A Maharajah on the Moors, a priceless jewel, an inexplicable murder
To celebrate US publication of Murder on a Summer’s Day and the New York Post’s choice of the book as a “must read”, here is the story behind the novel …
The idea for Murder on a Summer’s Day struck me with the force of a falling tree, a family tree to be precise. A good friend told me about researching her ancestors: generations of Yorkshire folk. One day someone new cropped up, a third cousin twice removed: Stella Mudge. Granddaughter of Ilkley farmers, daughter of a circus performer, Stella was brought up in the Earl of Ellesmere, Bethnal Green. Having studied French, painting, music and ballet, she joined Jack Hulbert and Cecily Courtneidge’s chorus line. When the company travelled to Paris, Stella did too, even though she was under age. From there it was a crisp Chassé to the Folies Bergere. A young Indian maharajah spotted her, and that was that.
I have changed the names. As far as I know, no dancer called Lydia and no Prince Narayan really did visit Bolton Abbey in August, 1924 and stay at the Cavendish Arms. But if you read the story I hope you will believe every word, as I do. Narayan goes deer stalking, and fails to return. Kate Shackleton takes a telephone call from her cousin James, a civil servant in the India Office. Within a couple of hours, Kate is on the scene, investigating first a disappearance and then a murder.
While real life doesn’t have to make sense, fiction does and there is always a moment when what needs to be looked into becomes dauntingly clear. Writing about Bolton Abbey involved learning something about the estate’s owner.
The Ninth Duke of Devonshire, Victor Cavendish, did not spend an awful lot of time at his Bolton Abbey estate, except during the grouse shooting season. Why would he when family property included Chatsworth House, Hardwick Hall, Holker Hall, Londesborough Hall, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Chiswick House and 2 Carlton House Gardens. He was Colonial Secretary at the time Narayan went missing. It would be his duty to take a personal interest when an Indian prince disappeared from his patch. Consequently, he has a walk on part.
The Cavendish family made their money from the dissolution of the monasteries, from timely deaths and propitious marriages. Bolton Abbey is the name of the village and the area surrounding the ruined priory that, for me, is the dominant image of the place.
This is an area, a beauty spot, which teems with stories and legends. Now here is one more, that of the prince and the dancer who drove a white Rolls Royce along narrow country lanes, blissfully ignorant of what fate held in store.
This article first appeared on Martin Edwards’ blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name?