Real-life crime has engulfed the domestic life of the Riverside Theatre players. For starters, there's the violent death of Estelle Bignall, the beautiful, neurotic wife of a well-to-do doctor (and aspiring resident playwright). In truth, suicide seemed more Estelle's line--especially during the Christmas holidays--but a thief saved her the trouble, stealing all the presents and leaving her bound, gagged, and suffocated.
Instinct tells Detective Chief Inspectors Lloyd and Judy Hill that Estelle's murder is far more complicated. At the crime scene there are too many footprints, too many fingerprints, too much conflicting evidence--and too many suspects: an elusive burglar, a sinister next-door neighbor, the victim's secret lover, a scared kid with fresh bruises on his face. But which of them was desperate enough to commit murder?
In her 11th Lloyd and Hill mystery (Verdict Unsafe; etc.), British author McGown provides an expertly crafted whodunit. Judy Hill, a bit cranky in her eighth month of pregnancy and uncertain about Lloyd's willingness to be a father again, ropes her reluctant partner in life and crime into joining her at a rehearsal for a local dramatic society's production of Cinderella. When Lloyd is called from there to the scene of a suspicious death involving the wife of one of the players, the curtain rises on a fascinating domestic drama. Estelle Bignall, apparent victim of a robbery gone wrong, was married to handsome doctor Carl Bignall, who was safely at rehearsal when the call came. Ryan Chester, well known to the local cops as a clever thief, is tied to the scene by the theft of a car and a sackful of Christmas presents from the Bignall house. Ryan's younger half-brother, Dexter, has been spotted running away from the scene of the crime. Sinister next-door neighbor Eric Watson, a former cop, is curiously reluctant to talk to the police. What does he have to hide? Imperturbable as ever, the witty and wily Lloyd, with the able help of his subordinate, Tom Finch, sorts through the maze of conflicting evidence and improbable stories to get to the heart of the matter. Once again, McGown has delivered outstanding entertainment.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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February 25, 2002
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Excerpt from Scene of Crime by Jill McGown
Chapter One "I felt like a prat," said Lloyd as he and Judy made their way downstairs from the room in the Christmas-decorated Riverside Family Center in which the so-called relaxation classes were held. It had been his first visit to such a thing. And, if he could possibly work out how to get out of it, his last, because the one thing it had not been was relaxing.
Judy snorted. "And I didn't?"
"Well, at least you're pregnant. Why do I have to do the breathing?"
"They explained why. Anyway, you're supposed to be relaxing, too."
"As far as I'm concerned, relaxing is a malt whiskey and a crossword. Or maybe a video. Or both. Not squatting on the floor making stupid noises."
"I don't think the malt whiskey and crossword method of childbirth has proved all that successful," said Judy.
"I'll bet no one's tried it." Lloyd looked at the people going down ahead of them and lowered his voice. "Apart from anything else, all the others look about sixteen," he said. "And there am I, fifty and bald."
Judy arrived on a landing and turned to face him. "I'm forty-one," she said. "How do you suppose that makes me feel?"
He smiled and took her hands in his, looking at her dark, shining hair, and today's choice of color coordinated pregnancy outfit. She had scoured the county to find clothes she regarded as fit to be seen in when you felt like a whale. Even in her eighth month, she didn't look like a whale, pleasant though these creatures were, in Lloyd's opinion. She looked wonderful. There really was a glow. He'd told her that once, and she thought he was kidding, but he wasn't.
"I don't know how you feel," he said. "But you look great."
"It isn't rubbish," he protested. "You do look great. I think I'll be a little sorry when you're not pregnant anymore."
"Well, I won't." She frowned. "Didn't you go to classes when Barbara was pregnant?"
Lloyd shrugged. "I don't think they'd invented them in those days," he said. He didn't have the faintest idea whether they were fashionable then, but he was fairly safe in assuming that neither did Judy.
Life had been easier back then, he reflected. His marriage had been uncomplicated, basically, until Judy's arrival in his life made it complicated. By and large, Barbara had done the female stuff and he'd done the male stuff. He wasn't the archetypal Welshman; he enjoyed cooking, and he didn't mind housework. He had never expected women to be at his beck and call. But having babies had always seemed to him to be beyond his remit, as the Assistant Chief Constable would say, and he really didn't know if Barbara had done all this relaxation business. He became aware that he was being subjected to dark brown scrutiny, and felt uncomfortable. "It was different then!" he said.
"I was in uniform. I worked shifts."
It was different because Barbara hadn't been a police officer. Judy was, and she knew what was what; he couldn't plead a heavy caseload or the sudden necessity to work overtime; she would want chapter and verse. And it had been almost twenty years since he'd had anything to do with a pregnant woman; times had changed. Men weren't just encouraged to be involved, they were expected to be.
"Were you present when the children were born?" she demanded.
"Well . . ."
