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MASKS AND MURDER

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A Golden Age for Masks?

Back in 2015 when I began planning my contemporary crime novel Night and Mr Knightley, I considered using a masked ball as the setting for a murder.  I was using Jane Austen’s Emma as the basis for the plot and so a regency ball seemed appropriate and the use of masks ideal for the schemes of a murderer. 


New novel: Night and Mr Knightley


But a masked ball?  Yes, it had been used extensively in Golden Age Detective fiction (GAD), but that in itself made it seem rather passé.  Would people now think that the wearing of masks could be at all believable?

The story itself was to take place in the autumn of 2016.

But then, at that precise moment, the world seemed to go a bit mad – in masks!  There were huge marches of protesters wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks in the November of that year – the Million Mask March.


Guy Fawkes Mask


There were gangs of clowns wearing make-up like a mask attacking people (I kid you not) especially in my home city of Nottingham where my stories are set.  The combo of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had a lot to answer for!

Also there were protests in Europe about whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public with only their eyes showing in case they were concealing explosive packages and couldn’t be identified. 

And on a more local level, I had planned on referring to one of our theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, as part of the story – they then staged Thomas Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ in November 2016, which I soon discovered was a jacobean gore-fest featuring mass murder at a masked ball !  It couldn’t have been more appropriate so I decided to feature it as a major theme in my story.

But becoming a Carer for my dear Mum in the last three years has meant something of a delay in my speed of book production.  The publication of Night and Mr Knightley would have to be delayed to 2020.  Would the subject of the wearing of masks be considered passé by then?  Er, well…

There are far too many GAD stories featuring masks and masked balls for me to mention them all.  But here is a taste of a few of them that I either read for research or refer to directly in my novel, hopefully without any spoilers.

The Masks Themselves

Masks come in many colours and materials.  I began with reading Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask of 1928 which features a full-face mask of grey rubber.   A bank robber in John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March story Hot Money (made for TV in 1952) also wears a full-cover rubber face mask as a robbery and a murder are committed.  In White Face by Edgar Wallace (1931) the villain wears a white cloth cut with two eye holes. 

Then more colourfully there was Behind the Green Mask by Ralph Trevor (1940), Greenmask by J Jefferson Farjeon (1944),

and the classic short story The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842).

Frequently, though, the masks were simple black eye masks such as that worn by E W Hornung’s Raffles (1901)

or The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas (1844)

or Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928). 

(I originally had a black eye mask featured on the cover of my book but the designer turned it a striking pink – which I rather like!)

 Party!

Just this list shows that masks were useful for individuals committing crime, sometimes skulking on their own down dark streets, but often in plain sight in public because everyone was at a party and disguised by masks as well.

JJ Connington’s detective Sir Clinton Driffield is annoyed in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) that his friends have chosen fancy dress for their large country house party -  masks make it too easy for a criminal:

“ ‘I’m not altogether easy in my mind over this masked ball of Joan’s.  Speaking as a Chief Constable responsible for the good behaviour of the district, Cecil, it seems to me that you are running some risks over it.  A dance is all very well.  You know all your guests by headmark [sic] and no one can get in on false pretences.  But once you start masks, it’s a different state of affairs altogether.’ “

So true.

This was certainly the case in Agatha Christie’s The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923).

But  Dorothy L Sayers of course reverses this in her Murder Must Advertise (1933), since disguising himself as a harlequin with a mask enables the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey to deceive and mislead the criminals. 

There is also her short story The Queen’s Square (1932) featuring a fancy dress ball (Lord Peter is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds) but I couldn’t see any references to masks even though one would have expected them to feature.  Sayers also refers to the American pulp fiction Black Mask magazine “that monthly collection of mystery and sensational fiction”, featuring it as a clue (or an anti-clue?) in Unnatural Death (1927) which Inspector Parker refers to disparagingly as “light reading for the masses”.

When looking at the subject of masks online I came across a lot of items on what has been labelled ‘The Party of the Century’.  This was Truman Capote’s bash in New York in 1966, ostensibly in honour of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and Everyone who was Anyone was there.  It took the form of a black-and-white masked ball.

 I used this in my novel as Prisha Chatterjee’s inspiration for the masked ball that she is helping to arrange for the fictional Nottingham Knights Entertainment Company.  The dresses of 1966, for example Mia Farrow’s, look almost regency, though somewhat shorter!

Edgar Allan Poe’s party in The Masque of the Red Death, however, is predictably more scary and apparently now has something of a cult following in America at Halloween.  It concerns a wealthy Prince who invites all his friends to his castle to join him at a non-stop lock-down party so they can avoid a plague that is ravaging the land.  The plague is called the Red Death.  It is a masquerade with music, food and entertainment, whilst the poor are left outside the castle walls to suffer (sounding familiar?).  Then a mysterious and ominous figure all in red, including a red mask, appears at the party uninvited…  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.  Just like the classic image of the executioner in a black hood to hide his face, masks can be worn to protect the identity of those who are a form of Nemesis, who implement appropriate revenge for wrongdoers and enemies.

