Showing posts with label Val Culley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Val Culley. Show all posts

Friday, August 11, 2023

New crime short story by Val Culley


Shelved in Shepshed


By Val Culley


Sallie knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’ before the library had even opened to customers that cold Thursday afternoon.

She was kneeling in the entrance porch, emptying the returned books customers had posted into the drop box, when she became aware of a large woman standing over her. “Can you look a book up for me on your computer system? I can’t see it on the shelves,” the woman asked.

Sallie had never been a big fan of the concept of the Smart Library, which was introduced soon after she started work at Shepshed Library. It had taken her a while to find another job after being made redundant from the library she had worked at previously. She had then encouraged her former colleague, Jo, to apply for a job at Shepshed Library as well.  

Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the customers, with their little quirks, such as Mr Austin, who used the computers but never took a book out, who would come up and mutter things to them. They would smile and nod but feel uneasy, knowing neither what he had said nor what they were smiling about.

"Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the
customers, with their little quirks"
Then they were told that their hours and pay, along with those of their colleagues, were to be cut by the local authority that employed them, as a result of the introduction of the Smart Library.

Sallie didn’t like the thought of customers letting themselves into the library when there were no staff present and doing whatever they liked, having simply signed a vague agreement  to ‘look after the library,’ but she had no choice other than to go along with it.

She occasionally had clashes with Smart customers, who pounced on her as soon as she arrived and vented their frustration at her, because they had been unable to work the computer, or print documents, with no staff present. When she pointed out they had signed up to use the library without staff assistance, they would unleash a tirade of abuse at her.

On this occasion, she stood up, in as dignified manner as possible, but found she was still at a disadvantage, looking up at the tall woman, who had long, untidy grey hair and large glasses.

“We’re not actually open yet,” Sallie pointed out.

The woman gestured impatiently. “I’m sorry! All I’m asking is for you to do your job! But I’m not surprised by your attitude really, because, can I just say, I have never felt any warmth in this library.”

“That’s strange because I just found a note on the counter from a customer complaining the library was too hot while she was using it in Smart this morning.”

“I didn’t mean that! I meant that the staff here are not at all friendly.”

“None of them?”

“Yes, none of them. I’ve never felt any warmth from any of the staff.”

Sallie looked at her carefully. She was sure she had never seen the woman before. “Do you perhaps only use the library when there are no staff present?”

“Oh, for goodness sake. You’re useless. I’m wasting my time talking to you. I shall complain to the manager.” She marched to the doors, which opened automatically to let her out.

"The usual wave of people approached the
desk, clutching their phones"
After the library had opened to all the customers at two pm, the usual wave of people approached the desk, clutching their phones, which were all showing labels that needed to be printed urgently. Most of them weren’t library members, but they couldn’t join because they had no ID with them, and wouldn’t be able to print anyway, because they weren’t carrying any money. Sallie and Jo were kept busy at the counter dealing with them, and had no time to discharge the contents of the drop box.

They made a good team. Jo was petite with short dark hair and an elfin face and was very kind, while Sallie was taller and more generously built, with blonde hair and blue eyes and the ability to be firm but fair with customers. The third girl on duty, Lauren, a young, library assistant with long, glossy, brown hair, was doing her best to try to shelve the mountain of books in danger of falling off the returns trolley, flicking her hair out of the way constantly.

Sallie noticed Paula was waiting in the queue. Paula was a Reading for Community Health volunteer, who had started to use the meeting room at the library to help adults with literacy problems. The staff had agreed to keep an eye on her when she was in the meeting room with a client and she could call on them for assistance if she had any problems.

Sallie unlocked the door of the meeting room for her and propped it open with a door stop so they would be able to see Paula when they were shelving non-fiction returns. She noticed that Paula, whose long, mousey hair was scraped back into a pony tail, looked thinner than ever and her eyes were red rimmed as though she had been crying.

“Are you okay, Paula?”

“Yeah, I’m all right, thanks,” she replied listlessly

An old man barred Sallie’s way as she attempted to walk back to the counter. “Do you have a book called ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’?”

