Eight months ago we set out to find the newest, hottest literary talent in Britain. Together with the publishing house Faber and Faber, we wanted to find a crime fiction writer and publish their first novel. We asked for 6,000 words of a crime novel featuring a female protagonist.
Since then, the carefully crafted early chapters of 364 books landed on our desks.
They were all brilliant. But there could only be one winner… And that was Kate Griffin, 49, from St Albans, the recipient of Stylist’s first book deal and, we believe, an author set for a very big future.
Read an excerpt of the winning book, Kitty Peck And The Music Hall Murders below.
Lady Ginger’s fingers were black. From the flaking tips of her long curling nails to the crinkled skin just visible beneath the clacking jumble of rings, her hands were stained like a coal boy’s.
Not that she’d sully her fingers with anything as menial as a scuttle, you understand. Oh no, Lady Ginger was too grand for that.
She lifted the pipe to her lips again and sucked noisily, all the while watching me with those hooded eyes.
The room was dark and the air smelt like Mrs Conway’s special paint box at The Gaudy.
Tell the truth, it always makes me feel a bit noxious when I clean up Mrs Conway’s dressing table after a show. That ‘lucky’ cologne she uses honks like a fox in a ’fessional. That’s what Lucca says, and he’s from Italy where the Romans are, so he ought to know.
Anyhow, I just stood there fiddling with the frayed cuffs of my best frock, waiting for Lady Ginger to say something.
After a moment she inhaled deeply, took the pipe out of her mouth, closed her eyes and leaned back into the pile of embroidered cushions that passed for furniture. The bangles on her skinny yellow arms jingled as she settled into the nest of silk.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked over at the man standing guard in front of the door, but he didn’t make a move, just kept staring at the bird cage hanging up by the shuttered window.
I took a couple of steps forward and cleared my throat. If the old woman had fallen asleep, perhaps I could wake her up?
Now I was a bit closer I could see her tarry lips – the fine lines etched around her tiny mouth were black, too. It looked like she’d swallowed a spider and it was trying to get out again.
Opium’s a horrible thing. Ma always said it was smoke from the devil’s nostrils and that it could coil you tighter than a hangman’s noose. Not that Joey had taken any notice of her.
I coughed loudly, but still the old lady didn’t budge. I was beginning to think that she might be dead when the parrot went off.
“Pretty girl, pretty girl...”
Lady Ginger’s eyes snapped open and she grinned up at me – her mouth all wet and dark. No teeth as far as I could see. “You are seldom wrong, Jacobin. She’s a pretty piece indeed.”
I was amazed.
Lady Ginger’s voice was at least 100 years younger than the rest of her. All high and fluttery like a girl’s. And posh too – very cultured it was. I’d never been near enough to hear her before. Down at the docks when she visits with her lascar boys there’s always been too much bumping and shouting to hear what she’s saying to them – and, anyway, I’ve kept a distance since Joey. When she comes to The Gaudy – not often, mind – she’s got her special curtained box near the stage with its own staircase and door to the side alley, so we never see her arrive or leave and we never see who’s with her, neither.
“So, you are Kitty Peck?”
Lady Ginger shifted on her pile of cushions and pulled herself up into a sitting position. The loose gown she wore swamped her scrawny frame as she adjusted her legs and crossed them. Her feet were bare and now I saw she even had rings on her gnarly toes.
She reached for her long pipe and began to suck again, all the while staring up at me.
Then she spoke in that odd little voice.
“I had dealings with your brother, Joseph, wasn’t it? Fair like you and handsome with it. Now what became of him, I wonder?”
I didn’t answer. We both knew what had happened to Joey.
“Cat got your tongue, Kitty?” Her long eyes narrowed and she smiled. Then she reached for an ebony writing box next to the cushion pile, the bangles on her arms clacking and jangling as she hauled it onto her lap. Opening the lid so that I couldn’t see inside, she began to rummage.
“Well, I can’t say I blame you for not wanting to talk about him. A bad business that was.”
My belly boiled and I had to fight the urge to say something I’d regret. Instead I stammered, “Joey’s been... gone for two years now, and I miss him every day.”
“Do you now? Miss a thief and murderer? What a loyal little sister you are Kitty Peck.”
Lady Ginger grinned wider, her eyes glinting in the thin candlelight.
