For readers of The True Story of Maddie Bright, The Woman in the Green Dress and The Birdman’s Wife comes this atmospheric and richly detailed Australian historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author.
Read an excerpt then read Tea’s answers to The 5 Big Questions
Miss Elizabeth Quinn is something of an institution in Maitland Town. For longer than anyone could remember she and her brother, businessman Michael, have lived in the impressive two-storey stone house next to the church. When she is discovered cowering in the corner of the exhibition gallery at the Technical College the entire town knows something strange has come to pass.
Was it the prehistoric remains or perhaps the taxidermy exhibition that had reduced the whale-boned encased pillar of society to a quivering mess? Or is there something odd about a striking painting on loan from the National Gallery?
Mathematical savant Jane Piper is determined to find out. Deposited on the doorstep of the local orphanage as a baby, she owes her life and education to the Quinns’ philanthropic ventures and Elizabeth has no one else to turn to.
As the past and the present converge, Elizabeth’s grip on reality loosens. Can Jane, with her logical brain and penchant for puzzles, unravel Elizabeth’s story before it is too late?
Ranging from the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, the bucolic English countryside to the charm of Maitland Town, this compelling historical mystery in the company of an eccentric and original heroine is rich with atmosphere and detail.
Excerpt from The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper
Maitland Town, Australia, 1906
The bell rang late. Not until after seven-eighteen. It didn’t bode well.
Jane scrambled out of bed, clambered into her Sunday best and wrangled her hateful lisle stockings up above her knees. Sister Mary Ann wasn’t one for patience. ‘Before breakfast,’ she’d said.
‘What’re you galloping around for—you’re not going to miss out. It’s Sunday. Wine and wafers first.’ Lydia Lie-All-You-Like Lewis rolled over and buried her head under her pillow.
‘She wants me downstairs.’ Leaving her unmade bed, Jane clattered down the twenty-nine timber stairs to the exact spot where Sister Mary Ann stood waiting, her black habit flapping like a bedraggled crow.
For the first time in living memory Jane had a clear conscience, although she’d known from the moment the bell rang the day wouldn’t go well. Three minutes and twenty-four seconds could make all the difference.
Sister Mary Ann gestured to the bottle-green door across the landing. ‘Don’t speak until you’re spoken to and mind your manners.’
Encouraged by a hefty shove between her shoulder blades, Jane catapulted into the room.
A man sat at the desk, head bent, studying a piece of paper. Did don’t speak until you’re spoken to and mind your manners mean don’t move, don’t close the door? She hadn’t a clue. Wouldn’t it be manners to invite a girl in, especially after you’d demanded her presence before communion?
He lifted his head, and eyes, deep and dark, drilled into her. ‘Come in! Come in! Don’t be hanging around like a hover-fly.’ The Irish brogue came as a bit of a surprise. He didn’t sound anywhere near as fierce as he looked.
She ran her tongue over her lips and tried to speak but nothing wanted to come out. Not a single word. Jane was never stuck for words. Not ever. Not that she could remember. The thick carpet cushioned her feet as she took a step into the room and closed the door behind her.
‘Sit down.’ He pointed across the desk to the chair opposite, his unsettling gaze fixed on her. If she sat down she’d be lucky to be able to see over the top of the desk.
Without raising her eyes from the tips of her boots she mumbled, ‘I’ll stand.’
‘Very well, Jane.’
Holy heck! He knew her name. Who was he?
‘The name’s Michael, Michael Quinn.’
Michael Quinn! She’d seen that name, seen it on the big polished board in the hallway along with the names of all the governors and other important people in town. He was nothing like she imagined. The creases around his eyes made it look like he did a lot of smiling and his voice held more than an echo of Ireland, a bit like Mrs O’Rourke in the laundry but deeper, richer.
He stood and held out a hand about four times the size of hers.
She gave her palm a surreptitious swipe and took it. ‘I’m Jane.’ He knew that, he’d called her by name. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Would you be wanting to sit yourself down?’ He inclined his head towards the chair and fidgeted his hand.
Oh, God! She loosened her fingers, let her hand drop from his then heaved herself up onto the chair.
Once he’d stopped rubbing his squashed fingers he interlaced them under his clipped beard. Strange that, black hair and a beard the grey of the old pots in the scullery.
‘Now, Jane, how old are you?’
Not so bad, she could manage that. ‘I’ve been here for nine years, three months, one hour, and twenty-three minutes. Maybe twenty-seven, the breakfast bell was close to three-and-a-half minutes late.’ And in all that time no one had claimed her. ‘See, that was the day I was dropped off, on the doorstep like, in the dead of night.’ Three thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight days ago. ‘November the first. It was a Sunday. I was two weeks old.’ Not that she could remember. Sister Mary Ann had told her in the end, after a deal of prodding and poking, though how she knew was anyone’s guess.
Jane always dreamt that one day Florence Nightingale would glide through the dormitory door, light in hand, and spirit her away, the child of her heart she’d been forced to relinquish while she went off saving people.
‘So you’ve been here ever since?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Why was he asking that? Sister Mary Ann could’ve answered those questions. She’d got everything about every one of the foundlings written in that big leather book of hers, the one with the brass key that she kept dangling from the chain around her waist, same as the one to the cupboard under the stairs.
