A Scandal in Belgravia

A Scandal in Belgravia

by Robert Barnard BSC
     
 

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Murder pays no respect to rank...or the neighborhood. And so it happened that young aristocrat Timothy Wycliffe was bludgeoned to death in his elegantly furnished flat in Belgravia by a person or persons unknown. Unknown, in fact, for 30 years.

Then the dead man's friend Peter Proctor — once a young man on his way up in the diplomatic service, now a retired

Overview


Murder pays no respect to rank...or the neighborhood. And so it happened that young aristocrat Timothy Wycliffe was bludgeoned to death in his elegantly furnished flat in Belgravia by a person or persons unknown. Unknown, in fact, for 30 years.

Then the dead man's friend Peter Proctor — once a young man on his way up in the diplomatic service, now a retired Member of Parliament — seeks an antidote to boredom by attempting to write his own memoirs. Unfortunately, they seem to be creating more problems than he anticipated, and not just of the writer's-block variety. Peter keeps getting sidetracked by speculations on Timothy's death. The murder was allegedly accomplished by a beating from one of his boyfriends. But Peter can't accept so simple a solution, so he begins to probe the past. In so doing, he opens a fascinating window on British society during the 1950s and its changing — and unchanging — mores since.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ever-versatile Barnard (A City of Strangers, etc.) gives us a low-keyed story told by wryly self-deprecating widower and ex- cabinet minister Peter Proctor, now retired and writing memoirs that even he finds boring—until his memory of Timothy Wycliffe is revived. Timothy, son of a prominent politician, was a brilliant charmer, a promiscuous, not very closeted homosexual at a time when that could mean a jail sentence in England. He and Proctor were friends, not lovers, and worked together at the Foreign Office. Then, 30 years ago, at the height of the Suez crisis, Timothy was murdered—according to the police, by his Scottish pal Andrew Forbes, who took off for Spain and was never tried. Here, Proctor is haunted by a feeling that Forbes may have been innocent and sets out to find the truth. The search takes him to Forbes's sister, to Los Angeles, where his own son and grandson live, and finally to Wycliffe's aristocratic family and his still-living father. What he discovers is a shocker—and there's another yet to come. The reader may doubt the ability of Proctor and other characters to recall in detail 30-year-old conversations and events, but Proctor's story is quietly engrossing all the way to its jolting conclusion.
— Copyright )1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved"
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Barnard's elegant 24th mystery (after A City of Strangers ) finds him at his delightfully waspish best. Targets include the House of Lords (many members give ``the impression of long disuse''), political memoirs (``politicians in general have an affinity for fiction'') and Mrs. Thatcher (named as source of the quote ``the Good Samaritan had to have money''). The amiable narrator is statesman/industrialist Peter Proctor, sacked by Thatcher and now fretting about his memoirs, especially the mystery surrounding the long-ago murder of Timothy Wycliffe, his friend and sharer of the bottom rung in the Foreign Office in the '50s. Witty, imaginative, dazzling Timothy was battered to death in his flat in Belgravia near Buckingham Palace in 1956. The chief suspect, Andrew Forbes, a workingman believed to have been one of Timothy's many male lovers, skipped the country. What otherwise would have been a scandal was smothered by the Suez crisis. Peter, bothered that the murder had so little impact on him, now determines to investigate. Interviews take him as far as California to Forbes, who persuades him of his innocence. Then back to England and a confrontation with a truly evil monster who reveals why Timothy had to die. Barnard brilliantly depicts a seedy, struggling London in the '50s, the Suez fiasco as a symbol of the death of empire and Timothy's murder as a symbol of a wholly different social climate. (Aug.)
Library Journal
While writing his memoirs, ex-cabinet minister Peter Proctor questions the 35-year-old unsolved murder of Timothy Wycliffe, his good friend and colleague in the Foreign Office. Soon diverted by fond memories of this engaging and fully alive fellow--who happened to be gay--he researches the murder, questions Timothy's friends, family, and lovers, finally reconstructs the murder, and confronts the murderer. Barnard once again shows a masterful grasp of character and plot, immerses the reader in serious political and social atmosphere, and then throws a last hook shot. Great stuff.
Kirkus Reviews
Ever-versatile Barnard (A City of Strangers, etc.) gives us a low-keyed story told by wryly self-deprecating widower and ex- cabinet minister Peter Proctor, now retired and writing memoirs that even he finds boring—until his memory of Timothy Wycliffe is revived. Timothy, son of a prominent politician, was a brilliant charmer, a promiscuous, not very closeted homosexual at a time when that could mean a jail sentence in England. He and Proctor were friends, not lovers, and worked together at the Foreign Office. Then, 30 years ago, at the height of the Suez crisis, Timothy was murdered—according to the police, by his Scottish pal Andrew Forbes, who took off for Spain and was never tried. Here, Proctor is haunted by a feeling that Forbes may have been innocent and sets out to find the truth. The search takes him to Forbes's sister, to Los Angeles, where his own son and grandson live, and finally to Wycliffe's aristocratic family and his still-living father. What he discovers is a shocker—and there's another yet to come. The reader may doubt the ability of Proctor and other characters to recall in detail 30-year-old conversations and events, but Proctor's story is quietly engrossing all the way to its jolting conclusion.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781890208165
Publisher:
Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date:
02/28/2000
Series:
Missing Mysteries Series
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Scandal in Belgravia


