The Witches’ Tree continues the tradition in M. C. Beaton's beloved Agatha Raisin mystery seriesnow a hit show on Acorn TV and public television.
This spells trouble...
Driving home from a dinner party in the village of Sumpton Harcourt, Rory and Molly Devere, the new vicar and his wife, strain to see the road aheadand then suddenly brake, screeching to a halt. Right in front of them, aglow in the headlights, a body hangs from a gnarled tree at the edge of town. An elderly spinster has been murderedand the villagers just can’t fathom who among them could commit such a crime.
Agatha Raisin rises to the occasion (a little glad for the excitement, she must admit, after a long run of lost cats and divorces on the books). But when two more murders follow the first, Agatha begins to fear for her reputation and, since the village happens to have its own coven of witches, her own life. . .
“Once you meet Agatha Raisin, you’ll keep coming back.”New York Journal of Books
“M. C. Beaton has a foolproof plot for the village mystery.” The New York Times Book Review
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The evening was not going well. The late Agatha Christie would have been amazed to learn that she was destined to be the ruin of some genteel dinner parties. Otherwise intelligent people, after a move to a village in the Cotswolds, can become keen to "do the village thing," getting ideas of what it should be like from her detective stories.
That was why Sir Edward Chumble and his wife, Tiffany, had invited the vicar of St. Edmund in the nearby village of Sumpton Harcourt and his wife to dinner. "I mean, one is supposed to invite the vicar," said Tiffany.
The other guests were Tiffany's friend, Jane Oliver, an odd woman with a look of perpetual bad temper, an elderly judge, Lord Thurkettle, and two "bright young things," Brenda and Bengy Gentry who were in fact in their forties but chasing perpetual youth.
The vicar, Rory Harris, was not meek and scholarly. He was built like a rugby prop and had a deep commanding voice. His wife, Molly, was a truly glamorous redhead and that put Tiffany, who regarded herself as the fairest of them all, in a vicious temper.
The Chumbles had recently moved to the Cotswolds and Sir Edward was determined to play the role of squire. But no one touched their forelocks at his approach: in fact the locals seemed to find him a bit of a hoot. He had retired from the Foreign Office after a brief stint as ambassador in some former part of the Soviet Union that no one seemed to have heard of.
As ambassador, he had hoped to hold grand receptions in a palatial mansion, but the embassy was like a modern bungalow and the locals were insolent.
By moving to the Cotswolds, he fantasised of being head of a little fiefdom: gracious tennis parties, strawberries and cream and all that other lovely old England business. But the village, Cuckleton, although pretty enough, showed a marked lack of interest in the newcomers. To even be considered not worth gossiping about was a sad blow.
Although the vicar and his wife were more down to earth, they had been rather startled by the grimness of their village, Sumpton Harcourt. It was little more than a hamlet, a group of thatched cottages huddled around a pond, dominated by a blasted oak called the witches' tree. It was said that there had once been a coven in the village.
Tiffany recognised the dress Molly was wearing because she had seen it hanging up in a supermarket in Evesham, priced at a mere fifteen pounds. "So clever of you not to waste money on clothes, Molly," she cooed across the table. One of the talents necessary to being a good vicar's wife was the capacity to tell blatant lies.
"You mustn't tease me," said Molly. "You know this is Armani. I am just too shockingly expensive, amn't I darling?"
"Worth the money," boomed her husband.
"Prettiest woman in the room."
Tiffany took another slug of carefully decanted South African hearty red and said, "So sorry. But darling, it does look like a Primark one I saw in Tesco's."
"Poor you," said Molly. "I wouldn't be seen dead in Tesco's. Of course, Foreign Offices' pensions must be too dire."
A maid hired for the evening came in with a trolley of coffee. Tiffany had hired her from a card on the post office bulletin board. The maid was called Mrs. Batterty and she looked to be in her nineties, which, in fact, she was, being ninety-five years old and creaking with arthritis. She was almost bent double. Pink scalp showed through her thinning white hair. Rory leapt to his feet to take coffee cups from her trembling hands.
When she had tottered from the room, Tiffany said, "I didn't know she was going to be so old, now did I?"
"That reminds me," said Molly, jumping to her feet. "We've left our darling with a sitter we don't know that well. Got to rush. Must excuse us."
"Didn't know you had a child," said Tiffany, escorting them to the front door and giving them each a limp hand to shake.
"We don't. It's our cat. Gets in a frightful state if we're away too long."
"I could kill that bitch," muttered Tiffany as she stalked back indoors. She confined herself to sweetly murdering the characters of the vicar and his wife. "So terribly sad," she told the remaining guests. "No children. Only to be expected. You see, the poor Church of England does attract closet gays, so they up and marry someone who will play along."
