor Logan’s daughter.”

“And no doubt you were a prize puppy and made love to her. Of course! But her dear Papa objected and would not let you make a match of it, considering you to be an insolent whelp? If that is the case, he is not far wrong. And from the look of you, it is the case I think. Yes?”

Felix looked away. He wished it had been as simple as that. It would have been much easier to bear. To be thought of merely insolent would have been something of a relief.

“I take it she is a beauty,” Rothborough said after a long silence.

“Yes,” Felix with as little emotion as he could manage. “Yes, she is.”

“You have had a lucky escape,” said Rothborough. “I am glad that Professor Logan had the sense to put a stop to it. It would not have been a good match. You are far too young to marry and however charming the young person might be, it would have been beneath you, and too much of an elevation for her.”

“There was no difference in rank,” Felix said, pointedly.

“I hope to the heavens you are not nursing some brooding secret engagement or any such nonsense. If you are, and you dare to keep such a thing from me, you will live to regret it, my boy. I hope you understand that?”

“You do not need to worry about that, my lord,” Felix said. “That is not my difficulty. The fact is…” He swallowed and decided he must tell the truth. “Her father did not object.”

“What?”

“He wanted me to take an interest. He saw me as a prospect. He thought my connections desirable. So he threw us together somewhat and at first, I scarcely knew what he meant by it. She was so charming and sweet, and I could not help but be flattered by it. What man would not?”

“You did not engage yourself to her with his consent?” said Rothborough. “Tell me that is not so, for God’s sake, tell me you did not do that!”

“I thought – I truly believed that…”

“That you loved her?” said Rothborough. There was a silence. “And then you fell out of love.”

“Yes,” said Felix looking across at him. There was little more to be said. He could not improve on the accuracy of the diagnosis.

“And so you asked to be released from your engagement,” Rothborough went on, in the same dry and devastating tone.

“Yes,” Felix said.

“He ought to have horsewhipped you,” said Rothborough. “Did he?”

“No, but he got his pound of flesh,” Felix said.

“How much?”

“Five hundred guineas.”

Rothborough gave a low whistle. “And yet you did not think to write one line to me about this, did you?”

“No my lord, of course not.”

“Of course not?” said Rothborough. “What do you mean by that?”

“How could I?” Felix said.

“Did you not think I would help you?”

“Yes sir, and that is exactly why I did not write!” exclaimed Felix. “I did not require your help. You know how I feel about this. I will not be -”

“What?” said Rothborough.

“I must make my own way. That is what I mean.”

“And a fine job you have done of that so far!” said Rothborough. He folded up the letter and laid it back with the others. “However, what is done, is done. You are here now and we must make the best of it. In fact, I am beginning to think that there is no harm that you should become known here – and for doing something useful. Vernon, the Chief Constable, is by all accounts an excellent fellow. You will be in safe hands here. There will be no dangerous young ladies or ambitious fathers. In fact, I think the whole thing may be turned to our advantage.”

This was the last thing Felix wanted to hear. It was as if he had escaped from one trap only to blunder into another, and he was certain that Rothborough’s expectations of him were much worse than Professor Logan’s. Rothborough did not want five hundred guineas to stop him suing the hide off him. He wanted his soul. It had always been so.

“I trust that appalling item is just for travelling,” Rothborough said at length, giving Felix’s broad brimmed wide-awake hat a savage poke with his stick.

“As a matter of fact, no -” Felix began, but the carriage was now turning into what seemed to be the yard of an inn. They drew up and the moment the footman had set down the step and opened the door, Lord Rothborough, with his customary energy, had jumped out of the carriage. Felix was spared having to defend his hat.

“Major Vernon, I presume?” Felix heard him say. “Good to know you at last, sir.”

“My Lord Rothborough?” came the reply. “This is an unexpected honour!”

“I have Mr Carswell here for you,” said Lord Rothborough. “I found him at the railway station.” He made it sound as if Felix were a stray dog.

