When an elderly villager is found in an open grave in the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, Sophie’s suspicions of murder are overruled by the officious local doctor – but can she prove a sinister plot is afoot before the assailant strikes again?
In an often hilarious but also poignant story of family, friendship, love and loss, Sophie and her bookseller boss/boyfriend Hector endeavour to untangle the messy relationships within a long-established village clan, to whom half the village claim to be related.
Like Sophie’s previous adventures, this newest addition to the series offers plenty of clever yet gentle humour, but it also marks Sophie’s growing wisdom, understanding and thoughtfulness as she becomes more settled as part of the village community and more confident in her role as self-appointed amateur local sleuth.
Popular characters return from previous books in the series, such as the orderly shopkeeper Carol, local gardener and gravedigger Billy, unruly teenager Tommy and his spirited little sister Sina. Joining them are intriguing neighbours, the mischievous old Bunny, her addled daughter Kitty, and Petunia Lot, leading light of the Cats Prevention charity.
But not all will live to tell the tale…
Springtime for Murder is the fifth in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which runs the course of the year in Wendlebury Barrow from one summer to the next, but you can read them in any order you like. Read them in the order they’re written, or just pick whichever matches the current season – it’s entirely up to you.
Scroll down the page to read the opening chapter for free…
How to Order
Buy online here or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 9781911223344 (from 15th November 2018).
What Readers Say
I have never lived in a village but now – for the first time – I wish I did! (That’s despite the murder…) Debbie Young paints a seductive and humorous picture of life on a small scale (I love the cheeky jokes)… Every woman will now want a Hector in her life. – Susan Grossey, author of the Sam Plank detective series
Debbie Young sits behind her characters’ eyes and knows exactly what they would say. Her reproduction of their speech is exact, and is laced so often with the gleam of gentle humour. Each book in the series leads us more deeply into the romance of Sophie and Hector and into the mild humane life of an English village. – Celia Boyd, author of the Reason from the Stars historical novel series
THE OPENING CHAPTER of Springtime for Murder
1 Funny Bunny
Sina slammed her skipping rope down on the trade counter to get Hector’s attention. “My brother and me have just found the Easter Bunny lying dead in a grave in the churchyard.”
Hector looked up from his spreadsheet. “Are you sure, Sina?”
“Yes, and Tommy said to fetch you to sort it out.”
“I’m afraid dealing with mythical beasts isn’t in the bookseller’s job description.” Hector glanced at his watch. “Besides, I can’t leave the bookshop till the Battersby rep has been, and she’s due any minute now. But don’t worry, Sophie will come with you to have a look, won’t you, Sophie?”
I set down a tray of crockery on the tearoom counter so abruptly that a cup broke. “And since when has it been part of my job description? You’re meant to be on my side.”
As my boyfriend as well as my boss, Hector knew I didn’t like visiting the churchyard.
“The Easter Bunny?” asked old Billy, pouring an extravagant amount of cream into his teacup. “He’s early. Easter’s weeks away.”
I was glad about that. On Palm Sunday I was due to start running the village Sunday School class. I still don’t know how I let the vicar talk me into volunteering.
Billy licked a drip off the cream jug’s spout. “What’s the Easter Bunny doing in my grave anyway?”
Sina’s eyes widened. “Your grave? How come you’ve got a grave when you’re not even dead yet? Are you very poorly?”
She went to perch on the chair beside his and laid a comforting hand on the sleeve of his ancient tweed jacket.
I was touched by her concern. “Sina, when Billy says his grave, he means he’s dug it for someone else.”
“But we all need graves eventually, Sina,” said Billy. “Even little kiddies like you. I don’t plan on meeting my maker just yet, but I shall be willing enough when the good Lord decides it’s my time.”
Sina frowned. “Who will dig your grave, Billy?”
Billy wiped his hands on his trousers.
“Your brother, I expect. I’ve been training him.”
“Is that like work experience?” asked Sina.
More like work avoidance for Billy. He often gets Tommy to do his dirty work in return for pocket money or some dubious favour. Tommy would be an industrious digger, with the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy and about as much accuracy. But I kept that thought to myself. I didn’t want to deter Billy from accompanying us to the churchyard. Besides, the graves were his responsibility, not mine.
Hector chuckled. “An internship on interment. No doubt Tommy’s hoping to find buried treasure.”
Billy’s mouth twitched. “I’m not saying I didn’t put that idea in his head to get him interested in helping me. But by rights, gravedigging is a two-man job: one to dig, the other to make sure the sides don’t collapse on top of him. Of course, you shore up the sides with wooden boards as you go, but it’s still a risky business if you don’t do it right. A couple of tons of earth falling too fast for you to climb up your little ladder, and within minutes you’d be stone dead.”
I’d never seen a grave with a ladder in it. Sina asked exactly what I was thinking.
“What’s the ladder for? In case the person you’ve buried isn’t quite dead?”
Billy shook his head. “Quite the opposite. It’s for the gravedigger’s benefit. You must always leave a ladder at the end until you’re done digging. Them’s the rules. Health and safety, even in death.”
“I hadn’t realised digging graves was such a complicated business,” I said.
“It’s ain’t a business,” said Billy. “It’s a craft. I’d better come along with you for safety’s sake.”
He got up, buttoned his ancient tweed jacket and headed for the door, Sina prancing after him like Puck after Bottom.
When Hector got up from his stool to join me behind the tearoom counter, I thought he’d come to show solidarity. Instead, he put his arm round my shoulders and guided me firmly out into the street.
“Go on, sweetheart, the fresh air will do you good.”