“Yes, it’s with the local history books along here,” Sallie said

But when she searched the shelf where it was kept, she couldn’t find it. Worryingly, the book appeared to be missing. There were only two copies of ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’ in the entire county. Sallie had made the Shepshed copy available as Reference only, so that it couldn’t be taken out of the library. It seemed to have disappeared and she was concerned someone might have stolen it. A customer had told her the book was now out of print and there was only one copy left on Amazon, for which the seller was charging £150.

"But when she searched the shelf where it
was kept, she couldn't find it"
As the afternoon wore on, the three girls were all run off their feet. At one point, while Sallie was shelving fiction, she noticed a smartly-dressed young man bending down and studying the Mary Balogh novels. She was just about to ask if she could help him, when an old man appeared in front of her and asked, “What’s this Smart thingamajig?”

Sallie sighed. “Do you mean the Smart Library?”

“I don’t know. I just want to be able to get in.”

“Get in where?”

“The library.”

“You’re in it now.”

“I know that, but this morning there were people inside when I went past and when I tried to get in, I couldn’t.”

“Have you joined the Smart Library.”

“Yes, of course.”

Sallie took the man’s card and went to the desk and after checking on the computer found he wasn’t yet registered as Smart.

“Can I become Smart?” he asked.

Sallie was just about to say that she thought it highly unlikely, when a shrill scream came from non-fiction. Then Lauren ran to the counter looking terrified. ‘It’s Paula! She’s dead!”

Sallie and Jo raced to the meeting room where they found Paula, slumped lifelessly in her chair with red marks on her neck.

The next hour seemed to go by in a blur. They closed the door of the meeting room, called the police, and rang their supervisor. Two uniformed officers arrived and said it looked as if Paula had been strangled. There was no murder weapon in the meeting room, but they could see that a length of cord had been cut from one of the window blinds.

The first detective to arrive was taken to the meeting room by Sallie to join his uniformed colleagues. He said: “I expect your prints will be all over everything by now. Why haven’t you sent all the customers home and closed for the day?”

"Two uniformed officers arrived and said it
looked as if Paula had been strangled"
“I’ve read enough crime fiction to know not to touch anything, and I didn’t ask anyone to leave because I thought you might want to interview them. We closed the door of the meeting room so no one could go in, and put the front door on exit only.”

Lauren was still very shocked, so Jo made her a cup of tea. They all sat in the office together and thought back about the events of that afternoon.

Sallie remembered opening the door of the meeting room to admit poor Paula. Jo remembered seeing Paula’s client arrive. She said he was tall and looked as though he was dressed for going skiing and was wearing a hat and had a scarf over his face. He had walked towards the counter purposefully, but then suddenly turned right and gone straight to the meeting room. None of them had seen the client come out afterwards.

Later, an older detective arrived to take over, and said Sallie could open the front door again. He put one of the uniformed men on the door and asked him to take the names of customers as they left and he sent the other uniformed officer and the patronising, young detective away to make further enquiries.

Sallie showed him the crime scene and explained what Paula was doing in the meeting room. The detective was tall and thin, with grey hair, and Sallie thought he had an intelligent face. She relayed her version of events to him, and then he spoke to Jo and Lauren in turn.

When the pathologist arrived, the detective took him into meeting room and they viewed the body behind closed doors.

Later, Sallie and Jo were both behind the counter when they saw Paula’s client come back in and walk purposefully towards them. They both gasped with excitement, but he just asked calmly if he had left his bag next to the kiosk. Jo recovered quickly and told him a bag had been handed in. She asked him to describe his bag and Sallie offered to fetch it from lost property.

But on her way, she went to the meeting room and knocked on the door. She told the detective the client had returned. He took the client into the kitchen to speak to him, but after taking down his contact details and statement allowed him to leave the library with his bag.

"Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow
managed to change into a little black dress"
While Sallie was trying to deal with the growing mountain of shelving, the detective came to tell her his officers had been to Paula’s home and spoken to her neighbours. They had told the police she was unhappy because her husband had left her for another woman and that he wanted to sell the house immediately because he was desperate for money. They said Paula had been refusing to cooperate.