Felix reached for his offensive hat and climbed out of the carriage.

He came face to face with a lean-faced man with close-cropped hair, who was dressed in a dark blue frock coat trimmed at the cuffs with silver. But the most striking thing about him was his sharp, cool blue eyes, and for a moment they flashed over towards Lord Rothborough and then back at Felix, noting, he felt sure, the close likeness.

“How do you do, sir?” Felix said, putting out his hand, but avoiding that gaze. He glanced about him instead, taking in his new surroundings. The building struck Felix as a very curious one for its purpose – that of the headquarters of City of Northminster Constabulary. It was clearly very ancient, and looked as if it had been assembled rather than constructed to any sort of plan. A hotch-potch of stone and wood, heavy with open galleries, jutting stories and mullioned windows, it looked to Felix as if it should be in some fanciful painting recreating the splendours of former days.

“Thirty years ago this was one of the great inns of the town,” said Major Vernon, answering Felix’s unspoken question. “The Unicorn by the Castle. You probably remember it, my Lord?”

“The landlord was a Tory and the food was execrable,” said Lord Rothborough.

“This way gentlemen, if you please,” said Major Vernon.

Felix followed Lord Rothborough and Major Vernon across the courtyard and in through a low doorway. They began to climb up a broad but creaky staircase, the posts of which were topped by bare-breasted maidens whose almond-shaped eyes seemed to look slyly at Felix.

“I am trying to persuade my masters on the Watch Committee to find the money to rebuild this place,” Vernon was saying. “For now though it does well enough. It’s very convenient for the castle and the law courts, and the beer cellars make good holding cells. Do come in, gentlemen. Will you have some wine?”

They followed him into his office, a large, plainly furnished room, purposefully hung with large maps of the city and the districts about it, and decorated only by the military flourish of a pair of crossed swords, with their scarlet cords, mounted above the fireplace. It was a room to make a man straighten his back.

“Major Vernon,” Rothborough began, taking command of the room as he always took command of any room, “I will be straight with you. I have had my doubts about this scheme of young Felix’s.”

Must he use my Christian name? thought Felix, gulping down the sherry. He found he was cold and anxious.

“However,” continued Rothborough, “when I realised you were responsible for his appointment, I began to see the sense of it. I’ve heard some excellent reports of your work here, Major, and I’m sure you will be glad to hear that your name is much mentioned in the right places. We have a great need of men like you, Vernon, men with real vision.”

“I wouldn’t lay claim to so much, my Lord. I merely solve problems as they arise. I’m just a simple soldier.”

“Ah, you military men, you make a great deal of your so-called simplicity, don’t you?” said Lord Rothborough. “Of course that was my original plan for Felix – a military career, but the lad would hang out for medicine. And to think, when I was a boy no-one thought medicine a suitable occupation for a gentleman!”

Felix found comfort and distraction by squatting down and making a fuss of the Major’s dog, an amiable white grey-hound who had been sniffing at his toes.

“Yes, this will do very well,” Lord Rothborough went on, “at least for the present.”

“Perhaps,” Felix said, straightening, aware of the Major’s keen eyes upon him, “I might know what my duties are precisely?”

“I’ll leave you to your business, gentlemen,” said Lord Rothborough. “I have a few points I need to explain to my Lord Bishop on the education bill. He seems to wilfully misinterpret my letters – quite surprising for such a great scholar. I shall tell him you are here, Felix, so you will have no excuse not to pay your respects at the palace, will you?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. He must make himself agreeable here, mustn’t he Major? Yes, Felix, I expect you to do your duty in that respect, not for my sake but for your father’s. This city, for all the smoke stacks and bottle factories, is still a great city of God!”

With that he took his leave, though he could not resist another brief exhortation to Felix, this time on the subject of attending Divine Service, a thing which to Felix’s certain knowledge he scarcely did himself. Then as an excruciating coda he insisted on embracing him, only briefly but fiercely enough to leave Felix glowing with mortification.

