Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Golden age detective fiction is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in crime fiction from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with hard to obtain titles receiving new editions and new TV and film adaptations in the works.
But it isn’t just in the books from that period that we see this effect. Today’s crime writers are turning more and more to the details and tropes of the classic whodunnit. Whereas just a few short years ago a publisher might have looked askance at a manuscript for a mystery laden with references to the golden age, it’s becoming positively desirable for authors to show off their knowledge of the genre’s origins.
It’s in recognition of this fact that the Shedunnit Book Club has this month taken a break from reading books published in the first half of the twentieth century, and is instead in June tackling a contemporary novel that grapples with the traditions of the golden age. The Book Club is the community that supports this podcast’s continued existence — paying members help the show remain independent and financially sustainable so I can keep making new episodes for everyone. Each month, club members vote on what book they would like to read and discuss together. Other perks of joining include getting access to the two bonus episodes a month that I make for just for members, ad free episodes of the main podcast, and access to the community forum where all things mysteries are discussed. There’s more information at shedunnitbookclub.com/join if you’d like to check it out.
Anyway, this month, the club has chosen to read The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths. This novel, published in the last year, is absolutely steeped in the traditions and tropes of the golden age of detective fiction, and so is perfect for considering how these ideas are being refashioned by today’s writers. It follows four sleuths — one police detective and three amateurs — on their quest to discover who killed their friend Peggy, an elderly woman who loved reading murder mysteries. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like anyone can have had a motive to kill a charming and inoffensive old lady, but the closer the quartet look, the more it seems like the solution to the case lies in Peggy’s collection of classic crime novels.
Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica De Rosa, a writer based in Brighton who is the author of two separate mystery series — the Ruth Galloway novels about a forensic archaelogist slash sleuth in present day Norfolk, and the Brighton Mysteries series, which are set in Domenica’s hometown in the 1950s. The Postscript Murders reprise a detective character, DS Harbinder Kaur, from her standalone novel The Stranger Diaries, which won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
I’m delighted to welcome Domenica to Shedunnit to tell us more about how The Postscript Murders came together, and about her own love of golden age detective fiction. There are no major plot spoilers in this episode, by the way. And don’t forget, if you’d like to join me to discuss the book at the end of the month, visit shedunnitbookclub.com/join once you’ve finished listening to become a member of the book club.
To start with the premise of the book all revolves around this character, Peggy, who is a murder consultant. And I’d be fascinated to know where the idea came to you from. Have you ever encountered someone with that kind of role?
Elly: Well, actually there is a real life model for Peggy and it’s my Aunt Marge.
So I’ve got an Aunt Marge. Since I’ve started telling people the story, I realise so many people have it an Aunt Marge. Harry Potter did, didn’t he? So I have an Aunt Marge and she used to live in Norfolk where she was a great help with the Ruth books, actually, she has a boat and she was very helpful in researching those, but then she moved to the south coast, quite near me and something, so like Peggy she had a lovely flat, which looks out over the sea and the promenade just a little bit along the coast from me, I live in Brighton. Something about the new house, I don’t know what it was, whether it was the setting or the fact she could look out at the sea, maybe it was the sea air. I don’t know, but it just made her kind of obsessed with murder plots. And she kept thinking of new plots. She would look out the window and look up and down the promenade, she’d see two people meet here, think who are they?
And then she’d ring me up. And she used to always ring me, often still does, on a Sunday. And it’s like, ‘oh, hello love. I’ve just, I’ve just seen a priest and I was just thinking, could you kill someone with a thurible?’, you know, and all that. So I started to think about what if there was somebody whose job was to think up crime plots for crime writers, because Marge would always want me to put these plots in my book and I’d sometimes say to her Marge, why don’t you write books?
And she’d say, no, no, no, love, I couldn’t write the book, but I want you to put it in. And I did once use one of her murders in a Ruth book actually earlier on. So she’s got a bit of form. And one of the reviewers, I think it was the Financial Times said that it was the nastiest use of a stairlift they’d ever heard of, and Marge was so happy with that she framed it. She was so happy with that review, so she wanted me to put them in my book. So I thought, what if there was an elderly lady, very respectable, my aunt’s a retired maths teacher, very, very respectable. But what if her job was thinking up murders for crime writers? And then what would happen if she was murdered?
I did have to, it’s not giving anything away because Peggy is murdered in the first chapter, first page, I think. And I did have to square it with Marge and she didn’t mind the character getting killed off quite early. And she was fine about that being a true mystery fan. So really that’s where the idea came from.