"But you haven't any children, sweetie, have you?" demanded Brenda Gentry. "Surely Edward isn't gay. Or was he shagging the peasants when you were out in God knows where? Joke! Don't bristle up. I'll have some more of your box wine."
"That is a fine vintage," boomed Sir Edward.
"But I went in to the kitchen to see if I could help and there was your missus decanting stuff out of a box of South African red into a decanter."
"She was leaving a drink for the servant," said Edward desperately. "Good God! That the time? Sorry, folks. Long day. Must ask you to leave."
After the guests had left and his wife had gone to bed, Sir Edward remained at the table, brooding over the dirty dishes. Although he adored Agatha Christie detective stories, he saw himself more as Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. He could feel one of his headaches coming on. How ghastly the Cotswolds had turned out to be. Perhaps it was because they had arrived at the dying end of the year. Come summer and surely he would be asked to open fetes. His eyes half closed as he went off into a dream of croquet on the lawn, cricket in the field, and strawberries and cream with everything.
"What a shit of an evening," said Molly who was driving. "I can hardly see in this bloody fog."
"You should have let me drive," said Rory.
"You wanted to drink, remember? Oh, why didn't you get a parish in Oxford or somewhere where there are lights and shops? Sumpton Harcourt is the arsehole of the world."
Molly hunched over the steering wheel. A breeze started to move the fog which danced in swaying pillars in front of her headlights, somehow even more difficult to drive through than the previous thick fog. As she approached the village, through the shifting fog, she saw the lightning blasted limbs of the witches' tree, as it was called.
"Look, Rory," said Molly. "Some idiot's dancing around in this ..." She suddenly slammed on the brakes and screamed, "It's a body!"
Rory got a torch out of the glove compartment, hoping against hope some children had slung a dummy up on the branches. But the torch lit up the dead, contorted features of elderly Miss Margaret Darby, one of the church helpers. The vicar took out his mobile and then remembered that Sumpton Harcourt was one of those Cotswold villages which did not have a mobile phone signal. He went back to the car. "It's old Margaret Darby. Better phone from the vicarage."
"You go," said Molly. "I'd better climb up and make sure the poor thing is really dead."
It was at moments like these that Rory realised why he had married her.
He handed her the torch and ran off in the direction of the vicarage. Molly climbed up the branches and shone the torch into the swollen face. Fighting down a feeling of nausea, she stretched out a hand to the woman's neck and felt for a pulse. There wasn't even a flicker.
She retreated to the car. How had they failed the poor woman? She cleaned the brass in the church and arranged the flowers. She had seemed happy enough. If only she had asked for help.
Molly switched on the engine and turned on the heater. After a mere ten minutes Rory came running back. "Police and ambulance on their way."
He climbed in beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. "Did you have any idea she was suicidal?"
"No," said Molly. "We only exchanged platitudes. Things like, nasty weather. Isn't it cold?"
"It's pity they closed down all the village police stations," complained Rory. "Where do they have to come from now? Cheltenham? Mircester? Oh, I hear a siren."
A police car was the first to arrive. Only five minutes later, the ambulance arrived. A policeman donned a forensic suit, mask, gloves and boots and climbed up to examine the body. He shouted down to the paramedics that the body must be left where it was until a forensics team arrived.
"How awful," whispered Molly through white lips. "It seems indecent to leave the poor woman hanging there."
The companion of the policeman who had climbed up to examine the body came over to their car and took down their names and addresses. "Before you go any further," said Rory, "we've had a shock. You can find us at the vicarage round the next corner next to the church if you want statements."
"Very well, sir."
The vicarage was much as it had been under the tenancy of the previous vicar. It was dark and gloomy even on a sunny day because it was covered on the outside with ivy. There was no central heating and the floors were stone flagged. "Let's use my study," said Rory. "The fire's laid. I only need to strike a match."
The study did service as a living room because it had the one fire that did not smoke. It was dominated by a large desk with squat carved legs ending in griffins' heads. In front of the fire which Rory lit were two horsehair armchairs, slippery and uncomfortable. They kept meaning to replace them but ever since Rory had taken up his new post a month ago, there never seemed to be any time. He was also expected to preach at four other villages. Even Molly was kept busy with parish visits, and the various clubs held in the church hall: Women's Institute, Mothers' Union, Baking Night and Bible readings.
Like the Chumbles, they had been seduced by the thought of idyllic village life. Rory had been vicar of a parish in the East End of London. On a good Sunday, the congregation would amount to around twelve elderly people. On a bad one, much fewer as the church was invaded by drunken youths from the pub next door shouting insults. Tired of the hopelessness of trying to bring the word of God to people who did not want to hear it, tired of the squalor, horrified by a final attack they could not even bring themselves to talk about, they had been delighted at the chance to move to the beautiful Cotswolds. Also, there was a fairly large congregation on Sundays, people coming from neighbouring villages, attracted by the novelty of a handsome vicar ...