Thankfully, the Major escorted him down to the carriage, leaving Felix alone to compose himself, save for the company of the sweet-eyed greyhound. He could not decide whether he was a boy delivered to school for the first time or a dead hind sent with Lord Rothborough’s compliments for Major Vernon’s dinner.

The Major returned.

“Sit, won’t you?” he said, indicating the chair opposite his green baize covered writing desk.

Felix hesitated. He felt he should say something and make some sort of excuse or explanation. So he gripped the back of the offered chair and attempted it.

“Whatever Lord Rothborough might imply,” he said, “I mean to stay at least the two years we discussed in our letters.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Vernon with a slight wave of his hand.

“He may make plans for me,” Felix went on, “but they are not my plans.”

“Yes, I quite understand. Now, do sit down, won’t you?”

So Felix did as he was told and felt the Major’s disconcertingly clear eyes on him again. He was glad when the dog padded over and rested its chin on his knees.

“Push her away if she bothers you,” said Vernon.

“She doesn’t at all. What’s she called?”

“Snow.”

Felix ruffled her ears and smiled down at her.

“It’s very interesting,” Major Vernon said. “There are some excellent reports here,” he said, tapping a file on the desk which presumably contained the testimonials that Felix had managed, not without some difficulty, to gather from the wreckage as the news that he had jilted Isabella Logan had spread around Edinburgh. “At least of your professional abilities. A gold medal for comparative anatomy. The Syme prize for an outstanding thesis on the variations of structure in the -” he glanced into the file, “the aeortic chambers. Whatever that might be.”

“The inside of the heart,” said Felix. “I was trying to establish the boundaries of what was normal and what might be considered abnormal.”

You spend six months dissecting hearts but you don’t care an iota about mine!” Isabella had sobbed that awful morning, when he had finally found the courage to tell her that he could not go through with it. Every argument he had put up in defence of his monstrous suggestion she demolished with her tears. “You think you know everything about everything but you know nothing. Nothing!” She had been right.

“Might that be considered ambitious?”

“Yes, well, I suppose so,” Felix said, pulling himself back to the present. “Yes. It was. Very.” It had been intended as his first step along the path to scientific glory. He had intended to publish it. He had managed to save some of the money required. He wanted to have full-colour engravings done. It would have been the making of his reputation, a handsomely-bound volume. “Carswell on the Heart.” But he had to give that money to Professor Logan, and then, most painfully of all, ask his father for the balance.

He asked himself then, as he often did, why he could not have lied to her about his feelings. He might be in Edinburgh still, about to be wedded and bedded to a girl whom everyone told him was the prettiest, sweetest girl a man could hope to find. But that would have involved lying to himself, and that was what he could not bring himself to do. Not even for the sake of a brilliant career. And in the long run, it would have hurt her far more. She was suffering now, but it was nothing to how she would suffer to find herself married to man who did not love her. It had been brutal but necessary. And so here he was, in Northminster.

“I received a great many applications for this post, and not one of them had anything to equal your honours, Mr Carswell. I think your are making a great professional sacrifice in choosing to come here. After all, the money isn’t that good, the hours will be irregular and I’ll expect a great deal of you. You won’t have much time or opportunity to build up a private practice and the society here is decidedly unattractive for a man of your age and talents. Yes?” Vernon smiled encouragingly at Felix. “It’s a little mysterious, I think.”

Of course he would ask. It was to be expected.

“Sir, I must be frank with you,” Felix said. “I left Edinburgh because I had to. I made an error of judgement – not medical judgement – but in a personal matter. I should have perhaps mentioned it my letters.”

Vernon held up his hand.

“You need not go into details. That is enough for me to know. I appreciate your frankness. It’s enough to say I have confidence in you professionally. I’d have been a fool not to take you on given the situation here.”

