Cover image for Absent friends
Absent friends
Linscott, Gillian.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
282 pages ; 22 cm
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December 1918. The vote has been won at long last, the Great War is over and suffragette Nell Bray is standing for election. Everything seems to be falling into place for the dedicated activist. Yet, with a month to go to the first general election, Nell is still without party backing, writing desperately to friends and contacts to drum up support for her cause. Further, the former Conservative candidate has been blown up by a firework while celebrating the Armistice, his widow is certain that he's sending her messages about his killer through a haunted piano, and at least one person in the constituency has a murderous hatred of all politicians. To add to Nell's troubles, two men from her checkered past are home from the war.Nell finds herself in the middle of a baffling case, with the odds most definitely against her - both for election victory and survival. The suffragette turned amateur sleuth must then show a dedication to the truth as strong as her loyalty to women's rights to solve the mystery and come out on top.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In the 1918 general election, after the war, English women finally get the vote. Nell Bray, a London suffragist, is looking for a district where she can stand for election. Lucinda Sollers, from rural Herefordshire, asks Nell to run in her husband's district. Sollers thinks her husband's "accidental" death was murder and asks Nell to investigate while campaigning. This eighth Nell Bray mystery is loaded with interesting history, unique characters, and vivid descriptions of the English countryside. Linscott offers a surprising murder case while weaving in sobering thoughts on the cost of World War I and a realistic, witty view of politics; she also has fun with psychics. The suffragist angle should appeal to fans of Miriam Grace Monfredo's Glynis Tryon series. --John Rowen

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1918, 17 women stood as candidates in the first general election in England in which women could vote. In her eighth Nell Bray adventure (following 1998's Dance On Blood), Linscott adds her fictional heroine to their number. The months following the end of WWI are hardly an auspicious time for women to enter the political arena, for the Tories and Liberals that ran the government together during the war have decided to put up Coalition candidates instead of competing against one another. But Nell would run for a seat in Parliament anyway, if she had the money. Her wish is unexpectedly answered when an affluent widow offers to fund her campaign on the condition that Nell look into the sudden death of her husband, who was blown to bits by a suspiciously powerful firecracker. Lucinda Sollers believes her deceased ex, who was the Coalition's candidate for MP, was murdered by the local potato farmer who usurped his place on the ballot. So Nell heads off to Duxbury (near the Welsh border) with her ally and former lover, Bill Musgrave, for an election campaign and an investigation. Both prove dangerousÄand exciting, as Linscott captures the bustling activity of political work as well as the intricacies of Nell and Bill's sleuthing. Complicating matters is the slow rekindling of the duo's relationship, after a four-year hiatus. The campaign is marred by more than the usual minor violence, with attacks directed at all the candidates; a cruel hoax also figures in, before the election is concluded and the mystery solved. Linscott successfully animates rural Duxbury with a bevy of curious charactersÄtanners, farmers, magistrates, etc. Her deft blend of social and cultural history with artful mystery makes for another worthy entry in a solid series. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One From inside my living room, typing a letter, I heard the feet going uphill, hundreds of them. Not marching. We'd had too much of marching. If there was a rhythm, it was more a kind of skip and shuffle, like people who were bent on celebrating but still not quite able to convince themselves that it was allowed. I tried to block it out and concentrate ... believe it is essential that as many woman candidates as possible stand for election. The fight to get the Vote is pointless unless we use it as a force for change. My qualifications ... Skip and shuffle, skip and shuffle, getting louder. The crowds had started moving uphill even before it got dark, and on a cloudy afternoon in the middle of November, darkness came early. They were being drawn to the heights of Hampstead Heath, as Londoners tended to be at times of celebration. The truth was, I was ready to be distracted. This was the fifteenth time that afternoon I'd typed the same words and confidence was waning with each repetition. But with another eleven to do before the last post on Sunday I couldn't afford doubt or modesty. My qualifications include almost fifteen years campaigning for the Vote as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union. I am the co-author of a report into ... Some distant cheering now, from down the hill towards the underground station, the sound of a brass band playing `Soldiers of the Queen'.     Four days before, on a drizzly night, I'd stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people in Fleet Street, to see the first editions of the newspapers come out and confirm it was peace at last. Victory too, if that had any meaning left, but above all an end to four years of war. Then, two days after that, I'd sat with my friends in the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons and heard Lloyd George call a general election. That marked an end of an even longer war. In this election women would be voting for the first time. More than that, some would be standing for election including, I hoped, Nell Bray. As I was pointing out in the letter, I had ideals, policies and experience. There were just three small problems. I had no constituency, no party machinery, no money. True there was something calling itself the Women's Party, but since that mainly consisted of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst yelling for revenge on the Germans I'd have as soon stood as a Tory. Or almost. With a month to go to the election I'd made a list of the twenty-six constituencies I knew best and was writing to friends or contacts in all of them looking for a political fairy godmother ... above all, to make sure this is the last world war by supporting the League of Nations and ... Damnation. Skipped a paragraph. I tore the sheet out of the typewriter, screwed it up, threw it in the grate and went over to the window.     