They had seemed to live under constant threat in London and both were surprised to feel an undertone of fear in the village. Of course, the weather hadn't helped. Ever since they arrived, it had either been pouring rain or cold nights with thick fog. Then they were inclined to put it down to the village's Tudor buildings with their thatched roofs, crouched round the village green.
"I am so tired," said Molly, stifling a yawn. "And to think I believed that once we were in the Cotswolds all that I would have to do was to occasionally twitch the lace curtains. Rory!" She sat up straight. "Why wouldn't that policeman let the ambulance men cut her down?"
"You mean, was she murdered? No. Just routine. Like car accidents hold everything up on the motorway these days because of Health and Safety rules that say nothing to be shifted until the transport police and you name it have examined the wreckage."
"The villagers will have gathered to watch," said Molly. "Should I be out there with the tea urn?"
"No. They're probably having the time of their lives. You know, there's something ghoulish about them. That's the door. I'll get it."
Rory came back with two detectives who introduced themselves as Detective Sergeant Wong and Detective Constable Peterson. Wong looked half Chinese and Peterson was a pretty woman with dark curly hair.
"Would you like some tea or coffee?" offered Molly. "Something stronger? Detective Peterson?"
"Oh, do call me Alice. I would love a cup of strong coffee and I am sure Bill here could do with one as well. I'll come and help you."
"I'll begin with you, sir," said Bill. "Where were you this evening?"
"We were at a dinner party at Sir Edward Chumble's in the next village, Cuckleton. We left about eleven o'clock. Molly was driving. The mist made it difficult to see anything.
"Then Molly and I saw the body in the headlights just as the fog shifted. There is no mobile phone signal here so I went back to the vicarage to call and Molly, my wife, climbed up to make sure the woman was really dead. Why did that policeman stop the ambulance men from bringing her down?"
"We have to wait for forensics when there is any death like this," said Bill. "So you left Sir Edward Chumble's home at, say, eleven o'clock. Are you sure of the time?"
"Oh, yes. It was a horrid dinner party and I kept looking at my watch and praying, 'Bring on the cheese! Oh, please, bring on the cheese.'"
"Who else was there?"
"Lady Edward, her aunt, a Jane Somebody, Lord Thurkettle and Brenda and Bengy Gentry."
"Were you the first to leave?"
"Yes. I hadn't met any of them before and it will be a cold day in hell before I want to meet any of them again."
"Why do you think you were invited?"
"The Cotswolds seem to be full of incomers all determined to do the village thing, you know, go to church at Easter and Christmas, invite the vicar and his wife, drive a four by four, wear green wellies and talk knowledgably about crops. Because my last parish was pretty rough, I did indulge in a bit of rural fantasy."
"Hang on until the spring comes," said Bill. "It becomes the prettiest place on earth."
Molly and Alice entered pushing an old creaking oak trolley laden with coffee cups, cafetière and biscuits. Once coffee was served, Bill took Molly over her account. When she had finished, he said, "I'll save you a trip to police headquarters. I'll send someone tomorrow with your statements and get you to sign them."
"I believe the one traditional thing you do have in the Cotswolds is a Miss Marple," said Rory.
"Not that I know of," said Bill.
"But I read about her. Agatha Raisin! That's it."
Alice said, "Mrs. Raisin is not elderly, nor does she knit. She is a private detective with offices in Mircester. She is rather attractive."
A picture of the policeman who had climbed the witches' tree came into Rory's head. He had been young and looked to be highly intelligent. "What's the name of that policeman who examined the body?" he asked.
"That would be P.C. Harold Turret." Bill would have liked to elaborate and say that Turret's nickname was Ferret. He not only worked extremely hard on cases but he also had a nasty habit of finding out everything he could about his fellows' private lives. Bill and Alice were secretly engaged because any liaisons between members of the force were frowned on. Unfortunately the Ferret showed every sign of being attracted to Alice.
"Are you sure," pursued Rory, "that it is suicide? She never seemed depressed or anything like that."
"We won't really know until the forensic team have put in their report. Good evening. Someone will call tomorrow with your statements."
When they had left Molly said in a small voice, "Do you think we made a mistake coming here?"
"No," said her husband bracingly. "Wait till spring. People say it's marvellous then."
"Wouldn't it be awful if poor Miss Darby was murdered?" said Molly as they mounted the stairs.
"It wouldn't somehow," said Rory. "I feel guilty about the idea of her being driven to suicide and us not knowing she was in such distress."
