Those of you who know me will know I write fairly obscure literary fiction. Probably only those who've known me a little longer will know I also write thrillers. I began The Company of Fellows four years ago as the first in an Oxford-based series featuring bipolar atheist interior designer and some time academic Tommy West, his devoutly Christian ex-girlfriend Chief Inspector Emily Harris, and her sultry sergeant Rosie Lu. And now, I've re-edited it, cut large chunks that weren't working, and revived what may well turn back into a series.
It's available for Kindle for just 70p here.
Also on smashwords for all other formats for the same price
Imagine the Inspector Morse novels had been written by Thomas Harris. The Company of Fellows is a new thriller set in Oxford.
Tommy West. A brilliant Oxford academic, until a breakdown 12 years ago. Reinvented as a successful interior designer. His new life is comfortable, in every way, and safe. But he misses the challenge of academia.
Charles Shaw. Outspoken professor of theology. Sensualist. Unpopular with all his colleagues. Loathed by his ex-wife. And, as of five minutes ago, dead.
As a student, Shaw was Tommy’s mentor. Now Tommy must draw on the professor for inspiration one more time in order to find his killer. But all he has to go on are a handful of papers for the controversial research the professor was working on when he died. And the Professor’s 18 year-old daughter Becky, for whom Tommy is the last hope to get some closure on the troubled relationship with her father. And a police investigation convinced the Professor’s death was a suicide. An investigation led by Tommy’s ex.
The further Tommy gets inside the twisted lives of Shaw and his colleagues, and the closer he gets to the dark secrets that hide the truth, the further he gets from the safety he has so carefully built for himself, placing not just his life, but his sanity, at risk.
As thrillers go it's literary, more P D James than Colin Dexter, but I also wanted something of the menace and opulence of Thomas Harris. I also wanted to convey both the attraction and the superficiality of Oxford's academic life, and the layers of what I hope are very serious menace and darkness that just might lie beneath some of the seemingly petty and esoteric squabbles, hinting at a sensuality too long repressed by the search for intellectual betterment, a sensuality that ultimately cannot be held in place and begins to ooze toxicly through the pretence of otherworldliness the academics wear.
First and foremost, though, this is about the things all my books are about - the fundamental struggle of living in a world wear the only things that keep you sane are at the same time the things that threaten to destroy you. And how to live in a world that lives by moral codes that make no sense at all.
Here's a passage from one of the early chapters where Rosie first visits the house of the dead professor:
Rosie loved old Oxford houses that seemed to leak books from the cracks in their decaying plaster. She’d never been to university. There had been no need. She’d always known she wanted to be in the police, like her father and grandfather had been in Hong Kong. But the mix of books and solitude made her feel totally at home.
Professor Shaw’s was a typical academic’s study, a cross between a bombsite and a fly tip. It might look like it’s a mess, but I know where everything is, and that’s what matters. That’s what people who lived like this always said. From the number of times she’d watched them foraging for a vital piece of paper with all the desperation of a bear emerging from hibernation and finding its larder still buried under snow, she knew this was a lie.
Somehow she had a feeling that Professor Shaw would be different. It was true that everything looked a mess; but the dinner he’d laid out for himself had been beautifully ordered. She had a feeling he wasn’t the kind of person to leave work half done. All of which meant there had to be some kind of order underlying the chaos. Either that or he was murdered after all.
She stood in the doorway and tried to get a feel for the way he had used the room. There were piles of papers on every surface – the coffee tables, the desk, the sofa, most of the chairs. It was a fair bet most of them had been there for months and were irrelevant. If she could figure out which they were she could save herself hours. She looked at his desk. There was a clearing for his iBook but no more, and a couple of journals had spilled onto the white case. She made a note to herself to take the computer with her.
Rosie tried a technique she often used. She walked out of the door and down the corridor. She imagined herself tired from a day giving lectures, seeing students, straining her eyes in the library. She thought of the iBook, partially covered, and realised that Professor Shaw didn’t use it to take his daily notes. She tried to feel a folder under her arm, with its pages of scribblings.
She headed back to the study, yawning as she got into character. Without thinking she found herself heading across the floor, stepping over some heaps of journals, and sitting herself down in a Windsor chair with arms worn smooth and dark, placing her imaginary folder on the table to her left. The papers on it lay flat. Her folder wouldn’t fall off. They were a little beyond her comfortable reach – perfect for someone five or six inches taller than her, like the Professor.
The chair felt good. God, she needed a drink. Instinctively she moved her hand to the right, felt rounded glass, a bottle of Glengoyne and a tumbler waiting on a mahogany tray. This was where he lived when he was in this room, she thought.
She scanned her immediate surroundings. To her right was an ottoman, complete with the tray of malt. To her left was the table with the flat-topped stack of papers. They weren’t what he was working on. He used them only as a flat surface to put things on. What did he do when he’d finished whatever it was he did? She imagined him sitting down with his whisky. He’d put everything on the table – his notes from the day, his post, printouts of his e-mails. He didn’t keep them on his lap as he looked through them. That’s where he cradled his drink. He took them off the pile one by one, read them over. What did he do with them? There was no sign of a diary or a jotter. I bet you had a notebook, she said to herself.
Carefully she retraced her steps to the door and repeated the routine. As she stepped back inside it struck her. You’ve had enough of this heavy tweed. You want to make yourself comfortable. She took off her make-believe jacket and hung it on the back of his door. Sure enough, there was a tweed jacket on the back of the door, a fat mechanical pencil sticking out of the top pocket. I bet you used that pencil to take notes in the library. And, bingo! On the peg next to it was a fine silk smoking jacket. She put it on and padded the pockets. She reached inside. There was the notebook, a small Mont Blanc Mozart biro clipped over its front cover.
Rosie went back to the chair and opened up the notebook. She was right. The entries were all dated. She started from the most recent, September 3rd, and worked back. Unfortunately it appeared to be nothing but a series of references from books he’d been reading during the day. Strange that he should have bothered taking notes the day before he killed himself. Maybe he hadn’t been intending to kill himself at the time; maybe something sudden happened. She put it on the arm of the chair. It was small enough to balance. She went back to the Professor’s routine. He’d read his papers, taken whatever notes he needed and then put them down one by one. That was it.
She looked underneath the table. There was a sprawl of envelopes and letters a foot or so back. Clearly once he’d dealt with something he didn’t care what happened to it. She sat on the floor and gathered the pile of papers and correspondence, careful to keep things in order. The top few letters were unopened. A bill, some junk mail, one from college that was handwritten – why would he have left that?
She got to the first opened letter – the last Professor Shaw had read. It was a strange size – she recognised it as US paper. There it was. Exactly what she’d been looking for. It was a letter from the Divinity Faculty at Harvard. And there were the words that explained the Professor’s death, his sudden decision – we are sorry but after lengthy deliberation the Faculty has decided to appoint another candidate to the post of Professor of Social Ethics. So he had been planning to go to the States, but his plans had fallen apart.
Why get in touch with Tommy, a student he hadn’t seen in years, and ask him to come round if the Professor was going to kill himself before he got there? Maybe he’d wanted Tommy to get to him just in time. Who knows? she thought. One thing was certain, though. The Professor hadn’t bargained on his messenger dropping dead before he could deliver the message.