Who better to be investigating death in a small village than the woman who writes the obituaries?

Clare Chase

Clare Chase has written two cozy mystery series, as well as several other books. Today we’re talking about her Eve Mallow series featuring the transplanted American writer. Clare and I discuss the inspiration for this unique character and why we think mystery novels appeal to readers.

In the introduction, I mention that It’s a Mystery podcast was named one of the Top 10 Crime Fiction podcasts to follow in 2020. Very exciting!

This week’s mystery author

Clare Chase writes traditional mysteries; her aim is to take readers away from it all via some armchair sleuthing in atmospheric locations. Her debut novel made the shortlist for Novelicious’s Undiscovered Award, and Murder on the Marshes (the first in her Tara Thorpe series) was shortlisted for an International Thriller Writers award.

Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in settings as diverse as a local Prison and the University of Cambridge, in her home city. As well as writing, Clare loves family time, art and architecture, cooking, and of course, reading other people’s books!

To learn more about Clare Chase and her books visit ClareChase.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.

Excerpt from Mystery at Apple Tree Cottage

Prologue

Early April

Mystery at Apple Tree Cottage Clare Chase

Any local looking at the woodland between the village of Saxford St Peter and the heath that led down to the coast would know the season. Beneath the evergreen Scots pines, bluebells formed a glorious dark-cobalt carpet, peppered here and there by white-petalled wood anemones, their centres decorated with yellow anthers. Leaf-burst for the oaks was still a month or so off, but beneath the gnarled old trees, wood sorrel grew from the moss clinging to fallen logs and branches. Its purple-veined white flowers dangled from the slenderest of stems, marking the progress of spring. 

From a distance, the scene looked reassuringly familiar.

In the deepest part of the wood, a figure crouched next to a fine silver birch with plump catkins hanging from its branches. The forest floor was teeming with life. But at his feet, amongst the flowers that promised the return of warmth and hope, lay death – brutal and simple.

Ashton Foley had been shot through the head.

In the countryside, the sound of a gun firing wasn’t so unusual. The shot hadn’t brought anyone running, and Ashton’s corpse lay a good way from the nearest house. All the same, the man kneeling by the body was on high alert, pulse racing, leg muscles trembling. It was early, but dog walkers would be about. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he leaned forward and investigated each of Foley’s pockets in turn. The leather jacket was easy, but the jeans were tight, and it was a challenge to check inside. He rolled the dead man awkwardly up onto one hip, and then the other, looking in his back pockets now. Aha. There was the wallet. But it was almost empty – just some cards and loose change.

He wiped the leather with a clean tissue, replaced it, then paused a moment. None of the pockets contained a door key. That was odd…

Chapter One

Four Weeks Earlier

Eve Mallow arrived at Monty’s teashop, with its bay windows and colourful bunting, looking forward to her shift. Working with her friend Viv, who owned the place, complemented her real profession perfectly. As a freelance obituary writer, she interviewed the living to unearth the secrets of the dead, but also spent hours researching her subjects. Wanting to understand people was hardwired in her. Regular shifts in Monty’s ensured she stayed solvent, but the work was also sociable, and an additional people-watching opportunity.

She still felt slightly surprised to find herself installed in a Suffolk village. As a city girl, born and raised in Seattle, who’d moved to London as a student and stayed for thirty years, she’d assumed rural life wouldn’t suit her. It was a working vacation in Saxford St Peter the previous summer which had changed her mind. Life there had a lot to offer. You got to know people properly. The chance to really understand them was appealing. Eve’s beloved dachshund had been delighted by the move too. Pelting along the beach, leash-free, was a lot more appealing than sniffing lamp-posts on Kilburn High Road.

Viv was serving as Eve walked through the teashop door. After hanging up her coat in the office, off Monty’s kitchen, Eve joined her friend behind the counter.

‘How’s it going with your dead poet?’ Viv asked.

‘Fascinating. I’m almost done, and I’ll be sorry to leave her behind. Apparently she sat in the nude with the windows open for an hour each morning to reconnect with the world.’

Viv shuddered. ‘I rely on a cup of Darjeeling for that, but each to their own.’