By Robert Barnard

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 1991 Robert Barnard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-890208-16-5


CHAPTER 1

Evening in the Park


I have never thought of myself as a writer, so I have never imagined myself suffering from writer's block. Yet that, surely, must be what is preventing me writing.

Whenever I sit down at my desk to organise my thoughts, perhaps even sketch out a page or two, the figure that strolls insistently yet engagingly into my mind is always that of Timothy Wycliffe. He pops in, just as he used to pop into my office all those years ago, banishing the earnest intentions I had of getting down to some solid work. So insistent is this memory of him — laughing, incisive, shocking, as he used to be in life — that I seem totally unable to get down to any coherent narrative of those times.

It should be an easy, straightforward chapter to write, the story of the early 1950s — a dullish period in my life. I knocked off the first chapter (birth, family, education, humdrum army experiences at the end of the war, Oxford) with an ease that must have been deceptive, though I would not pretend there is any literary grace in the telling. I know that my early life was not of the stuff that the Sunday newspapers will be interested in serialising. What they will want is gossip about my fellow politicians, particularly those still in the public eye, and more especially dirt on the respected former Prime Minister who sacked me. The latter I shall dole out sparingly, if at all. It ill behoves a cabinet minister relieved of his post to bite the hand that hitherto had fed him, though most do. But certainly one period that will not interest the Sunday Times — inevitably it will be, I suspect, the Sunday Times — is my years as a fledgling diplomat at the Foreign Office. A brief, factual narrative is all that is required, and I should be able to sew it up in a dry ten pages or so. Yet it is not happening. Quite against my will Timothy is taking me over. Every time I take up my pen in he strolls, with the same sort of smile on his face as he had when he used to stroll up to my desk. And I know that the words will not come because my mind is taken over by that elegant, teasing, casually outrageous figure — my friend and colleague Timothy Wycliffe.

I do not think it is because he was murdered.

That was five years later, and by that time contact between us was casual and occasional. In fact, I'm afraid that his murder made less impact on me at the time than it should have done: it was something brutal, shocking, but I quite soon put it out of my mind. And yet in those years when we were together on the lowest rungs of the Foreign Office ladder we were really very close.

If I try to analyse that closeness I can see that his background dazzled me a little. His grandfather was the Marquess of Redmond — and even I, a middle-class Londoner who had been a day-boy at Dulwich, knew that a Marquess was something. His father was Lord John Wycliffe, a younger son, and said by some to be a rising star in the Conservative Party, though there were others at that time who said that figures such as he, who had acquired a Commons seat almost by family right, were increasingly out-of-date in Tory politics. Anyway it is likely that his family background helped Timothy to get into the Foreign Office, though, equally, there was no doubt that he was bright, bright in every way- — a sharp, uncluttered brain, with an imagination to match. I was dazzled by him personally quite as much as I was dazzled by his pedigree.