“Which is?” Felix asked.

“When I was appointed it was clear to me that I had to create an institution. From scratch. All we had here was a few old watchmen with lanterns. So what I had to do was make a modern police force to make this city feel safe. I wanted to create a model that other cities might follow. It is of course something of an experiment, and you are part of that experiment.”

“How?”

“I am taking as my model the regimental system. Of course, some would argue against that, that the police ought in no way to resemble the army. But I know the virtues of the system. It is the best way to bind men together and make them do an unpleasant task. Now in any decent regiment the surgeon is a key officer. He represents in the most tangible way the importance of the physical welfare of the men, which we, as officers, have as an almost sacred responsibility. If you have good surgeon your men are confident. And if he sees to their wives and families too, then their sense of safety and well-being is increased. Of course it’s a benefit in kind for them, an incentive, like the uniform and the boots, but its effect is greater. They feel cared for and that’s important for a working man asked to do a difficult job – and I do demand a great deal of them. However, I had the devil of a job to convince the Watch Committee that we needed to retain a full-time medical man. But I did manage it eventually. Your qualifications impressed them. They liked the thought they were getting a first class Edinburgh man for so little money. But I’m talking too much!” he said. “Let’s get you settled in your quarters.”

He got up and Snow trotted over to his side and leant against him.

“I shall do my best,” said Felix. “I shouldn’t like to ruin an experiment.”

“Good,” said the Major. “Now, I’ve addressed your responsibilities in more detail here,” he said, handing Felix a paper. “You can absorb that at your leisure. But I realise there is something I’ve missed.”

“Yes?” said Felix, glancing over the paper. The Major had immaculate handwriting.

“You must call on the Bishop,” he said. “Or we will both have hell to pay.”

Felix grimaced, folded the paper and put it in his coat pocket.

There was a urgent knock at the door.

“Come!”

“Sorry to interrupt, sir, but you’ve got to come at once. Constable Reever has just found a body in a ditch!”

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Blane again

We have just launched a new ebook editions of my novel the The Daughters of Blane, which you can buy  from Amazon in Kindle format and from Smashwords in Kindle, ePub and other formats

One of the questions novelist are always asked is where the idea for a particular story came from. In the case of this novel, it was from a place and a painting.

The place was Penrhyn Castle in North Wales. If you are planning any summer trips in that part of the world, I would highly recommend at trip to Penrhyn which is utterly astonishing. Built in the 1820′s by architect Thomas Hopper, with the stupendous profits from slate mining, the Castle is a neo-Norman fantasy of epic proportions.

Penrhyn Castle

The interiors are especially jaw dropping.

The library at Penrhyn Castle

I knew all about the place before I went, and had seen photographs but nothing could prepare me for the reality of it. I simply gawped and thought “I must use this in a story.” The atmosphere was helped by the fact the NT had introduced audio guides which meant that although there were lots of people there they were not chatting but listening to their guides. And perhaps like me, they had been rendered partially speechless by the over-the-top-ness of it all.

The other thing was a painting: Sargent’s very famous triple portrait of the Acheson Sisters.

In Blane, a similar picture is painted of my three heroines by aspiring young Scots painter, James Henderson. Unfortunately for him, his career is not as wildly successful as Sargent’s and his story forms one of the sub-plots of the novel.

When the novel was first published by Headline in 1994, it had a gorgeous cover design by George Sharp which combined the two elements, so that Penrhyn Castle appears in background  to the right of the sister with the black and white sash, who in the story is the middle sister Leonora.

In the story the painting is bought by John Cameron, Isobel’s future husband and is last mentioned hanging in their palazzo in Venice. But, as the Telegraph always says, it can be revealed, the painting of course came back with Isobel when she moved into a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh in 1900, and has been there ever since, the property of the Cameron family. Blane Castle, like its real life counterpart, has of course passed into the hands of the National Trust.

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