Laura E Goodin’s first novel After the Bloodwood Staff is one of the most enjoyable reads I have ever encountered in quite a long and industrious reading career.
I’m a devotee of vintage adventure fiction and, let’s face it, adventure underpins many stories that are classified into other genres.
After the Bloodwood Staff is a treat. It’s witty and engaging, with cracking characters, and it takes the genre by the scruff of the neck and upends it with some panache.
If you love the kind of mystery, danger and excitement that infuses Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, the Murdoch Mysteries, and Shakespeare & Hathaway, you will adore Laura’s books.*
In today’s Last Word of the Week, I have an early Christmas present for you: an extract from the novel. Meet two of my favourite all-time characters: the sedentary, impractical Hoyle and the irritable, no-nonsense Sybil.
And if you’re looking for a different kind of present for that special reader in your life, follow the links. It’s not too late!
After the Bloodwood Staff by Laura E Goodin
Chapter 1: In Which Hoyle Meets an Adventurer
The bookstore was a barn of a place. Hoyle thought it might have been an actual barn at one point, judging from the smell that underlay the scents of musty paper, old leather, and expensive coffee. He’d driven an hour from the DC suburbs to get here; a post on his favorite adventure-fiction forum had recommended it as a good source for overlooked authors. And he needed a change of scene. The pile of what looked like sawdust pellets that he’d found in a corner of the garage last week had filled him with a vague but relentless dread that somewhere in his house lurked a brood of termites. He’d been trying to get the nerve up to phone somebody for days. The dread had swooped again as soon as he had woken up. But it was Sunday. Can’t do anything about it today, he had thought almost jauntily. The bookstore would be the ideal distraction.
He could feel his mood lifting as he wandered along the first aisle, turning from dull worry to the bright eagerness of the hunt. He knew the look of the books he wanted; he almost didn’t have to read the spines anymore.
Oh, that one looked about right. He reached, and his hand was knocked aside by a painful swat.
“I saw it first,” snapped the woman who’d hit him. Her was hair slightly grey, like his. She was significantly shorter, but stocky enough to put a bit of sting in the swat.
“What the hell?” he cried. But she was already striding toward the cash register.
Hoyle felt a wave of loss and frustration. He rushed to the register. “Hey,” he called to the woman as she finished paying and carefully placed the book in her tote bag. “Hey, wait.” She gave him an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Please,” he said. He caught up to her. “Please. Just let me see what it was. I didn’t even get a chance …”
She hesitated, then drew the book out. After the Bloodwood Staff, by C.G. Ingraham. The cover was a faded mustard color, the title printed in an enticing Art Nouveau font. Without thinking, he ran one finger gently across the cover, feeling the rough cloth, and the slightly smoother lines of the title. The woman did not pull the book away.
“Ingraham,” murmured Hoyle. “Never heard of this one.”
“Fabulous stuff,” she said. “He was a bit of a maverick. Not many of them wrote about Australia. It was all Africa this and South America that and the South Sea Islands the other. I’ve been looking for this one forever.” She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I was so rude.”
“That’s okay,” he said. On an impulse, he added, “Coffee?”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Thanks,” she said.
Hoyle and the woman placed their orders at the cafe counter and looked for a table.
“There,” Hoyle said. “You go grab it.”
Once he had the coffees, he twisted and shuffled through the chairs, holding the coffees at head height to keep his elbows safe from jostling. He had an uncomfortable feeling that raising his arms like this made him look paunchy. When he got to the table, he set the coffees down and sat.
“I’m Hoyle,” he said.
“What’s your first name?”
“That is my first name.”
“Your parents named you Hoyle?”
“Well, what’s your name?”
They sipped, not quite companionably. She kept glancing at him, then away, as if she were expecting something from him.
“So, um, you read a lot of adventure?” he ventured at last. Oh, God, what a stupid thing to say.
“Since I was little,” she said. “My grandfather got me started on one of Mundy’s novels.”
“King, of the Khyber Rifles?”
She sat back, astonished. “How did you guess?”
Hoyle shrugged, feeling bashful. “It’s my favorite of his, that’s all. Thought maybe your grandfather might have felt the same.”
“What’s your favorite Conan Doyle?”
“I confess it’s the Brigadier Gerard stories.”
“Oh, don’t be embarrassed. Just because they’re obscure, doesn’t mean they’re not good.”
On the strength of this, he said, “Tell me about Ingraham.”