Caroline: Amazing, because is that something that as someone who’s written a lot of books now that you struggle with that part of the process that I need yet, another way for someone to die before I can set this plot in motion?
Elly: I suppose so in a way, it might sound strange from a crime writer, but the plot is always kind of the hardest bit for me because I really like the characterisation. And then what was fun in this book was writing about four very different characters, all from their viewpoints.
I really liked that bit. I love the location and atmosphere and I, that’s where I always start as a writers with the place and with the atmosphere of the place. So sometimes the who killed who and why is a little bit the last thing to appear. And I guess my murders aren’t very gory, so don’t have a kind of, lots of blood and gore in my books.
So it often is a sort of a puzzle, you know, who did what, when and why? So I guess that’s right. I am a little bit squeamish about killing people in horrible ways. And I think apart from the stair lift, I’ve never done anything too horrible, I think not, anyhow. So yeah, maybe that is the bit that I struggle with most.
Caroline: Is it helpful to have some external feedback, perhaps?
Elly: Yes. Yes, it is. It is really.
Caroline: When you were putting together this book, cause another thing that is remarkable and sort of makes it stand out, is the fact that you’ve got a collective detective group, as opposed to, you know, in your Ruth Galloway series, you’ve got an amateur and a professional, let’s say working in tandem, which is quite a classic mould.
But in this case, you’ve got a little gang of four haven’t you. Is that different? Does that feel differently when you’re writing?
Elly: Yes. I mean, it was, it was quite a challenge because yeah. So I’ve got the four characters, cause I’ve got Harbinder, who is Harbinder Kaur, who is the official detective.
She’s the Detective Sergeant who appears in The Stranger Diaries as well. So she’s kind of doing the police procedural bit. So I wanted to have three characters who weren’t doing that. So there’s Natalka who is the Ukrainian carer of Peggy, Peggy’s 80 year old neighbour, Edwin, and there’s Benedict who runs the coffee shop.
So I wanted to have sort of very different characters and the challenge, which I did quite enjoy, actually, was of course they would all notice different things and they’d see different things and Benedict’s very much a crime fan. And he loves some TV, crime and reading about crime and all sorts of things.
So he sees a certain thing, whereas Edwin is maybe a different generation and he sees different things, but he’s also very good sleuth and the Natalka’s quite dashing and takes risks. So I quite enjoy doing all those things, but it was quite hard to remember who’d seen what, who’d remember what, and there’s quite a lot about there quite a lot of clues in this book that are kind of literary, like sort of anagrams and wordplay and things like that.
And of course who’d noticed that and who wouldn’t and things like that. So that was quite a challenge, but I did enjoy it. I have to say really, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a book more.
Caroline: Well, that definitely comes across and something that I really, really liked about it and why I think it’s going to really, really appeal to the fans of the podcast is that it is so literary.
And so referential of the genre and not just the genre today, although you do have the period at the Aberdeen crime festival where there are contemporary writers, but it’s very referential of crime fiction in the past as well. So is that something that you’re a fan of as well?
Elly: Yes. You know, and I’m so happy to have found your podcast.
It’s going to be one of my happy places because yes, I love classic crime and golden age crime. And yes, one of the clues is about a golden age book, which is a made up, which is a made up writer, Sheila Atkins. And I had so much fun making up all her titles, because I love thinking of titles for books.
And I have to say quite often my publishers sort of say what a great title. No, we won’t have that. Yeah, because it’s like too, too silly or it’s a quote from Shakespeare or something. So I actually gave rein to all my what I think of a fantastic crimey titles and my editors would have to, like, you’ve got those all out of your system and I probably have as, so yes, there’s a golden age writer at the center of this.
And I do really like this, this sort of genre of writing. I teach creative writing and I just, but I do particular like, and also I think it’s a very sometimes quite overlooked, how kind of dark some of these books are and how sort of bleak they are. And some that they, one of my favorite golden age writers, I just think she’s almost out of print now, is Nancy Spain.
And I love her books. I mean, who would it love a writer who has a book, talking of titles, called Cinderella Goes To The Morgue. I mean, that’s such a good title. But you know, there’s a book of hers called R In The Month, which is set a sort of, rather than run down sort of seaside town in winter and it’s all atmospheric and brilliant.
So yes, that’s definitely an era that I like and I did very much enjoy sort of making up a few golden age plots. I suppose, in The Stranger Diaries, I’ve made up a Victorian short stories that I love the Victorian era. I’m a huge fan of Wilkie Collins. I see quite a lot of your listeners are also Wilkie Collins fans, so yeah. Yes. So I really did enjoy that.
