#4: The Ashworth Mysteries

Introduction

I didn’t know much when I decided to write a mystery novel years ago. Although I could dissect a novel for discussion in my literature classes, talking about one and putting one together are different. I had a fuzzy plot in mind of a story laid in central Virginia, where I was happily teaching lit courses and riding horses. But having taught so long, I did know one thing: I wanted my novel to delight and instruct. I grew up reading all kinds of novels. In high school I worked at a drug store. The druggist and proprietor Mr. B. had revolving racks of paperbacks on one of his counters and magazines on a large rack. He gave me permission to read anything I wanted to when there were no customers. Many of the novels were mysteries, and I gobbled them all up, every time the salesman came in and put fresh whodunits in.

I was pretty good at guessing the murderers. But for my novel, many years of studying lit and riding horses later, this would not be enough. I wanted to write a serious story with mainly serious subject matter, enlivened by character development, romance but realistic and not silly, a realistic setting in the Virginia I loved for its beauty and historical association, and a heroic woman as the protagonist. Connie Holt. Having been trained in three graduate schools to examine literature for its two goals, to delight and to instruct, I applied those to my book. I had learned by watching students for many years that if a piece of literature is powerful enough, they will delight in the story, but can also learn something the author is trying to get across, usually in the theme or themes of the novel. In modern writing, of course, a bald, hit-you-on-the-head statement of a theme is not acceptable. But is can be dug out in class discussion, which was my favorite side of teaching. In this case, I wanted my students to realize that horses were being treated very badly. As I worked on the novel, I tried to keep my two principles in mind. These two goals are often associated to teaching literature. I saw no reason why mystery novels cannot be classified as literature, although some stuffy academic still scoff.

How does this work? the reader is delighted by the story, the plot, the characters, the description, sometimes the humor, and the romance in the novel, but at the same time, finds the writer subtly teaching him something about the world the writer has observed. The first novel was Their Proud Hooves.

I have worked toward delighting and instructing readers ever since: in my steeple chasing novel, He Trots the Air, my soring novel, Cross of Gold Road, and now in The Ashworth Mysteries.

What would the newest book be about? It so happened that I had been reading a variety of books in the run-up to actually starting the novel. I had been thinking about a mystery in my own family long ago. I have a picture of a long-ago uncle. What my mother told me about his fate piqued my interest. He was called the handsomest man in his small town, said my mother. Why and how did he die? This led me to thinking about why families hold secrets so tightly in their hearts and refuse to divulge them until the real story becomes twisted an ugly when it’s finally learned. At the same time, I wanted to try a novel that treated events in the Virginia area going back over one hundred years. Connie Holt is set to researching this period in Virginia history. And thinking of the historical element, I was further influenced by David McCullough’s fine book The Greater Journey, which treats the subject of Americans in Paris from 1830 to 1900. I didn’t want to forget horses and their owners who have been suffering from the economic problems in the United States recently that affect horse communities. Out of this stew of ideas and motivations came The Ashworth Mysteries.

Summary of The Ashworth Mysteries

The Ashworth Mysteries is the story of a horrible year at the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency and McCutcheon Farm. People who have read the previous three Connie Holt novels set in Bedford, Virginia, are familiar with the idyllic settings of the McCutcheon businesses whose boss always seems to succeed when his domain is threatened.  This story starts with a very bad riding accident suffered by Pam McCutcheon and the gradual realization by a depressed Cary that his businesses are in serious trouble. In light of the many economic problems that confront those in the United States who want to live a horse-centered life but cannot do it now, the McCutcheons will have to change their way of life and the way they do business. It is by no means clear that they can revamp their lives to meet the demands of American life in the modern world. Throughout the novel move people and horses readers know and care about.

Very much on the minds of Cary and Pam is an unusual mystery which surrounds Pam’s rather  glamorous Aunt Pamela Ashworth, a beautiful woman who lives in luxury in Ashworth House in Charlottesville. She is old and ill, and this year the McCutcheons would have looked into the history of the Virginia Ashworths and how this fact affects Pam, whose Aunt Pamela is the only family she has ever known. There are large dark holes in the Ashworth story, not the least of is, who is Pam McCutcheon? Who were her parents? Is the mythology surrounding the family founded on facts? Connie Holt is asked to investigate this history. During most of the novel, she will live in Ashworth House, delving into old facts and fiction. She discovers many things about the Ashworths, including much more about Pam’s identity. Some of what she discovers might well be kept secret forever; secrets this old should never see the light of day many people believe. But it is up to the people involved, in this case, the Ashworths and the McCutcheons, to decide on the fate of the sensitive information. Connie is responsible for furnishing the information, but will not have the highly ethical decision about the fate of the uncovered secrets.

