Murder in Two Tenses

Murder in Two Tenses cover

A mystery by Janis Bolster. This is the first book in the Sally Jean Chalmers Editorial Mysteries. Illustrated fiction. Trade paperback, 266 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9824848-3-8. Publication date: July 2010. $15.95. A Reader's Guide is available for this book upon request.

The Lost Daughters, the second book in the series, was published in September 2011 and was a finalist in the 2012 Maine Literary Awards crime fiction category.

Janis is currently working on the third title in the series, Emily Dickinson in the Attic.

Her most recent title is Doubles, an out-of-series mystery, due out in November 2013.

About Murder in Two Tenses

Sally Jean Chalmers knows she's in over her head. She's an editorial assistant with her first big project, a real-life Victorian murder mystery. Its author may not understand syntax, but he makes the past disquietingly alive. After just a few days with the manuscript, Sally comments, "I lingered by the door with a sense of menace around me, as if I'd walked out into 1898 and something darker than humidity haloed the lights."

Who killed Kitty McCall, and why?

Detective Alfred Warren answered those questions more than a hundred years ago, but author George Whittaker isn't satisfied with his answers. Neither is Sally, not until she understands them. Reaching that understanding means she must scramble in the fog first to save her own life and then to protect, or at least come to terms with, the person she has always loved most.

From Murder in Two Tenses:

Three murders changed my life the summer I turned twenty-three. None of them was fresh news the day I got involved, but they sucked me in. They tested me and changed me, and by the end of September, I knew I’d never see anything the same way again.

Not even myself.


I met George Whittaker on a Tuesday morning before I’d been on my job six weeks. I was at my desk, blue pencil in hand, eyes glazing in spite of three coffee refills, when a flash of silk interrupted me.

“My office, Sally.”

I looked up, but not fast enough to ask any questions. Julia Bellini, managing editor of the Colwell-Johnson University Press and my new boss, was already walking away. No surprise – she never waited around for questions. I hadn’t yet seen much more of her than I saw now, the disappearing rear view of a ramrod spine, sleek hair with a touch of gray, and the kind of clothes that meant dry-cleaning bills.

I trailed her down the hall. Her office was already full of people, but when she strode to the desk, most of them stood up and left. Henry Corey, the junior history editor, stayed in his seat with an uneasy smile. I hadn’t figured out whether Henry was as incompetent as he sounded. He seemed very sweet, but he always spoke as if he couldn’t quite believe his own words and didn’t expect you to, either.

The man beside Henry looked maybe sixty-five. He had thick white hair, a little beard, and an unreadable expression. He glanced at Henry, who stared at his shoes.

Julia gestured me to a chair and said, “Professor Whittaker, let me introduce the copy editor who will be working on your manuscript, Sally Jean Chalmers.” Henry looked up, clearly startled, but she paid no attention. “Sally, Professor George Whittaker.”

“Uh, Julia –”

She ignored Henry and went on. “Professor Whittaker’s will be the major book on our spring list, Sally. We’re all very excited about it. You’ll have some problems to resolve, and the schedule will be very tight, but I have every confidence you can manage.” With a repressive glance at Henry, she turned back to the other man. “Professor Whittaker, I’m sure you’ll have no difficulty working with Sally to get a polished product ready for the typesetters quickly.”

Now I knew what Henry was worried about – he must have seen my résumé. Before the press hired me, I’d done a little freelance work for the scholarly journal my father edited and its affiliated book publisher. I’d edited and proofread a cookbook written by a neighbor. I’d written a few stories for the local newspaper, where they let me hang around the editorial office and watch the professionals. Here my job title, Editorial Assistant, meant that I did whatever I was told, and so far I’d spent most of my time editing a couple of untidy manuscripts.  I removed wayward commas. I fixed spellings. Sometimes I moved a paragraph from hither to yon, and along the way I wrote lots of questions like “Author: Is this Edward Jones the same man as the Edmund Jones mentioned in Chapter 2?” For light relief I proofread book flap copy and alphabetized indexes. I didn’t mind. I was just as eager as Julia to see my skills and understanding improve.  But I didn’t think I was ready for an important, problematic book on a short schedule.


The professor gave me a warm smile. “Delighted, Ms. Chalmers. I look forward to your expert help.”

I returned his smile but tried to catch Julia’s eye before I said anything I’d regret.

Ignoring me as carefully as she’d ignored Henry, she said, “You can count on enthusiastic support from the entire press, Professor Whittaker.” She passed me a thin file folder. “Thank you, Sally. I’ll give you the manuscript later.”

On my way out I stole a glance at Henry and found him studying the floor, again. No help there. Well, I’d confront Julia in private and ask if she couldn't shift this assignment to someone else.

All the same, when I got back to my cubicle I opened the file. The first thing in it was a Xerox of the well-worn immigration ID card issued to Kathryn McCall in 1893. She looked about twelve, with light hair and full lips. The eyes locked onto mine, reaching into me with such innocence and trust that I had trouble looking away.

