Cover image for Plots and errors
Plots and errors
McGown, Jill.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Pub., 1999.
Physical Description:
375 pages ; 22 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Mystery
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Lancaster Library X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense
Orchard Park Library X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense
Julia Boyer Reinstein Library X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

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"Without breaking the conventions--and restrictions--of whodunit plotting, McGown always manages to people her books with characters who are entirely believable, fascinating human beings. This is a rare skill, which should be more widely recognized. Jill McGown is one of the most seriously underrated crime novelists around." --The Times (London) When Andy Cope and his wife, Kathy, owners of a struggling detective agency, are found dead in their car--peacefully holding hands and apparently asphyxiated--Detective Chief Inspector Lloyd rejects the majority opinion that they committed suicide. His theory, that the Copes were murdered, receives serious consideration when their one clients, wealthy Mrs. Angela Esterbrook, is shot to death. Why would someone with her sort of money employ an untried agency to carry out an investigation? That's just one of many puzzles that Lloyd and his partner, Judy Hill, confront in a case that defies reason. In fact, the entire super-rich Esterbrook family is a puzzle; Angela, the controlling matriarch, now dead; son Paul, with his compulsive amorous pursuits; Elizabeth, Paul's edgily suspicious wife; stepson Josh, the family black sheep; and the beautiful but inscrutable Sandie, a young woman both sons find very attractive. With the megamillion Esterbrook fortune hanging in the balance, multiple murder is perhaps inevitable. For the curtain is just now rising on a tragedy of Shakespearean grandeur. But no one, not even the cunning killer, anticipates how the plot will take on a lethal life of its own--beyond everyone's control. Jill McGown's darkly brilliant novels are as mysteriously layered as life itself, as precisely calibrated as a fine pistol. Plots and Errors is her most intricate creation to date.

Author Notes

Author Jill McGown was born in Cambeltown, Scotland on August 9, 1947. Her first novel, A Perfect Match, was published in 1983. Since then she has written over fifteen novels.

Jill McGown died April 6, 2007.

(Bowker Author Biography)



All is not well; I doubt some foul play. -- Hamlet , Act 1, Scene 2 SCENE I--BARTONSHIRE Saturday, September 27th, 11:00 A.M. The garage and various rooms of a semi-detached house in Stansfield Detective Chief Inspector Lloyd looked at the two bodies in the elderly Ford Fiesta and sighed. The man, he had never met. He was about Lloyd's own age--late forties, early fifties; difficult to say at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. He had more hair than Lloyd, but most people did. He had the same dark colouring, but he was much bigger, taller. The car had been specially adapted for a disabled driver; he was in the driving seat. The woman he had met, and had worked with, but that was a long time ago now. She had been twenty-four when he'd seen her last; she had left the job to marry the man whose hand she had been holding while their car had filled up with lethal fumes, pumped through a vacuum-cleaner hose from the exhaust pipe. "Their daughter found them this morning, sir," said the constable. "She walked along the passage between the house and the garage, to the back door of the house, and heard the engine. She pulled the hose from the exhaust, but she couldn't get into the car to turn off the engine." The garage, its overhead door closed and firmly locked, still held the heavy odour of exhaust gases; the small door at the rear stood wide open to admit as much fresh air as possible, but even diluted and dispersed, the pollution in the atmosphere was unhealthy. Undiluted, confined in the small car, it would have been lethal in about ten minutes. "It wouldn't have made any difference if she had. They'd been dead for hours by the time she got here," said the Forensic Medical Examiner, straightening up from the car. "Life pronounced extinct at ... " She looked at her watch. "Eleven-seventeen A.M.," she said, and smiled at Lloyd. "I'm a bit puzzled about why you're here, Chief Inspector. How come you got called out? Am I missing something?" "No," Lloyd said. "You're not missing anything. I'm not here on duty--the officers dealing thought I'd want to know, that's all." He could hear his own Welshness when he spoke; usually his accent was very carefully controlled, ranging from barely discernible to impenetrable, depending on the impression he was choosing to give. It was when he got what Detective Sergeant Finch called a gut-feeling that it popped out all by itself. From his soul, he liked to think, rather than his gut. "I knew Kathy--twenty years ago, admittedly, but I knew her." He smiled at the slightly wary look on the FME's face. "I wouldn't rush round to see all my friends' dead bodies," he said. "But I want to be sure that this is really a suicide pact, because I don't think Kathy was a quitter." "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize you knew her. But there's nothing to suggest she didn't go through with it of her own accord." "No," sighed