A pair of middle-aged women had just arrived and taken seats at a table in the window. The early spring sunlight slanted in, falling on the daffodil-yellow tablecloth, which matched Viv’s hair colour this season. The table was topped off with sparkling silverware and a jam jar, decorated with a purple ribbon and full of hellebores.

Eve recognised one of the newcomers: a woman of around sixty, with brown hair, streaked with grey. She’d been in Monty’s before, and though she was always kind and polite, she usually looked rather buttoned-up, as though life had taken its toll, and she’d put up barriers against further upset. Today, things were different. She smiled and eased off her coat, sliding it over the back of her chair, and relaxed, her shoulders down, chest out, as though she’d just taken a deep breath. She made Eve think of a flower whose petals had opened in response to the sun. In a moment, the woman with her said something, and she leaned forward to reply, beaming and animated.

‘That’s Betty Foley,’ Viv said in an undertone, following her gaze. ‘She lives in Apple Tree Cottage, down in the woods. It’s nice to see her looking so happy. I wonder what’s up.’ A moment later her thoughtful expression was replaced by one of panic. ‘Oh no – the scones!’ She disappeared into the kitchen.

Eve went to take Mrs Foley’s order. She was pushing the boat out; Monty’s tea-time selection was a substantial treat. A moment later, Eve ferried a collection of stylishly mis-matched crockery over to their table. It was a trademark of Monty’s, along with the brightly coloured tablecloths and seasonal wildflowers. As she approached, she picked up on the pair’s conversation.

‘So, Ashton’s going to be here for some time?’ the friend said to Mrs Foley, leaning back so Eve could put her plate down.

Betty Foley nodded, her eyes bright. ‘That’s right. Four or five weeks at least, he said. The work’s quite complicated – a lot of planning and design and then there’s actually “siting” the plants. That’s what he called it.’

‘I can’t believe he’s working for a pop star! But then I suppose he’s a celebrity himself these days.’

Betty blushed as Eve laid their places. ‘Well, that’s right. He is really. It’s a hugely successful business now, and they’ve worked for actors and models, even some of the minor royals.’

‘Wow!’ The friend let the word out on a sigh as she relaxed in her chair.

Eve retreated to fetch a cake stand, laden with tiny cucumber sandwiches, apricot and white chocolate blondies, chocolate truffle cupcakes and lemon shortbread. The man called Ashton was still the topic of conversation when she returned.

‘People seem to find it very therapeutic to have more plants in their homes,’ Betty was saying. ‘And it’s not just the type of pot plants we might have. His company puts in trees and climbers.’ She paused and then said in a rush: ‘Everyone who’s anyone wants to buy Ashton’s services. The company’s waiting list is a year long!’

Her friend’s eyes widened at sight of the cake stand. ‘Goodness, what a treat!’ She smiled at Eve, then turned back to Betty. ‘But I can see why you’re celebrating. You must be so proud.’

‘I am.’ Betty blushed again. ‘And I can hardly believe it. It only seems like five minutes since he was in school.’ 

For just a second, a shadow seemed to pass over her, but then she brightened again. Ashton must be her son. Eve could tell Betty was practically bursting with pleasure, but equally that it went against the grain to boast. She was obviously a bit bashful about sharing her happy moment. For a second Eve felt quite unreasonably emotional on the woman’s behalf. But she knew that feeling of joy; when her own twins called to relay good news, she felt elated and proud too.

‘No wonder he’s not able to come home often,’ the friend said, ‘he must be rushed off his feet.’

Just before Eve turned back towards the teashop’s kitchen, she caught another tiny flicker of distress in Betty’s eyes, but it was quickly gone. 

‘That’s right. He has no time at all, poor thing. It’ll be so nice to have him around for a while at last.’

Eve went to fetch the pair a pot of Assam tea. By the time she returned with it, together with milk and sugar, Betty’s friend was speaking.

‘Very expensive, I presume?’

‘Oh yes,’ Betty said. ‘Not for the likes of us!’ She chuckled and shook her head.

‘Well, please let me know when he arrives and introduce me!’ the friend said.

Betty nodded, her glow increasing, her hands clasped to her chest. ‘I will.’

A moment later Eve was back behind Monty’s counter with Viv. ‘Were the scones okay?’