Excerpt

Chapter One
Early April
McCutcheon Farm

It was Pam McCutcheon’s shocking riding accident that started off the serious chain of events that year.
Pam got hurt on a quiet Friday afternoon on one of the jumps at Cary’s and her farm in Bedford County, Virginia. The McCutcheon home, office, and farm were off US 221. Visitors drove down a long entrance road that wound through thick, aromatic woods. If they were going to Otter Hill, where Cary lived with his wife in their 1840 brick mansion, they would take the first turnoff on the left to the circular parking area in front of the gracious home. Clients of the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency, located in a brick-and-frame addition in the back, would continue down the road and take the second entrance to the left. The rest of the property was studded with all the “gear and tackle and trim” it took to run a modern horse farm. On this bad day, horses, chiefly thoroughbreds, grazed peacefully under a sun that was still only moderately warm.
For some reason known only to the Fates, most of the office and barn people were gone when the accident happened. Cary and Gypsy Black, his secretary, were still present in their respective Agency offices, Cary musing over financial reverses that were starting to alarm him and Gyp finishing up a boring computer document.
Pam McCutcheon was at one of the elegant jumps Cary had designed for her so she could instruct students in the art of jumping horses. Today eleven-year-old Mickey Mallory was listening carefully as she explained getting the horse ready to start the approach to a jump. He had nodded as she went over the instructions. He hadn’t jumped yet but Pam was known in Central Virginia as a teacher who could be trusted to train children well. She was an important part of Cary’s business.
Pam mounted her beloved bay mare, Madrigal. Mickey watched as his teacher rode slowly toward the fence. As she did every instruction day, she rode tall and straight and still. Pam had told her student that a lot of training went into jumping. Her horse had early displayed a tendency to start the approach to jumping a fence at a time Madrigal thought appropriate. There had been quite a few breakdowns: starting the approach at the wrong time, coming up short at the jump and unable to complete it, deciding not to jump at the fence when she did start the approach correctly. Pam patiently corrected the faults and practiced over and over again until the horse obeyed her command every time, thus jumping smoothly and naturally.
Mickey waited confidently for that moment when the horse would make the leap, but something awful happened then. His eyes grew large with fear when he saw Madrigal sail over the jump, assume the correct position in the air, but come down awkwardly on the turf and trip and fall on her side. Pam, dropping the reins as a result of her horse’s fall, was thrown some twenty feet. She must have been conscious for a few seconds because Mickey clearly saw her try to rise. But she couldn’t and so fell back on the turf, unconscious. Mickey noticed that his teacher’s face was dead white, her eyes closed. He realized she could be dead. He’d seen a dead person once, his Grandma Mallory. Madrigal continued to struggle feebly, but couldn’t get to her feet.

Reader Responses

From a reader in Tennessee who has just started the whole series and is liking it very much.

“Reading your first novel of “Connie” and I’m at the point of Connie and Cary approaching the two ‘brokers’. Fascinating book, and can’t wait to get to book no. 2, yet lingering on book 1 because I love it so much.”

From a reader in Virginia:

“I enjoyed reading it! I’ve never written a novella–they must be terribly hard to write. I realize how frustrating it must be to have to get so much info into so few words! I think you did a good job!”

From a reader in Virginia:

“I love reading your books because of the very unexpected ends to the plots and the local geography! I can always place myself where the events occur.”

From a reader in New York:

“Your latest really was happy reading as you wished. It was fascinating to have the life of Aunt Pamela revealed. That revelation has the universality that I find so touching especially to us women. How this has played out millions upon millions of times throughout the ages…In Janey’s day and age [women in this situation] would have to bear shame because she wasn’t a “Mrs.” You told it so beautifully that what could have been a tragic story was one of great caring and joy. Thank you for a lovely read.”

From a reader in Tennessee

“Follow the trail with Connie Holt as she lures us into her new investigation. A mystery unlike any she has pursued in her career as an equine insurance investigator with the firm of Cary and Pamela McCutcheon. One by one Connie explores the little mysteries, slowly explained, that Pamela Ashworth, her new friend, has questioned about her own past. By dropping puzzling crumbs, Connie leads us to the conclusion of a delightful mystery.”

From a reader in Georgia

“The Ashworth Mysteries is the 4th volume of the Connie Holt equestrian themed mystery series by Marilyn M. Fisher, following Their Proud Hoofs, He Trots the Air, and Cross of Gold Road. The Ashworth Mysteries unfolds in the Central Virginia setting of the previous three books and thrusts equine insurance investigator Connie Holt into the middle of a long held family secret. One of the pleasures of reading Fisher’s novels is learning more about the familiar, believable, well rounded characters of Holt and her employer Cary McCutcheon, and his wife Pam, and in this entry, Pam’s Aunt Pamela. Suspenseful, well plotted, and fast moving! I’m looking forward to the next Connie Holt mystery!”