Title: The Illhenny Murders
Author: Winnie Frolik
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 06/21/2021
Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex
Genre: Historical, LGBTQIA+, genre, historical, crime, lesbian, 1930s, private detective, district nurse, murder
District Nurse Mary Grey saves the life of young architect, Anthony West, when he is involved a car wreck, only for West to tell her it was no accident. Someone tried to kill him. Mary is skeptical at first, but when West dies, she’s determined to investigate the matter. More blood is spilled, and Mary becomes embroiled in a tangled web of intrigue and murder as she joins forces with exiled Jewish German detective Franz Shaefer. And on top of everything else, Mary finds herself dangerously attracted to Anthony’s beautiful and unattainable sister Harriet.
The Illhenny Murders
Winnie Frolik © 2021
All Rights Reserved
October 1936, Illhenny, England
It was no longer night in Illhenny, but not quite morning. Those weird in-between hours, when the darkness began to retreat but the sun had not quite shown its face. Although at this time of year, the best Illhenny could hope for was some feeble rays of light peeking out from behind the fierce clouds dominating its sea line. Still, sunny or not, people had begun to stir. Fishermen went off in their boats to cast their nets and haggle with the sea. Tradesmen set out to open for the day. Farm folk had cows to milk and livestock to feed. Mothers began coaxing surly children from their beds to have breakfast before making their way to school. And the district nurse set off on her rounds.
District Nurse Mary Grey had known she would be quite busy that day. In preparation, she had eaten a solid, manly breakfast, and packed a ham sandwich for later. She wore an oversized knitted gray-green sweater, gifted to her by her sister, over her uniform to face the weather. She rode her BSA motorbike. Some uncharitable souls might have noted the bike was over a decade old, and hardly ideal for inclement weather. And in the UK, of course, inclement weather tends to be the norm. No matter. Mary loved the motorbike from the moment it had been issued to her by the Rural Nurses Association. She loved how the wind whipped in her face when she rode it full throttle. She loved the sense of power between her legs. She loved how speedily it could get her to her appointments. She loved occasionally beeping to people she met on the ride. Most of all, she loved the freedom and independence her motorbike represented. She even enjoyed cleaning it and keeping it fueled and oiled. Mary had never ridden a horse, let alone owned one, but she imagined her love for her motorbike was akin to what a rider might feel toward their faithful steed.
Mary rode her bike past the bakery, post office, the vicarage, and the forge. Her first task of the day was to check in on Mrs. Simpson, who’d recently had surgery in London. She was a widow of some sixty years of age, living on a small pension after her husband’s death.
“You need not have come, my dear,” Mrs. Simpson told her. “As you can see, I’ve made a full recovery.” To punctuate her point, Mrs. Simpson did an elegant little curtsey. She was surprisingly limber for a woman her age.
“You certainly are looking better. You don’t seem to have any trouble moving at all now,” Mary noted.
“No. In fact, I took a long walk around the village yesterday and will take another today.”
“You didn’t mind the cold?”
“Oh no! I found it quite refreshing,” Mrs. Simpson proclaimed. “There’s nothing like fresh sea air and exercise for one’s health, is there?”
“No argument there,” Mary agreed. “Will you be going to tomorrow’s meeting of the Illhenny Women’s Society?” Mrs. Simpson was known for her needlework and her keen interest in village affairs.
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. We are going to start decorating the church for Christmas. I picked up some new items in London to show everyone! There’s no place like London for shopping.”
“There certainly isn’t. In fact, I’m taking the train down tomorrow to stay with an old friend of mine for a couple of nights while her husband’s away.”
“Wait, is that your friend Phyllis?” Mrs. Simpson asked. “You’ve visited her before, haven’t you?”
“Well, her husband travels regularly, and she likes the company,” Mary explained, not making direct eye contact with Mrs. Simpson.
“Oh, well, that’s very kind of you then,” Mrs. Simpson remarked. “How exactly do you and Phyllis know each other?”
“I met her when I was studying at the Queen’s Institute for Nurses in London.” This time Mary was on solid ground. “And we’ve stayed in touch. You know, I really have to get on to my other appointments.”
“Of course, dear, of course.”
Mrs. Simpson waved a cheerful goodbye and Mary rode off.
