Today, we have an excerpt from T.A. Willberg‘s Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder. The first in a new mystery series, it’s been enjoying quite a bit of buzz and growing interest. It’s been described as perfect for fans of Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Looking forward to reading the full novel, soon. Here’s the synopsis:
They were a band of mysterious private detectives who lived beneath the streets of London in a labyrinth of twisted tunnels and ancient hallways, the entrance to which no one had ever found…
Elaborately disguised and hidden deep beneath the city’s streets lies the world of Miss Brickett’s, a secret detective agency. From traversing deceptive escape rooms full of baited traps and hidden dangers, to engineering almost magical mechanical gadgets, apprentice detectives at Miss Brickett’s undergo rigorous training to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to solve the mysteries that confound London’s police force.
But nothing can prepare 23-year-old apprentice Marion Lane for what happens after the arrest of her friend and mentor, Frank, on suspicion of murder: he tasks Marion with clearing his name and saving his life. Her investigation will place Marion and her friends in great peril as they venture into the forbidden maze of uncharted tunnels that surround Miss Brickett’s. Being discovered out of bounds means immediate dismissal, but that is the least of Marion’s problems when she discovered that the tunnels contain more than just secrets…
And now, on with the excerpt!
The apprenticeship was designed to prepare recruits for the elusive world of a very particular style of private detection. And while scores of private-eye establishments existed elsewhere in London, charging a fortune for cases the police couldn’t be bothered with, Miss Brickett’s served the city in a way no other organisation could. Recruits here were trained to track suspects without being seen, listen to conversations without being noticed, enter buildings without invitation. They were expected to conceal the extraordinary behind a facade of mundane and austere, to fade into the backdrop of everyday London and become invisible to all but those who knew how to look. Perhaps more than anything, however, it was Miss Brickett’s collection of wondrous gadgets – pioneered and assembled in secret within its walls – that truly set the agency, and all those who trained there, apart.
Marion paused for a moment outside the shop. The frosted glass windows glimmered like dark jewels in the morning sun, a taste of the mystique that existed behind them. After ensuring she was alone in the cul-de-sac, she slipped a small brass key into the lock at the bottom of the bookshop door, a seemingly impenetrable wrought-iron barrier embossed with strange figures, ghouls, clocks and other indistinguishable designs. The key turned itself 360 degrees clockwise, 90 degrees anti-clockwise and then, as usual, spat itself out of the keyhole. She caught it, only just. Next, extracting a larger silver key from her purse, she opened the second lock located near the handle. She pulled down a lever disguised as a gas lamp and finally the door clicked open. She squeezed herself into the cramped shop. Even for someone so ungenerously padded, manoeuvring through the tight rows of dusty, precariously stacked bookshelves required a certain amount of finesse. It was dark too, the light switch inconveniently positioned at the other end of the shop. All things considered; it was no wonder she tripped over the body lying next to the reception desk.
‘Lord have mercy!’ said the body as it sat upright, catching Marion just before her head collided with the sharp corner of the desk. ‘Are you all right?’
Marion recovered herself, stood up and switched on the light. ‘Mr Nicholas?’ she said, her eyes adjusting in disbelief. ‘Yes… I’m fine. What on earth are you doing here?’
It was a silly question, she realised, as she watched Mr Nicholas – head of security at Miss Brickett’s, a rotund man with thinning blond hair and an angular scar that cut across his right eyebrow – gather up his sheet and pillow from the floor. ‘Very sorry about that,’ he said, checking his watch. ‘I overslept.’
‘Is something the matter?’ Marion asked, certain the answer must be yes.
‘No no, just a precaution. Just a precaution.’ He threw on a thick woollen coat. ‘But thank you for waking me. Frightful business going on,’ he added, a little more softly. ‘Have a good day, Miss Lane.’ He grabbed a bunch of keys from behind the butler’s desk and disappeared from the shop before Marion had a chance to ask any further questions. Just like Frank, Mr Nicholas had long since mastered the art of swift departures.
‘Frightful business,’ Marion muttered to herself as she rounded the corner hidden behind the butler’s desk. Mr Nicholas had a flair for dramatics, she reminded herself as she pushed the matter from her mind and turned into a short passage, at the end of which was a blank wall and a box of old books. She crouched down and pulled at the fourth floorboard from the right, the only one that had a metal ring secured in its centre. The floorboard reluctantly creaked up, and she stepped down onto the stairs that led into the dark below.
On reaching the bottom, she made her way along another short passage that led to a single steel door. In the dim light, Marion extracted from her bag a silver badge delicately engraved with the letter A and pressed it into an indentation in the wall. The door slipped away, she pinned the badge to her chest and stepped inside the lift. She didn’t need to choose a floor: it would shudder to a halt only at the very bottom, deep below the bookshop and the streets of London, opening up to the smooth marble-floored entrance of the real Miss Brickett’s: Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries.
Also on CR: Interview with T.A. Willberg (2021)