‘And you have no idea who your mother or father may be?’
Her heart gave a little leap. Was he going to tell her Miss Nightingale had come to claim her? Rubbish. That wasn’t going to happen. Not to her. Not even a new family. Last time someone had tried they’d sent her back, claimed she talked too much. They’d taken Emmaline instead. It was because of her name. She knew it was. Jane, plain Jane. Couldn’t Sister Mary Ann have done any better?
And Piper, what kind of a surname was that? She had no intention of taking up the bagpipes. Nasty squealing things made from sheep’s in nards fiddled with by men in skirts.
‘Your mother, or father. You’ve no idea?’
‘No, sir. None at all.’ She sat up a little straighter.
‘Your aptitude with numbers must have come from somewhere.’
Aptitude. What was that? Good or bad? ‘I don’t know nothing about my aptitude, sir.’
‘My mistake. Let me try again.’ He picked up the sheaf of papers from the desk and flicked through them. The sun glinted on the stained-glass window behind him. So many delicious shapes and such perfect symmetry: six diamonds, four rhombi, sixty-two perfect small green squares and an equal number of rectangles …
The patterns blurred. ‘Yes, sir.’
Mr Quinn tapped the top paper. ‘This evaluation you completed. Who were you sitting next to?’
It wasn’t an evaluation. It was a test, plain and simple, like they did at the end of every year, so Sister Mary Ann could tell who’d done their lessons right and could go to the next class. ‘Emmaline, sir. I always sit … no sat—she’s gone now, gone to her new family—next to Emmaline. She comes before me in the alphabet see, sir.’
Jane never could understand that, why there was no one whose name began with F, G, H or I. Whatever happened to all the Florences, Glorias, Harriets and Irises? Maybe they didn’t give names like that to girls dumped on doorsteps in the dead of night.
The frown lines on Mr Quinn’s forehead wriggled up and down as he flicked through the papers. ‘Can’t be that. Who sits on the other side?’
‘No one, sir. Sister Mary Ann makes me sit next to the wall, says I’d talk the hind leg off a donkey so it’s the safest place.’ She clamped her hand over her mouth. Not the right thing to say, not at all. Not in polite company, and sure as eggs Mr Quinn was polite company, with his neatly folded cravat and high winged collar.
He made an impolite snort and his lips curled, a smile perhaps. ‘Is this work all your own?’
Now he thought she was a hoaxer! ‘I’m no cheat, sir.’ She clamped her back teeth, not a good thing. She mustn’t get angry, not like she did when those people had taken her home for tea. That hadn’t ended well—it had for Emmaline though.
‘I’m not suggesting you are, Jane. I’m trying to decide if this is all your own work. You haven’t made a single error. I’ve never seen a set of results like these. You should be very proud of yourself.’
Next thing she was standing, leaning across the desk. There it was in black and white. 100%. ‘Ha! I thought it was easy.’ She’d told Sister Mary Ann, and got her knuckles rapped for her trouble. ‘Sister Mary Ann says pride comes before a fall.’
‘Well, you haven’t fallen. No one else has achieved such a remarkable score. Not even in the senior class. Congratulations!’
She sat back down on the chair, on the edge this time so her toes reached the floor, and gave Mr Quinn her biggest smile. ‘I like numbers, sir. See, they don’t lie, sir. Not like people. There’s only right or wrong, no in-betweens.’
‘An excellent summary. You and my sister would get along just fine. Perhaps you’d like to meet her, come to tea … You know my sister, I’m sure.’
Holy heck! Of course, she did.
Everyone knew Miss Elizabeth Quinn.
Buy The Girl in the Painting
An atmospheric and richly detailed Australian historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author.
Australian Bestselling, Award Winning Author
Historical fiction – from the ocean to the outback
Tea Cooper answers The 5 Big Questions
- How long did it take you to write the book?
A very good question! The short answer is a year but I’m usually juggling three books at once. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Let me explain …. Throughout 2019 The Girl in the Painting was in edits, I am writing, nearly finished The Cartographer’s Secret which is due for release at the end of 2020 and I have a ‘mad ideas and clever tricks’ file for my 2021 book which, at the moment, is called The Palaeontologist.
- What was the most difficult or complex aspect of writing your book?
Although I love the research, it can often be the trickiest aspect. Although my books are historical fiction I like to anchor the timeline by including real events. This means I have a fixed timeline before I start writing the story, and it can affect both the plot and the characters and then throw in a dual narrative and I’m juggling three timelines! It’s a bit like doing a Samurai Sudoko!
- What gave you the most pleasure when writing your book?
Cracking the Samurai Sudoko! That moment when I realise the timelines link up and the story is going to work. It’s often not until I have written at least the first draft.
- Are you nervous when a new release comes out?
Waiting for the first reviews to come in is always a nail biting time—or worse no reviews!
- What’s the best thing a reader could do if they enjoyed your book?
Tell everyone! Whether it’s by leaving a review, or on talking about the book on social media or telling their friends, the local library or even buying another copy. Books make excellent Christmas presents and they are easy to wrap!!
Read more about Tea Cooper and her books and discover where to find her on social media