Conclusion

In GAD masks were frequently worn around the eyes, not the mouth.  But usually if someone was in a mask it meant they were about to rob you at the very least but quite possibly kill you.  Here and now in January 2021 someone with a mask around their mouth and nose is more frequently trying to save your life.

As part of this general trend, there have been many literary-themed fabric masks produced, several featuring Jane Austen or quotes from her work. The ‘social distancing’ of regency life has also meant lots of photoshop opportunities utilising her stories.

And representations of Jane herself have not escaped the mask message.


Statue of Jane Austen with mask

In 2016 masks were being worn by those protesting the curtailing of our freedom.  This can also be true now, but more often the opposite is the case – people  refusing to wear masks because they feel it curtails their freedom.  On the news it has just been reported that a third of police in the UK have had people without masks spitting at them or coughing on them, now a potentially murderous act.  There have been ‘COVID-deniers’ without masks invading hospitals and endangering the staff and patients’ lives.

So regardless of the time gap between now and the Golden Age of crime fiction, all this shows that masks are still a matter of life and death, although our perception of how they function has been turned upside down.

But I must leave you now.  A man in a black mask has just come to my door – delivering something nice from Amazon.

[For more on Night and Mr Knightley by Jeanette Sears, see the WELCOME page or go straight to Amazon Kindle]


Spiral staircase from side

Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

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Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

The main character in my novel Murder and Mr Rochester works at Bromley House Library in the centre of Nottingham. Although Emma-Jane Austin is fictional, the library most definitely is not. It is a Regency gem on Angel Row, next to the Council House and the main Market Square. 2016 has been the library’s 200th birthday.

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Here are some photos so you can appreciate more fully the beauty of the building where E-J is privileged to work, and also see the setting for the terrible crime that takes place there in the story.  (There are some hints here to help you solve the murder too!)

In Murder and Mr Rochester I mention that many people do not even know of the library’s existence. All you can see at first is a mysterious doorway in between the usual sort of city centre shops.  The entrance sits discretely between Barnardo’s and a newsagent’s. But if you ignore the traffic, erase the shops and look up you can begin to imagine the size and grandeur of the house itself.

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Once inside, you are in a hallway that leads either to the back of the house

Doorway to garden

Doorway to garden

and a walled garden

View of garden from upstairs window

View of garden from upstairs window

or up the stairs to the main desk and reading room.

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Of course, the most intriguing feature that strikes you as you enter the main part of the library is the spiral staircase.

Spiral staircase from side

Spiral staircase from side

It was not part of the original structure of the house when it was built for George Smith of the famous banking family in 1752 but was added along with the gallery.

Gallery above main reading room

Gallery above main reading room

Let’s follow Emma-Jane on her journey on that terrible afternoon of the (fictional) murder in the Library…

She is in the George Green Room sorting out books for the library’s Charlotte Brontë exhibition. (The room is named after the Nottingham mill owner and pioneering mathematician.)

Door of George Green Room

Door of George Green Room

After switching off the lights, she walks towards the gallery that runs around the main reading room.

Left hand side of gallery

Left hand side of gallery

She turns to the right and walks along the middle section of the gallery,

View of right hand side of gallery

View of right hand side of gallery

but then witnesses the ghastly ‘accident’ on the stairs to her left.

View of stairs from right side of gallery

View of stairs from right side of gallery

Here is a close-up of the brown wooden stairs (the colour is significant!)

Wooden stairs

Wooden stairs

and the stone hearth around the fireplace. (The modern radiators in the library are necessary to control the heat and humidity more accurately than a gas or real fire.)

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

There is a gap between the bottom of the spiral staircase and the fireplace that will be of significance…

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Here is the longcase clock that chimes loudly early one morning and scares Emma-Jane when she is in the library on her own, trying to solve the mystery.

Longcase clock

Longcase clock

Bromley House Library really did have a display of Charlotte Brontë’s books in the Spring of 2016 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, which is featured in the novel.

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

And for the 200th birthday of the library itself in April 2016, which in the story Emma-Jane is looking forward to, the real librarians held a birthday party in regency costume!

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

You can be a member of the library even if you don’t live in Nottingham – a ‘Country Member’ pays half the usual subscription fee.

Do have a look at the Bromley House website at www.bromleyhouse.com. It has more photos and some short films that really give you a feel of the place. There are many more beautiful rooms, old and new, to explore.

No wonder Emma-Jane Austin in my story feels very lucky to work there – apart from the murder, of course!

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy Murder and Mr Rochester by Jeanette Sears on Kindle at www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com.