The bedroom was cold. It contained one of those mammoth Victorian wardrobes like the one in The Chronicles of Narnia and a four-poster bed, but without the hangings, Molly having torn them down.
"Are we going to bed in our muck?" asked Molly.
"You bet," said her husband, beginning to tear off his clothes. The bathroom was at the end of a long draughty corridor, and a monument to Victorian plumbing.
Molly sat down at the dressing table and began to remove her makeup with cosmetic wipes. Her face looked odd in the old glass, rather like some other Molly than a reflection.
"Hurry up!" called her husband. "I'm freezing!"
"That's all I am to you," said Molly. "A hot water bottle."
They had only been married a year but had planned to put off having children.
They decided, as they finally snuggled up together, not to have sex that night; decided by that odd marital telepathy that well-matched couples are lucky enough to have. Molly was just drifting off to sleep when a vivid picture of that body rose up in her mind. She could see it in the headlights, high up on the slippery branches of ... "Rory! Wake up!"
"It's Margaret Darby."
"Oh, do go to sleep."
"Listen. The odd thing about Miss Darby was that she always wore high heels. Not stilettos but not kitten heels either. She still had them on!"
"They didn't have any straps. They were patent leather pumps. She was high up in the slippery branches and the branches were gleaming with wet. She couldn't possibly have climbed up in those shoes."
Excerpted from "The Witches' Tree"
Copyright © 2017 M. C. Beaton.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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
Love love love Agatha Raisin Can't wait for the next book
Story moves at a good pace and is a pleasant read. Some of it is quite predictable. Still good and light story. I simply prefer something more complex. That said, I was surprised over the murders in this book.
Fabulous as always & funny as heck. Just a few too many characters to keep up with ... maybe need to include a list of them at the beginning of the book ... ?
Margaret Darby, an elderly spinster, is found dead and hanging from a tree. None of the villagers can fathom who would commit such a crime and are horrified, but Agatha is secretly glad for a bit of excitement. After spending much of her time working small cases like finding lost cats, she can’t wait to get her hands on something big….and murder definitely fits the bill. When two more murders happen though she starts to feel like perhaps she’s had enough excitement in her life and questions whether or not she even wants to solve the case. It’s as if I have lost an old friend. I’m not sure what is going on with this series but I was already disappointed with the last book because it seemed rushed and without passion. This one isn’t any better. In fact, it’s worse. I have always looked forward to each installment but lately they just aren’t the same. The style is choppy and jumbled. The characters that I’ve come to enjoy so much are bouncing in and out of Agatha’s life like a boomerang, sometimes seeming as if they were added as an afterthought. They are so different from previous books that I almost wonder if someone else is writing them. I don’t want to give up on the series because it’s my favorite, but I’m feeling as if they may have ran their course and it’s time to end it.
Of the many M C Beaton books I have enjoyed, I think the Agatha Raisen books are my favorites. The humor & the knowlege of human nature always weave an entertaining story and character study as all mysterys should
This was my second Agatha Raisin book and while the first one I read was okay for me, this one, not so much. It was a good story but Agatha Raisin just really got on my nerves in this one. She's always pining for a man and looks at every man like a dog in heat and wonders what he could do for her. While I thought it was funny in the first book, not so in this second book that I read. There were lots of other interesting characters and the story was good, Agatha's narcissist personality overwhelmed everything else for me. Thanks to St. Martin's Press and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
The Witches' Tree, the 28th Agatha Raisin mystery by acclaimed author M.C. Beaton, is so well written that it doesn't matter if one hasn't read all the previous books in the series prior to this one. Personally, I'd only read the first (The Quiche of Death) but did see all the episodes of the television series. Other than the location and some of the characters, new readers to the series should not expect the same warm/fuzzy feeling from the television shows to be evident in the books. The story is very enjoyable - it's a lovely combination of charming, spooky, amusing and it's also a little bit dark. Not one, but two bodies are found hanging from The Witches Tree in the small Cotswolds village of Sumpton Harcourt (near Carsely), and it's up to Agatha and her team to investigate and discover the culprit. There are lots of little behind the scenes antics as well (relationships between Agatha and James, and also between Agatha and Charles), and it does quite well as a standalone. The banter is quick and clever, and there is a little surprise in the epilogue as well. Highly, highly recommended!
I've been a big fan of this series for ages and I really had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, I was not impressed. The story fell flat, the characters seemed very irritated with each other, and quite honestly, Agatha was on my nerves. I found myself swiping pages, hoping that it would get better, but it didn't happen. For some reason this book lacked all the things I've loved about Agatha and I was really disappointed. I voluntarily read an ARC of this book provided by the publisher and NetGalley.