Friday Frippery! The Story of a Year in Books 2019…

The Disappearing Duck…

(At the end of 2016 and again in 2017, I created stories – if they could be dignified by that name – using the titles of all the books I’d reviewed in the year… in the order I reviewed them! I missed last year, but couldn’t resist seeing if I could do it again this year. As you will see, I’ve been reading an awful lot of vintage crime…)

The colour of murder is splendidly scarlet, especially when the crime is committed in cold blood. Let me tell you one of the local horror stories which happened just before my childhood’s end

It all began with the shop window murder. So, at that time I was a boarder at the Katharina Code School for Wayward Girls, a spooky old place where it was rumoured there were ghosts in the house. It was situated on the wild coast of the Western Highlands, just to the east of Belting Hall and the seashaken houses of the village. Far indeed from where I used to watch the glorious game at weekends, the Arsenal Stadium. Mystery was soon to creep out of the Highland mist and engulf us all.

My cousin Rachel lived in the nearby village. She was engaged to a zookeeper Tarzan, of the Apes House, who was heir to the Belting inheritance. But old Mr Belting’s lawyer and his gang had a dastardly plot to keep the inheritance for themselves. The plotters crept like spiders out of the dark, spinning false rumours to blacken Tarzan’s name. Soon the lost man was being accused of having broken the window of the local bookshop, killed the owner’s pet duck and stolen some festive stationery – the newspapers luridly referred to it as the Christmas Card Crime. And other stories, even darker, circulated about him and a scantily-clad woman named Jane. But love is blind and Rachel was true. The break-through came when they decided to flee to Europe, hoping that one day Tarzan’s reputation would be restored.

But once the police are involved it’s inevitable that the dead shall be raised from their tomb for a post-mortem. For the local constabulary, investigating the murder of a quacking duck provided a welcome break from their only other case – trying to track down the night tiger that, locals claimed, roamed the shore, leaving strange-looking pawprints on the beach. But enough of the riddle of the sands! We shall leave that mystery for another day.

The murder in the bookshop became more baffling when the police dug up the spot where the duck was rumoured to be buried, and found nothing! Now they had no body and no idea what their suspect looked like, since Tarzan wasn’t one for selfies. The police knew nothing about the man with no face except that during his time in America he had survived even the Dakota winters in only a loincloth, suggesting he had either superhuman endurance or really bad fashion sense.

With malice aforethought, the lawyer Humphry Clinker, the adversary of Tarzan, had arranged to meet his gang at the Friday night theatre show in the nearby spa town to divvy up the proceeds of the burglary. Each gave the sign of the four – their secret signal – then went into the theatre bar. Old Roger Ackroyd, always a bletherer, began to tell the others how to pick up a maid in Statue Square, but little Dorrit Smallbone, deceased, (or at least so the feckless police believed), turned a song of Solomon Burke up loud on the juke box to drown him out.

The fourth man, Dunstan Redmayne, was mostly known for the cruel acts he had carried out against the American heiress who once inexplicably loved him. But she had screamed blue murder and threatened to spearhead the clouds of witnesses against him when she learned of his part in the affair of the fair maid of Perth, a well known communist heroine. Following these critical incidents, Dunstan had trapped the heiress in a disused kiln and left her to die. But a brave young airman found her in time and rescued her, sadly then tumbling down into the kiln himself and breaking his neck. The death of an airman has never been more tragic.

But I digress! The spa town of Wakenhyrst was a poor shadow of its grander English rival, Bath. Tangled up in these tales of the death in captivity of the fair maid, or perhaps we should say the death of a red heroine, we mustn’t lose sight of the secret adversary of Tarzan. The man who made this town a dead land was the lawyer himself – a true criminal mastermind. The expedition of Humphry Clinker into his life of crime began when he defended the killers of the Flower Moon Dance Troupe and learned how much he could earn if he just left his morals behind. He became twisted and this led him to mistrust everyone. “Go set a watchman,” he ordered Dunstan now and Dunstan quickly obeyed. He didn’t want his name to be added to the blotting book where Clinker listed those who had crossed him – case histories showed that Clinker’s enemies did not fare well. Johnnie the Elephant’s journey to prison began when he ignored an order of Clinker’s. (Poor Johnnie – no one who saw his nose ever forgot it.)