Mary next called on rheumatic old Caleb Barnaby. Caleb was a grizzled fisherman with several teeth missing, but one molar long and sharp as a harpoon. He’d been a big man once but in the last year or so had begun to lose weight and his clothes now hung on him rather alarmingly. He lived quite alone with only a large ginger cat, Ahab, for company. His rooms were shabby and dark, with only a single window, but they did have one charm—handcrafted shelves filled with little birds, fish, seashells, deer, and other creatures, all beautifully carved out of wood by none other than Caleb himself. Caleb’s whittling and carpentry were famous in Illhenny. After coming in, Mary, as usual, opened the window to air the room a little, while Caleb groused.
“Just kill me all the faster, the chill air will.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Will too!” Caleb retorted. “Cold gets worse every year for me old bones.” He gave a melodramatic sigh. “This will be my last winter, it will. Ought to start planning my funeral.”
“What would you have them write on your headstone?” Mary asked, amused.
“Don’t want a headstone,” Caleb pronounced. “Waste of time and stone if you ask me. Don’t want to be left in a box in the ground to rot either. I’d rather be taken by the wind or the sea. That way, at least I’d get to travel a b—”
There was a loud crashing sound and a startled Mary turned just in time to see a pile of wooden carvings on the floor while an orange blur raced around a corner and out of sight.
“Go ahead and run, you coward! You cur!” Caleb shouted. “If I ever get my hands on you, I’ll turn you into slippers!”
Mary had heard similar threats from Caleb before regarding Ahab’s crimes, and knew them to be empty. She instead set out about picking up the wooden figures and returning them to their rightful place. As she did so, she spotted an envelope hidden in a cleft among the shelves and, on an impulse, took a peek at its contents.
Much to her amusement, it was filled with cheap little pictures of women in various stages of undress. Pornography and smut were illegal in England, but that didn’t seem to diminish its popularity one jot. Most of the women were simply posing, but some of them were more active. In fact, several of the photos included men as well, engaging in all sorts of calisthenics with the women. Mary hurriedly put the envelope away.
“What you doing now?” Caleb asked.
“Nothing! Just examining your workmanship. How about I put on the kettle?”
“Tea? What good is tea? Now whiskey, aye, that’s proper medicine. I’ll have me a shot now.”
“But it isn’t even noon,” Mary pointed out.
“Exactly. I need breakfast!” Caleb drained the shot with satisfaction. “Come you, nurse, join me in a tipple. It’ll put some color in your cheeks, do you a load of good.”
“Sorry, but I’m not allowed to drink on duty. Those are the rules.”
“Too many damned rules,” Caleb grumbled. “That’s what’s wrong with the world these days.”
“I don’t know that the problem is the number of rules themselves,” Mary said thoughtfully, “so much as who makes them.”
“Hmph. Speaking of people who make the rules, Lord Pool’s called a town meeting tonight at the dance hall.”
“A meeting? About what?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t say anything. But his friend from next door is going to be there as well.”
“I heard The Laurels had just been rented out to some young man from London,” Mary mused. “I wondered what that was about. We don’t get many visitors from London here. In fact, we usually don’t get any.”
Caleb scowled. “No good will come of this. I can smell it. You mark my words!”
Mary did not respond to this premonition but kept to her schedule. As she rode past Mr. Legge’s tobacco shop, she saw pretty, young Mrs. Legge assisting Mr. Winthrop, the vicar. Mr. Legge, who was quite a bit older than his wife, stood directly outside the shop, engaged in an argument with Dick Townley, Lord Pool’s gamekeeper.
“No more credit for you, you wastrel! You ever darken my door without the money you owe me, and it’ll be my boot up your arse!”
“I’d like to see you try.” Townley spat on the ground, but he left the shop empty handed.
Mary passed Constable Evans as well. He was still a young man with plump cheeks, red as apples.
“Hello, Nurse Grey.” He tipped his hat to her. “Busy day, is it?”
“It’s always busy. What about you?”
“Getting a cat out of a tree has been the highlight of my morning. Had some more excitement yesterday though. Another one of those tramps came around and I had to clear him off. There seem to be more of them every week.” He frowned.
“The slump perhaps,” Mary suggested. “Too many poor souls out of work with nowhere to go.”
“Maybe, but they can’t come here,” Evans retorted. “I have my orders to keep them out. Well, I’ll leave you to your caseload.”