"We're the new boys here," he said to me when we were introduced, "so we see things more clearly than the old hands."

In fact he had been there about six weeks or so when I started, but essentially we learned the ropes and found our feet together. It was a testing time for both of us. This was early in 1951, in the dying days of the Labour government, when people were already envisioning Churchill's return as Prime Minister. It was also a time when problems, inevitable but unforeseen, were piling up. In particular my early days in the Foreign Office coincided with Burgess and Maclean absconding to the Soviet Union to avoid exposure as Russian agents, and with British oil interests in Persia (as most of us still called Iran) being threatened by Dr. Mussadegh, with his stated intention of nationalising the oil companies.

A baptism of fire indeed! In fact I don't remember discussing the former subject except very briefly and in hushed tones. I was too junior, and everyone was trying in vain to keep the matter under wraps. It was, so to speak, taken up on high, and we were expected to leave well alone. Security matters always lead politicians to reach for a thick blanket. A subject such as the Persian crisis, however, and our new Foreign Secretary's handling of it, was fair game for gossip in corridors and offices.

That is my first substantial memory of Tim — as opposed to a general sense of brightness and friendliness. We had both been working late, well into the evening one warm summer's day in June. What we were doing was certainly not important, but nevertheless it was pressing. We would be judged by the speed and competence with which we handled it. Finally, when it was put to bed, Tim landed up in my office with two cups of black coffee (nowadays I suspect it would be Scotch, for we have become a much more alcoholic nation), and we settled down for a good gossip. Inevitably the talk turned to "Herbie" — Herbert Morrison, the new Foreign Secretary, for whom the F.O. had several nicknames, not all of them affectionate.

"The trouble with Herbie," I remember complaining to Tim that night, "is that he gives the impression in the House that he's not on top of his brief I don't know if he is, and I don't suppose you do either, but the impression is what counts." "He's still feeling his way," said Tim. He jumped off my desk and did an imitation of Morrison, his cock-sparrow walk along the corridors, with his little eyes darting everywhere, as if he feared a stab in the back. "The F.O. is a daunting task to take on. Give him time and he may rise to it."

"It's time he's not likely to get," I pointed out. "Attlee's almost sure to go to the country in the autumn."

"True. Then we'll get Eden for sure. And don't be fooled by the public image of him

"Not nice?"

Tim frowned.

"I think he may be a perfectly good, well-meaning man. But there's something there — some unsureness. He can get frightfully prima-donnaish, and then he's hell to work for." Tim of course had never worked for Eden. I took such knowledge to be part of his birthright, springing from the political gossip that had surrounded him all his life. "So make the most of Herbie," he concluded. "A lot of the criticism is just journalistic niggling."

"Euphrates I said, quoting Herbie's two-syllable version of it that had aroused the mirth of newspapers.

"That's right. Winston and Bevin could mangle foreign names: they'd wrestle with a really odd one, and it'd land up on the ropes, badly mauled. People thought it was endearing, a patriotic trait even. Herbie does the same thing, but he does it more tentatively, and everyone laughs themselves sick. Herbie knows they wouldn't have laughed at Bevin, and that Bevin wouldn't have worried if they did. And that makes it worse. They loathed each other. "

"Then he should damned well master his text," I said.

"His mind is on other things."

"Well, it shouldn't be. What things, anyway?"

Tim nodded his head towards the South Bank, currently occupied by the Festival of Britain — the Festival Hall, the Dome of Discovery, and all those other constructions long since gone. Does anyone remember the Festival of Britain today? It was very much the creation of the Labour government, and much mocked in the newspapers, but I remember having an awful lot of fun there.

"The Festival is his baby," Tim said. "He loves it. It's what he wants to be remembered by. He's of an age when politicians start looking for monuments."

