Title: Shrouded In Yew
Author: Jo A. Hiestand
Genre: British Mystery
One dark March evening Vera Howarth vanishes from her village. Despite search teams, TV appeals and a police investigation, she is never found, and her disappearance transmutes into a local ghost story.
That was 23 years ago. Now Reed Harper, the organizer of the village well dressing custom, goes missing, and the incident is linked by speculation and fear to Vera’s.
Detective-Sergeant Brenna Taylor, her boss, Detective-Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham, and other members of their Murder Team from the Derbyshire Constabulary are called in to investigate when a handful of bones is discovered in the forest that hugs the village. During the search, Reed’s body is found several feet from the skeletal remains. Vera? Were the two killed by the same person? If not, why are the remains lying so close together?
Things turn oddly suspicious when Brenna learns that Christine Stevenson, another villager who was involved with Reed, committed suicide the previous year. Is there a tie to the long-vanished Vera as well? Not such a far-fetched question, as it is common knowledge that Reed is a womanizer. Love ‘em and leave ‘em should be tattooed on his arm - a visible keepsake from his affairs.
Reed’s not the only person who keeps something around reminding him of a former love. The village constable still has a lock of Vera's hair, never telling his wife of it or his previous engagement to Vera. Has he kept silent to avoid marriage problems, or because he had something to do with Vera's demise, steering the subsequent investigation in the wrong direction?
As the police team investigates they discover a tangle of jealousy, betrayal and lies, all involving Reed and Vera. And harking back to the ghost stories of the region.
Vera Howarth walked out of her house, into the bowels of the earth, and was never seen again.
At least that’s how the Legend had grown.
That had been twenty-two years ago. Despite the official missing person report, searches by villagers and police, and posted monetary rewards, Vera remained missing. Her clothes waited in the wardrobe; her family waited by the phone. Traces on her bank account, credit card statements, and mobile phone showed no activity. Psychics and sniffer dogs zeroed in on their targets, only to come up with nothing. No trail, no scent, no body. As though she had never been born. As though the earth had swallowed her. As though she had vanished into thin air.
With the seasonal changes, her story faded into the folklore of the village and surrounding countryside, told in the same breath one used to speak of lamenting brides, lost miners and glowing-eyed shucks. Whispered around wintry fires and on moonlit nights, with a hint of fear and a glance over a shoulder. If Vera Howarth, fiancée of a police officer, could vanish so completely, so could anyone.
Vera’s legend had transformed with the telling and retelling, enlivened by snippets of other local tales until the arrival of the current variation. Even if most people didn’t believe in ghost dogs or phantom horsemen, the area sported enough spooky spots to make the staunchest scoffer rethink his decision at night.
And wonder if the recently discovered bones were Vera’s or somehow had nebulous ties to the other missing villager.
“I know two people have gone missing.” Graham looked at me before returning his attention to the bones. “But the one’s disappeared only a day ago, so this obviously can’t be he. And as for Miss Vera Howarth…” His head tilted slightly to the right and his right eyebrow rose slowly. “The problem, as you know, Taylor, is the site. Have these bones been recently unearthed after lying buried for decades, or have they been constantly out in the open to be buffeted by the weather? Makes a difference.”
Of course it did. But with the tales of people gone missing from the village, plus the local ghost story that still haunted me, immediately putting a name to the bones didn’t seem that far fetched.
The bones had been found about a quarter of a mile into the forest that hugged the village. An ancient forest of conifer and deciduous trees—and ghosts. Fairy tale fiends were said to roam the valley’s dark dells and disused coal mines, though flesh and blood murderers also imprinted its past. The bones merely confirmed the truth of the tales, though village speculation favored Death by Ghost for the unlucky victim. A logical choice, considering the abundance of local spirit dog sightings. But I had never known a ghost to bury anyone, so I favored the human hand in all this.
Which was why we were here, the CID Team of the Derbyshire Constabulary.
Though we hadn’t come originally to investigate the bones. We’d been called out on the missing person. The bones kind of fell into our lap.
Walking over to an oak, I watched the Home Office pathologist slowly separate a long bone from a fragment of blue fabric before carefully sealing the bone in a transparent evidence bag. The site had been thoroughly photographed and a scale drawing made well before she had been allowed into the area, a procedure from which Graham never varied. Graham, a Detective Chief Inspector and my immediate boss, stood outside the cordoned off area, aware of the dangers of compromising the scene and the evidence. And the possible danger of bubonic plague spores nestled and still alive in the remains.
I shook the water from the hood of my mackintosh as I eased it off my head.
Rain, relentless and driving, threatened the integrity of the bones earlier this morning. Scattered along a haphazard trail several feet long, the skeletal remains now glistened under the brilliance of the police work lamps. Raindrops eased down sodden ferns, tufted hair-grass and tree branches to break on the forest cast-offs and rocks, throwing back the lamp light with the intensity of faceted gems. The light found a handful of bones and drew them from the muddled earthen browns harboring them. From beneath their woodsy covering, the bones, damp and white, peeked out at us. Bleached and broken ends hinted at years of arboreal rest. Graham conferred with the pathologist while I glanced at the sky. The dark clouds rolled on to the west, leaving a sodden recovery site but drier working conditions. And the haunting question: Who Is It.
Trade Paper – https://amzn.to/2lzAaqY
If you could dress up as anything or anyone this Halloween, what or who would it be and why?
Jacob Waltz, though my accessories would have to be really good so people would know who I am! He’s the German immigrant who supposedly discovered gold in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains in the mid to late 1800s. No one knows the mine’s location. I think that’s a great basis for a Halloween trick-or-treater. And I’d hope Mr. Waltz’s spirit would tell me the mine’s location!
Explain why your featured book is a treat to read:
As with all the Peak District mysteries, “Shrouded in Yew” uses a British custom as the backbone of its plot. This time I use the Derbyshire custom of well dressing. Participating villages and towns decorate their wells and springs with panels that are essentially a flatten Rose Parade float. Only natural material like lambs wool, pebbles, moss, bird features, flower petals, egg shells, etc. can be used to make the picture. A topic is chosen by the village/town and then the artwork is created on wet clay pressed into person-tall wooden frames. Topics usually range from historical events and ecology/nature to biblical characters. I thought well dressing would be a great basis of my book’s plot: I can just imagine squabbles among the workers that would lead to anger and hurt feelings. The reader will not only be immersed in the village and murder but will also learn a bit about the custom and how the panels are made. I think it’s a good combination!
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Runs October 1 – 31
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I grew up reading Dumas, Twain, duMaurier, Dickens and the Brontes. I loved the atmosphere of those books. Add the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies and the moods of 1940s/50s movies like Brief Encounter, Night Must Fall, and The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I knew I wanted to write mysteries, and the books had to be set in Britain. That was a must even though I knew only what I’d seen in the movies and read in the novels. But the British pull was tenacious. Three years ago I discovered that I have literally centuries and centuries of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. Do genes mean anything?
My first visit to England was during my college years and that cemented my joy of Things British. Since then, I’ve been lured back nearly a dozen times, and lived there for a year during my professional folksinging stint.
I combined my love of writing, mysteries, music, and board games by co-inventing a mystery-solving treasure-hunting game, P.I.R.A.T.E.S.
I founded the Greater St. Louis Chapter of the international mystery writers/readers organization Sisters in Crime, serving as its first president.
In 2001, I graduated from Webster University with a BA degree in English and departmental honors. I live in the St. Louis, MO area with my cat, Tennyson, and way too many kilts.
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