Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: started reading one of my own books. By the time they’ve been written, revised, edited and proofed, I’m usually heartily sick of them. I’ll pick out sections to read at appearances, but usually that’s as far as it goes.
But not yesterday.
I took my copy of Modern Crimes, spine still uncreased, off the shelf and began to read. I liked it. I got caught up in it, in Lottie and how she navigates all the uncertainty.
It’s not even out for just over a week but I believe in this book. I believe in them all, of course I do; each one has a certain quality. But somehow, this one has a certain intangible magic. I can’t describe that, only feel it. Maybe you will, too…here’s a little bit more.
The space behind the Royal Hotel stank. The bins overflowed and there was a strong stench of urine from somewhere. Lottie paced around, waiting and trying to be patient. The sound of traffic was muffled and distant. A train went by on the embankment, the second in ten minutes, making the earth under her shoes shake as it passed.
Finally the door at the back of the building squeaked open on rusty hinges and a heavyset woman emerged. She was dressed in a man’s double-breasted suit, correct down to the collar and tie, shoes polished to a high gloss, short hair in a brutal shingle cut and pomaded down. Blinking in the light, she lit one of her Turkish cigarettes.
‘Hello, Auntie Betty,’ Lottie said. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while.’
At first McMillan refused to go in. They sat in the car on Lower Briggate and looked across the street at the place.
‘They’ll know I’m a copper as soon as I walk through the door,’ McMillan objected.
‘Well, I can’t. I’m in uniform,’ Lottie reminded him.
He pushed the brim of his hat back. ‘It’s just…’ He shook his head and a look of distaste crossed his face.
‘Because they’re different, you mean?’ She chose her words very carefully.
‘Yes. It’s wrong, inverts and mannish girls. It’s not natural.’
‘Sarge,’ she began patiently. ‘John.’ What was the best way to put it? ‘This is the quickest way to get the information. Betty’s lived up on Blackman Lane for years. She knows the place inside and out. Two minutes and she can tell me where we can find Walker.’
‘How do you know her, anyway?’
‘Her niece had a few problems. WPC Taylor and I helped sort them out. Betty came to see us out on patrol and said how grateful she was.’
He glanced at the entrance to the Royal Hotel. ‘All right,’ he agreed reluctantly. ‘We’ll do it like this: you go to the ginnel at the back and wait. I’ll pop in, have a word with her, say you need to talk to her. Be as quick as you can. We’ll meet back here.’
‘You’re looking well, Lottie.’ Betty smiled. Everyone called her Auntie, a strangely sexless figure, more man than woman and ending up neither. She was a fixture behind the bar, serving drinks for the homosexuals and lesbians who spent their money there, always ready to advise them on their problems but never finding answers to her own.
‘So are you.’
‘That poor man you sent in looked terrified.’ She gave a chuckle. ‘Kept looking around like someone might eat him.’
‘He’s harmless, Auntie. Just scared, that’s all. Did he tell you I need your help?’
‘Yes.’ She stared at the cigarette as she turned it in her thick fingers. ‘Something about Blackman Lane.’
‘We’re looking for someone who has a place there,’ Lottie said. ‘I don’t know if it’s a flat or a room.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Ronnie Walker. He’s in his early twenties.’
‘Doesn’t ring a bell,’ the woman answered slowly. ‘They come and go so fast these days.’
‘He drives a Standard sedan.’
‘Oh, him.’ Her face brightened. ‘Number seventeen. He has the attic. What’s he done? Why are you after him?’
‘I can’t tell you, Auntie. And please don’t say a word.’
‘Lips locked,’ she promised. ‘And I’ll throw away the key.’
‘Thank you. For everything.’ She leaned forward and gave Betty a quick peck on the cheek, seeing the glimmer of loneliness in the woman’s eyes.
‘Number seventeen,’ Lottie announced with a smile as she closed the door of the Peugeot. ‘I told you Betty would know.’
‘God, she’s an odd creature. Gave me the creeps, dressed like that.’
‘She’s lovely.’ Lottie turned on the seat to look at him. ‘Without her we’d be hunting around and trying to find Walker’s address. I hope you won’t forget that.’
‘I know,’ he said quietly as he wove through the traffic on the Headrow and Woodhouse Lane. ‘I know. It’s just… well, it doesn’t matter.’ He gave her a tight smile.
‘Isn’t that a Standard?’ She pointed at a parked car on Blackman Lane. There were no more than a handful of vehicles, along with a Matthias Robinson’s delivery lorry.
‘That’s the one,’ McMillan agreed. ‘Right outside the house, too. The attic, you said?’
‘That’s what Betty told me.’ She wanted to remind him who’d given them the information.
‘Let’s take a gander. If we’re lucky, your Miss Hill will be here and we can finish this right now.’
The front door of the house was unlocked. They climbed the stairs slowly, one flight, then pausing on the landing before taking the second. At the top, the door stood ajar.
Something felt very wrong.
‘Let me go first,’ the sergeant whispered. He trod carefully, barely making a sound. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before grabbing the door handle and easing it up. Lottie had barely started the climb when she heard him shout, ‘Get in here now.’
You can get both paperback (in the UK) and ebook (everywhere, and very cheap) from September 6. Or simply order it now. And I hope it has magic for you, too.