A dog, a cat and an anglophile walk into an English pub…
In her amateur sleuth, Leta Parker, Kathy Manos Penn has created a character that many of us will envy. Leta not only talks to her miniature Great Pyrenees and her cat…they talk back. But why stop there? Add Leta’s friend Wendy and her mum into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for delightful cozy mysteries set in the Cotswolds.
Like her heroine, Kathy is an Anglophile and in our interview we discuss her trips to England and how her stay in the Cotswolds inspired the Dickens & Christie mysteries.
In the introduction I mention my love for books that feature animals and how much one of the creative events in The 101 Dalmatians still affects me to this day.
This week’s mystery author
As a child, Kathy Manos Penn was a shy, introverted bookworm. She shed the shy, introverted traits but is a bookworm to this day, one who especially enjoys British mysteries.
Fast forward through a corporate career and a side job as a newspaper columnist, and today you’ll find her happily retired and writing cozy animal mysteries set in—where else—England.
To learn more about Kathy and all her books visit KathyManosPenn.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 Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Excerpt from Bells, Tails and Murder
I couldn’t believe I’d let Henry talk me into cycling up this hill yet another Saturday. Sure, I improved each time I tackled it, but I could barely keep my bicycle upright. I was in the lowest gear and still, the pedals didn’t want to go ‘round. Thank goodness it was the last leg of the day, and there’d be a cold beer at the end.
I much preferred the first part of our ride, the flat portion along the scenic Chattahoochee River, where I’d glimpse geese, fishermen, and canoes. Often, the Georgia State Rowing Club would be out in force. All would be well until we came to the dreaded stop sign, where we turned left and started uphill.
“I’ll see you at the top, but if you don’t make it by dark, I’ll send out a search party,” Henry sang out as he powered past me in his blue cycling jersey. With his slender 6’2” frame and long legs, my husband made the uphill climb look easy.
I stuck my tongue out and replied, “By dark, my foot. I’ll be there in 30 minutes, and my chicken wings and ice-cold beer better be on the table.” I sometimes thought the promised lunch at Taco Mac was the only thing that kept me coming back every Saturday.
Head down, I was praying I’d soon be at the peak where the road would level out when a car horn blew behind me accompanied by the blaring of a radio. Lord, I thought, I hate horns, and there’s plenty of room for whoever it is to pass me on this road without scaring the heck out of me.
As the red Mercedes convertible shot past, I glanced up in time to see the blonde, pony-tailed driver bebopping to the music. The car took the curve and vanished from sight, and I pedaled on. The next sequence of sounds was one that haunted my dreams—the long blast of a car horn, the squealing of tires, and the screech of rending metal, followed by silence.
Without thinking, I threw down my bike and jogged up the hill. When I reached the top, my worst fears were confirmed. Henry lay unmoving, with another cyclist administering CPR, a jogger checking on the driver of the Mercedes, and another frantically conversing with 911 on her cell phone.
September the following year
Neither my waking nor sleeping dreams ever progressed beyond this point. I came back to the present and realized I was standing on the flower-flanked path to my Cotswolds cottage, its golden stone luminescent in the sunlight. Shake it off, girl, I said to myself as I wiped tears from my eyes. This is your new life, and you know Henry’s looking down right now and sending happy wishes.
I squared my shoulders and pasted a smile on my face. It was time to head to the airport to pick up Dickens and Christie, who were arriving from the States. I was sure they’d both have plenty to say about riding in the cargo hold of the jet. Dickens would bark and Christie would meow, and the ride to our new home would be filled with complaints at least until we left Heathrow. I was hopeful the new sights, sounds, and smells would quickly distract them and put an end to their grumbling.
As I walked to the garage, my housekeeper, Alice Johnson, pulled up and began unloading cleaning supplies and a basket of goodies from the car. What a comforting sight. Her plump figure, her broad smile, and her head of curly red hair brought a smile to my face.
“Hello, luv. Today’s the big day, right?” she asked. “I’ve brought the usual scones plus an easy dinner for you to pop in the oven later.”
“Goodness, Alice,” I said, “What a wonderful surprise. You are a treasure. Now wish me luck with the traffic, and I’ll be on my way.”
