Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards – extract

Martin Edwards is the consultant and editor of the British Library crime classics series. He is the author of numerous books including The Dungeon House , The Serpent Pool and Gallow’s Court. His latest novel, Mortmain Hall, was published by Head of Zeus on 2 April 2020.

Today I have an extract from the book.

The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage.

His head twitched from side to side as he checked to see if anyone was following him. Rachel Savernake was sure he’d failed to spot her. She stood deep in the shadows, on the opposite side of Westminster Bridge Road. A veil masked her face. Like the phantom, she was dressed in black from head to toe. During the half-hour she’d waited for him to arrive, not one passer-by had given her a second glance. Women in mourning were a familiar sight outside the private station of the London Necropolis Company. This was the terminus for the funeral train.

With exaggerated care, the ghost pulled down the brim of his felt hat. During his years away, he’d grown a bushy moustache and beard. His left hand clutched a battered suitcase. As he limped towards the tall station building, Rachel stifled a groan.

The ghost’s lameness gave him away. Gilbert Payne was still an amateur in deception.

Dodging between a double-decker bus and an ancient hearse, Rachel crossed to the station entrance. A curving road ran beneath a granite archway, affording access to the mortuary chambers. The building was fronted with red brick and warm terracotta; the white-glazed walls of the underpass were decorated with bay trees and palms. Behind the facade lurked a spindly pseudo-chimney which vented air to the morgues. This was the place where coffined corpses became railway freight.

Ignoring the electric lift, she took long, athletic strides up the wrought-iron staircase. At the top she found herself beneath the glass roof of the first class platform. The open doorway to the Chapelle Ardente revealed an oak catafalque, beige Wilton carpet, and walls treated in green and bronze. She considered the private waiting rooms. The first door bore a card with a name in neat script: Mrs Cecilia Payne deceased. It stood ajar, and Rachel glimpsed chairs upholstered in morocco, light oak panelling, and a shining parquet floor. Watercolour landscapes adorned the wall, as if this was a merchant’s villa in Richmond. A tang of polish sharpened the air.

The ghost was nowhere to be seen.

A screen divided the platform. Behind it was the circulating area for third class passengers. They had their own station entrance, so that those who paid for the

privilege of a first class funeral need not travel cheek-by-jowl with the grieving poor. The Necropolis Company prided itself on sensitivity to the feelings of the bereaved.

The ticket collector gave a discreet cough. He’d sprung out of his office like a bewhiskered jack-in-the-box. She thrust a small oblong of white card into his nicotine-stained hand.

“The express is waiting, ma’am.” So it was, resplendent in olive green livery, and belching steam, impatient as a starving dragon. “I’m afraid the hearse vans are already loaded.”

While preparing for her journey, Rachel had learned that parties of first class passengers were permitted to watch the coffin containing their loved one being loaded on to the funeral train. She marvelled at the entrepreneurs’ ingenuity. They had transformed a moment of misery into a bonus for the privileged few.

“My fault for being late.” She gave a nod of dismissal. “Thank you.”

On the door of the nearest first class compartment, a handwritten card matched the one outside the waiting room. A shadow was visible through the window. The ghost had taken his seat. Now he was trapped, as surely as if he’d locked himself in purgatory.

The air thickened with smoke and the smell of burning coal. The only person on the platform was a stout porter, shepherding an old lady into a third class compartment at the end of the train. He spotted Rachel, and broke into an unwise trot, puffing and grunting like an ancient locomotive destined for the breaker’s yard.

“Just made it in time, ma’am,” he wheezed. “We depart at eleven forty, sharp. Which party would you belong to?”

About the book

ENGLAND, 1930. Grieving widows are a familiar sight on London’s Necropolis Railway. So when an elegant young woman in a black veil boards the funeral train, nobody guesses her true purpose.

But Rachel Savernake is not one of the mourners. She hopes to save a life – the life of a man who is supposed to be cold in the grave. But then a suspicious death on the railway track spurs her on to investigate a sequence of baffling mysteries: a death in a blazing car; a killing in a seaside bungalow; a tragic drowning in a frozen lake. Rachel believes that the cases are connected – but what possible link can there be?

Rich, ruthless and obsessed with her own dark notions of justice, she will not rest until she has discovered the truth. To find the answers to her questions she joins a house party on the eerie and remote North Yorkshire coast at Mortmain Hall, an estate. Her inquiries are helped – and sometimes hindered – by the impetuous young journalist Jacob Flint and an eccentric female criminologist with a dangerous fascination with perfect crimes…

About the author

Martin Edwards has won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating, Macavity, Poirot and Dagger awards as well as being shortlisted for the Theakston’s Prize. He is President of the Detection Club, Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association and consultant to the British Library’s bestselling crime classics series. In 2020 he was awarded the Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to crime fiction.

 

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