Escaping through a picture window…
My study has a sliding picture window opening onto a balcony. From my desk I can see the Sierra de Las Nieves in the Province of Málaga, Spain. This was where the Moors of al-Ándalus harvested snow for sherbet and to keep medicines cool. To the right, is the bandalero (bandit) country across which the heroine of my first novel, The Empress Emerald, escapes. To the left, out of sight beyond mauve-shaded mountains, lie the fishing villages that were once prey to the Barbary corsairs featured in The Chosen Man Trilogy. Nowadays the area is called the Costa del Sol. As you may imagine, this window is conducive to creative time travel. If I ignore a nearby road, I can escape the twenty-first century and be back in any epoch I choose.
As various of my novels are historical thrillers, I am fairly practised at getting out of difficult and life-threatening situations. So, even though we’ve had two rounds of Covid house arrest, then been unable to leave our local area for weeks on end, I’ve had a secret escape mechanism right here in my study.
Running away in my fictional experience, however, is rarely straightforward. Despite careful plotting, unexpected situations requiring my characters to literally think on their feet often crop up. In The Empress Emerald, for example, the naïve heroine Davina is forced to use a melon to kill a brigand. (I didn’t plan that to happen but I tested it out: Spanish toadskin melons are conveniently shaped like a rugby ball and seriously tough.) Here is another example from the novel, where what should have been a straightforward transitional scene is complicated by unforeseen circumstances.
As a small child, the anti-hero, Leo Kazan, was abandoned in a Bombay orphanage, where he was selected as an ‘intelligencer’ for the British due to his exceptional language and thieving skills. In 1920 he is sent to Russia. Like his 17th Century ancestor Ludo da Portovenere, The Chosen Man, Leo is a rogue with a heart of gold running a lucrative, private side line in precious gems. In this scene, he is trying to smuggle diamonds out of Moscow for an elderly jeweller. Leninist thugs have tracked Leo to the jeweller’s building. His only way out is across the rooftops, but some unexpected people get in his way.
Grabbing his attaché case, Leo bounded up an elegant, winding staircase two at a time and burst through the door to the attic flat. Ignoring a terrified woman clutching a shawl to her breasts, he danced around the compartmented room, looking for a sky light.
A chair, a table, and up on the roof. He shoved his leather case out first. The tiles were like a playground slide and it nearly hurtled to the street below. Catching it by the handle just in time, he set it more safely on its side. Then, a large man on an unhealthy diet, he clasped the window frame and struggled up after it. Grasping the freezing bricks of a long-cold chimney he cast about him, wondering how the hell he had ever found rooftops fun. It was ten years since his escapade over the roofs and fences of the houses on Malabar Hill – and all that for an emerald. But this was a very different game.
He laughed inwardly at his own absurdities and checked the pink diamond ring tucked into his inside jacket pocket. If he fell four storeys down to the street it might pierce his heart on impact. A suitable irony. If the case fell, they’d know exactly where to find him.
A shot rang out. If he couldn’t see them, surely they couldn’t see him, could they? Another shot pinged off stone. Leo was astonished. Uniforms on surveillance didn’t waste ammunition. Slowly, awkwardly, he rolled onto his stomach and tried to peer into the street below. A uniform was coming out of the building.
He waited. How long before they found the widow’s skylight? How long before he froze into a gargoyle? He looked at his watch, calculating how long before it was completely dark. His mind wandered back to Malabar Hill. That had been a hoot: up and over roofs and garden fences, staying out of reach of snarling, snapping dogs. No chance of getting from one building to another there, not with those huge gardens, but here, yes. He could probably get to the end of Goldman’s street if he moved from chimney to chimney. If he was careful. He had to be careful: the pink diamond would fetch more than a fortune. (…)
Leo peered down again. He couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t see him. Hitching up his heavy overcoat, he tucked his wide trousers into his socks, double-knotting his shoe laces while he was at it. Little by little, on hands and knees, shuffling his case in front of him, he made his way across the steep, wet roof until he hoped he’d gained the next house. A few minutes later, he noted a flatter roof below. If he tied the case to his back with his belt and risked a drainpipe, he might be able to reach it. He pulled off his belt and fastened it through the handle of the leather case then round his doubled-up overcoat as best he could. If they got him now, they might shoot straight into the case. It was a minor comfort. And then, bingo! Shiva and Ganesh and all the sainted Christian saints had come to his rescue. There was another sky-light just a few yards on, and it was open!
Open – on a late September evening in Moscow – why? It was a trap. He edged back the way he’d come and tried to get behind a chimney stack, waited for any sounds, then crawled back to the sky-light and peered in. Four old women were sitting around an empty bottle of vodka and a mah-jong board in enough cigar smoke to fill a Marseilles brothel.
“Evening, ladies. Do excuse me.” Leo pushed the window frame up as far as he could and dropped inelegantly into their midst, up-ending an ashtray and disturbing various Chinese winds in the process.
The women goggled, speechless.
Then he was round the table, through the door and haring downstairs – attaché case banging the back of his legs black and blue – down to what had once been the mansion’s back yard.
“Yes!” A rickety old wheelbarrow, and sacks of coal and, oh, disgusting mouldy potatoes. “Wonderful!”
Half an hour later, a lumbering peasant robed in smelly sacks trundled a wheelbarrow down a busy city street, across the open square in front of the tall portals of Kazansky station, and into the ticket hall.
Apart from these international settings, I have recently been indulging in a certain nostalgia for pre-21st century England and escaping back to my West Country roots in the Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries. Not that this is gentle cosy crime – if you have ever seen a derelict farm (Private Lives) or been on bleak moorland in a tearing wind, which is how Bob Robbins’ new murder enquiry begins in Courting Danger, you’ll understand that. Despite having lived in a number of different countries, and having developed a somewhat Latinised outlook (my husband was a Spanish naval officer), what I see when I escape through my picture window in Málaga is still mostly with an Englishwoman’s eyes.
You can read more about JG Harlond and her books here.