The last thing Lady Lucy Revelstoke—the endearing protagonist of Melodie Campbell's madcap historical mystery novel The Merry Widow Murders (Cormorant Books)—needs is anyone prying into her past.
The eclectic young widow of a British lord, Lucy's past isn't quite as squeaky clean as she needs her aristocratic friends and relatives to believe. If they knew she was in fact the daughter of a Canadian mob boss, her entire future would be in jeopardy. So when her voyage on a state-of-the-art ocean liner is interrupted by the presence of a dead body in her stateroom, the stakes are as high as it gets for Lucy to dispose of the body before anyone can know about her past coming back to haunt her – if that is indeed what is happening. When things go wrong, Lucy's situation goes from bad to worse, and the only way to stay ahead of a scandal is to solve the case herself before anyone can connect her to the corpse.
It's a delightful premise anchored (no pun intended) in a winsome and winning leading lady, with the vibrant 1920s backdrop serving as an absolute confectionary for readers through Campbell's witty, balanced prose. Campbell has honed her voice in an astonishing sixteen novels, and her comedic timing and memorable cast of characters make The Merry Widow Murders a spectacular addition to her library.
We're sharing an exclusive excerpt here today, courtesy of Cormorant Books, in which we see Lucy discover the inconvenient corpse and do some seriously quick thinking.
Excerpt from The Merry Widow Murders by Melodie Campbell:
I spun around and watched helplessly as the scarf disappeared into the froth behind us.
“Making a sacrifice to Neptune, are you? Always figured you for a heathen,” said Tony. “Don’t worry. When we get to London, I’ll buy you a new one.”
“You can’t,” I said sadly. “It was one of a kind.” Blast, but this was annoying.
“A portent of things to come?” said Tony. “Lucy Revelstoke swept off her feet?”
“As long as I don’t end up in the drink,” I said. I forced myself to unclench my hand from around the rail. It was irritating, but I could afford to replace it a hundred times over now. “Speaking of which. Cocktails beckon. Come on. We should get ready for dinner. Walk me back to my cabin, Tony.” I pushed off from the rail and gave a cheery nod to Vera Horner. Her eyes went wide as I passed.
The Victoriana was the latest ship in the Empire line. Sleek and fast, she was a step up from the earlier models of the Titanic era. Huge improvements had been made in safety as well as speed.
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My cabin was on the promenade deck where we walked, but on the other side of the ship. We had to pass through the grand foyer to reach it. Inside the ship, décor was firmly art deco, clean and modern, shunning the excesses of the belle epoch. Instead of elaborate nature motifs, the lines were geometric, in some cases with a subtle ancient Egyptian graphic effect. Like so many, the investors in the Empire line were taken with the recent excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Egyptian motifs were all the rage.
Decoration might have been simpler now, but the first-class section was still a marvel in luxury. Lighting on board, particularly, had been greatly improved since the turn of the century. We turned down one of those lighted corridors, nodding to other passengers as we went. My cabin was partway down to the left. I put my key in the lock. The door pushed open before I could turn the handle.
“That’s strange,” I said. “It didn’t click.”
“Maybe you forgot to lock it?” said Tony.
Not likely, I thought to myself. I was careful to lock up all possessions. For good reason, I was now cautious.
Tony seemed to sense my hesitation. “Let me go first,” he said.
I was glad of his larger frame and chivalry. He pushed the wooden door all the way open and stepped in, stopping just inside. “Bugger,” he said under his breath.
I moved quickly to his side.
The cabin was not as I had left it. Drawers had been dumped out. Their contents were strewn across the floor. The bed had been stripped and the mattress turned over. And something had been added.
“Jesus Murphy,” I croaked.
On the cabin floor, next to the bed, lay a man. He looked vaguely familiar, and not in a good way. His black hair was slicked back, and his suit was New York dandy. But it could have done without the dagger through the chest.