The Tunnel in Nottingham

Emma-Jane Austin and The Tunnel

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Tunnel

In my novel Murder and Mr Rochester, the heroine Emma-Jane Austin discovers a shortcut in the centre of Nottingham called ‘The Tunnel’.  It is one of the most interesting architectural features of Nottingham but is now largely hidden from view.

Access to hidden Tunnel

Access to hidden Tunnel

It is tends to just be called The Tunnel, or if one wishes to be more helpful and accurate, The Park Tunnel.

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

It echoes the days when Victorian engineers were blasting great big holes through anything that stood in the way of modern transport. This time it was in 1855 and was a way to gain a shortcut from Derby Road in the centre of Nottingham through to the new residential Park Estate owned by the fifth Duke of Newcastle.

It provides another fascinating revelation of the huge area of sandstone rock and caves that form the foundation of the centre of the city.

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

The Dukes of Newcastle were no strangers to this geological formation as their castle stood on the highest section of sandstone which was pockmarked with entrances to strange tunnels and caves beneath.

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

The job of designing the man-made tunnel and much of the new estate was given to the fifth Duke’s surveyor, Thomas Chambers Hine (1813-1899).

Thomas Chambers Hine

Thomas Chambers Hine

He also designed the layout of the roads and many of the magnificent houses, as well as having approval of other intended house plans in order to maintain the estate’s architectural integrity. Unfortunately the Tunnel was obsolete almost as soon as it was built. The gradient was slightly too difficult for horse-drawn carriages. Also other roads were built at around the same time that meant the Tunnel was no longer necessary.

Steps in central part of Tunnel

Steps in central part of Tunnel

But it remains an eccentric and hidden part of Nottingham’s history. And, despite electric lighting and an opening for natural light in the middle,

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

it can still be scary at night, as Emma-Jane Austin finds out in my murder mystery novel Murder and Mr Rochester.  Not a place where you want to bump into strangers in the dark…

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


Regency House

Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s home!

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Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s Home!

The heroine of my murder mystery, Emma-Jane Austin, gets to live in her dream house. It is the beautiful Regency building that she has loved since childhood, that she used to call the Big Doll’s House. And you can see why.

Regency House

Regency House

It is a perfect example of a Regency style house right in the middle of Nottingham city centre, Grade II listed and standing at Canning Circus since 1820 on the outer perimeter of the very grand Park Estate.  This was land that used to be owned by the mega-wealthy Dukes of Newcastle when it was indeed just grassy parkland for the Dukes’ deer. Now called the ‘Beverly Hills of Nottingham’, the area is full of stunning Regency and Neo-Gothic homes in a gated community (although, fortunately for the rest of us, most of the gates are left open so we can explore).

Welcome to Park Estate

Welcome to Park Estate

One of the unusual things about the Park Estate is that it still has gas lighting.

Gas light on Park Estate

Gas light on Park Estate

Until 2015, a man in a vintage car used to light the lamps each evening, but now it is done automatically by an electronic trigger in each lamp.

Gas lamp on Park estate

Gas lamp on Park estate

But every two weeks or so a man has to come and reset the automatic triggers – not quite as romantic, but great that they are still gas lamps as in their Victorian heyday.

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

The light they give is whiter and paler than modern neon lights and doesn’t radiate as far, which does mean the Park can look rather Dickensian and creepy at night – though ideal for murder mysteries!

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

I too loved this house when I was a child, which I could see out of the bus window on the way into town each week.

Regency house at Canning Circus

Regency house at Canning Circus

Even though it was a dirty cream colour then and looked rather run down, it still stood out from the grottier modern buildings around it on a historic street called The Ropewalk. Now the house is a cool pale green with gold relief work on the plaster angels and wreath on the central pediment and is divided into flats. I have given Emma-Jane a room at the top on the left hand side at the back of the building.

Back of Regency House from road below

Back of Regency House from road below

Below her room is a large stone-flagged terrace above two garages where she and her flatmates can sit outside in sunny weather.

Patio

Patio

From her bedroom window she can see across the Park to Nottingham Castle on its sandstone rock.

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

In my novel the flat covers the top three floors on the right of the building and is owned by Penelope Galthorpe-Brown, who owns several florist shops throughout the Midlands. Another tenant is Jennifer Wright who owns a restaurant in town and is a successful chocolatier.

Top flat

Top flat

The flat provides a beautiful and cosy backdrop for the meetings of Emma-Jane’s reading group, especially as this architectural gem contains many of its original features, including a functioning fireplace in the main drawing room. In ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ they are of course studying Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ together.

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

In future books they will be delving into the works of Jane Austen, for which this stunning Regency house will be even more appropriate. But of course the novel is not just about women reading classic romantic novels together. The fact that Emma-Jane’s house was also next to a (very small) police station (before it closed in April 2016) is going to become somewhat appropriate as well…

Canning Circus police station

Canning Circus police station

Police station sign

Police station sign