"Don't try telling me they didn't do that in those days, because they most certainly did. Where were you? Pacing up and down outside? Waiting to hand out cigars?"
"You mean you weren't there at all?"
"I meant to be there, but it wasn't possible. Things came up at work. . . ."
"Both times? Oh, sure they did."
"Look, if Barbara didn't give me a hard time about it, why are you?"
She didn't answer.
"Good evening, Chief Inspector Lloyd," said a voice. "What are you doing here?"
Lloyd turned to see the long, thin frame of Freddie, their friendly neighborhood pathologist, loping down the steps from the rooftop car park. Lloyd had parked in the street--he wasn't a fan of rooftop lots, or rooftop anything elses, come to that.
"I'm here because I'm going to be a father," he replied. "Apparently I have to learn how to bear down. What's your excuse?"
"When it comes to being a father, I think you'd be better off learning how to bear up, but I expect you know that better than I do. I'm here to play squash." Freddie beamed at Judy. "Hello, Judy--positively blooming, I see. And I believe it's Detective Chief Inspector Hill now, isn't it? You've caught up to this one." He jerked his head in Lloyd's direction. "And not before time. How's the new job?"
"It's fine, I suppose. I can't honestly say I know what I'm doing yet, but Joe Miller does."
"Ah, yes. He's the computer buff, isn't he? My only regret about your promotion is that I won't see you anymore."
Judy smiled. "Don't take this personally, Freddie, but as far as I'm concerned, the absence of mortuary visits is a major plus about this job."
"Dead bodies are more interesting than most live ones--present company excepted. Besides, you should be used to them by now."
"I'll never get used to them."
"Still--there's always the housewarming. I presume you'll invite me, if I promise not to bring any dead bodies. Have you found somewhere to live yet?"
"No," said Lloyd.
"You mean you're still living in separate flats?"
Not exactly, Lloyd thought. He wasn't sure if Judy had noticed yet, but he'd more or less moved in with her.
"We keep looking at houses, but we can't agree on what we want," said Judy. "It's all going to have to wait until after Christmas now."
"Well, there's one for the books," said Freddie, glancing at his watch. "You two failing to agree. Sorry--must dash. I'm on court at quarter past. If I don't see you before, have a happy Christmas."
"Same to you," said Judy. She caught Lloyd's wrist and looked at his watch as Freddie disappeared down the next flight of steps two at a time. "Is that the time? I'm ten minutes late for the rehearsal. She wanted us all there at eight prompt."
Lloyd followed as she made her way down. "I thought you just did their books for them," he said. "How does that involve rehearsals?"
"I'm doing the sound effects tonight because someone's away sick."
Lloyd grinned. "Do you have to moo and things like that?"
"There isn't any mooing in Cinderella."
It had been the mildest of jokes. When she was in this sort of mood, he thought, she was hard work. "Can I come?" he asked. "Or would you rather I went home and came back for you?"
"Suit yourself. But if you come, make yourself useful."
Lloyd walked with her through a maze of corridors that would apparently take them under cover to the Riverside Theatre, rather than having to go back out into the rain. The complex had been built with help from the lottery, and as far as he could see, it was still being built. "Watch your step," he said as Judy briskly walked past wooden panels and pots of mysterious smelly stuff.
She didn't slow down.
"What should I do to make myself useful?"
She didn't answer.
Lloyd sighed. "I can make tea," he said. "And you said you would need to eat--I can nip down to the snack bar for sandwiches or something. Will that be useful?"
"Fine. Just don't get in the way."
The theater, which they entered by a rear door that took them along another corridor into the wings, was just about finished. Not too much builders' debris to catch the unwary mother-to-be. They walked out onto the stage, where a spare, tall woman of uncertain years and flaming hair, dressed in what seemed to Lloyd to be a remarkable number of scarves and very little else, was dramatically glad to see Judy.
"Thank God you're here, darling!" she said. "I was beginning to think no one was going to turn up."
"Sorry, Marianne, we got held up. This is Lloyd, my partner. Lloyd--Marianne."
"How lovely to see you here, Lloyd." She extended her hand, palm down, and Lloyd felt certain he was supposed to bow and kiss it, but he settled for giving it a necessarily ineffectual shake. "It was my fault that we were late," he said. "I ran into an old friend."
Marianne tilted her head to one side and regarded Lloyd. "I don't suppose you could possibly read Buttons for us, could you, darling?"
Lloyd blinked. "Yes," he said. "If you're serious."
"Oh, I'm desperately serious." She turned to Judy. "Dexter rang and said he's come down with something. So I haven't got Buttons or Cinderella now. And I don't know where Carl Bignall is. He's supposed to be bringing the chimes, apart from anything else."
"Chimes?" said Lloyd.
"Midnight," said Judy. "The clock has to strike midnight. Carl does the sound effects, and understudies Buttons, amongst other things."