“Good gad, Lucy,” said Tony. “Don’t go any closer.” He threw an arm up in front of me to block the way. “Who the devil did this?”
I stared down at the body. “Not me, darling. And if I had, it wouldn’t be this way.”
“Sonofabitch,” said my maid, Elf. She leaned in from the doorway behind us. “Who is that?”
“Shut the door behind you,” I ordered.
Elf — full name Elfreda — did as told, for possibly the very first time in her life. She came up beside me and peered down at the body.
“Know him?” I asked.
I glanced over to assess her visage. Everything Elf thought showed up on her face. It wasn’t a particularly good quality for a servant to have. Mind you, calling her a servant was a trifle optimistic.
She barely came up to my shoulder, but that didn’t seem to matter. A few of my would-be suitors had shrunk under her withering gaze, never to return to our townhouse in London. Which was probably to their advantage, as Elf had other, more painful ways of removing unwanted pests.
Which might explain why I was having uneasy thoughts about the man on the floor. Could this be someone from Elf’s past?
“Why wouldn’t you have done it this way?” asked a male voice.
Good lord! I’d forgotten Tony was there.
Elf answered for me. “Ruin a perfectly good gown, stabbing someone. Blood spray goes all over you.”
Tony stared at her. “Yes, well... there is that.” He appeared to be choking back a laugh. Or maybe he was just choking.
Elf moved closer to the body. “Hard-boiled, fer sure. Looks like a torpedo to me.”
“A what?” asked Tony.
And here’s where I had to make a decision. Could I trust Tony? I needed to take control of the situation. Bugger. That meant coming clean to a certain extent. I’d have to trust him.
“A hired gun,” I explained.
“How do you...” He stopped before finishing the sentence. “Should you be doing that?”
Elf had dropped to the floor. Both hands were checking the body for a wallet. “How else are we gonna find out who is this guy?”
I shrugged. “She has a point.”
“No wallet.” Elf sprang upright. “So whatcha wanna do?”
“Try for a tailor mark?” I suggested.
“Now wait a minute,” said Tony. “Shouldn’t we be leaving this for the authorities?” He drove a shaky hand through his hair. Elf and I exchanged a look. She got my message and stood up.
I turned to Tony. “Darling, I know you didn’t do this. But the authorities won’t.”
“Me?” Tony said, aghast. “Why should they think I did it?”
Elf shrugged. “On account of yer war record. Lot of kills. Sweet on her ladyship. Plus — you discovered the body. Probably go down for self-defence. Caught the burglar in the act. We could play it that way. Whatcha think, Luce?”
I glanced quickly at Tony to see if he’d noticed the slip. Maids did not usually call their employers by their first name, let alone a nickname.
“Or,” said Elf, “we could make the problem go away.” She glanced at me. “Pretend it never happened.”
“Possible,” I said coolly. “There are other options, being as we’re here and not on land.”
“What?” said Tony.
“But I really do want to find out who he is. Check for the tailor mark, Elf. We can make subtle inquiries after we reach port.”
“Sure thing,” said Elf. She dropped to the floor again.
And shoes, I thought to myself. We should check manufacturer, style number, and size. That might be the quickest way to identify him. I was thinking fast. What a mess. The last thing I needed was a dead man in my cabin. It brought to mind certain questions, like who on earth could be behind this? Was it a coincidence they’d picked my cabin to drop a body? And how concerned should I be about my own safety?
I’d feel a lot better if I could find out who the poor fellow was.
Excerpt from The Merry Widow Murders by Melodie Campbell. Published by Cormorant Books. Copyright © Melodie Campbell, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
Called the “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun, Melodie Campbell was also named the “Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake” by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Winner of ten awards, including The Derringer (US) and the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence, she has multiple bestsellers, and was featured in USA Today. Her publications include over one hundred comedy credits, sixteen novels, and sixty short stories, but she’s best known for The Goddaughter mob caper series. Campbell lives in Burlington, Ontario.