Retired Cambridge professor Donald Aitcheson loves scouring antiquarian bookshops for secondhand treasures—as much as he loathes the scribbled marginalia from their previous owners. But when he comes upon an inscription in a volume of Robert Browning’s poetry, he’s less irritated than disturbed. This wasn’t once a gift to an unwitting woman. It was a threat—insidious, suggestively sick, and terribly intriguing.
Now Aitcheson’s imagination is running wild. Was it a sordid teacher-pupil affair that ended in betrayal? A scorned lover’s first salvo in a campaign of terror? The taunt of an obsessive psychopath? Then again, it could be nothing more than a tasteless joke between friends.
As his curiosity gets the better of him, Aitcheson can’t resist playing detective. But when his investigation leads to a remote girls’ boarding school in the Lincolnshire flatlands, and into the confidence of its headmistress, he soon discovers the consequences of reading between the lines.
Praise for Peter Robinson
“Robinson is equally skilled at reflecting procedural details and treating his flesh-and-blood characters—despite their flaws—with compassion and humor.” —The Miami Herald
“Robinson is good at producing ingenious mysteries and this one doesn’t disappoint.” —The Sunday Telegraph on Friend of the Devil
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It is one of the greatest pleasures of my retirement to set out early on a fine morning for some ancient town or city renowned for the quantity and quality of its second-hand bookshops.
Much of my enjoyment, I will admit, lies in the anticipation of what I might discover on the overflowing shelves of cramped anterooms and attics. I take my time getting to my destination, enjoying the countryside as I drive along. I also combine my book-buying expeditions with a visit to a nearby cathedral, country churchyard, or place of historic interest, and I round off my excursion with a late lunch at a local inn, where I thumb through my day's purchases and enjoy a pint or two of ale with my meal.
Though my tastes are catholic, there are certain subjects I seek out in particular: poetry, literary criticism, and biography being prime among them. I have always been of a literary bent, and in my working life I was an academic, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, no less. I was good enough at my job, with well-respected translations of Catullus and Ovid to my name, as well as a brief introduction to Latin verse which I am pleased to say has been adopted as a first-year university recommended text. These days, however, I prefer to spend less time poring over dead languages than I do enjoying the writers of my native tongue. Having aspired to poetry once in the long ago days of my youth, I especially enjoy reading verse and accounts of the lives of the great poets.
Naturally, with second-hand books one has to keep an eye out for damage of a physical nature and for other people's scribblings. Underlining of text I detest, especially when it is done in ink, but though I also disdain marginalia in general, there have been occasions when I have chosen a specific copy of a book simply because of the interesting observations of a previous reader. One can feel an astonishing degree of kinship with such anonymous scribblers, whether one agrees or disagrees with them.
One fine English autumn morning, I had been wandering the streets of Beverley, a town hitherto unknown to me, on the eastern fringes of my allotted region. I had been delighted with the magnificent Gothic minster, golden in the late morning sunlight, and it was time to seek for books. I have learned over time that one will usually find the most interesting bookshops in rambling Dickensian structures hidden away in the mazes of narrow crooked alleys behind market squares and main shopping streets, so that was where I headed first.
After a delightful hour or two of exploration, I found myself carrying my weighty book bag into a pub, whose chalked blackboard promised first class food and well-kept cask ales. I bought a pint of Timothy Taylor Golden Best and ordered a plate of gammon, chips and peas and settled contentedly at a wobbly corner table in the small lounge. Rays of sunlight filtered through the windows and caught the motes of dust in their stately dance, the way that the film projectors once did with cigarette smoke in the cinema, and I was thankful that the pub was almost empty and the landlord had foregone the cacophonous allure of slot machines and piped music. As I sipped my ale and savored its bitter taste, I felt that all was well with the world, and I reached for my bag of books.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the selection of Robert Browning's poetry I had been so thrilled to find had been defaced on the flyleaf. I am usually careful enough to flip through a book before I buy it, but in this instance the pages had stuck together and that prevented me from noticing the inscription on my cursory examination in the shop. As far as I had been able to tell, the book was in mint condition; there were no signs of wear, no price-clipping or creases on the spine, and certainly no tell-tale coffee rings on the cover. In fact, it looked as if it had never been read.
Curious, I sipped some more ale and held open the flyleaf so that I might read the offending scribble:
You know you want to read Browning's poetry. 'My Last Duchess' and 'Porphyria's Lover' in particular. 'The Ring and the Book,' too, perhaps, though that one is rather long and much abbreviated here. No poet quite captures adultery, betrayal, madness and the act of murder the way Browning does. Try this:
'... I found A thing to do, and all her hair In one long yellow string I wound Three times her little throat around,
Then she is his forever. Don't you just love that? Doesn't it sound like fun? I know that I would enjoy it. And don't forget our little bargain. The time is fast approaching!
Happy Reading, Miss Scott! Barnes"
This highly unusual inscription sent a chill through me, despite the warmth of the day. I felt as if someone had just walked over my grave, as my mother used to say. When the serving girl brought my food and knelt to push a wad of folded beer mat under the table leg to correct the wobble, I pushed the book aside and tucked in, having hardly realized in the morning's excitement just how hungry I was.