‘Perfect.’ She wasn’t one for false modesty, something which Eve appreciated. ‘So, what’s Betty’s news?’ she added in an undertone.

‘It sounds as though her son’s coming back to Saxford to do a job for Billy Tozer.’ Unsurprisingly, there was only one pop star in the village. The rapper had moved into an architect-designed millionaire’s playhouse, close to the beach.

‘Mrs Foley can’t wait to see him, that’s for sure. She’s nice, isn’t she?’

Viv nodded and folded her arms. Her expression had turned sour. ‘She’s a gem.’

‘Why the grim look then?’

She glanced at Mrs Foley and then down at her watch. ‘What about a glass of wine after we finish? I’ll fill you in.’

*

By the time Eve and Viv had seen the last customer out of Monty’s, prepared the tables for the following day and cleaned the kitchen, it was a respectable hour for a pre-dinner drink.

The sun was low in the sky and the wind had risen. ‘What about a glass of red,’ Eve said, ‘to keep out the chill? I’ve got a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon back at Elizabeth’s Cottage.’

‘Perfect,’ Viv said.

They skirted the village green to reach Eve’s road, Haunted Lane. Its entrance was bordered by a majestic old oak on one side, its trunk swathed in ivy, and a dense hawthorn hedge on the other. Beyond, hers was one of just two cottages. After that, the tiny lane petered out into a path, which led to the marshes and the estuary. As they walked, a great white egret swooped overhead. The abundance of wildlife surrounding her new home still took Eve’s breath away and feeling close to nature grounded her. But Haunted Lane had a turbulent past. Elizabeth, the village heroine, had lived in Eve’s cottage in the 1720s. She’d hidden a local servant boy there, to save him from the gallows after he’d stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving siblings. He’d escaped in the end, but it had been close. The lane was named for the sound of thudding feet you were meant to hear late at night: echoes of the men sent to hunt the boy down. They were said to be an omen of danger. Eve often thought of the story as she returned home, and now, as the sky grew darker, and the wind stronger, it made her shiver.

‘Let’s get inside and light a fire,’ she said, opening the garden gate in her thick privet hedge. Already she could hear Gus just inside the cottage, jumping at the door. Her dachshund would be in seventh heaven when he realised Viv was there too. They shimmied round him, shut out the cool air, then bent to tickle his tummy as he rolled over, a giddy look in his eye.

‘He’s so much more rewarding than my cats,’ Viv said. ‘They’re insultingly disdainful. Anyone would think they feed me, not the other way about.’

Eve already had kindling and logs banked up in the inglenook fireplace. Viv had coached her on how to do it, having grown up in Elizabeth’s Cottage; it had belonged to her parents before Eve moved in. She put a match to the wooden f ire starters she’d laid under the kindling.

‘Nice work!’ Viv said, walking over to warm herself.

There was nothing more comforting than the thick-walled, beamed room on a chill evening, with the smell of woodsmoke in the air. 

‘I’ll get the wine.’ Gus trotted after her, knowing supper would also be on offer.

After getting him sorted, Eve poured two glasses of red and emptied some cashew nuts into a blue crackle-glazed bowl. She put everything on a tray, then carried it back to the living room and set it on the coffee table. She and Viv sat either side of it, on the twin couches Eve had bought with the cottage, close to the warmth.

‘So,’ Eve said, ‘what was bugging you, back in the teashop?’

Viv heaved a sigh. ‘Seems like Betty Foley’s building high hopes for Ashton’s visit. I don’t want her to be disappointed.’

Eve took a nut. ‘You think he’s likely to let her down?’

Viv shrugged. ‘He’s younger than me, so I didn’t really know him when he lived in the village, but he’s been back briefly since, and the gossip about him is pretty consistent. Though I’ve heard most of it through a single source…’

‘Moira?’ The village storekeeper was expert at extracting information, dramatising it, and passing it on.