Like a curly-haired sheepdog directing a reluctant ewe, he blocked the shop doorway behind me. There was no escape.
As I caught up with the advance investigation party, Sina slipped her hand into mine, reminding me how young she was. I wanted to reassure her, despite my own nerves.
“It’s probably just an old scarecrow that someone’s put there as a practical joke. Are you sure it’s not just your brother winding you up?”
Zigzagging beside me, Sina took twice as many paces as I did.
“If he is, I’ll push him in the grave on top of it and fill it in.”
I was glad her usual spirit was returning. Being Tommy’s little sister would be enough to make any girl resilient.
Billy scowled. “My churchyard ain’t no playpark. It’s sacred ground, consecrated for burials, not for kiddies to lark about in. Like the poet says, ‘The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.’”
I had no idea where that came from. Billy grinned at my puzzled expression.
“You and your clever-clogs boyfriend ain’t the only ones who can quote poetry.”
Actually, only Hector could, but I wasn’t about to put myself down.
“I recites poems about graveyards while I’m digging, to set a good rhythm.” He repeated his quote, punctuating it with a mime. ‘The grave’s (dig) a fine (throw) and private (dig) place (throw).’” He stopped shovelling to tap his forehead. “Grey’s Elegy is another good ’un.” Stretching his arms out towards the mid-morning sun, he began to declaim, “‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day—’”
“Does Tommy use the same method when he’s digging?” He might have been gaining more than muscles from his labours.
“I don’t think my brother knows any poetry,” said Sina. “Unless you count limericks. He knows loads of them.”
I bet Billy did too, but not the type suitable for young ears, so I tried to move the conversation on.
“I don’t think a graveyard is the right place for limericks. It should be a serious place.”
“Not necessarily, girlie,” said Billy. “You’d be surprised. I has long chats sometimes with them that comes to visit their loved ones there, and we often have a laugh thinking about times gone by.”
“Isn’t that a bit disrespectful?”
Billy gave me a reproachful look. “You’ve got this all wrong, you know. Graveyards are places full of memories, and who wouldn’t rather remember the fun times?” He looked away from me, his voice tightening with emotion. “A churchyard is a landscape full of love.”
I turned to Sina to allow him to recover his composure.
“Anyway, never mind about poetry, I’m sure Billy and I will help you get to the bottom of this Easter Bunny mystery in no time.”
She stopped jigging about and fixed me with a wide-eyed stare. “But I don’t want to get to the bottom of it. I’m not getting down into a smelly old grave, even if you are.”
“I don’t mean we will literally get into the grave, Sina, just that we’ll find out what’s going on and put an end to it.”
“Besides, graves smell lovely,” said Billy. “The most natural scent in the world – freshly dug soil.”
As we crossed the road to St Bride’s, I tugged at her hand, as if coaxing a stubborn puppy on a leash, and she carried on dancing about at my side. Fumbling to open the lychgate, I tried not to let Sina see my hands shaking.
Tommy’s gangly teenage frame was pressed up against the boundary wall, which in the morning sunshine was the colour of local honey. He pointed towards a large rectangular hole in the grass a few metres in front of him. A sheet of artificial turf big enough to cover the hole lay crumpled on the ground beside it. The real grass, dotted with early daisies, was still glossy with dew, the spring sunshine not yet hot enough to burn it off. So many dead people beneath our feet pushing those daisies up, I thought with a shudder.
Tommy, usually fearless, spoke in a low voice, as if worried about being overheard. “The body’s in there, miss.”
Sina, gripping my hand even tighter, crept towards the open grave with commendable stealth. I had no option but to advance beside her. Billy followed.
Together we stopped at the edge of the open grave. Below the perfectly incised turf, dense, rich soil the colour of coffee grounds – or of dried blood – was shored up by wooden boards. The hole, much deeper than I’d expected, exuded a pure, rich smell of wet earth. Towards the bottom, the colour and texture of the soil changed, becoming drier and stonier, reminding me of cross-section diagrams in geology books. At one end stood a narrow ladder.
At the bottom of the grave, as still as a house brick, lay the body of a very old lady, about five feet long and clothed in an old-fashioned mink coat. One sugar-pink velour carpet slipper protruded beneath the hem. I could see how Sina and Tommy had mistaken it at a quick glance for the sole of a not-so-lucky rabbit’s foot. A giant rabbit’s foot, that is.
But most striking of all was the pair of fake rabbit ears, in a blue floral sprigged cotton, that added twenty centimetres to the body’s height. I recognised the style of the ears from the Easter display in the village shop. Its proprietor Carol Barker sold home-made seasonal dressing-up clothes to boost her precarious takings. Currently, dozens of pairs of bunny ears were tempting small children from a basket on the shop counter.
She lay with her hands raised beside her head, her body slightly twisted to one side, her left knee bent more than the right. My hand itched for a piece of chalk to draw around her, because she formed the typical shape of a dead body outlined on the ground in police crime scene investigations.
The body lay too neatly on the ground for her to have fallen down the hole, but I couldn’t imagine anyone climbing down the ladder and lying down of their own accord. She looked as if someone must have carried her down and laid her out as if on a mortuary slab.
Billy, swaying gently beside me, put his hand on my shoulder to steady himself. “That’s no Easter Bunny,” he said, his voice cracking. “That’s my Auntie Bunny. Bunny Carter. My mother’s late brother was her first husband.”
“Oh my goodness, Billy, I’m so sorry—” I began, but he cut me off.
“So what’s the silly old fool playing at now?”
Like to read more? Buy online here or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 9781911223344 (from 15th November 2018).