Lloyd. "But it doesn't add up," he said, almost to himself, then smiled apologetically at the doctor. "Kathy always had a tendency to wade in first and think second," he said. "She never thought ahead. She survived by finding a way out of whatever problem she found herself with. She was famous for it." "Well," said the doctor doubtfully, "this is a way out." "True," Lloyd conceded. "And I don't know what her problems were yet--this may have seemed the only way out." He took the notes that she had made. "Thank you, Doctor," he said, lifting a hand as she left. "Where's the daughter now?" he asked the constable. "She's with Sergeant Alexander in the house, sir." Mary Alexander had joined Bartonshire Constabulary on the same day as Kathy White, as she then was, and Lloyd, and there was a bond between raw recruits all learning the ropes together that never quite went away; she had known that Lloyd would want to be sure of this one. Lloyd walked past the young man and stood in the open door at the rear of the garage. "Odd, about this door being unlocked," he said. "Don't you think?" He didn't wait for a reply. It was just a little puzzle. "Don't stay in there," he said. "You can keep an eye on things in the fresh air." He went along the pathway to the back door, knocked, and let himself in. "The electric's off, sir," said Mary, coming into the kitchen and closing the door behind her. "They came to cut it off just before we got here--about an hour ago, I suppose. Lucy--that's Kathy's daughter--said they might as well go ahead and do it." "Money," said Lloyd, like an oath. "Was that the problem? I can't believe that." "Big money. The house was about to be repossessed. But--it seems that Kathy was running some sort of detective agency, and the front room's been turned into an office. It's absolutely full of brand-new office equipment. I can't work that out. Why would she buy all that stuff when they were broke? The agency wasn't getting a lot of business, according to her daughter, so she couldn't have had much hope of paying for it." Another little puzzle, like the unlocked door. Judy was who he needed on this, but he was going to have to get used to doing without her soon. Still, he'd try them out on her when he got home; it would help take her mind off all the things that were worrying her. Her late, unplanned pregnancy had been confirmed at virtually the same time as she had been offered a year's secondment to HQ and the promotion that went with it; Judy found change of any kind unsettling, never mind wholesale change. That was why she and Lloyd still lived in separate flats, a situation he hoped the baby would remedy. But she was at his flat now, as she usually was at the weekend, and he would see what she made of all this. "How's Kathy's daughter?" he asked. "Is she all right?" "Yes, sir. Well, as all right as you can be in these circumstances. She's in the living room with the Coroner's officer--he's explained about the need for a postmortem and an inquest. She's not taken it too badly, considering. But--" She wrinkled her nose, shook her head. "No," she said. "Forget it." Lloyd smiled. "You know no one can, once someone's said that," he said. "Well, it's probably nothing. But I was going to make her a cup of tea, before Lucy remembered about the electricity being off, and she told me the tea bags were in that tin. It was empty, and she said there would be a new packet in this cupboard." Mary opened the cupboard, which had various tins and packets in it. "But it wasn't. It was up here." She pointed to the shelf on the unit. "So she started checking, and lots of things weren't where she expected them to be." Lloyd lived on his own, hopefully not for too much longer now that he and Judy were to be blessed with issue, but he lived on his own, and had for several years. He had decided the day he moved into the flat where he kept everything in the kitchen, and that was where it had stayed. But perhaps having a change-round helped cheer Kathy up, or something. That hardly counted as a puzzle. "And some things are in two different places," Mary went on. "Beans, for instance. There was one tin in this cupboard and two in this one down here. That just seemed a bit strange." "I agree. You keep tins of beans wherever you keep tins of beans," said Lloyd. That was another puzzle. "Lucy says her mum and dad always went shopping on a Friday night," Mary said. "And there's some cold ham in the fridge still in its supermarket deli bag. That's another thing she was surprised about, because her mum always put stuff like that in clingfilm before she put it in the fridge. And the eggs are in the fridge--she says her mum usually kept them in the larder. Of course, its been very hot--" "Right," Lloyd said, making his mind up. "I want the duty inspector informed, and I want the SOCOs down here, and the pathologist." "Scene of crime people? To a suicide?" Lloyd sighed. "There are too many little puzzles for my liking," he said. "And yours--that's why you rang me, isn't it? You weren't happy." "Well ... that was before I found out about the electricity," said Mary. "Kathy seems to have had it very hard this last couple of years. Her husband had that accident, and from what I've heard, he was always a bit--you know--overbearing. What he said went. Well, you know yourself he made her leave the job when she married him." She smiled a little sadly. "I reckon that's how he got her in the first place, because she just let him talk