Caroline: What do you think someone who’s writing crime fiction today, what do you like to take from that golden age period and what is sort of fresh and new do you think, is, are there things that you enjoy imitating?
Elly: Yes. Well, I do think golden age can teach us quite a lot about the power of understatement and what’s not said, and, and there, there are some, you know, it’s very spare.
I was re reading Agatha Christie the other day and this just pages and pages of dialogue. And you don’t even know who was saying what although you can guess Poirot cause he keeps saying, ah mon ami. You know, that’s why she keeps doing that so you can tell that it’s him, but, but there’s just lots of dialogue and it’s a very understated, but all the clues are then of course it’s very difficult in a short novel, like an Agatha Christie, I mean they’re sort of about 60,000 words. On average I think a book now is about 90,000 words. So with so little padding to do such a good plot it’s very, very hard. And to, and to not, to not cheat at all. And to really keep you guessing to the last minute. I write a series of novels for children actually — middle grade it’s called, so it’s like nine plus and they’re called A Girl Called Justice, and there are three books in the service now. And it made me think by that writing those words. Cause it goes, when you’re writing books for children, maybe it’s a little bit like a golden age novel, clearly there’s not going to be any gratuitous violence, there’s not going to be any sex. There’s not going to be much description of the countryside. So it’s all plot and, and that’s actually very hard to do something that’s kind of all plot. Having said there’s no sort of description. I do think that a lot of those writers are very good at, you know, what’s that wonderful Ngaio Marsh book, Opening Night, the set of theatre and the very, very good at atmosphere, I think.
But again, without too many words, not using too many words.
Caroline: We’ll hear more from Domenica, including how she keeps up with her two books a year schedule, after the break.
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And now, back to The Postscript Murders.
Caroline: Because place and atmosphere, as you said, is something that’s very important to your books. And you’ve got two very distinct landscapes in your different series. And in this one, all of the stuff about, you know, Peggy and Edwin in the block of flats, looking out to sea and reflecting on old age and all that sort of thing.
It’s very evocative. And where did that come from? Is that also from your aunt?
Elly: I suppose. So I think it’s a move isn’t it? That maybe one takes at a certain point in life to maybe move from a flat into an apartment. And Edwin is quite sort of scathing about the apartments they’re called Seaview House and he calls them in his head Preview House.
It’s like a preview of death sort of thing. So he’s quite gloomy about it. I get the impression that sort of Peggy, so, so it in a different way. She saw it just as a new opportunity. And so I think it is a part of your life where when you are thinking of, yeah, you’re thinking of the next stage, this stage, it might be your last home, I guess.
So I think you would look at it, I suppose I did look at it a bit like that, you know, but, but Marge moved in, but also she loved it. You know, she really loves the view and she loves seeing the sea and she loves that such and a seaside town is actually a very good place for crime novel because it does a lot of the things that you need.
Like you really need a sort of range of people, is that usually a range of people in a seaside town, people sort of wash up next to the sea and sort of stay there. So you’re often have very grand houses in this book. There’s a millionaire’s row, which there is in Brighton, you know, where there is massively grand houses, but also you have quite grotty accommodation, you have a big range, but also if you have something near the sea, there’s always a way of escaping, you know, and actually Shoreham, this book is based in Shoreham by Sea, there’s even an airport, which is a lovely little 1930s airport, so people can, and they do in this book even get a plane. So I think the ideal setting for a crime novel is somewhere like that somewhere quite evocative. Somewhere where there’s a range, a social range, and also people with different backgrounds and histories and also a way of escaping.
Caroline: Hmm. Yeah. That’s a really good point. I suppose. You’ve, you’ve got two detective characters now on two different coasts of the UK.
Elly: I do. Yes. I do wonder about that. Obviously it’s something, and I know some of my Brighton books is set in the 1950s, I do seem to a friend to my William Shaw is really good crime writer writes the Alex Cupidi series. He, when he was a journalist, did an article about people who live near the sea and there was some studies done. I would have to ask him that showed that people got more eccentric the nearer they got to the sea. And you could always see that. So you get out of the station of Brighton station around Brighton station the sort of accountant’s office is a bit like that. And as you get near the sea, you get to tattoo parlours, you get the funny stranger shops and nearer to the sea, the slightly odder and stranger things are. So I think that might be why I’m drawn to the sea.
Caroline: And you’re absolutely right about the sort of social mix at a seaside town because people move there for all sorts of different reasons don’t they? And one thing that I am, I’m sort of in my head thinking about as a trend, but I don’t know if it is one yet, but I feel like there’s more and more crime novels. And these days that feature older characters of which The Postscript Murders is one and it’s such a fascinating thing to do, and you don’t see it perhaps quite so much in golden age stuff with the exceptions of Miss Marple and so on, people tend to be sort of middle-aged and active when they’re involved in a crime novel, but there’s a whole hidden history to a life that you can reveal as you do in this book. I wondered if you had any reflections.