A wedding picture of Paula and her husband had been in the lounge and the officers had texted him an image of it, which he showed to Sallie. “But her husband’s been in the library this afternoon! I saw him earlier, rummaging about among my Mary Baloghs!” Sallie exclaimed.

The detective ordered the uniformed officer to search the area around the Mary Balogh novels. To Sallie’s horror the cop heaved piles of books off the shelves enthusiastically. Then he brought ‘Soldiers of Shepshed’ to Sallie, which he had found at the back of the shelf, saying: “I’m no librarian, but this don’t look like romance to me.”

The uniformed officer then found a piece of blind cord and the detective took it into the meeting room to compare it with the cord on the window blind.

On her way to the shelves again, Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow managed to change into a little black dress with a side slit, was dancing a tango with the uniformed cop near the audio books. This shift is becoming more and more bizarre, she thought.

The nice detective came to thank Sallie for all her help. He said: “We’ll get that poor girl’s murderer bang to rights. It’s a classic domestic. There’s no one else in the frame, so we’ll soon have him in custody. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, and I’m sure people must have said it to you many times before, but you have the most beautiful, blue eyes. When you’ve finished work, would you be kind enough to join me for a drink so I can go over my notes with you to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

“But I thought it was an open and shut case,” Sallie said.

“Well, it’s more a case of murder by the book,” he said, looking into her eyes. He held his hand out to her and she found herself reaching out to him as well, but then there was a loud thud…

Sallie woke with a start and saw she had dropped her book on the floor. She had fallen asleep while reading in front of the fire. Her black cat was curled up on the sofa next to her and there was a half empty glass of wine on the coffee table. “Oh dear, I must have dreamt the whole thing,’ she said, stroking the cat, who purred contentedly. 

“Do you think it’s time I retired from the library, Desdemona?”

 The End



Friday, February 25, 2022

Don’t delay, start writing straight away!

How to avoid doing things that will postpone your literary success

Not having the ideal office chair should not stop you putting pen to paper
Not having the ideal office chair should not
stop you putting pen to paper
People talk a lot about 'writer’s block' and how it can hold up a work in progress, but in my experience a far more dangerous thing to watch out for is 'writer's delay'. 

Not getting on with writing is often called procrastination, but I don’t like that label as it implies there is something deliberate about doing things to avoid writing, such as stopping to tidy your office, or sharpening all your pencils, or going on social media.

Many ‘How to Write’ books start with advice about finding a finding a suitable place in your house to write. Then there will be suggestions about what IT equipment you should have installed and many paragraphs will be devoted to the importance of choosing a comfortable chair.

I’m not saying any of these things aren’t helpful, but I don’t think they should stop you getting on with your writing if you already have some good ideas for a novel or a short story.

My advice would be to get your ideas on paper as quickly as possible. You can always type them up later and then revise what you have written as many times as you need to.

I recently read a book about how to write a crime novel that had several pages at the beginning dedicated to the importance of attending writers’ conferences, just to make you feel more like a writer!

I think that is a bad idea as it will just hold you up from starting to write. All you really need in order to get going are some strong ideas and a notebook and pen so that you can write the ideas down as soon as they occur to you. You should carry the notebook with you everywhere and note the ideas as quickly as you can while they are still fresh in your mind.

The other thing you need to do is to decide what genre your proposed novel or story belongs in and read some examples written by successful authors.

Make sure you carry a notebook and pen or pencil at all times
Make sure you carry a notebook
and pen or pencil at all times  
But you may well be a regular reader of the genre already, as most writers tend to want to write a book or short story of the sort they enjoy reading themselves. If you are already familiar with the genre, you can get straight on with writing. The main thing is to be clear about what type of fiction you are attempting to write before you start.

It is hopeless to try to write a detective novel, or a Regency romance, if you don’t ever read that type of book. If you write the sort of book that you enjoy reading yourself, you will already unconsciously have picked up the rules and conventions of the genre and will have a feel for what is right and what isn’t, as you write your own.

The plot of a book never comes to you fully formed, but you will get ideas for characters and settings as you go along and will need to make a note of everything that occurs to you straight away.

It can all be woven into a plot for a book with a beginning, middle and end and, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion for the reader, later on.