The saddest part of Mary’s day was visiting poor Annie Capman with her consumption. Annie was from an industrial town in the north but, because of her health, she’d moved to Illhenny in hopes the fresh sea air would revive her. Sadly, while Annie did enjoy a respite from breathing in black smoke and soot, it soon became clear her days were numbered no matter where she lived. The other villagers in Illhenny kept their distance from the little cottage Annie lodged in, fearing contagion. Annie’s coal and groceries were always delivered and left outside. Mary entered the cottage directly with a key left underneath a stone in the yard to see Annie’s skeletal figure in bed, swallowed up by comforters and sheets.
“Mary.” Annie’s hollowed pale face shone at the sight of the nurse. “It’s so good to see you.”
“How are you feeling today, Annie?” Mary asked.
“Tired,” Annie replied. “I know you say it does me good to walk outside, but today I’m afraid I haven’t the energy for it.”
“That’s all right, Annie,” Mary reassured her. “Let me open the windows at least and get some fresh air in for you. I’ve got another bottle of that tonic you like.”
Mary dosed Annie, helped her bathe in the wash basin, and combed her hair before tucking her into her newly changed bed with tea and biscuits.
“Rest now,” Mary told her as Annie shut her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Mary’s final appointment of the day was at the Martins’ farm to check on Mrs. Martin and weigh the newborn twin boys who Mary had delivered herself just fourteen days before. This visit in particular gave Mary cause for worry. Not so much the twins themselves—they were both putting on weight nicely and had hearty lungs they kept in good order with constant roaring. No, the rest of the family concerned Nurse Grey. The birth of the twins had brought the total number of children at the farm to nine, all crowded together on top of one another. From the moment she entered the home, Mary was met with the smell of dirty nappies and unwashed dishes. Without electricity, plumbing, or running water, it was difficult to maintain even the most basic level of sanitation in the home. Mrs. Martin had dark circles around her eyes, like someone had smeared coal there, and a dull, blank stare. Her hair was tangled as a bird’s nest and she had a nasty cough as well. She was uncommunicative and answered questions with just a “yes” or “no.”
Finally, Nurse Grey had directed her questions to the eldest girl, Libby. Libby informed Mary that her mother hadn’t slept for days thanks to the twins’ constant bawling, and she had seemed off her food as well. Thirteen-year-old Libby had more or less taken charge of the household and the care of her younger siblings. Mr. Martin had not been present during the interview, and Eliza volunteered that her father had been spending less time than ever at home since the twins were born. His hours minding the farm had always been long, but now it seemed he didn’t come home most nights at all. Rather he went to The Mud Crab or slept in the barn, finding it more comfortable than the Martin household at present. Looking at the dirt and grime around her, as the twins began to bawl once more, Nurse Grey understood why. Still, the absence of a father and husband in the home was only making things worse.
“Is there anyone who could come and help your mum? A neighbor perhaps? Or family?”
Libby thought a moment. “Aunt Amy,” she said. “She’s Mum’s sister and she works as a housekeeper in Anchester.” Anchester was a market town some six miles distant.
“Would we have to send a message in person, or does she have a phone?” Nurse Grey asked.
“The house she works at has a phone,” Libby replied.
“Good! Do you know the number?”
Libby shook her head.
“That’s all right. Directory can probably find you the number as long as you know who and where her employer is.”
“I know that,” Libby stated firmly.
“Then run down to the call box by the post office. Here are some coins for the phone. Tell your aunt to come here as quickly as possible, assuming she can get the time off.”
Libby turned to go, and Mary called after her, “Remember to wear your mittens!”
Nurse Grey spent the next few hours doing her best to clean up around the household, having one of the children draw her water from outside, and delegating tasks of sweeping, mopping, and laundry. A hearty new fire was built to warm the place up a bit. The twins were fed, bathed, and changed. Meanwhile, Mrs. Martin was given hot tea and put to bed for some much-needed sleep. As Mary started making porridge for supper, Libby returned.
“I spoke to Aunt Amy and she spoke to her employer. She’ll be here tomorrow.”
“That’s wonderful news! But we will have to keep an eye on your mum’s cough too,” Mary told Libby. “If it gets any worse or lasts much longer, she may need to see a doctor.”
Libby nodded, though she did not look happy. “Doctors are expensive, ma’am.”
Nurse Grey sympathized. “I know. Hopefully, though, once your mum gets some rest, she will start to get better on her own. Make sure she rests by the fire and drinks lots of hot tea.”
By the time Mary left the Martins’, it was nearly time for the public meeting. And while Mary Grey was no native to Illhenny, a district nurse should always try to stay appraised of matters within the local community. She rushed to attend and managed to get in the doors of the local dance hall just before the meeting began. It seemed half of Illhenny was crammed into the room, seated in rickety folding chairs, and Mary despaired of finding a seat.