Elly: Yeah, that’s so true. As a matter of fact I did think when I wrote this book, gosh, this will be really unusual group of old people solving the crime.
And older people solving a crime. And of course it came out at exactly the same time as Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, which I really, really enjoyed, which of course is about group of old people in an old people’s sort of complex solving crimes. So very, very similar plot though actually I think they are quite dissimilar books, but it is, it is something that happens all the time, isn’t it? You think this is a great idea and somebody else has it, but you’re so right about the golden age. I recently re-read, Agatha Christie’s By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which is a, it’s a Tommy and Tuppence novel, which they often a bit ignored aren’t they? But it’s very good. Again, very good on atmosphere, very creepy, but it starts off in an old people’s home and they keep saying that well, poor old soul needed to put her in an old people’s home.
She was 60. And you think, oh my goodness, that is young now, you know, maybe it’s because I’m in my fifties, I’m thinking that, but you know, and then there’s another, oh, well she’s 70. So it’s nowadays 70 year olds are Joanna Lumley aren’t they and glamorous people going around the world. And it really does make you think.
As you say, apart from Miss Marple who was kind of ancient throughout. It has been actually having said that By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, is Tommy and Tuppence in their later years, I guess they were in their fifties and they do muse quite a lot on that. And the fact that, you know, they had that exciting, wartime past.
And what do they do now? What does Tuppence do now as a woman? So actually there was a little bit of that in the books, if you look hard enough for it, but I guess I think like a lot of people as I get older, my idea of what is old gets older and older. So Peggy is 90 you know, she’s quite a spring chicken.
Caroline: Another nice improvement you’ve made on the form with this book is by making Peggy’s carer a really fully realised character I mean there’s several carer characters in the book. And I think there is perhaps a tendency to make those people invisible in fiction and in TV and so on. And you sort of done the opposite.
Elly: Thank you. I’m glad do you like Natalka. My mum was looked after by carers in her last years and they were just such wonderful people. And again, it’s an interesting job because people come to it from such different places and life experiences. They’re doing it for all sorts of different reasons.
Yet they are doing to something that is hard work and you do very hard work, but it’s also caring so that they are particularly interesting people I do think. And, but you’re quite right about it in a way, the golden age. And I always think of Miss Marple often says about some poor dead maid, poor silly girl, you know, and that’s all she gets.
That’s all the epitaph she gets . Yes. You want to bring out the figures, the hidden figures who might be overlooked in that genre of fiction, definitely. I like Josephine Tey, I’m a fan of The Daughter of Time, huge influence on me, but there’s an awful line in Brat Farrar where the sort of sympathetic character says, can your latest idiot take a telephone message? So yes, there’s snobbery there that is in some of the books I have to say, which I hope modern crime fiction doesn’t have that.
Caroline: Yes. I think definitely the I’ve been looking into this a lot recently, the kind of the way servants are just part of literally furniture is definitely not how people write today and that’s a definite upgrade. I suppose in a way that this is , as you say, a sequel to The Stranger Diaries, because Harbinder carries over, are we going to meet any of the characters again in the future, do you know?
Elly: I had thought it would be a standalone though I do think that Harbinder will appear again. So she, as you said, she appeared in The Stranger Diaries and she appears again here, so I feel she’s got one more adventure in her at least, and there are a few things I’d like her to do. I think it will be interesting to follow her doing, let’s say.
I had thought that they, I wouldn’t write about them again, but I’ve never missed characters as much as I miss Edwin and Benedict and Natalka. So I don’t know. I’m obviously quite bad at standalones, because I keep bringing my characters back, so I wouldn’t say never . But my idea is that the next Harbinder book will be a whole new cast of characters and the only one we’ll know will be Harbinder.
That’s the idea, but you never know. I can see them teaming up to solve more crimes and I’m also quite taken with maybe a short story about Peggy before, because you know, as we’ve said, she is sort of central to the novel, but she does die quite early on. So maybe a short story about her would be fun.
Caroline: Yes to visit her pre the events of The Postscript Murders?
Caroline: Well, you’re in charge.
Elly: I suppose I am!
Caroline: I’d love to ask you to a little bit about your sort of writing habits and your writing process, because you’re a very regular, and as a fan I can always rely on a new Ruth book and so on. How do you manage all of your different characters in your different series?