I sometimes get ideas for the novel I am currently working on as I am waking up in the morning. If it is the weekend, it is tempting to turn over and go back to sleep, and if it is a week day, you might be under time pressure to get up and start your day. But if you can possibly spare a few minutes after you have woken up, it is a good idea to write your ideas down in your notebook before they are lost to you for ever.

Another thing I find useful is a project book with coloured tabs separating the sections, so I can list in an organised way all the information about characters, setting, plot and themes that have occurred to me randomly and been jotted down in my notebook.

Of course, it’s nice to set up a smart, well-equipped writer’s office with a lovely, comfortable chair to sit in, but it should not be at the expense of getting on with your novel or short story.

It will probably be obvious where you will find peace and quiet in your house to write and you can make do with just the basic equipment and stationery you already have, to begin with. If you later find your chair is uncomfortable, just swap it with another one from somewhere else in your house.

Prolific and successful writers, such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, probably didn’t waste a second thinking about their chairs, but just got on with writing all those books.

You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea Camilleri's books and write a letter to yourself
You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea
Camilleri's book and write a letter to yourself
If you do suffer from writer’s block after you have started the first draft of your novel, your project book, with its information about plot, setting, characters and themes, should provide you with the inspiration you need to keep on writing.

Another trick I have heard of is to just write anything you can think of on to the blank page to get yourself going, even if it is a couple of lines of poetry, or a paragraph of description that has no real connection with the story you are working on.

You could also take a tip from the great Italian crime writer, Andrea Camilleri, which I once read about in one of his Inspector Montalbano novels, The Potter's Field. Montalbano has reached deadlock in a case and can’t see any way forward, so he sits down and writes himself a letter, taking himself to task for his obtuseness and what he feels he has done wrong during his investigation.

You could write to yourself along the same lines and say: ‘Dear author, What is the connection between these two characters? Who has properties overlooking the field where the body was found and has your detective been to see them all yet? What would your protagonist usually do at this time of the day? How can you get him or her further forward with what they are trying to achieve?’ Usually, the answers you think of will help you get going with your story again.

But whatever you do, don’t let trivial things delay you from starting to write in the first place! You can wait until you have made some money from your first novel or short story before you buy yourself a smart writer’s chair!


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Setting the Scene

Use your memories to help you write with assurance

Many crime writers believe the setting is one of the most important elements in a novel and that it almost becomes an additional character in the story.

The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The fishing village of Marina di Puolo gave me
the idea for my novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
Whether it is a country house in the case of Golden Age novels, a big city such as London or Edinburgh, or the island of Sicily, as in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, where the crime takes place has a big impact on the story and the investigation that follows.

A lot of writers become inspired by a particular place they have visited and their minds immediately start inventing a mystery to happen there.

When I interviewed the crime writer P D James in the 1990s she told me that her novels were almost always inspired by somewhere she had visited.

If you are a new writer you should try to set a story in a place you know well so that you can describe it convincingly and be accurate with the geography. Your murderer should be able to get from one place to another in a realistic amount of time, otherwise readers who also know the location will feel let down.

It is tempting to choose a glamorous setting for your book so that readers can become armchair travellers and enjoy visiting the sights along with your detective.

I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some caves just outside Marina di Puolo
I was intrigued by the gated entrance to some
caves just outside Marina di Puolo
But many writers have picked abattoirs, factories, power stations and crime ridden inner city housing estates. As long as they have really known and understood their location, they have been able to use it effectively.

Wherever you decide to set your novel, you must visit it and get to know it well so that you can present it authentically.

There are exceptions, of course. I have read that H R F Keating wrote an entire series of books set in India, featuring his character, Inspector Ghote, an Indian police officer, and yet the writer himself had never been to the country, but had done all his research from maps and books.

But on the whole, it is better to know a setting well to be able to describe it accurately. After all, it is one of the perks of being an author to have a good excuse for frequent days out or holidays abroad.

For years, I enjoyed holidays in Sorrento in southern Italy, vaguely thinking it would make a beautiful setting for a detective novel or film and that no British crime writer had ever used it.

But it was only when I discovered some caves, while walking along the beach of a small fishing village just outside Sorrento, that I got the beginnings of an idea for a plot.