Dunstan Redmayne’s bank balance was, as usual, in the red. Redmayne’s last attempt to burgle a house had fallen foul of one of the adventures of Maud West, lady detective, who held him at bay for several hours, shooting three bullets at him every 10 minutes 38 seconds. In this strange world where odd coincidences happen, he was saved by a group of UN Peacemakers who chanced to be passing, but he required a pinch of snuff to calm his nerves after those furious hours!

“The tree of death has deep roots” was always a proverb of the Highlanders, especially the women. Of the moon, they said that when it was full in midsummer one could see spectres converging on the shore from left, right and middle, marching from the caves in the heat of the night straight out until they were twenty thousand leagues under the seas. Mister Pip, the famous Scotland Yard detective, thought the Highlanders were a right superstitious bunch! He looked anxiously at his phone, always victim to the menace of the machine, and as he read the story about the mystery of the missing duck the conviction stole over him that the village policeman, Constable Sanditon, had a surfeit of suspects and very few resources to solve the crime. Sanditon had been helpful to him last winter when the famous spy Nada the Lily had nearly evaded capture by hiding out in the mountains. One good turn deserved another, Pip thought, remembering how the observations of the constable had trapped the spy, who came in from the cold rather gratefully in the end.

The town had three churches and Pip arranged to meet Sanditon outside the middle temple. Murder on the beach was what he feared had happened to the poor little duck – a mercy if it had been quick and painless. He shuddered as he remembered the case of Miss Elliot who had been brutally killed during a robbery at her home. Seven men of less than average stature had given the pearl they stole to the leader of their gang, an albino whose skin was snow white. And other tales came back to him too, all showing the infinite variety in the art of murder. In the mill-race at the edge of the village, the water frothed and churned. Too turbulent for ducks, Pip thought as he passed by.

Pip and Sanditon stopped for a beer at The Jewel in the Crown, and talked of the crimes they’d solved in the past, most of them involving bodies. From the library next door Mrs McGinty the librarian emerged, and locked up with the turn of the key. Pip realised it was late and although he’d napped on the train up, felt a great need for the second sleep. It seemed to him anyway that they needed an extra pair of hands on the case. But who should they get to help – that was the question? Mark Pearl, suggested Sanditon. Pearl was noted for his bravery and strength – while in New York, he had apprehended three bad guys single-handed, and was then seen walking wounded all the way to the last exit to Brooklyn. Sadly he had had a recent tragedy. The mother of Pearl had fallen victim to the hour of peril when the village was experiencing a big freeze – she slipped on the icy pavement outside Mrs McGinty’s. Dead, alas! But Sanditon was sure that Pearl would help them watch the river at night for signs of the duck, putting family matters aside. He phoned Pearl but as he was out, spoke to his wife instead. During the long call Sanditon told her about the mystery of the duck – had it gone missing or was it murder? She said she had never heard of such evil under the sun! Busy Mrs Pearl had to ring off then as her sons and lovers demanded her attention.

Pip asked the barman to put their drinks on the slate, then, payment deferred, made his weary way to his hotel. In the bathroom he gazed at the face in the glass, thinking he looked old and wondering whether he might soon be meeting up with St. Peter. Looking out of his window, he saw that the river was busy despite the hour – as well as the swan, gondolas containing lovesick romantics were punting up and down. He also saw old Mr Tarrant looking curiously around him in the evening light. The curious Mr Tarrant spotted him too and shouted “Hey, Mister Pip! Did I hear you were looking for a duck? One flew over the cuckoo’s nest in the trees there just fifteen minutes ago and landed in the deep waters of the village pond.”

While Pip was still mulling over this piece of hopeful news, a text arrived from Constable Sanditon. “Just received a Christmas card from Roger Ackroyd, signed on behalf of Clinker and the gang. It’s one of the stolen cards!” Suddenly everything was clear! Next day Clinker, Redmayne and Smallbone were arrested and charged with burglary. “Lucky for you” said Pip “that we believe the duck may have escaped so I can’t charge you with the murder.” Of Roger Ackroyd, however, nothing more was heard except a rumour that he had fled to the far north and joined a strange cult led by the notoriously deranged mystic, Enoch Powell.

