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The New York Times bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
About the Author:
It is 1936, and London is abuzz with gossip about the affair between King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson. Owen Montignac, the handsome and charismatic scion of a wealthy family, is anxiously awaiting the reading of his late uncle’s will. He must pay £50,000 worth of gambling debts by Christmas or he’ll soon find himself six feet under. In his desperation, he discovers that the royal scandal could provide the means for profit . . . and for murder.
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John Boyne is the author of Crippen, The Thief of Time, and the New York Times and internationally bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Boyne won two Irish Book Awards for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has recently been made into a Miramax feature film, and his novels have been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives with his partner in Dublin.
Many years earlier, when he was a lieutenant in the army stationed just outside Paris, Charles Richards had come across a young recruit, a boy of about eighteen years of age, sitting alone on his bunk in the mess with his head held in his hands, weeping silently. After a brief interrogation it turned out that the boy missed his family and home and had never wanted to join the army in the first place but had been forced into it by his ex-serviceman father. The thought of another early morning call, followed by a twenty-mile march over rough terrain, all the time ducking enemy fire, had reduced him to an emotional wreck.
‘Stand up,’ said Richards, gesturing the boy to his feet with his finger as he took off the heavy leather gloves he was wearing. The boy stood. ‘What’s your name, boy?’ he asked.
‘William Lacey, sir,’ he replied, wiping his eyes and unable to look the officer directly in the face. ‘Bill.’
Richards had then gripped his glove tightly by the fingers and slapped the boy about the face with it twice, once on the left cheek and once on the right, leaving a sudden explosion of red bursting out on his otherwise pale skin. ‘Soldiers,’ he said to the stunned conscript, ‘do not cry. Ever.’
It was a matter of some astonishment to him then that sitting here in the eighth row of a private chapel in Westminster Abbey on a bright June morning in 1936, he discovered a spring of tears itching to break forth from behind his own eyes as Owen Montignac reached the conclusion of the eulogy for his late uncle, Peter, a man who Richards had never particularly liked, a fellow he in fact considered to be little more than a rogue and a charlatan. He had attended many funerals in his life and now, at his advanced age, he was depressed to note how the intervals between them were becoming shorter and shorter. Still, he had never heard a son express his feelings for a departed pater, let alone listened to a nephew convey his sorrow for a lost uncle, in quite so eloquent and moving terms as Owen Montignac just had.
‘Damn fine,’ he muttered under his breath as Montignac returned to the front pew where Richards could still make out the shock of his extraordinary white hair in the distance. He casually pressed the tip of an index finger to the corner of his eye to stem any approaching tide. ‘Damn fine speech.’
Later, with the scent of freshly turned soil assaulting his senses, he stood only a few feet away from the open grave as the pallbearers walked slowly towards its hungry mouth and found his eyes searching the crowd of gathered mourners for Montignac’s face, an unexpected urge overcoming him that he would like to attract the younger man’s attention and offer silent support.
It was only as the coffin was lowered down into the ground that he realized that his quarry was acting as a pallbearer himself. The sight of the handsome young man easing his uncle’s body into the damp earth was almost too much for him and he had to swallow hard and cough to maintain his composure. He reached out to his right and took his wife’s hand in his own. The surprise of her husband’s rare touch, coupled with the shock of the gentle, deliberately affectionate squeeze, was almost too much for Katherine Richards, who steadied herself before turning to smile at him.
Fifteen feet away and always prone to emotional displays, Margaret Richmond held a handkerchief to her face and allowed the contents of her streaming eyes to pour into it, her body shaking with grief as her employer of twenty-eight years was laid to rest. Beside her, Peter’s daughter Stella stood erect and tranquil, her pale face unstreaked by tears. She seemed pinched, however, as if the effort that she was making not to cry was almost enough to make her faint instead.
It was to the side of these two women, his former nanny and his cousin, that Owen Montignac automatically stepped while the priest delivered the final benediction, and it was Stella’s arm that he took when it was over and that moment arrived when the mourners began to shuffle awkwardly away, wondering whether they should return to their cars or stand in the graveyard until the immediate family had left, staring at the names and dates on the gravestones and looking out for those who died tragically young or ruthlessly old.
The rain which had held off from the moment they had entered the church appeared suddenly and thunderously now and within a few minutes the graveyard was empty, save for the two groundskeepers who appeared as if by magic from behind some nearby trees and began to fill in the grave while they chatted to each other about the weekend’s football results and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. The air in the drawing room had begun to grow thick with cigar smoke.
