In Pursuit of the Spirits

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

I turned a recent trip to England into a pilgrimage to seek out the watering holes of some of my favorite writers.  Having just read The Man with the Golden Typewriter, a compilation of Ian Fleming’s letters, I decided to begin my quest at the place that inspired James Bond’s passion for martinis.  Fleming regarded the preparation of a martini as high art, no less delicate and exacting than brain surgery.  Dukes Bar in London achieved his ideal of perfection.  As I wended my way down an unmarked alley into the hidden courtyard, I knew I was in for a serious encounter with the spirits.

The mixologists perform their sleight of hand tableside and the resulting concoction is as lethal as 007.  I remember taking a photo to commemorate the occasion.  Everything after the first two sips remains a blur.  I staggered out, both shaken and stirred.

The next stop on my pilgrimage was Oxford and a tour of Balliol College, Lord Peter Wimsey’s alma mater.  Lord Peter preferred wine to spirits, but he was no less picky than Bond.  In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, he sent back a bottle of 1915 Romanée Conti because it was “rather unfinished” and requested a bottle of the 1908 vintage.  There are no hostelries in Oxford that claim a Dorothy Sayers connection.  Recalling that she considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her finest work, my husband and I toasted her with a modest little Chianti and shifted our attention to Colin Dexter and Oxford’s most famous fictional detective, Inspector Endeavor Morse.

Colin Dexter shared his hero’s fondness for real ale and malt whiskey and the city boasts a number of pubs frequented by both Dexter and Morse.  The BBC television series based on the Morse novels filmed scenes from various episodes in most of them.  The Eagle and Child was used as the location for Second Time Around and The Way Through the Woods.  The White Horse on Broad Street was featured in The Dead of Jericho, The Wolvercote Tongue, and The Secret of Bay5B.  And Morse and Sergeant Lewis pondered many of their toughest cases over a pint or two in the Randolph Hotel, which named its stylishly elegant bar, The Morse.

Of them all, the slightly ramshackle Turf Tavern has the longest and most colorful history.  Hard to find down a narrow alley known locally as Hell Passage, this unadvertised, unassuming pub is the site of Jude Fawley’s drunken rant in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  In addition to Dexter and Morse, its patrons have included Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Hawking, and the cast and crew of the Harry Potter movies.  The Australian Prime Minister and President Bill Clinton have contributed further to its cachet.

I couldn’t visit the ancient spa city of Bath without paying homage to Peter Lovesey’s brilliant and curmudgeonly Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond.  A few weeks earlier I had finished the eleventh book in the Diamond series, Stagestruck, set in and around the city’s Theater Royal.  Lovesey wove into his plot a local superstition that the theater is haunted and I found myself in pursuit of spirits of a different sort.

The ghost, it seems, is that of a young lady who fell madly in love with an actor.  Her husband challenged his rival to a duel and killed him.  Grief-stricken, she hanged herself in Garricks Head Pub next door to the theater.  Those who have seen her say she appears in 18th Century evening dress, but has absolutely no color.  Visitations of the so-called “gray lady” are accompanied by a strong whiff of jasmine and a lingering mood of sadness.  There’s also a butterfly superstition in the Theater Royal.  Seeing a live one bodes a successful performance and rave reviews.  In Lovesey’s story, the discovery of a dead butterfly foreshadows a murder and the patrons of the adjacent pub know more than they let on.

Garrick’s Head Pub, built in 1720, is home to other unhappy spirits.  Over lunch, our waitress recounted an incident in 1996 in which a poltergeist hurled the cash register over the bar causing an “almighty crash.”  It might have been the spirit of Beau Nash, Bath’s dissolute Master of Ceremonies who was the first occupant of the building.  Or it might have been his mistress, Juliana Popjoy.  She was so distraught at his death that she resolved nevermore to lie in a bed and lived out the rest of her days in a hollow tree.  Maybe she returns from time to time looking for her Beau.

My husband asked Garrick’s owner why he didn’t have copies of Stagestruck on display in the pub.  He’d never heard of the book or its author.  How is that possible?  I shook my head and ordered a gin and tonic.



5 thoughts on “In Pursuit of the Spirits

  1. I’ve always wanted to travel across the pond. Sample the cuisine and hit the pubs! Sounds like such a grand time. And I love a good solid mystery to sink myself into. Thanks so much for sharing and have a lovely weekend:)


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