Viv nodded, edging closer to the fire. ‘Obviously, I know she’ll have homed in on the most scandalous elements of his story. She says Ashton was a tearaway when he was a teenager.’ She waved a dismissive hand. ‘That’s nothing, of course. My three had their moments.’ Her boys had all left home now. Her youngest was on a gap year before university, travelling the world. ‘But – unusually for Moira – she came across with several concrete facts. He was caught thieving, getting other kids into trouble, and then finally he got sent to a young offenders’ institute for dealing cannabis.’ She shook her head. ‘Clearly, there was someone older involved, who used him. And from his point of view he was just passing on some weed to his friends in exchange for cash. I guess he wouldn’t have seen it as dealing, but he probably took a cut, even if he passed most of the proceeds to his supplier.’ She shrugged. ‘Moira was scandalised, naturally.’ It was a state the storekeeper seemed to enjoy. ‘And the authorities took an especially dim view, because he wouldn’t say who’d recruited him.’

Eve sipped her wine, watching the reflection of the flames in the glass. ‘I guess he might have been scared to name them.’

Viv nodded. ‘You’d think so. But Moira says he came across as cocky, which wound the magistrate up. Apparently, Ashton said he knew he’d been used, but Moira reckons he didn’t like the police any better than his supplier, so he kept schtum. Just claimed he didn’t know where the cannabis came from, and that he’d been approached by a stranger in a bar, after which it was all anonymous drop-offs and pick-ups. But the person in the bar was never found, and everyone reckoned he was lying.’

A lot of the gossip Moira had passed on must be on public record, Eve guessed, but she decided she should wait and form her own opinion, assuming she got to meet Ashton. It had all happened a long time ago, when he was very young, and people could change. 

‘What did he do when he was released from the young offenders’ place?’

‘From what I can remember, it wasn’t long before he went off to live in London. Slept on an older friend’s floor. He’d have been around eighteen, I guess.’

Eve had moved to London when she was eighteen too – after what now seemed like her daring decision to study abroad. Her mom was American, her dad British. He’d encouraged her to spread her wings. She loved the UK’s capital, though nothing could replace home; visiting her parents on the Pacific coast was always a tonic.

‘Moira says Ashton managed to get work as a roadie for a couple of bands, one of which became a chart topper. Then, after that, he got his big break in business.’

‘So what’s his line then? Mrs Foley and her friend were talking about plants.’

Viv nodded and took another handful of nuts. ‘He runs a company called Outside In. You’ve not heard of it? They always seem to be splashed over the pages of some glossy mag or other these days.’

‘The name rings a bell.’ Eve read the obituary columns first, and kept up with news and reviews too; there wasn’t always time for homes and interiors.

‘They bring the outdoors into your house to improve your wellbeing and quality of life.’ Viv snorted. ‘I can’t imagine why you’d spend thousands of pounds to fill your house with temperamental greenery, when you could spend a couple of quid in Monty’s eating fine cakes and talking to your friends. I would have thought that would be a lot more beneficial.’ Her mission was to provide soul food for the village – and a place to pause, relax and take stock.

Eve had a feeling Viv felt more strongly about Ashton’s plant obsession than his misspent youth. Once again, she decided to reserve judgement. She liked plants, but the idea of letting someone else decide where she should put them sent shivers down her spine. After years of having to negotiate how she organised her living space with her know-all ex-husband Ian, she was holding on fast to her autonomy. Tranquillity was key when it came to her surroundings and there was nothing tranquil about losing control.

‘The firm must be pleased about the contract for Billy Tozer.’ He’d have a lot of money to spend and it would be good publicity too. ‘I wonder if Ashton knows him through the band he worked for.’

Viv sipped her wine. ‘There’s a rumour going around that Ashton’s first clients at Outside In were people he sold drugs to – after he was prosecuted, when he moved down to London. He might still be at it now, for all I know. Maybe that’s how he and Tozer bonded.’

‘Is that why you think he might cause Betty problems?’

Viv nodded, her daffodil hair reflecting the firelight. ‘I’m just not sure how much he’s changed. He hardly ever comes back to the village, but the one time I saw him, he made me nervous. I think he’s trouble.’

Interview with Clare Chase

Alexandra: Lovely. Thank you so much, Claire. That was great. Made me hungry for high tea.

Tell us a little bit more about Eve. I read, I think it was on your Web site, you explained where you’d gotten the idea for her to be an obituary writer.

Why don’t you tell our listeners about that? 

Clare: It’s an embarrassing story because I have a feeling that I was in one of those procrastination times on YouTube. 