The caves were at sea level and would have been below what was once a Roman villa, providing the owners and their guests with access from the sea thousands of years ago.

The caves looked the perfect place to hide a kidnap victim
The caves looked the perfect place
to hide a kidnap victim
There were some kayaks, paddles and some old fishing nets being stored in the caves now, behind locked metal gates, but it occurred to me that a body could also be hidden there, or a kidnap victim could be kept there. People could bring in contraband items by sea and hide them in there. Or, a character could be imprisoned there by someone who wanted to keep them out of circulation for a while.

When I visited Positano by boat I saw that the coastline of Sorrento had many such recesses at sea level that could be used in this way. They were places that were inaccessible by car and even difficult to get to on foot, but were perfectly accessible by boat if you knew the area well. That’s when the plot of The Shooting in Sorrento occurred to me.

The book, my second Butler and Bartorelli mystery, starts with a bridegroom being shot, seemingly at random by a sniper, while posing for pictures in Piazza Tasso with his bride after his wedding in Sorrento. 

It was a sight I had often seen over the years while on holiday in Sorrento, although, of course, I had never seen anyone actually shot.

Journalist Kate Butler and her partner, retired detective Steve Bartorelli, are staying at the same hotel as the wedding party and Kate feels she has to help the family, who speak no Italian and are traumatised by what has happened.

The years I had spent sightseeing and shopping in the historic centre of Sorrento  helped me enormously in devising my plot as I was able to easily recall how quickly you could get from one location, such as the Franciscan cloisters, to another, Chiesa del Carmine, a baroque church that overlooks the main square, Piazza Tasso.

The cover of my mystery novel, The Shooting in Sorrento
The cover of my mystery novel,
The Shooting in Sorrento
With my family I had regularly visited the beach of Marina di Puolo, which is out of town on the Sorrentine peninsula, and I had great fun inventing an historic villa with a terrace that overlooked the seafront as the home of one of my characters.

Most people will have a favourite city or holiday resort in their memory bank that they can use as a location in a book and they will find it is a big help to be able to know instinctively whether a character has to turn left, or turn right, to reach a particular place. Also, they will know whether or not it is practical to allow a character to run up a steep hill quickly to reach a place in time for the murder.

If you don’t want to use a real town or village as a setting, you can imagine one of your favourite places that you already know well and move it to another part of the country, or to a different country, and give it another name, but you will still be able to rely on your memories of it to write about it with assurance.

Readers frequently say they will put up with a lot provided a novel has a strong sense of place, so the best settings to choose are the ones you know well and for which you have genuine feelings.

The Shooting in Sorrento is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook on Amazon.




Saturday, January 16, 2021

Crime fiction comforting during pandemic

Library ‘click and collect’ services are providing a lifeline for readers

Avid readers are braving the snow and the rain during the winter lockdown to go to the door of their local library and collect a bag full of books.

Although the library service is closed for browsing during lockdown, staff are operating a click and collect service, which is being much appreciated by their customers.

Death in the High City, The Shooting in Sorrento
 and The Body Parts in the Library on display
together in a library
Readers can either request books on line, or telephone with their order, and staff will issue the books and put them in a carrier bag for them to collect at the front door of the library.

Customers cannot ask for specific titles, in case the library does not have the book on the shelves, but they can ask for a particular genre, such as crime, or historical, and also mention their favourite authors.

The library staff can also look at their borrowing history to get an idea about what sort of books a customer might enjoy and can check that the customer has not already had a particular book out, before issuing it to the customer’s account and putting it in the bag ready for collection.

The service has been very well received by regular library users. Some have said it has been ‘a real treat’ to have books chosen for them. Others have said that the library staff have helped them discover new authors to enjoy, that they might not otherwise have tried. Many have said the books are a welcome distraction from the bad news about the pandemic, or the many television programmes that they don’t want to watch.

Libraries have large print versions and audiobooks of many of the popular tittles by well known authors to make them more accessible to customers.

The crime, or mystery genre, seems to be the most popular with library users. Maybe the drama and suspense of detective fiction is more palatable than the horrific events currently taking place in the real world.