At the end of the street the crowds were streaming along, coming thick and fast. Even through the glass and half a street away, their urgency got to me. I grabbed my coat and hat and went out into the damp, brass-thumping night. By the time I got to the end of the street I was almost running with the need to join them and catch this germ of celebration. A man in a flat cap and a boy with a cardboard trumpet stood back, grinning, to let me in and I was part of the impromptu procession. Odd, after all those years, to be in a procession without a banner in my hand. We walked, all strangers to each other, elbows brushing, catching each other's eyes and grinning in a way that was half shame-faced, half thrilled with ourselves like children playing truant from school. There wasn't far to go. At the top of the hill the crowd had mostly come to a halt around Whitestone Pond and the flagstaff, where a Union Jack flattered damply in the breeze. To the north of the pond the crowd bulged out around Jack Straw's Castle, with the lights of the pub glinting on beer glasses and waiters trying to push through with loaded trays. Most people were looking back down the hill and the brass band's music was getting louder.    `Eh missus, can you see them from up there?'     I was wedged in by a large family party and a couple of urchins were tugging at my sleeve. I was too used to jokes about my height to resent it, even if it had been a time for resentment.     `See what?'     `The torches.'     And I could see them, a line of flaming torches coming up Heath Street, then more torches behind them, until the whole road was picked out in regular points of flame with serious male faces behind them. They came to a different rhythm, no civilian shuffle and hop but a regular march. A ragged cheer went up, and got louder as the first ranks of torches came level with the crowd by the pond, illuminating the khaki uniforms of the Army Service Corps. The band came past, drowning the cheering, then there was an outbreak of booing, hissing and laughter. Four of the marching men were carrying a figure like a Guy Fawkes by its floppy legs and arms, a cardboard Prussian helmet tied to its stuffed pillow head.     `Kaiser Bill. They're going to burn Kaiser Bill.'     Most of the crowd fell in behind them along West Heath Road, some carrying their own makeshift torches of screwed-up newspapers, with flakes of burning paper floating off to the dark heathland, left and right. Some of us stayed there by the flagpole. The bonfire was on the West Heath, just below us, so we had a good view as the flames ripped into the sky and heard the cheers as Kaiser Bill burnt. There was singing too, `Rule Britannia' `God Save the King' `It's a Long Way to Tipperary'. I heard a gulping sound to one side of me, looked down and saw a plump, elderly woman in a felt hat. I'd been conscious of her singing, rather out of tune, but now tears were streaming down her face. She was trying to say something, out of lips locked together and a gulping throat and a look of misery in her eyes that seemed to go down to the centre of the earth. I put my arm round her. She collapsed against me and a few words came.     `Can't help thinking ... Can't help thinking ...'     That was all. She leaned against me for a while, shaking, then pushed me away as if somehow I'd been the cause of it and walked off, sobbing but trying to sing at the same time. She was right, though. You couldn't help thinking. Standing up there by the flagpole, with the bonfire flaring, the crowd singing and cheering and the lights of London stretched out below us, I thought of friends who were gone for ever and of other friends, still alive as far as I knew, but taken so far away by war that they seemed almost as distant as the dead. There was Bobbie Fieldfare, driving ambulances in France, probably as recklessly as she'd galloped horses over fences or thrown stones through shop windows in Oxford Street. Simon Frater, classicist -- also somewhere in France. That had been one of the surprises of the last four years. I'd expected that a quiet academic like Simon would have been a pacifist, but there he'd been, as soon as war broke out, clamouring to be enlisted. In his case, it wasn't even bloodthirstiness or simple patriotism but an extension of his classical studies. The city states of ancient Greece had survived because it was their citizens' duty to fight for them. Socrates himself had been a soldier. So Simon Frater answered the call and severely perplexed some poor recruiting officer. The fact that he was short-sighted, incurably clumsy and a potential danger to anyone but the enemy when in possession of a firearm made him hard to place. After several unsuccessful experiments, somebody realised that a mind that could manage Greek poetry might have its uses in breaking enemy codes. The last I'd heard of him he'd been attached to the intelligence staff of a general and was based in a chateau. He should, with luck, have survived the war but I didn't know. Nobody knew. Then there was a barrister named Bill Musgrave. Or rather, there had been a Bill Musgrave, but there was now Captain William Musgrave. I hadn't seen him for nearly three years. There'd been an opportunity a year before when he was home on leave, but I'd deliberately missed it because by that time I was breaking the law again, trying to help men who were refusing to be conscripted into the Army. Harbouring deserters hardly made me fit company for an Army officer, or him for me.     