I can’t exactly recall how I came across it, but I found it. A really interesting interview with Margalit Fox. She’s an obituary writer with The New York Times. And it was just fascinating to hear her talking about all the different insights she got into people’s lives and the different times and people.

She’d write about famous people, but also maybe somebody who’d created some invention that changed the fabric of society that might be someone you’ve never heard of. But it was the person behind kitty litter or whatever it might be. I just thought that was so interesting.

And more I thought, gosh, this would be a really good job for an amateur sleuth. Just because you’d get I mean, effectively in book one and book two of the series Eve basically gets to be exactly the same people as the police. 

She has a good reason to because she needs to know about these people to write her articles. 

I’ve no doubt been slightly economical with the truth from the point of view I know lots of obituary writers write to a very tight deadlines and Eve is always writing features for monthlies and quarterlies so she can have time to really dig into people and explore her suspects. But it did strike me that it would be a very useful job for her to have. 

Alexandra: As soon as I read that and then I dug a little deeper, I just thought, oh, this is so perfect. I can’t believe somebody hasn’t done this before, because as she she says, that wanting to understand people is hardwired in her.

And it’s the same for writers. I think for a lot of writers, that’s why we write.

It’s just so perfect. Because then the sleuth is around death. I just thought it was brilliant. 

Clare: I had a good old Google just to try and check that nobody else had done it. But I couldn’t find anybody that had.

Alexandra: Just so brilliant. I love it. So you mentioned in there Eve is from Seattle.

Why make her a transplanted American? What was the decision about that? 

Clare: Various different reasons, actually.

We’ve got friends who live in Oregon. But because because they live in Oregon, we tend to fly with Seattle and then go down. And I love my visits there. And it doesn’t feature a lot in the books. But same time, it was nice to kind of have that little element in that. That’s that was a choice of place.

The reason why I wanted Eve to be transplanted as well was because I suppose even if she’d just come from London and she would still feel transported to an extent, landing in a small village. I thought the more she felt like she was coming in as an outsider and taking time for people to accept it gave her an extra bit of objectivity, I suppose, coming in and seeing people with completely fresh eyes.

I felt also that she’d explored the world. So she’s traveled. She was kind of brave enough to do these various different things. I hoped that would make it more believable that she would sometimes wade into these situations because she’d traveled from when she was young and she’d experience different countries.

And she had that confidence as well. And because again, because Maralit Fox is American, in my head when I was hearing her voice was kind of slightly hearing Margalit’s voice.

Alexandra: Interesting. All right. And then you have another series with Detective Tara Thorpe.

And it’s more of a police procedural, right? Still cozy, though. 

Clare: That’s right. I would say it’s a bit less cozy than than the Eve books. The method the method of the killing in the fourth book, I would say, is not that cozy at all. I said, “Do you think it’s all right to call this cozy?” and everyone said “Oh yes, it’s done all the time.”

I think the reason why it’s called cozy is because it’s very character driven and it has elements of the lives of the detectives in it and things like that. Certainly it’s not super gritty. My goodness. I’ve read some very gritty crime novels. It’s definitely away on the cozy end of the scale. But it’s just not quite as quite as crazy as even I would say. 

Alexandra: And was that the detective Tara Thorpe series.

Was that the first one you wrote? You wrote that before you started Eve series. 

Clare: That’s right. It’s the first series I wrote. It’s a four book series. 

My very first book was a romantic suspense called You Think You Know Me. And somehow that just never came again. That kind of romantic suspense. So I wrote that one as a one off and that got published.

And then wrote to two books featuring the same character, one following on from the other, set in Cambridge. So that was A Stranger’s House and One Dark Lie. And then after that, I’d start on the Tara books.

Alexandra: Now do you alternate between Tara and Eve?

Clare: Actually, I think I’ve pretty much finished Tara. I might go, but I did enjoy writing about her. 

But there were certain elements of the arcs of the different characters in that in that series that were rounded off. It was almost as though at least that kind of episode for them came to a came to an actual end. 

I could go back to it and maybe start a new series of arcs for her if I wanted to. But at the moment, I’m just working on these series. So the first two are out. And the third one is coming out in June. And then there’s gonna be another one to follow as well.