Driving in the UK was a challenge for me, so I concentrated on keeping my refurbished London taxi on the proper side of the road. I loved my black car. Purchasing a used taxi had never entered my mind until my friend Peter had suggested I try to find one. Only briefly had I entertained the idea of getting one in red before settling on black as more practical.
Seeing my taxi parked in the garage made me think back to happier times visiting London with Henry. Plus, it was roomy and low to the ground, which would make it easy for Dickens to climb in. At forty pounds, my handsome white dog was a bit much for me to boost into an SUV, as I’d done back in the States.
I chuckled as I envisioned Dickens stepping into his new ride and seeing his dog bed on the back seat. I can hear him now, I thought. “Whoa, wait a minute,” he’ll exclaim. “This is seriously cool.”
I imagined Christie, my feisty black cat, would not be nearly as polite. Christie didn’t care for the car at the best of times, and after a flight across the pond, she’d be even crankier.
How life has changed for the three of us. A new home, a new country . . . and a new life . . . without Henry. I wondered whether the animals missed him as much as I did.
The sound of a horn reminded me to focus on the road. I’d soon be at Heathrow and get to hear firsthand what my four-legged friends thought about their journey.
I ran to the crates in the cargo area. “Shhh, shhh,” I cooed. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you two and how glad I am you’re here. I want to hear all about your trip, but first, we’ve got to get you settled in the car.”
As I led the porter to the car, I tried to tune out the uproar emanating from my two pets. The barking and meowing were nonstop. When I opened the door to Dickens’s crate, he looked at me, cocked his head, and studied his new ride. After I got him comfy and attached his seatbelt harness, I placed Christie’s crate on the floor behind the passenger seat.
Dickens peppered me with questions and comments. “Oh my gosh, Leta, I’ve missed you. Where have you been? Where are we? How could you leave me cooped up in a crate for so long?”
Christie, on the other hand, screeched her complaints. “What on earth were you thinking? Do you realize I’ve been stuck in here for hours? Hours, I tell you! Let me out now, Aleta Petkas Parker! Wait, why are you putting me in the car . . . still in the crate? Let me out, quick.”
Uh-oh, I know she’s fit to be tied when she uses my full name. I was finding it difficult to respond to the menagerie and maneuver my way out of Heathrow and onto the road back to Astonbury. “Hush, you two. I’ll answer your questions as soon as I can. I’ve got to pay attention to driving.” When I was safely on M40, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’ve missed you both, and I can’t wait to show you our new home. Christie, I know you’re going to love lying in the garden in the sun. And Dickens—”
“Never mind Dickens,” screeched Christie. “How long before you let me out of this crate?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Christie,” ruffed Dickens. “Calm down. You know you can’t be let loose in the car. You’d be all over the place and make us run off the road for sure—right, Leta?”
“Yes, dogs are much better suited for car rides. And just wait until you go on your first walk in the country. You’re going to love meeting the sheep and Martha and Dylan, the donkeys.”
And so the conversation went, back and forth among the three of us. I reminded myself that I’d have to get back in the habit of speaking to my four-legged friends the way most people speak to their pets, as though they’re only surmising what the barks and meows mean. If any of my new friends thought I was talking to my animals à la Dr. Dolittle, well, that would be a problem. Even Henry had thought I was simply super intuitive and had had no idea the animals and I conversed.
Who knows why I have this ability? I’d learned to hide my quirk so people wouldn’t think I was crazy. My family thought talking to the animals was cute when I was small and other children spoke to their imaginary pets. But as I got older and continued to carry on these conversations, people began to give me strange looks. It wasn’t long before I picked up on their glances and adjusted my behavior accordingly.
My cottage was a welcome sight. I’d been house hunting when the restored 1840s schoolhouse came on the market. When Henry and I’d visited the area, we’d driven by it and admired it, but I’d never dreamed that one day this would be my home. I may have only taught English for a few years right out of college, but I felt an immediate affinity for the place.
As soon as I unlatched his harness, Dickens ran off to explore the garden. Christie, I carried into the house in her crate. She couldn’t be trusted outside until she grew used to her new home. True to form, when I opened the door, she darted out and zoomed around the first floor and then up the stairs. I didn’t bother to follow her, knowing she’d find a bed to hide beneath until dinner time.
Dickens came to the door ready for a treat followed by food and water. We ate lunch together in the cheery kitchen.
“Oh, Leta,” he barked, “It reminds me of our kitchen back home.”