But as I ate, I couldn't help but mull over what I had just read.
I realize that at this point you may well be wondering whether I am overreacting to what is, after all, merely a damaged second-hand book. After all, I could always return it to the shop for a refund, or perhaps attempt to slice out the ravaged page with a razor blade at home. I hadn't read Browning in a long time and was looking forward to reacquainting myself with his work, but I certainly didn't think I could enjoy reading this particular copy. It had been defiled. There was something about the tone of the inscription that disturbed me deeply. What sort of person, I wondered, would write something like that in a gift? In a volume of poetry? There seemed a definite aura of taunting cruelty about the words, a certain delight in causing another unease and discomfort. If "Miss Scott" had seen this, no wonder she had dispatched the book to a second-hand shop immediately.
"Porphyria's Lover" had always disturbed me. I remember the frisson of forbidden delights I experienced when I first came across it in the sixth form. Could one really say this sort of thing in poetry? In that same burnished, heightened language of Shakespeare, Shelley and Keats? My pleasure was akin to the thrill of discovering Lord Rochester's sexually explicit verse a few years later, in my student days.
There is something about the matter-of-fact nature of Browning's use of language in "Porphyria's Lover," the contrast between its serene tone and the violent deed itself, the sensuality of the hair and "her little throat." One can easily imagine the murderer sitting there, content with his handiwork, his arm around the beautiful, unfaithful lover he has just strangled, smiling, happy, convinced that he now has possession of her forever.
Perhaps the whole thing was intended as a sick joke, I told myself, but I couldn't stop wondering who these people were, and why this Barnes fellow had written those words. Whatever had Miss Scott done to him to bring about such a deliberate desire to cause her discomfort? And how long ago had this occurred? The book could have been sitting on the shelf for years, as many volumes of poetry often do in second-hand bookshops. In the meantime, what had become of Miss Scott and Barnes? Was there a murder to be investigated?
And who had sold the book to the dealer? Miss Scott, herself? Had she even seen the inscription? It was possible that she hadn't if the pages had been stuck in the same way they were when I flipped through the book. In which case, what had happened next? Had Barnes followed through with his veiled threat? What exactly was "the time fast approaching" for? What was their "bargain?" Was this inscription a sort of warning, or the first salvo in a campaign of terror, something to frighten her, the sort of thing one hears young people do to one another on the Internet these days? And if she had not seen it, had not got the warning, what had become of her?
One of my first thoughts, deduced mostly from the formal address and writer's use of his surname, was that it had been a teacher-pupil relationship, and that the boy was trying to get revenge for the misery he felt his English teacher had inflicted upon him. Perhaps she had forced The Mayor of Casterbridge or Jude the Obscure on him at too early an age? But what schoolboy buys his teacher a volume of poetry? An apple is one thing, but a book quite another. Was the relationship something more? One of those teacher-pupil affairs one reads about with alarming frequency these days? Had Miss Scott sexually abused Barnes?
Or was Barnes a university student? I remembered my own teaching days, not so far behind me, and I quickly realized that most of those who had passed through my doors had been more than capable of pulling such a prank, if prank it was, though I had never come across a university student who had referred to his professor as "Miss." Was I seriously misjudging the whole business, reading more into it than there was?
I thought I possibly was, so I sipped some more ale, put the book aside and delved deeper into the contents of the rest of the bag. Soon I was on my second pint of Timothy Taylor and enjoying Victoria Glendenning's introduction to her inscription-free biography of Anthony Trollope, the mysterious Barnes and Miss Scott, if not quite forgotten, then at least relegated to a dim antechamber at the back of my mind.
I awoke the following morning from a troubled sleep, the Browning still weighing heavy on my mind. Though I could remember only scraps, I suspected the dreams that had woken me so often during the night were connected with the book's mysterious inscription.
As the days went by, Miss Scott and Barnes crept their way back to the forefront of my thoughts. I found myself, in idle moments, attempting to construct mental pictures of what they looked and sounded like. Miss Scott I saw not as a Miss Jean Brodie type, but more as a Hitchcock blonde with her hair piled high. Tippi Hedren in The Birds or Kim Novak in Vertigo, without the Hollywood glamour. In my imagination, Miss Scott has the deportment of someone who attended a Swiss finishing school and spent many hours walking the corridors with a volume of Proust balanced on her head. Her voice is low, a husky contralto, and her accent educated, with the broad Yorkshire vowels well hidden behind hours of enunciation lessons. She is private, secretive, even, with a rare but heart-melting smile, and her pale, flawless skin blushes often. Her eyes are dark blue and hard to read. She gains easy control of the classes she teaches, but she does so through the calm strength of her personality and through her elegance and poise, rather than by means of authority and status. It is not that the students are afraid of her; they just don't want to upset or disappoint her. She favors cream tailored jacket and skirt outfits over blue silk blouses, and all her skirts end modestly below her knees, offering just a tantalizing glimpse of her shapely legs.