Elly: Well, I usually, thank you. I mean, I’m quite last couple years, I’ve published two books a year and you know, that, that didn’t stop in lockdown. In fact, I felt very lucky to have that to escape, to, to be honest with you. And I try and write every day. I’m very lucky my children are grown up and I do a bit of teaching, but, but that’s it really.
I’ve got a little writing shed in my garden, which is where I’m talking to you from. Yeah. So I try and write every day. I’m very lucky, usually I can do some, it’s usually just me in here with the cat writing away. I do usually just write one book at a time. So I wouldn’t say write a Ruth book in the morning or the Brighton Mystery in the afternoon.
So I have to be sort of in that place, I guess when I write it, the only exception is my children’s series A Girl Called Justice, cause I sometimes write your a of that on Friday to cheer myself up because I just really, really enjoy writing those books. So that’s like a little treat I give myself sometimes on a Friday, but, but usually, so I obviously have notebooks I’ve written, you know, when Ruth was born, when Nelson was born, but when the events of the books happened, because of course now I’m writing Ruth 14, actually at the moment, it’s called The Locked Room, and there are 14 years of stuff, you know, to remember.
And I usually I’m quite good at it. But sometimes I can be, oh, sometimes you think, did I say that, you know, in this book I’m writing at the moment she actually has goes to a school reunion and I knew I talked about her school friends somewhere that took me quite a long time to find it, but I had, so I was able to sort of, and luckily I put quite a sort of teasing little thing in about one of them. So I was quite pleased with myself.
Caroline: So, yes. Thanks to your past self. So how long would you say it takes you to write to write one of your novels?
Elly: It’s sort of like everything, isn’t it really? So as I say, I’ve been contracted to write two a year. So it basically takes six months.
I usually start one in January and sort of finish in July and start the next one in August and finish in January. So it sort of works itself out like that. I’m often editing one while I’m writing another, but that’s okay. It’s just the kind of creative, getting the story down that I feel I can’t do two at once.
So so that’s more or less what it takes me. But I’ve got like everything when I wrote one a year, it took me a year. And if I gave myself, you know, at some point I will take myself off this treadmill and then it will probably take me five years, who knows. But at the moment it doesn’t seem, it doesn’t seem to treadmill-ish actually.
Caroline: I was doing some research recently about what Agatha Christie did during the second world war and she wrote two books a year throughout the war. And in one case she wrote three. And she says in her autobiography that she found she had so much more time. Once you know, her husband was away with the armed forces and there was no social life.
She was actually living in London, but there was no social life because everyone had left. So she had nothing to do apart from write. And that made me think that that’s a little bit like the last year.
Elly: Interesting. Yeah. Did those novels feature the war? I’m trying to think.
Caroline: I think a couple of the later ones did, I think the sort of ones that come out in 44, 45 sort of reference it, but largely not.
And actually the year that she wrote three, one of them was Curtain, which then wasn’t published until the seventies, but she wrote it in 41 they think, and then had it put away as the last Poirot
Elly: That’s such a good book. God, that’s very interesting. I guess you forget really Third Girl is the sixties, isn’t it?
You know, she just did sort of keep writing. But at that point I do think there are similarities. So funny enough, the Ruth book I’m writing at the moment, which is Ruth 14, called The Locked Room, it is set in 2020, because I couldn’t really get away, get away from that because I’ve been writing one every year. So she is locked down.
With Nelson, without Nelson? In this book at the same time, I’m thinking of the next Justice book, which will be in the second world war it’ll be 1939. because that’s where I’ve got to in that series. And there are sort of similarities, you know, I think you’ve just described the school with a gas mask and, and school suddenly seeming sort of different and having different rules.
And I am seeing similarities there, definitely. Yes. So like, Agatha Christie I think writers are very lucky because we can escape can’t we, you know, you can escape the what’s happening in your own world.
Caroline: And process it into whatever is helpful. Yes, I was very struck by what she said about how well, I just had nothing to do apart from work, which I think is probably what many of us have found.
Well, I think that that’s everything that I wanted to ask you.
Elly: Well, it’s been lovely to talk to you and just to say I’m so flattered that people wanted to hear about The Postscript Murders and there probably will be another Harbinder book at some point, but the next book for me will be the next Ruth book, which will be in February. And it’s called The Locked Room.
Thanks very much to Domenica, aka Elly Griffiths, for joining me. The Postscript Murders is available now at all good booksellers, and if you’d like to discuss it with other members of the Shedunnit Book Club community at the end of June, sign up now at shedunnitbookclub.com.
This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/goldenageinspiration. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.
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