her into doing what he wanted, and poor Joe came home to find her in bed with his flatmate." Oh, yes, of course. Lloyd had forgotten that little scandal. She had been engaged to Joe Miller, and his best friend Andy Cope was going to be his best man until he seduced the bride-to-be. Lots of canteen jokes about may the best man win, that sort of thing. "So if Andy said--" Mary began. "If Andy said, 'Go and get the vacuum-cleaner hose, Kathy, I think we'll kill ourselves,' you're saying she would just do it?" interrupted Lloyd, his voice rising with irritation. "She might go to bed with him on that principle, but she'd hardly--" "Ssh," said Mary. Lloyd put a hand to his mouth. "Sorry," he said, with a quick glance at the closed door. "I hope she didn't hear me. But honestly, Mary! Kathy was a fighter--she would have a contingency plan if she was in money trouble. If he was suicidal, fine--but she wouldn't go along with it. I don't like this thing about the shopping. Sounds as though maybe he put it away instead of her." "It looks like a suicide pact," she said immovably. "They're holding hands." "I know what it looks like," Lloyd said. "Are you thinking of getting the SOCOs and the pathologist before the bodies putrefy, by any chance?" "And what am I going to say when the inspector asks why I want them? I'm here officially, Lloyd," she said in a fierce stage whisper. "You're not. I wouldn't have called out CID, never mind the whole circus!" "I'm here officially now," said Lloyd. "And I'm treating this as a suspicious death." He left Mary summoning reinforcements, knocked and went through the living room, where a young woman, tearstained, pale, trembling slightly, but reasonably composed, sat on the sofa with the Coroner's officer. "Just finished," he said, getting up. "Thank you, Mrs. Stephenson. We'll be in touch." Lloyd introduced himself and sat down beside her. "This must have been a terrible shock," he said. "Well--finding them and everything. But I think I saw it coming, in a way." "Oh?" He had hoped for an ally in the Copes' daughter. "Well, my dad's been getting worse and worse, and--" "His disability, you mean?" "No, not the actual problem. Just dealing with it. He got very bitter." "How did it happen?" "It was so silly--he was clearing the guttering, and the ladder went from under him. He hurt his spine. He didn't get any compensation or anything, of course--he wasn't insured for that sort of thing, and there was nothing wrong with the ladder. It was all right to start with, because my mum had a job, but he said he couldn't manage without her, so she had to leave. That's why she thought of the detective agency, because she wouldn't be out all day every day--it would just be now and then. But he just went on at her about it, saying she was poking her nose into other people's business and all that--it was really getting her down." "What brought you here this morning?" "I always come on a Saturday morning. Just to see how Mum's doing. He wasn't just giving her a hard time about the agency--he gave her a hard time about everything these days. I just liked--you know--giving her a bit of moral support." "Mary says your mum seems to have been rearranging the kitchen cupboards," he said. Lucy shook her head. "I don't understand that," she said. "Oh?" "Well--she's got all the usual things where my dad can reach them from the chair. I don't know why she would put the tea bags up there." Lloyd was more than ever convinced that something very strange had been going on here, and he moved on to another of his puzzles. "Do you know where she got all the new office equipment from?" he asked. "No. I know my dad was angry with her for getting it." She looked worried. "She never used to do things like that," she said. "She never dared." "Was she afraid of him?" Lloyd asked, as gently as he could. Lucy shook her head, and wiped her nose. "No," she said. "He shouted a lot--but he would never have hit her or anything like that, if that's what you mean. He just liked things done his way, and he made such a fuss if they weren't, that she always did what he wanted. Anything for a quiet life. Until now." She shrugged. "Maybe she did change the kitchen cupboards round." "To annoy him, you mean?" "Oh, I don't know! I shouldn't be saying things like this." She wiped away tears. "It's probably just my imagination, anyway. I just ... " She began to cry. "They couldn't keep up with the bills, and he went on and on at her like it was all her fault, making her cry, and--and then--well, she sort of changed. She started getting all that stuff that they couldn't afford. He was furious with her, but it made no difference. I asked her why she was doing it, and she just said she needed them, but she didn't! It was like she was doing it on purpose to get back at him or something." Her husband arrived then, and Lloyd decided to give the questions a rest. He didn't want to put her through all this for nothing. But it didn't feel right to Mary despite what she had said, it didn't feel right to him, and, if he was any judge, it didn't feel right to their daughter either. "Thank you," he said, and went out to the garage, where the tent that would shield the activities of the scene-of-crime officers from the curiosity of the neighbours was being erected. He asked the young constable to have a word with the said neighbours and find out if they had seen or heard anything last night, and detailed Mary to look for receipts, hire-purchase agreements, credit-card