Pip and Sanditon were congratulated by the Chief Constable, Lord Jim Campbell. Rachel and Tarzan returned to the lovely Belting Hall, leaving a darker domain in the French backstreet where they’d been living under a cloud. However, Rachel never forgets the woman in black who gave them lodgings when they most needed it in the wild harbour of Marseilles, and every year she sends her a bottle of the Christmas eggnog she has specially made. Tarzan and Rachel are so happy together they changed the name of the Hall, and now the school buildings are just east of Eden Place. But in the old deserted wing sometimes things fall apart and strange yodelling noises can be heard. Rachel tries not to listen to the old ghost stories the servants sometimes tell…

Oh yes, the duck! Well, having tasted freedom when it flew out through the broken shop window, it decided never to go back, and now it spends its days dabbling in the village pond. But sometimes, when the moon is full and the tide is out, it walks by night on the beach, leaving strange marks that, to a superstitious villager, might be taken for the pawprints of a tiger…

>>>THE END<<<

Friday Frippery! The Story of a Year in Books 2017…

The Assassins…

(Last year I created a story  – if it could be dignified by that name – using the titles of all the books I’d reviewed in the year… in the order I reviewed them! I couldn’t resist seeing if I could do it again this year. My twin obsessions of the year – the Russian Revolution and vintage crime – meant there could only really be one theme…)

Having prepared her design for murder, she began to plan the selection day when the final victim would be chosen. Shunning poison lest the dead wake, she had concealed a bar of cast iron under the headgear she had stolen from Party HQ, the President’s hat – it would be gory no doubt, but effective. She shuddered as she remembered the disaster of the death on the Riviera when the sandlands seemed full of the beautiful dead radio girls, who in fact came round an hour or so later and took bloody revenge on their would-be assassin. Not the Party’s finest hour! No, her mission would be more like the crime at Black Dudley Animal Farm, brutal but certain.

She jumped on her crimson snowmobile and sped to the Volga, where her colleague Maigret and Commissar Titian’s boatman were waiting. The boatman was singing…

(Some music to set the tone – if this doesn’t make you want to throw a revolution, nothing will!)

Hurriedly checking the traveler’s guide, “To Spacevski Prospekt, quickly!” she cried, aware of the irony that that was where the death of Kingsovovichskipopov had sparked the revolution in the first place.

“Ah, Maigret” she said, spotting an extra traveller. “If it isn’t our mutual friend Lorna, one of the good people!”

Maigret and the tall woman settled in the boat. Maigret said “So, FFskova, is it true you’re planning the massacre of mankind?”

“Shhh!” FFskova hissed, glancing round to make sure no members of the White Guard were within earshot. The dry tone of her voice admonished him. “You’ll find out soon enough – I’ll let the dead speak for themselves.”

As they jumped off the boat at Spacevski Prospekt, the time machine on her wrist warned her that Rebecca would soon be arriving on the 12:30 from Croydon. It would have been a dangerous crossing after the accusation that had been made against her, but hopefully she would have brought with her the legacy that had justified her committing the ABC murders. A siren sounded, sending momentary shivers down FFskova’s spine, but she realised it was simply to warn drivers that the cone-gatherers were clearing the traffic cones left after the recent roadworks.

“Sometimes I’d rather be the devil than remember my part in the bloody history of the Russian Revolution,” she thought, “especially the horrific episode of the Cheltenham Square murder. Maybe I should give up being an assassin and run off to the island of Dr Moreau with the tsar of love and techno!” But she knew that if she did she’d be no better than a dead woman walking. Her priest, Father Thomas More, had told her to do penance but she knew it was too late for that. Her face white, tears dropped from her eyes down over her distinctive facial scar. Weather forecasts predicted worsening of the ice which covered the valley. Of fearful thoughts her head was suddenly full.

“Oh, Lorna Doone!” she cried to her old friend. “See what I have done! I feel I should give up the ghost!” “Marriage is the answer,” interrupted the old sexist, Maigret. “We should be able to find you a decent man in that new dating bureau, the House of Names,” he said. She said, as an aside to Lorna, “Metaphorically speaking, Maigret takes a room in the last kingdom, silly old dinosaur! Never mind – I’ve been in England often enough to know how to keep a stiff upper lip.” Jeeves, Maigret’s chauffeur, arrived and, hopping in, Maigret and Lorna drove off.