Alexandra: Maybe tell us about that book. It’s called Mystery at Seagrave Hall. And as you said, it’s coming out June 2020.

Clare: I have to confess, I couldn’t resist. There’s something about having a village fair type and then having a murder at the village fair. I know it’s a cliche

It’s just something about the kind of innocence of everyone playing games, all these nice things happening as stuff say. That’s how it starts off. 

It’s actually at Seagrave Hall, which is a stately home near the village where Eve lives in Suffolk. And she’s quite intrigued by it and by the family. The family had been there for generations. And also, she’s very interested because the son of the family is engaged to an adventurer in cave diving who’s going to come and give it a talk. 

She’s heard her talk before the school where Eve used to work. They say she has some experience of her. So she’s interested to see what she has to say. But in that very first sort of scene or two, when they’re at the hall, she falls from a window. 

She’s been she’s getting the village fair ready. And she’s she’s pushing a tent out of the window, presumably to save the trouble of carrying it down the stairs. But one little boy says there was somebody behind the police don’t believe him because it’s just one little boy, lying and telling tall tales. But Eve is on the case. 

Alexandra: Just one final question before we wind up. 

You say in your bio that one of the ways you cope with the current state of the world is by writing mysteries. And I thought that was such an interesting thing to say, because they are dark. Obviously, there’s murder involved. And and I do the same thing. I have my own theories about why that’s comforting.

What do you think it is about mysteries that are comforting to us? 

Clare: It is really interesting. I suppose it does vary from mystery to mystery as well. Certainly with mine they do have that resolution at the end. And so often in real life there isn’t a resolution, unfortunately.

I also just think it’s purely because I think we all, like Eve, I think we are hardwired to want to want to know the answer to questions. So if you read a book, this also is giving you this mystery followed by this mystery and that it’s not just the main mystery of who done it, but it’s also little things about what did they mean by that conversation that you overheard. And what about this?

So it does give your mind something to kind of latch on to. And I think that is really good at distracting you from day to day. So I think for me it’s probably a combination of both those two things.

And what what about you? I’m curious to know, do you think similar or very similar? 

Alexandra: I think it’s the tidy resolutions that we like. The problem is created, but then it’s resolved, just like you said. And I think in our world that there’s so much of life that isn’t like that. 

I think that’s what’s comforting to us.

I’m going to add one final question. 

When do you find is your most creative time? Do you tend to write every day? And do you write in at a specific time or…?

Clare: I do tend to write every day, although sometimes I’m doing edits or something like that. So I do have to break off during the writing for one book to do edits for the one that’s already in the pipeline.

But yes, I suppose to find that the best my most creative times are when I am doing something mindless, like in the shower, cycling somewhere, cleaning, that kind of thing. If I have my laptop open, I guarantee you don’t get the cleaning done. I just started and I’ve got a kind of problem in my head and at the moment I start feeling then the answer will come to me and I’ll get back to the keyboard and do it. 

Whereas sitting there staring at the keyboard, it’s not the people that screen all of sudden. It’s like wierdo staring at the keyboard. The screen doesn’t get me into a state where I can’t write anything. So I do find any time of day when I’ve got the chance to be doing something a bit mundane just somehow that unlocks things.

Alexandra: That’s such a great tip for aspiring writers. I love that. 

Clare: It’s just, again, the common ground where I think I heard it from somebody else. In fact, I read an interview in a magazine. And there was a woman who said that when she couldn’t think of what to write, she actually took took out all her clothes, even if they weren’t dirty and she’d wash them by hand and she would get the ideas.

And I thought, oh, I’m not gonna wash for my clothes by hand, but I might just have a go at scrubbing the bath because it could really do that. 

Alexandra: That’s great. This has been delightful. Clare. I’ve been so happy to talk to you.

Why did you let everyone know where they can learn more about you and your books? 

Clare: Oh, sure. Thanks very much. I guess the most central place is probably my Web site, so it’s ClareChase.com and that’s got links to things like Twitter and Facebook and things like that.

Alexandra: I will put links to that in the show notes to that as well.

Clare: Thank you so much. It’s been really good fun talking to you. So thank you.

Alexandra: Take care. Bye bye.

Clare: Bye.