“Hey, Nurse Grey, come you here!” Caleb Barnaby gestured to Mary to join him on a bench and somehow managed to squeeze in room for her.
“Thank you, Caleb.”
“I may need you before the night is out,” Caleb told her. Mary looked around. The walls of the hall were still decorated with the cheap paper and tinsel from the last dance. The wooden floor was scuffed from constant use over the years, and the air permeated with the smells of resin, varnish, and dried sweat.
At the far end of the hall, at a makeshift podium, stood Lord Pool, darkly handsome in a Savile Row suit. Next to him stood a remarkably fair young man wearing cream colored linen slacks, with white-blond hair that he’d grown out to a shocking degree. There was also a large free-standing presentation desk; recognizable from the form, but with a curtain drawn hiding the main display.
“That must be Lord Pool’s friend,” Mary noted.
Caleb gave a rude snort. “Looks like a poofter to me,” he grumbled. “London’s full of nancy boys and perverts.”
Mary ignored this and waved to Mrs. Simpson across the room. At last, as the conversations in the seats built in a crescendo of curiosity, Lord Pool stood up to a microphone and, after a few staticky attempts, was able to make himself heard throughout the hall.
“I imagine,” he began, “you’re all wondering why I’ve called this meeting. Well, the reason is because I have decided to partake in an investment opportunity. And the opportunity in question directly involves all of you. As most of you well know, my family has been here for centuries. We consider ourselves deeply rooted within this community, and that its fortunes and ours are intertwined.” Lord Pool paused and looked around the room meaningfully. Not a whisper was to be heard. “Which is why it truly grieves me to say that Illhenny has for some years been in a state of decline.” Voices rose in a sudden murmur throughout the room. “Oh, it’s no one’s fault,” he continued, “but neither the fishing or agriculture around here are what they once were, and mining’s long gone. To survive, Illhenny must adapt with the times, which is why it is my great pleasure to introduce you to my old and dear friend, Anthony West, who happens to be one of England’s most promising young architects. Anthony?”
The blond man was passed the microphone and Lord Pool stepped aside, and then, to Mary’s surprise, left the podium altogether. It was almost as if he was fleeing the scene. Anthony West stared at a crowd full of strangers, eyeing him suspiciously, without quailing.
“As Edgar—I mean Lord Pool—just told you, I’m an architect,” Anthony began, “and I’m proud to announce that my next project will be—” He put his hands on the display case and drew away the curtain. “—a grand, new seaside resort, right here in your community!” Now visible were schematics for a very modern looking hotel in the Art Deco style, all windows and curved white walls, with a huge veranda positioned right along the beach.
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the whole hall exploded.
“What about noise?” someone shouted.
“What about all the new traffic?” Mrs. Simpson fretted.
“We’ll be overrun with tourists,” Mr. Wilberforce lamented, and there came a chorus of agreement.
“You bastard!” Caleb Barnaby had risen to his feet, his face as red as a tomato, and screamed at Anthony West. “I knew something was up. I knew you were no good just looking at you! And I was right! You’re going to ruin this town!”
“Ruin it?” Anthony West was indignant. “I’m saving it!”
Mary noticed that Lord Pool was nowhere in sight.
“Bollocks! You’d turn this place into nothing more than a watering hole for rich fops like yourself!” The assertion on Caleb’s part prompted a resounding “aye” across the room.
“Yes, well, better your town had a few more fops like me than drunken oafs like yourself,” Anthony retorted frostily.
Caleb started striding to the podium.
“Wait a minute. What’s he doing?” Anthony wondered aloud.
“I’ll teach you a good lesson,” Caleb snarled, and young Mr. West looked alarmed. Fortunately, at that moment, Constable Evans intervened and manually escorted Caleb away. The meeting broke up in a general disorder.
Meet the Author
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Library in Oakland was always my second home. I was diagnosed as being a high functioning autistic in college. I hold a useless double major in English literature and creative writing. I’ve worked at nonprofit agencies, in food service, and most recently as a dog-walker/petsitter but the siren song of writing keeps pulling me back into its dark grip. I have co-authored a book on women in the US Senate with Billy Herzig, self-published The Dog-Walking Diaries, and in 2020 my first novel Sarah Crow was published by One Idea Press. I live in my hometown Pittsburgh with my better half, Smoky the Cat.