And then there were none but FFskova herself… and the follower, Lord Fibonacci, who mistakenly thought he hadn’t been spotted. FFskova quickly batted him over the head with the iron bar – a necessary evil but, given his unsavoury reputation as a buddy of Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen, scarcely a people’s tragedy. She knew that she could rely on the Party to provide testimony if she were ever suspected of the murder of the vanishing lord. Perhaps it would go down as one of those miraculous mysteries, or perhaps with luck the tediously annoying Doctor Zhivago would be framed for the murder, the lodger who so annoyed Lenin. The dictator had been saying only yesterday that his lodger better stop spouting depressing Russian poetry or else…

You should have left,” she murmured to the corpse as she shoved it silently into the Volga, “if not for your own sake, then for the comfort of others.” She wasted no further thought on the gowk. Storm clouds were gathering and the river was racing, lessening still further the chances of the police ever finding Fibonacci.

* * * * *

Once the plane had finished the long drop and landed, FFskova saw Harriet disembarking. “Where’s Rebecca?” she asked.

Harriet said with sadness, “Her last job was particularly gruesome, killing all those policemen. After the end of the affair, Rebecca became she who was no more. Her sanity gone, she kept repeating the old nursery rhyme ‘one, two, buckle my shoe‘ till we had to have her incarcerated in the home for Seriously Befuddled Communist Gentlewomen. Now she wanders with her birdcage, walking endlessly around the corridors, murmuring ‘you will know me‘, which is ironic since she doesn’t know herself. I’m afraid it’s the story of classic crime. In 100 books, such is the fate of those destroyed by this job.”

The malice of waves beat against the banks of the Volga. “The word is murder,” FFskova said bitterly. “This Russian Revolution has turned us all into cop haters. A gentleman in Moscow told me it feels like days without end there. One day history will give its verdict. Of twelve of us who were chosen, five are dead, four officially insane, and last I heard, Galina had run off to kill a mockingbird, which makes me think she’s a little doolally too…”

“Indeed, that sounds like a portrait of a murderer. But at least we don’t do it for treasure! Is land worth all this, though? Even the great motherland? I am tired of the unwomanly face of war.” Harriet shook her head despairingly.

“Oh well, never mind!” said FFskova, popping a chocolate truffle into her mouth and cheering up. “We have continental crimes to commit! Put on your disguise – the minister’s black veil and your sword – and let’s get going to Munich. Lenin is a force of nature as you know, and we must carry out his bloody project – Operation Bluebird.” “Bluebird?” said Harriet. “So innocuous sounding! The man is as delusional and conceited as Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows! His visions of empire are as monstrous as anything dreamed up by Frankenstein!” She put on the veil and slung the golden sabre over her shoulder, and they started off on their journey.

(FFskova and the team in basic training)

* * * * *

Some hours later in Munich, the two assassins stuffed four white bodies into the vanishing box which formed part of their kit. The Party would arrange for the corpses to be discovered at the site of the accident on the A35 which they were currently arranging. Meantime, Harriet prepared to go off to commit a murder on the Orient Express, while FFskova got ready to rush back to Moscow to organise a death at the President’s lodging – Lenin had made it clear the pesky Zhivago had to go. Before they parted, FFskova issued some final instructions.

“We shall meet again at Northanger Abbey once this is all over and we have at last reached the end. Of the website for online assassin lessons, there will be no further need. We shall get rid of all copies including the master. Of Ballantrae, we must never speak – that secret foundation was all the idea of Pietr the Latvian, but now all our enemies are eliminated, there will be no need for the genetically modified, man-eating sweet Williams after all.”