vouchers, anything to account for the new office equipment, as Freddie roared up in his sports car and jumped out over the door, the easiest way for someone as tall as he was to get out. "One day you'll be too old to do that," Lloyd said. Freddie grinned, his professionally sombre features suddenly transformed, and followed Lloyd into the garage. The big door stood open now, and scene-of-crime officers milled round in the pale blue light created by the canopy, taking samples, dusting for prints, carrying away the equipment used to effect the Copes' death. "Stand back and let the pathologist see the corpses," said Freddie cheerfully, moving Lloyd out of the way. He bent down, looked into the car, then straightened up, his face puzzled, and a shade disappointed. "Why am I here?" he asked. "I wanted you to see the bodies as they are now, not lying on a slab. I want to know if they're really holding hands, or if he's got hold of her to stop her getting out, or anything. I want to know if--" Lloyd floundered, and sighed. "Help me, Freddie," he said. "I just don't think this is what it looks like." Freddie was probably his oldest friend; it was an odd friendship, having been forged over suspiciously dead bodies, but Lloyd knew where he stood with Freddie. If there was anything to be found, his old friend would find it. Freddie looked thoughtful, nodded, and then began his examination of the bodies with as much care as he always took, touching nothing until his eyes had told him everything they could, making notes into a memo-recorder. Lloyd took a walk round the car; the boot was open to reveal the usual stuff to be found in car boots, and a folding wheelchair. He hadn't seen a wheelchair in the house. He left Freddie to it, and met Lucy and her husband on their way home. "Lucy--did your dad have more than one wheelchair?" "No," she said. "Just the folding one." That suggested that Andy Cope had never left the car. Lloyd frowned as the young couple left and the probationer came back. "Anything?" he asked. "They said they'd noticed that there wasn't any yelling on Friday night, sir. The Copes had had very loud rows all the time for the past few weeks, apparently. It was his voice they heard, mainly." "Did they happen to hear what he was yelling at her about?" "Money. And possibly another man, they thought. I asked if they'd heard any names mentioned, sir, but they couldn't remember." Another man was interesting, and much more in keeping with what Lloyd remembered of Kathy Cope than suicide was. He went through to the front room, where Mary was searching through Andy and Kathy's financial papers, most of which were in an old cardboard box, rather than the gleaming new filing cabinet. Mary had found nothing at all to account for the office equipment, and nothing else of any note. Lloyd looked round the makeshift office, at the desk, the filing cabinet, the computer with all the multimedia bits and pieces, the photocopier, all brand-new. Why would she buy all that stuff? And why was there no paperwork of any sort to account for them? Lucy said that her father had been very angry about it; he might have lost his temper, accidentally killed his wife, then tried to make it look like a suicide pact, but how, if he had never got out of the car? Kathy would have had to go and get the hose and the sticky tape and all the rest of it. He could hardly have forced her to do that. So, perhaps she had been a willing participant. And, if she had been contemplating suicide, she might not have noticed where she was putting the shopping. But that still left his other puzzle. Why had they locked the main garage door, and all four of the car doors, but left that little door unlocked? He opened the filing cabinet and took out a couple of files. Small jobs, for small money. The most recent was six weeks ago, and the file was fairly cryptic: Mrs. A. Esterbrook, Little Elmley, Barton, was the heading. There were no reports or copy letters, but there were copies of receipts. She'd done a job for Mrs. Esterbrook in Plymouth in August; no details, but a stay at a very expensive hotel had been thrown in, for Kathy and Andy Cope. The actual fees weren't any better than the others, though, certainly not enough to account for all the office equipment. Esterbrook--he knew that name. Oh, yes, of course. The Esterbrooks owned IMG Limited. In the late fifties, their choice of Stansfield for their head office had been the jewel in the then very new town's crown, and the family-owned firm had just got bigger and bigger since then, with plants in every major town in the UK. They were far and away the richest family in the county, and one of the richest in the country. Now, thought Lloyd, why would someone with that sort of money to spend employ an untried, underfunded, two-man operation run from a semidetached in Stansfield to carry out an investigation in Plymouth for her? Another little puzzle. Freddie appeared at the door. "I've arranged for the bodies to go to the mortuary," he said. "I can't see anything suspicious, Lloyd. It looks like a suicide pact." "I know what it looks like," Lloyd said wearily as he walked with Freddie back to his car. "Call it a hunch." Freddie looked back at the garage, and the people going in and out. "You're spending an awful lot of money on a hunch," he said. Excerpted from Plots and Errors by Jill McGown All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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