Sybil leant forward, suddenly eager. “It’s such a sad story. He spent years of his life as a sort of groupie of Conan Doyle—followed him around from one speaking engagement to another, never getting up the courage to introduce himself or even write Conan Doyle a letter. He did write Haggard once, in 1899—at least, Haggard’s reply was found in Ingraham’s papers, although Haggard seems to have thrown out Ingraham’s letter. Typical.”
“What did Haggard say?”
Sybil closed her eyes. “‘My dear sir, your suggestion is entirely untenable—indeed, bordering on the insane—and I trust you will seek out competent assistance. Please do not contact me or anyone associated with me again.'” She opened her eyes and took a sip of coffee. “That was all. What in the world could Ingraham have suggested? I’ve been reading his books for clues. He was prolific, too—nearly thirty-five by the time he died. He starved himself to death. He’d become convinced that an evil parasite lived in his liver and the only way to kill it before it propagated was to starve it—and, by necessity, himself.”
“Wow,” said Hoyle, feeling queasy.
“Oh, yes, you can look up the case study.”
“Was he English?”
“No, American, believe it or not.”
“I take it you’re doing a PhD on him or something?”
She blinked. “Oh, no. No.”
“But you know so much about him.”
“It’s a mystery, that’s all,” she said, suddenly irritable. “I want to know what his suggestion was.”
“Ah,” he said.
“That’s why I needed this book. It’s one of the last three I didn’t have. I’d checked out online sellers, everything. When I saw you reaching for it … sorry.”
“Will it help make up for it if I let you in on a secret?”
“Really, it’s okay—”
She lowered her voice. “There is evidence that Ingraham travelled to Australia in the 1890s.” She sat back with an air of having given him something for which he should be very grateful.
“Wow,” he said again, somewhat more weakly.
She frowned. “Of course, wow. You … don’t get the connection?”
“Nope.” He started drinking his coffee as quickly as he could.
“His letter to Haggard was written in 1899.”
“Ugh! I’m glad I did nab Bloodwood, it would have been wasted on you. He’d found something in Australia and he wanted to mount a second expedition.”
Something in her voice made Hoyle say, “Whatever it was can’t possibly be there now. It’s been, what, over a hundred years?”
“Do you think I should go and find out? Or that I shouldn’t?”
“Well, it’s none of my business, is it?”
“Because if you’re thinking that I’m just a middle-aged woman who should stay home with her cats and her book club for a couple of decades until it’s time to go into a hospice and die, then you can just think again.”
“No! No, of course not, no, sorry.” The silence descended again. She finished her coffee and stood up.
Hoyle stood as well. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you.”
“Oh, no it hasn’t. Don’t patronize me. Oh, and thanks for the coffee.” He watched her go, then went back to the shelves. There was an unpleasant, dogged feel to his browsing now, but it was not entirely fruitless: he found a couple of Talbot Mundys he’d been looking for, and, over in the kids’ section, a copy of Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. He bought it, even though he had three copies already; there were nephews and nieces, and Christmas was less than two months away. The oldest of them was almost too old now for the book, and, to be frank, too interested in black nail polish, but maybe there was still time to instill a love of adventure.
Not that Hoyle himself had ever been on an adventure. In fact, he’d devoted a fair bit of effort over the years to arranging a calm life. A job that suited him, if it didn’t inspire him. A few friends, whom he saw at comfortable intervals. His sisters’ kids, when he wanted someone to give something to. The thought of trudging through a jungle somewhere, picking leeches off his privates and drinking blood from a cut on the neck of his packhorse to stay alive …
Sybil, though—she seemed raring to go. Maybe she would go to Australia, find Ingraham’s secret—or something else entirely. A thousand possibilities, straight out of a thousand musty books with frayed and mottled covers.
He drove home past the endless rows of bland, northern Virginia strip malls and office buildings, fast-food places and office-supply stores. What kind of adventures could he have here? Finding the best price on red peppers at the supermarket? Crossing the street to avoid a group of sullen teenagers?
He pulled into his driveway, got out of his car, and went inside. Sunday afternoons were for reading. But today he couldn’t settle in. Tea, then doing the breakfast dishes, then checking email, then more tea, then filing a few bills, then a walk to the convenience store for some milk, then more tea. After each task, he tried again to engross himself in one of the books he’d just bought. Each time, he was overwhelmed by the need to walk, to straighten, to do. He kept finding reasons to think of Australia.
Trailer for ATBS: https://vimeo.com/192767816
*I recommend Laura’s second novel, Mud and Glass, for anyone who has ever darkened the portals of an institute of higher education, or loves cookies. Or both. Especially both.
Trailer for Mud and Glass: https://vimeo.com/215929002