“Dickens, this is your new home, and I just know you’re gonna love it.”
I showed Dickens his dog beds, one each in the kitchen, my office, my bedroom, and the sitting room. Once I sat down at my desk, he chose the bed at my feet. When we’d lived in Atlanta, Dickens could always be found snoozing beneath my desk while I wrote my weekly newspaper columns—a side job I’d stumbled onto a few years back. As long as I intermittently rubbed his belly with my foot, he was content. Once Christie adjusted to her new environment, she’d take up her usual position stretched out atop the desk.
It was one of the few pieces of furniture I’d shipped to Astonbury from Atlanta. Henry had made it for me, so it was never an option to leave it behind. Over the years, he’d made sideboards, mantels, tables, and more, but the desk was my favorite piece. He’d joked that everything he made was basically a box, but his friends and I knew better. He’d been a true craftsman.
The desk drawers and legs of the desk were finished in distressed black, and the writing surface was a slab of golden oak. I’m not sure Christie appreciated his craftsmanship, but when she wasn’t lying on top of the desk, she was curled up in the right-hand file drawer. Early on, I’d given up trying to use it for files. Thank goodness my talented husband had also built me a matching filing cabinet.
This is my new life, I thought, as I looked around my sitting room and listened to Dickens snoring softly. I desperately missed Henry and imagined him sitting here in his easy chair looking up from his paper to ask, “Have I told you lately that I love you?” as he’d done every day in Atlanta.
Then again, had Henry’s life not been cut short, I wouldn’t be retired, and I wouldn’t be living in the Cotswolds. If I was honest with myself, I knew Henry never would’ve moved overseas. Yes, we used to talk about retiring to France or England, my preferred location, but all that talk was never more than a pipe dream.
“Think about it, Dickens,” I said as I rubbed his belly. “I decided to move us to England. I still can’t believe I did that, and I’m sure a few of my friends are waiting for me to come to my senses and return home.”
One friend had said, “You’re only avoiding dealing with your grief by running off to England.”
I’d responded, “Perhaps I am, but I’d be doing the same thing by going back to working sixty-hour weeks and traveling Monday through Friday for the bank. Moving to England will be way more fun, and it seems to me like the opportunity of a lifetime. And, you know what? If I give the Cotswolds a chance and it doesn’t seem right, Atlanta will still be here.”
The ringing of the phone interrupted my reverie. It was Libby Taylor at the inn.
“How was the reunion with Dickens and Christie?” she asked. “Have they settled in?”
“I bet you can imagine how it’s going. Dickens is on his bed beneath my desk, and I haven’t seen Christie since she ran upstairs hours ago.”
“Right,” responded Libby. “Paddington would have been close behind Christie, looking for someplace to hide.” Paddington was Libby’s Burmese cat. He and I had become fast friends when I stayed at The Olde Mill Inn while house hunting.
“Well, I’m calling to invite you to a cocktail party at the inn Friday night. I have some interesting guests this week, and I thought I’d gather the usual gang and get Alice to prepare some appetizers.”
“That sounds like fun. Are you okay if Dickens comes too and checks out your garden?”
“Of course. You know Paddington may give him a talking-to, but he’s generally pretty good with dogs. On the other hand, Paddington may choose to hang out in his favorite guest room, the one you stayed in.”
That’s how Paddington and I had become friends. For reasons unknown to his pet parents Libby and Gavin, he preferred the Green Room to any other, and if the door wasn’t properly latched, he’d push his way in to snuggle with whoever had that room. Not all guests were as enchanted with him as I was.
I laughed. “Dickens lives with a feisty black cat, so I’m sure he can handle whatever Paddington throws his way. Thanks for the invitation. We’ll see you Friday.”
Since Alice had left me a delicious shepherd’s pie and salad, dinner was a snap. Dickens had yet to leave my side, and Christie finally put in an appearance as I was finishing the dishes.
“Food,” she meowed. “I want food—and not that dry stuff.”
“Well, yes, dear,” I said.
That meant the princess wanted a dab of wet food in her special dish. She daintily licked it all up, and we three moved to the sitting room. Relaxing in front of the glowing fireplace reading a book was one of my favorite pastimes, and my two friends seemed to be settling in—Dickens on his dog bed and Christie stretched out on the rug in front of the fireplace.