I found I'd started walking and moved away from the crowd. After that first warm feeling, celebration hadn't been as infectious as I'd hoped. I walked round Whitestone Pond, picking my way through the people overflowing from Jack Straw's Castle, across the road to the main part of the heath. Even though I'd had enough of crowds, the idea of returning to my cold room and the letters wasn't appealing. I thought I'd walk over to Highgate Ponds and back, then with any luck I'd be tired enough to sleep. The paths over the heath were so familiar to me that my feet knew them in the dark. I left the gaslights and the pavements behind me and turned on to a path among the bushes. For the first few hundred yards I was conscious of giggles and whisperings of couples I'd disturbed and walked on as quickly as I could, not wanting to spoil their night. Then I was out on the open heath. It was quieter there, but not as quiet as the heath usually is at night. From behind me I could still hear, faintly, the shouting and singing from the bonfire on the West Heath. To my right the ground sloped away to London, a glimmer of lights all the way down to the Thames. I could see more bonfires and a softer and more distant wave of sound came up from the whole of the city, cheering, singing and shouting merging into what sounded like a great repeated sigh of relief.     Listening to this, I became conscious of a closer sound -- footsteps following me. At first I thought it was just somebody like myself, wanting to get away from the crowds. They were heavy male steps, whoever it was walking faster than I was and on the same path. I wasn't alarmed. Even if it happened to be some drunk wanting confrontation, I'd dealt with worse than that and didn't intend to be deprived of my walk. I deliberately kept to the same easy pace and didn't turn round, intending to step aside and let him pass. The steps came within yards of me so that the back of my neck was prickling, then slowed to my own pace. Whoever it was didn't intend to pass after all. For a minute or so we went on like that, then I got tired of the game. I stopped, stepped sideways on to the grass. The steps stopped as well. I could hear his soft breathing.     `Do go past me,' I said.     A pause, then his voice. `Nell?' Then, more formal. `Miss Bray? It is Nell, isn't it?'     Bill Musgrave's voice. Bill, who should be somewhere in France, standing there a step away from me. I could even smell the damp wool of his jacket and a whiff of pipe tobacco. For a moment I couldn't answer, thinking that I'd summoned up his image from loneliness. Or Bill must be dead, and this was the ghost of him.     `I don't believe in ghosts.'     I must have said it aloud, because he laughed.     `You don't have to.'     I took a step towards him, almost touching him to make sure he was real, but not quite.     `What are you doing here?'     `Looking for you. I went to your place but there was nobody there but the cats. So I came up here and saw you striding off as if you were going for a ten-mile hike. May I join you?'     I couldn't see his face in the dark, but his voice was cheerful and matter-of-fact as if we'd been only a few days apart.     `Why not?'     We still hadn't touched, not even hands, but as we started walking again I accidentally brushed against his left elbow. He drew away and then apologised.     `It's why I'm home. I came over on a hospital train three days before the Armistice and they sent me straight to hospital in Oxford.'     `What happened?'     `We'd heard there was a stretcher party under fire. I was going back with a sergeant to try to hurry it along when a stick grenade came hurtling in. He lost most of his hand. I was lucky.'     `Bill, you'd better know this. I've been working with deserters, campaigning against conscription.'     `Well, of course you'd be campaigning against something. Don't worry, I know.'     `How?'     `We weren't as cut off as you think. I met somebody who'd been with you in that business in Wales last year.'     `Who?'     `Can't remember his name. Anyway, it didn't surprise me.'     `Did you mind?'     `Mind?' He stopped. `Oh, I see. I'm one of the enemy, am I?'     `Not enemy. Of course not enemy. But it's why I didn't see you, stopped writing.'     He started walking again and I walked beside him, being careful of the elbow and of something that felt even more fragile.     `Nell, believe it or not, I did what I could in my own way. You know what they mean by Friend of the Accused?'     `Somebody who speaks up for the prisoner at a court martial?'     `That's right. Well, a couple of poor devils accused of cowardice knew I'd been a lawyer in civilian life and asked me to speak up for them. One of them -- it didn't do him any good because they shot him anyway. The other got off, so he might have been there to hear the guns stop provided the enemy didn't shoot him first.'     We walked towards the edge of one of the Highgate Ponds then turned back. After a while, talking came more easily. He asked what I was doing and I told him about the letters.     `Can't you just choose a constituency and go and stand?'     `You need more than a megaphone and a wagonette for a general election. Posters, leaflets, hire of halls -- not to speak of a hundred and fifty pound deposit which I shall almost certainly lose.'     After a few steps he said, `You know, you don't get much chance to spend in the Army. I must have nearly two hundred pounds saved up from--'     `No.' I felt like laughing and crying together. He'd never been the rich variety of barrister and that money would be all he had in the world. `I can't take it from you. You don't even care about politics very much.'     `I'd like you to have what you want.'     `Thank you, but no.'     When we got to the Hampstead side of the heath I invited him back to the house but he said he had to catch the last train for Oxford. He was still a soldier and an officer, after all, and wasn't supposed to be out of the hospital, though discipline had slipped a little in the general celebrating.     `But I'll get a few days' leave as soon as I can. There are months owing to me. Then we'll get together and plan your campaign.'     As we paused for a last look down on the London lights a great red-and-white rocket went up, probably from the official Ministry of Munitions fireworks display in Hyde Park, and seemed to hang in the sky over the whole city.     It was probably at much the same time, at another victory celebration in a shire a long way from London, that Mr Charles Sollers, button and buckle manufacturer, stepped forward to light the touch paper on another firework and was blown to smithereens.