And so at last they retired from assassining, leaving a string of crimes unsolved. Soon the assassin training program was unplayable. Lies were told to explain the foreign bodies, and the police, being mere fools and mortals, were left baffled, although FFskova ever afterwards found it hard to look a police officer in the eye. “Of Osiris,” she reminded Harriet, “we must never speak – that code name for the mistletoe murder and other stories of horrific deaths must remain forever secret, known only to us and my secret lover, the man they call the Catcher.” In the rye bottle, Harriet found a welcome oblivion in the years to come, but no alcohol was ever strong enough to dull FFskova’s mental anguish. Only chocolate could do that…

The Catcher

>>> THE END <<<

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

The Story of a Year in Books…

A Victorian Murder Mystery

(OK, so I was bored. And it occurred to me it might be fun to see if I could make a story out of the titles of all the books I’ve reviewed this year… in the order I reviewed them! I really need to get a proper hobby… The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot one film in there – couldn’t resist – it just seemed to fit. 😉 )

Martin Chuzzlewit and the sisters of Versailles rattled through the swirling London fog and snow on their way to the Children’s Home. As they travelled along Coffin Road, their eyes were watching Godfrey, their cabbie, knowing his broken promise to turn up on the dot of seven o’clock had made them late for their appointment.

london fog

“Take the A26, Godfrey,” Chuzzlewit called out. Snowblind, Godfrey swerved, nearly knocking down Martin Luther and a clubbable woman who were crossing the road arm in arm. A passing journalist, Winston Churchill at The Telegraph, pushed them to safety just in time, crying “Even the dead would be scared to walk these streets in this damnable weather!”

“Thank you, sir!” said Martin, gratefully. “I am no one important, but Mrs Dalloway here is on a vital mission. She is carrying a potion made from the rare black narcissus, which it is believed may be the cure for the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”

Hyperventilating hysterically and gulping down some Vichy water, Mrs Dalloway cried “Blessed are those who thirst! You are beloved, dear sir! I call down all the blessings of heaven on your head! Now we must rush if we are to be in time to prevent the murder at the manor!”

At that moment, they heard the noise of time as Big Ben struck the hour. Turning into Euston Station, they hurried swiftly through the massive building, dark and echoing at this hour, like caves of steel. In a corner, an old flower seller had tried to fend off the cold by setting the heather blazing, but she still had a little left. “Buy some lucky heather, pretty lady,” she crooned as Mrs Dalloway sailed past. Nightblind, Mrs Dalloway heard only the echo of the words, which seemed to her disordered mind like a spectral voice rising from the cold, cold ground.

As they left the station and hurried across the Hyde Park green, Martin Luther’s fearful eyes searched around the green for danger. In the woods, he spied a group of Dubliners, teaching each other the names of the trees. “Well, this is an advancement of learning,” mused Martin, philosophically. “Hey ho! Let the great world spin!”

london-fog

Finally they arrived at the Theatre Royal where that evening a performance of Henry IV was to be staged. A woman in blue stood by the entrance, with a large dog on a leash by her side. The previous evening’s storm had uprooted an old tree which now lay across the road. In the gaslight, the shadow cast on the ground by its twigs looked so like a mysterious old map that Martin found himself unconsciously looking for the traditional marking: Here Be Dragons. But then, as he looked more closely, he saw to his horror a reflection of the moon in a dead eye!

Absalom! Absalom!” he cried in great dismay, recognising immediately his old friend and bank manager. The woman in blue, known to her wide acquaintanceship as Mrs Maybrick, cackled haggishly. “There will be a dark redemption for this night’s work, sir!”

Shortly, two Bow Street Runners arrived on the scene, Gandhi and Churchill. Earlier that day, they had been doing crowd control at the Easter Parade, (unusually, being held in November this year) where the ladies of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had got somewhat out of hand after imbibing rather freely of the punch provided at that event. Gandhi was still trembling nervously, for when ladies get up to horseplay, fear is the rider, he had discovered. “I wish I could go on a little holiday to the High Mountains of Portugal,” he thought, wistfully, “rather than having to deal with the sans pareil mystery that we have here!”

Close your eyes,” commanded Runner Churchill. “You know you’ll faint if you look at the murdered banker. Especially since he’s been so horrifically mutilated; that snow-covered thing on his left kneecap is a heart so white!

victorian-bobbies

Mrs Maybrick, (whom, after the sudden death of her landlady six months earlier, some suspected of being  the secret poisoner), was in the grip of a ruling passion by now, chuckling and dancing, till she was pulled from her feet by the power of the dog. Normally, she kept Daisy in chains, but that day she had felt in need of protection after having a strange, prophetic vision of a murder during a futuristic journey, in the year 2001: a space odyssey, in fact. It brought back to her all the horrible memories of her typist sister, Elizabeth: the forgotten years and the tragedy that happened during that other terrible journey she always thought of as her “travels with my aunt” – the wicked boy, the exposure and, worst of all, the dead witness. Thank goodness the other typist had been on hand to catch the culprit, and it would be a long time before her arch-nemesis Douglas MacArthur saw the outside of a jail cell again. But I digress!