Kitty id card

I turned over the next sheet and found the book’s title, “Death by Lamplight: The Murder of Kitty McCall.” Someone had written underneath, “Highly readable scholarly analysis of a late-nineteenth-century crime.” Below that was a list indicating who would be responsible for each phase of production and marketing, and in the blank beside “Copy editor” Julia had penned in “CHALMERS.” I gulped.

Next came a biographical statement on the author: George Derby Whittaker, born 1943, Nebraska. Academic degrees from various minor universities, teaching appointments ditto. Unmarried, no children. A short list of publications on things like streetlights and subways. Retired December 31 of last year from Colwell-Johnson University, Eastbay, Connecticut. Now working from his home on Walnut Street in Eastbay.

The last thing in the folder was a printout of the book’s first couple of pages, headed “Chapter One: In The Beginning.”


With these words, in banner type across the front page the Eastbay Connecticut Morning Chronicle greeted its readers over their bacon and oatmeal on Saturday October 15, 1898. The night before, someone had suprised Kitty McCall on Burnett St near a foul alley way that ran between the Hatterman Laundry,, and an establishment known as The Chophouse (it was registered on the city books as Michael Glynn’s Select Cafe.) Kitty had been forced into the alleyway at knife point –- the police found her blood trailing from the corner of Burnet all the way to where her body was discovered, near a coal hole in an otherwise solid brick wall at the back of the alley.

Kitty (christened Kathryn or Kathryne, the records vary, aged nineteen, lived and worked in the home of Mr. and Mrs Arthur George Tyne, at One eighty five Primrose Street. Her room was on the third floor reached by a claustrophobic staircase, with a small dormer window that overlooked her iron bed stead, a wardrobe mottled with dampness and a speckled mirror over a wash stand. She spent her days mostly in the basement kitchen, where she alone the prepared the family’s fairly lavish meals. She was a “general”, that is she also cleaned the house (12 rooms), fed the stoves and fireplaces. There was help with the laundry. Groceries like ice and coal, were delivered by wagon .

On the early evening of October 16 Kitty had gone out to visit a friend names Bridget Mahoney. They had watched a bonfire from Bridget’s kitchen and had drunk together the contents of a large teapot. Kitty was expected back before nine when she always locked up for the night. Arthur Tyne checked the doors when the left his library to head for bed at about 11:30. He was startled to find them still open but, as he told Constable Gerald Jermyn the next day he saw what he thought was Kitty’s cloak hanging in the usual place. Making a mental note to reprove her sharply in the morning, he turned out the gas in the front hallway and went off to bed.

By then, almost certainly Kitty McCall lay dead.


Reader responses to Murder in Two Tenses from readers and editors

Would it be possible for me to get 6 more copies of your book??? They will make great Christmas gifts. N. M., Guilford, ME

One of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I found myself really enjoying Sally Jean and when she was being pursued by George Whittaker, I was hanging on every word! I also enjoyed reading a bit between the lines and got a tiny flavor of what a copy editor does. I look forward to book 2 (The Lost Daughters) with great anticipation! - M. H., Gorham, ME

Introspective, ever resilient, quietly intense, sometimes naive and very often exasperating, Sally Jean Chalmers is the young friend you adopt because you know as she matures it's going to be one heck of a ride, and you don't want to miss any part of it. Can't wait to hook up with her again in The Lost Daughters! - M. D., Ridge, NY

I finished the last third in a single reading because I couldn't put it down! I am so impressed. Usually editors aren't writers and vice versa, because editing is analytic whereas writing is creative. But both hemispheres of the author's brain seem to be nicely balanced! (I love the graphics too - nice touch.) - M. B., Fort Bragg, CA

Editors everywhere are going to have a great time with this book! It's hard not to want to edit Whittaker as you're reading, but put down the blue pencil and relax, grateful that ***for once*** the carelessly vague author, the unrealistic and demanding editorial supervisor, the clueless acquisitions editor, and the impossible schedule are not ***your*** problems. An engaging protagonist, enough plot twists to be satisfying, enough insider detail to be familiar: a great, fun read for editors, proofreaders, and conscientious writers! I'll confess to being a little infatuated with Warren, the detective: I really hope he reappears later in the series. - M. M., Boston, MA

Terrific, very classy and impressive, WICKED FUNNY – the typewritten manuscript parts cracked me up. The illustrations are artfully strewn and gorgeously done. The resolution is very satisfying; I especially liked Sally's understanding that acts have pretty inevitable results you probably ought to figure out and accept with good grace in order to live another day to run off the edge of a cliff, look down in midair, and see that, yup, you've done it again and it's a fair cop and probably a really good thing, too. – S. T., Vermilion, OH

Had a great time! Let me know when book 2 (The Lost Daughters) is ready. – P. L., Tallahassee, FL

I very much enjoyed "Murder in Two Tenses." It was a fun fast read and the chase scene through the house and onto the street was very scary! - H. W., Bath, ME.

I really like mysteries - actually, all fiction - that pose interesting moral questions, and both The Lost Daughters and Murder in Two Tenses do. I have the musing by Alfred Warren about collective penance taped to my computer monitor: he couldn't answer it and neither can I. Yet. - Jane J., Orlando FL


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