I could see her more clearly now. It was the closest I’d ever been to the woman who put the fear of God into half of London, and as I stood there I realised with a shock that she was a faker.
All this time I’d thought she was a Chinawoman, but that long plait, those finger nails, those clothes, those jewels – they were just a costume. Lady Ginger was as English as I was.
“Still, loyalty is a quality I value,” she continued, producing a green leather case no bigger than a matchbox from the depths of the writing box. She flicked open the shagreen lid with one of her long black fingernails and shook three tiny red dice into the palm of her hand.
“Do you know what these are, Miss Peck?”
I shook my head.
“They are the future.” She raised her open palm so that I could see the dice more clearly. Now I looked, these weren’t like the dice played by men at the back of The Gaudy. Instead of the usual dots, the faces were covered with golden patterns.
Lady Ginger closed her fingers and shook her fist. I could hear the dice clicking against her rings.
Then she spat three times on the wooden floorboards next to her cushions and dropped the dice into the triangle formed by the glistening blobs of black saliva.
She stared down for a moment and then she began to chuckle. “Come closer Miss Peck and tell me what you see.”
Now, she’s not a woman to cross. For all I wanted to back out of that stinking room, skiddle down the winding stairs and get as far away from Lady Ginger’s Palace as possible, I didn’t want to rile her.
I shifted uncomfortable like.
Everyone knew that Mrs Conway and Fitzpatrick had a special arrangement and I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of any trouble on that account.
“Mrs Conway is a very popular turn,” I said. “There are Johnnies waiting for her outside every evening and enough flowers are sent to her room to make you think it a second Covent Garden.”
Lady Ginger smiled, but it wasn’t a friendly look. “As I noted, so very loyal, Miss Peck. Show me your legs.”
Next thing I know, she’s reaching across and poking at my skirt with her pipe. I had to hold it up for fear of becoming incendiary. I didn’t want to be a second Lucca.
So, there I was standing with my skirts pulled up to my knees and Lady Ginger staring. I felt my cheeks blush as red as the rouge in Mrs Conway’s paint box and I looked over at the man by the door. He appeared to have his eyes closed, so at least that was something.
“Very elegant,” Lady Ginger said, adding, “Can you dance?”
“I… I’m not sure. I dance for the fun of it, but not like the Gaudy Girls, if that’s what you mean?”
Lady Ginger nodded. “Fitzpatrick tells me you have a voice. Drop your skirts now.”
It was true I loved to sing. Whether I was sewing costumes up in the little room at the back of the stage or clearing glasses and unmentionables from the hall and the boxes, I couldn’t work in silence. Sometimes Lucca calls me Fannella – which, apparently, means linnet in Italian, although I don’t like to be compared to one of those sad little brown birds kept in cages. Cruel, that is.
“Do you have a head for heights?”
Well, that flummoxed me. I’d never really thought about it, but then I remembered the time me and Peggy Worrow were sent up the rope gantry at The Gaudy to drop paper petals over Mrs Conway as she sang about lilacs and bluebells – all got up like a shepherdess she was. Peggy went whiter than a cod fillet and had to be helped down again by three of the hands, while I’d stayed up there for the view.
So I nodded. “Yes, Lady – I think I must have.”
“Well, Kitty Peck, I have made my decision.”
Lady Ginger laid down her pipe and reached to the back of her neck for her plait. She pulled the thick grey snake over her right shoulder and began to twist it. For the second time that afternoon I was struck by her peculiar girlishness – not just the voice, but her mannerisms, too. They wasn’t what you’d expect of an old woman.
“Your brother was a sharp lad. Some might say too sharp for his own good. I wonder if you are more intelligent than he?”
I knew that wasn’t possible. Joseph had been the cleverest person I’ve ever known. He’d had all his letters before he was six and he taught me to read too. He knew about every country in the world and what’s more he could pick up a foreigner’s way of talking as fast as most men could pick a brawl.
I looked down at the floorboards and wrinkled up the material of my skirt in my left hand.
“Fitzpatrick tells me you are a bright little puss. He tells me you have… potential.”
Lady Ginger stopped twiddling her plait and reached out to her writing box again. The candlelight in the room caught the moony glow of the mother-of-pearl pattern on its ebony lid. I still couldn’t see what was inside, but I heard her fingernails scrabble and the bangles clatter.