As for Barnes, he doesn't come through quite so clearly. There's a mischievous look about him, as if he has just got away with something, a naughty boy constantly on the verge of a smirk. His hair is dark, parted on the left, though one restless comma is always slipping over his right eye. He wears a nondescript school uniform, navy blazer, grey trousers, striped tie, black shoes, nicely shined. He's not outwardly scruffy, but he is a boy, after all, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, a sixth former, at any rate, and his pockets are full of a jumble of bits of string, rubber bands, a penknife, loose coins, maybe even a French letter or two, just in case, chewing gum, a packet of cough drops, a crumpled handkerchief and a couple of Bic ballpoints. He keeps a small writing pad in his inside pocket to jot down passing thoughts, mostly unpleasant ones, like the inscription on the book.
That was what I came up with when I let my early-morning imagination run away with me. I wondered whether I would ever get to find out how close my pictures were to the truth because, by then, whether I knew it fully or not, I was determined to find out who Barnes and Miss Scott were and what their relationship was.
In order to begin, I had to return to the bookshop and see if I could find out anything from its owner. Perhaps he would know who they were. What I would do with the information if I got it, I had no idea, but I couldn't simply leave things as they were. I had to know more. It was as if I had been given a teaser, a trailer, the opening chapter of an author's next book tacked on after the end of the one I had just read, and I had to see the film, had to read the next book.
As I drove back to Beverley several days later, I tried to work out what I would say to the shop owner. I could hardly show him the inscription; he would probably think I was insane. Of course, I realized it was more than likely that he would have no idea at all who had sold the book to him. I should imagine people who work in second-hand bookshops get quite a lot of customers dropping in with boxes or shopping bags full of old books. But there was a slim chance, and I didn't want to ruin it from the outset by giving the impression that I was some sort of madman or stalker. No, I had to be careful.
The best approach, I thought, would be to say that I had found something in the book that I wanted to return to its owner. The problem with that was that it gave rise to a lot more difficult questions. What had I found? If it was of value, then why hadn't the owner already returned to ask about it? If it was a letter or some such thing, wouldn't it have the owner's address on it? I could work out answers to most of these questions, but a great deal depended on how long the book had been on the shelf.
Obviously, whatever had been mislaid couldn't be time sensitive and could have been lost elsewhere. By now it might well have been written off as gone forever. But it should be something that the owner would welcome back again, even if she had been able to live without it for some time. To my mind that left only one thing: money.
Perhaps Miss Scott had used a ten pound note as a bookmark and had forgotten about it? That sounded unlikely to me, but I supposed it could have happened. Would the shop owner be suspicious? How many people would drive all the way back to return a ten pound note? Leaving aside the matter of honesty, it would cost me more than that in petrol to return it. But the bookseller needn't know how far I had come. I decided, in the end, that it had to be money. But twenty pounds would make my story more believable than ten. Though unusual, it could be convincing. I had done a similar thing once, myself, slipping a five pound note, a repaid loan, between the pages of a university library book I was carrying at the time. Later, I had returned the book before remembering to remove the note. I was fortunate in having an understanding librarian on that occasion, so I got my money back.
When I had parked my car, I headed first for W.H. Smith's, on the High Street. There I bought the smallest package of envelopes I could find and, back in my car, slipped a twenty pound note into one of them and wrote "window cleaner" on the front, hoping that would convince the bookseller. I know that twenty pounds seems a lot for a window cleaner, but window cleaners are about the only people one pays in cash these days. Perhaps Miss Scott lives in a house with a lot of windows? Putting my concerns aside, I sealed the flap, let it dry, then gently tore it open, as I imagined anyone would do in the real situation of finding such an envelope in a second-hand book.
I had great trouble finding the bookshop again in the labyrinthine alleys, and by mistake first entered the wrong one, the place where I had bought the Trollope biography. I soon realized my error when I saw the man behind the messy front desk, but couldn't stop myself glancing through the new arrivals. After a moment's hesitation, I also couldn't stop myself buying Florence Hardy's life of her husband, Thomas Hardy, which all the experts say he wrote himself. I had a list of books I was "looking for," though not in the sense of actively pursuing them through online sellers or eBay and so on, and this Life was on it. Another one I could cross off.
Excerpted from "Seven Years"
Copyright © 2017 Peter Robinson.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have maybe a dozen writers that I regularly read their newest novels when they are published. It had seemed rather a long time since a DCI Banks had been out that I did not look too close at the print on the bottom of the cover. Pretty decent mystery all tidily wrapped up in 50 pages. Unfortunately, I want more and hence do not normally buy short stories. I'll pre-purchase his next full length novel around Christmas to read on our warm weather get away come January and February. Now to try and find another writer who can keep up with how quickly I devour their novels.
This book will not open all others open just fine sure sounds a good read, I know now why it has no reviews If i had written this book i would be very upset Im giving it 5 stars anyway I hope it gets fixed so i can read it