Saturday, October 17, 2015

Geese and Graves and Other Writerly Concerns

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John, Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's One For Sorrow, the first full-length novel about their protagonist. The eleventh in the series, Murder in Megara, will be published in October 2015. The Guardian Stones, set in rural Shropshire during World War Two and written as by Eric Reed, will appear in January 2016. Both novels are from Poisoned Pen Press.

When writing I occasionally find sudden doubts about possible anachronisms creep into the room on nasty little kitty feet. Almost always this distressing development relates to the content of informal conversations.

The OED and various slang dictionaries are, I do agree, most useful tools and furthermore available in the clock-round library the internet represents but, being a fool to myself, I feel more comfortable seeking confirmation that whatever the phrase in question might be has been used in novels contemporary to or before the era in which the work in progress is set. Perhaps it is because this method gives a better idea of the context than the necessarily telegraphic notes found in the works I mention? In any event, when such circumstances arise I hie myself off to the Gutenberg and Bartleby sites and run a search for the relevant phrase or word through them.

Let me give a working example from The Guardian Stones, our January 2016 title. Set during World War Two in rural Shropshire, a retired schoolteacher residing in the village recalls the description of one of those familiar sudden shivers we all get now and then as having been caused by a goose walking over the person's grave. Not having heard this particular saying before it was mentioned by my co-writer Eric (although I wot of the common variant "someone walked over my grave") I was not certain if it was known in the UK at the time. A quick shufti in my two go-to sites established it was indeed known before 1941, the year in which the book is set, and therefore appropriate to use for our purposes.

What I discovered was Rudyard Kipling refers to the grave-crossing goose in his rather nasty short story At The Pit's Mouth” in his collection Under The Deodars (1888). A couple rendezvous in a Simla cemetery where, as Kipling puts it, they "enjoyed each other's society among the graves of men and women whom they had known and danced with aforetime." One day they see a grave being dug and the man remarks to his companion, a married woman whose husband is away, "I have got a chill down my back just as if a goose had walked over my grave."

Even better in terms of proposed inclusion in a mystery, I was particularly happy to see Agatha Christie used essentially the same phrase in The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1924). In her novel it crops up in a conversation when the daughter in law of the matriarch of the family residing in Styles mentions she had been told that, due to the medical profession's general ignorance of uncommon poisons, it was thought countless cases of poisonings had gone unsuspected. To which her mother in law declares the conversation "...makes me feel as if a goose were walking over my grave."

Needless to say in due course Poirot solves the titular affair and cooks the goose of...but no, I must not reveal anything further. Those who perchance have not read the novel can take a gander at it on the Bartleby site at

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