About sixty people had been invited back to Leyville, the main Montignac residence where Owen, Stella and Andrew had grown up together, and they were steadily working their way around the ground floor of the formal east wing, which was the designated area for the wake. Although the family had not been so crass as to place a velvet rope across the staircase, or to lock the door which opened on to the corridor towards the more convivial west wing where the dining room and the china were kept and where Peter Montignac had sat in his ancient armchair night after night straining to listen to the wireless, it was understood by all that there were only a few rooms into which it was appropriate to wander.
Almost all the guests had homes like this and almost all had buried parents or spouses and were able to recognize the etiquette of the moment.
A group of five dark-suited men, three of whom wore extravagant and competitive moustaches, stood underneath the portrait of a dead Montignac who had lived two hundred and fifty years earlier, the same one who had begun the purchase of land around London which had led to his family’s almost incomparable wealth. By coincidence their five wives were gathered on a small settee and two armchairs on the other side of the room, beside the portrait of the dead Montignac’s wife, of whom little was known and even less was cared. The family, after all, traced their lineage through the male line, the Williams, the Henrys and the Edmunds, and concerned themselves little with that helpful breed of mothers who assisted their regeneration.
The servants glided through the room, their presence felt but their persons ignored; young girls bringing tea to the ladies, their male counterparts refreshing whiskies for the men. Wine was introduced.
‘I’m not saying it wasn’t moving,’ muttered one guest to another as they stood by the fireplace. ‘I just don’t care for it as a new fad, that’s all.’
‘Well I’m not so sure it is a fad,’ replied his companion. ‘It’s been happening for thousands of years. Think of Mark Antony extolling the virtues of Caesar on the steps of the Capitol.’
‘Yes, but hadn’t he just murdered him?’
‘No, Mark Antony wasn’t one of the conspirators. He came to collect the body on the steps of the Senate after the deed was done. You recall, Mark Antony who, though he had no hand in his death, shall receive the benefit of his dying. Somewhat appropriate under the circumstances, don’t you think?’
A third joined them, a Mrs Peters who always enjoyed creating controversy by strolling up to groups of men and insisting on taking part in their conversation. (Her husband had died some years earlier and her brother lived in India so there was no one to control her; besides, she had money.) ‘What are you men gossiping about?’ she asked, liberating a glass of whisky from a tray as a young servant glided past her.
‘Alfie says it’s a fad,’ said the second man. ‘I say not.’
‘What’s a fad?’
‘This new business. At funerals.’
‘Well what do you mean?’ asked Mrs Peters. ‘I’m not following you.’
‘You know,’ said the man. ‘Eulogies and the like. Pretty speeches. Children lamenting their parents and what not.’
‘Or uncles,’ said Mrs Peters. ‘If it’s Owen’s speech you’re referring to.’
‘Or uncles,’ admitted Alfie. ‘The whole emotional mess of it. I’m against it, that’s all.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ said Mrs Peters, frustrated at the idiocy of men, how they had no problem fighting wars but baulked at the idea of fighting back a few tears. ‘It’s a funeral after all. If a boy can’t show a little emotion at his father’s funeral, well when can he?’
‘Yes, but Peter wasn’t Owen’s father, was he?’ pointed out Alfie.
‘No, but he was the closest thing he had to one.’
‘Perfectly understandable, if you ask me,’ said the second man.
‘I’m not criticizing him,’ said Alfie quickly, anxious not to be seen to be immune to the grief of a wealthy young man such as Owen Montignac who, after all, had just inherited one of the largest estates in England and was therefore not a man to alienate oneself from. ‘I feel for the fellow, I really do. I just don’t see why he needs to put on such a show for the whole world to see, that’s all. Keep it inside, that’s for the best. Nobody likes to see such a naked parade of emotions on display.’
‘What a miserable childhood you must have had,’ said Mrs Peters with a smile.
‘Well I fail to see what relevance that has to anything,’ said Alfie, standing to his full height, suspecting an insult.
‘Isn’t it outrageous the way the servants automatically hand tea to the ladies and whisky to the men?’ asked Mrs Peters, already bored by the conversation and desiring a change of subject to something a little more risqué. ‘I intend to leave strict instructions in my will that everyone must get merry at my funeral and do embarrassing things, boys and girls alike. If they don’t then I’ll come back to haunt them and see how they like that.’ Copyright © 2006 by John Boyne. All rights reserved.
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