Runner Churchill gazed at the open wounds on the victim, whose name he had now learned was Absalom Hudson. At that moment, the widow turned up, just as the organ grinder on the corner began to play the Rat Stone Serenade. Mrs Hudson, and the Malabar rose she wore in her lapel (a rare bloom), presented a tragic but charming picture as she begged Runner Churchill for a sight of her husband’s corpse.

“I fear that’s impossible, ma’am. It’s against the rules, and our Sergeant Cluff stands firm on the matter. And he’s American!” “Ah!” interjected Gandhi. “That explains the three-martini lunches, then!” Ignoring him, Churchill continued “No one may see the body till the police artist has drawn the hospital sketches – I wish someone would hurry up and invent photography!”

chalk-outline

At the hospital, Mrs Hudson was joined by a friend who was staying with them for a while, the visitor being a French citizen, Kane by name. Bending over the body, Nurse Oliver twisted round to confirm the corpse was dead – though most people felt the missing heart was a good indicator of that status. But it’s always best to have these things confirmed by a professional. “His pulse rate is zero, ‘K? That means he’s dead.” Mrs Dalloway’s eyes skittered around, for one moment making her look truly, madly, guilty. “Eureka!” cried Doctor LaRose. “I’ve always wondered how to tell! It’s always been an enigma to me!” The girls in nurses’ uniforms in the corridor giggled, especially Nurse Jane Steele, who secretly was rather in love with the doctor.

A crusading journalist, always the seeker after truth, arrived fresh from a prayer meeting at Chapel Springs, (survival of which was frankly quite remarkable given the length of the sermon). The magnificent Spilsbury, as he was called, had rushed to the hospital on the 4:50 from Paddington. He was a different class, upper-middle, to be precise, and wondered aloud if the death might have been accidental. Mrs Hudson was outraged. “It’s murder,” she said. “As my husband himself would tell you if only it were possible that he had from the dust returned.” Strangely, a kite suddenly appeared around the corner of the corridor, and a moment later, a small child ran by in the perfect pass, holding the kite. Runner Gandhi boxed his ears and sent him on his way.

All the parties now gathered in a conclave to hear the opinion of Runner Dick Churchill, who was considered something of a rising man. He had studied the methods of Sergeant Cluff, and refined them in his head as he walked his beat along the dirt roads of old London. His greatest success to date had been in the case of the Magpie murders, when he deduced that the perpetrators were the infamous Seagull Gang, led by the notorious Henry Vavasour. As a pupil, during the schooldays, of Jesus College, Cambridge, Churchill had often skipped off out of bounds, down by the Black River Road, where he had made a detailed study of various types of mud, and produced a short monograph that had about it some echoes of Sherlock Holmes.

london-fog-2

Churchill was something of a philosopher about death, having spent much time in the thin air of the Cambridgeshire countryside, contemplating, amongst other things, the long, long life of trees. He himself had no fear of the blood, cardinal red though it may be. He thought of death as but a passing, a welcome to the Universe where he believed the immortal soul would spend a blissful eternity, looking back at life simply as being in the past tense. His thoughts were suddenly disturbed…

“Lend me your moby, Dick,” said Mrs Hudson. “I’d like to call my lawyer.”

Suddenly it all fell into place. “Mobile phones haven’t been invented yet!” Churchill cried, cuffing her. He had realised she was none other than the Black Widow, a time traveller from the future who had come back to Victorian London to escape justice for the crimes she would commit in 2001 – three dead husbands and the murder of a lady! Locking her temporarily in the hospital’s Slaughterhouse-Five (a name they were soon to change to Intensive Care Unit), he set off to hail a cab to take them to the police station. And so we leave them, as the cabhorse pulls off onto the road to justice, and the wheel spins. We must pray that time will bring the balm of Gilead to those shattered witnesses of this horrific crime…

fog-cab

* * * * * * * * *

HAVE A GREAT DAY! 😀