Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes Mask

Guy Fawkes Mask

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot”

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested for plotting the assassination of King James I. In Great Britain, the day has meant different things to different people: a commemoration of the king’s survival, a celebration of bonfires and fireworks to break up the autumn monotony, even an appreciation of those who question authority and challenge the powers that be. When writing my latest book, Marriage Can Be Murder, I wondered how my village of Birdswing would celebrate in 1939, just two months after the start of the Blackout. Here’s an excerpt:

In addition to his amateur detective work, Ben kept up his rehabilitation efforts, forcing himself to put on his coat, pick up his cane, and walk the length of the high street twice a day. Only once did he fall, pivoting so quickly to avoid a tomcat that his left knee buckled. As the big, ragged creature darted into an alley, Ben was hauled to his feet by a trio of  little old ladies, then questioned by ARP Warden Gaston, who’d burst out of Morton’s café when he heard the commotion.

“I’m quite all right. It was only a one-eared cat. Orange, with stripes. Did you think I’d been attacked by German agents?” Ben grumbled, dusting off his trousers.

“I didn’t think at all,” Gaston said proudly. “In event of emergency I never do. One of my luckier qualities.” To the small crowd, he said, “Off with you! Find suitable occupation. That’s an order. The poor man’s embarrassed enough, making up tales of cats without you lot gawping at him.”

“Tales?” Ben peered into the alley, gloomy from the shelter of two overhanging roofs. He thought he saw two yellow eyes glowing back at him from behind the metal rubbish bins. But as soon as he blinked, they were gone.

“I can give you a ride back to Fenton House,” Gaston continued, not unkindly. “Or give you my arm and help you there, if you’re dead set on walking. Need to speak to Agnes about this Bonfire Day nonsense. I’ve half a mind to drive up to the manor and tell Lady Juliet I’ve changed my mind about permitting it.”

“Please don’t.” The village thrummed with anticipation; Ben had heard about little else for weeks. Due to the blackout, Birdswing was forbidden from the usual nighttime festivities for Guy Fawkes Night: roman candles, Catherine wheels, a huge bonfire in the village square. There had been some efforts to convince the vicar to throw a substitute party in the church hall, perhaps with a papier-mâché bonfire, candles, punch, music, and dancing. Having never approved of Guy Fawkes Night, which struck Father Cotterill as practically pagan, he’d refused. But just as the disappointed villagers resigned themselves to 5 November as yet another silent, colorless night, Lady Juliet had appeared on the high street, bursting into shops and salons and restaurants with the news. On the very next Sunday, a daylight version of Bonfire Night would be held at Belsham Manor, and every resident of Birdswing was welcome.

“If you try and shut it down at this point,” Ben told Gaston, “you’ll likely have a riot on your hands. Besides, your sister isn’t home. She’s getting her hair done. I’ve never seen her so excited.”

“Excitement breeds disobedience,” the air warden muttered. “I can’t imagine what’s gotten into Lady Juliet. She’s never been one for parties. Usually wanders off halfway through or spends the whole night reading a book.”

Ben knew what had gotten into her, and while he had his doubts about the scheme’s efficacy, he couldn’t fault the good intentions behind it. Breathless with enthusiasm, she’d rang him a few days ago, spilling out her thought process before he could even say hello.

“Last night, as I was propped up in bed reading a mystery novel… wait. I just realized I’ve never asked. Do you enjoy mystery novels? I do, so long as the woman isn’t a ninny. Can’t abide ninnies. At any rate, I was reading, and thereupon it struck me like Archimedes in his bath: how does one advance a case like Penny’s, where there are more suspects than evidence? Eureka! Give a dinner party and invite all the players!”

She paused, both to take a breath and receive praise. Ben knew better than to laugh, though he was glad she’d announced her plan by phone. Had she been able to see his expression, the resultant injuries might have put him back in that ghastly Edwardian wheelchair.

“You mean, actually invite them to Belsham Manor, lock them in your parlor, snuff the lights, and wait to see who turns up dead?”

“No, that’s how murders happen, not how they’re solved,” Lady Juliet said patiently. “The idea is to get the liquor flowing, get them chatting and joking and laughing, and just observe. The murderer is sure to be exquisitely uncomfortable under pressure and thus reveal himself. Particularly if it’s Freddy Sparks.

“The pretext is simple,” she continued. “Guy Fawkes Night during the day. Why moan about not being allowed to burn an effigy when we can do it before sundown? As for our suspects, I doubt I can dig up Mrs. Hibbet, but I’ll invite her, just in case. And I’ll need to go back to Plymouth to invite Bobby Archer, but that’s no sacrifice. I can apologize for accusing him—the better to snare him later, if it comes to it—and purchase a new dress while I’m there.”

“New dress?”

“Yes,” she barked. “No tartan skirt and no trousers but a proper dress, like Margaret’s friends. Perhaps I’ll get my hair curled, too, and put on my mother’s sapphire earbobs, rendering you and your kind speechless.”

He grinned. Any day he could get a rise out of Lady Juliet was a good day. “Ah, but my kind is in short supply. Your table may be overloaded with ladies. How many villagers will you invite?”

“Why, all of them, of course.”

© Emma Jameson, Lyonnesse Books, 2014



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