How true that was, and how we have suffered since from politicians anxious to leave monuments! It strikes me that Timothy Wycliffe's conversation was shot through with political insights which got to the heart of the matter — that illuminated things that I only now, after a quarter of a century in politics, am beginning to understand. It can't have been just his growing up in a political household, especially as I never got the impression he and his father were particularly close, or that he had sat at his feet politically. I think it was his own perceptive, incisive intellect that taught him so much so early about the game of politics, and about politicians and their ways.

I have set down all I remember about that first conversation I had with him that did not concern day-to-day business. But I have one strong visual memory of him too: Timothy, sitting on my desk, slim, elegant, intensely alive, with the long lock of fair hair falling over his eyes to give a misleading impression of dandyism, of the dated aesthete.

Alive — that is, sadly, the word that sums him up for me. Alive, joyful, thirsty for experience, with a relish for all kinds of people and an ever-present sense of the ridiculous.

Quite by chance we finished the other pieces of low-level drudgery we were engaged on at the same time, so that we happened to meet at the King Charles Street door. We walked together down the steps and over to St. James's Park, talking and laughing. We were so late it was already twilight, and the park — much my favourite of all the London parks — was looking magical. We were still laughing, I remember, when we separated at the point where our paths diverged, Tim to go towards the Palace and then on to Belgravia where he lived, I to go to the St. James's Park tube station.

I dallied a little. I was still living with my parents in Dulwich at that time, and there was no reason for me to hurry home. The air was fresh and bracing, and I was still a little intoxicated at being a part — an oh-so-tiny part — of great international events. An off-duty guardsman crossed the path in front of me, and a courting couple hugging each other close. I remember loitering along, and I remember before I left the park turning towards the Palace, perhaps with some sentimental thoughts about the King, who was looking old and tired, and about the young Princess who would one day succeed him.

I could see a point, some way away, where two of the paths converged. I saw the off-duty guardsman I had already noticed approach it from one direction. I saw Tim Wycliffe approach it from another. I saw them both slacken pace. I saw them make some kind of contact, of eye, of word. I stood there frozen, gazing towards them, my heart beating very fast. They talked, and then I saw them walk on slowly together. Then, as the light seemed altogether to fail, I saw them go off together into the bushes.

CHAPTER 2

Belgravia


I would be impossible today to convey to anyone under the age of forty the stunned sense of shock I felt. Difficult, too, to explain my ignorance and naiveté on the subject of homosexuality. I had been to a public school, after all. I can only say that, whatever I might have learnt had I gone to Eton, I had no such experiences at Dulwich College to contribute to my sexual enlightenment. Perhaps this was due to the fact that we had so many day boys, and we tended to stick together. I was neither attractive nor charming, being known as "Plod" Proctor. So that subject I learnt about through the odd smutty joke, and through playground allusions of it — that is to say, I remained profoundly ignorant of it.

The fact that I was shocked I would account for by citing factors both personal and public: I was the child of conventional, middle-class parents, people doing dull jobs, leading dull lives and having dull opinions, whose automatic reaction should the topic come up in the Sunday papers was to purse their lips and shake their heads. The papers then treated court cases involving homosexual conduct in the lip-licking style they today use in reporting child sex-abuse cases, or MPs who go in for spanking sessions.

And then there was the Guy Burgess factor. Burgess had disappeared to Moscow only months before, leaving behind a legion of tales about his brazenly open homosexuality, his liaisons, his gay parties (I suppose the newspapers would have used words like "queer" and "pervert" at the time). The rumour — or was it a joke? — around the Foreign Office was that he had left as his forwarding address: "Stage door, Bolshoi Ballet." At that very time newspapers were indulging in speculation that was frankly no wilder than some of Burgess's conduct. Questions about him and his activities were being tabled daily in the House of Commons, and Herbie Morrison was struggling to answer them, or not to answer them, as is the habit of ministers when security matters come up.

That, in short, was why I was stunned by Timothy Wycliffe's going off into the bushes with a guardsman. I must have stood there for all of a minute before I resumed my walk to the Underground. If I was unduly thoughtful when I got home it was so close to bedtime that my parents did not notice. No doubt my mother made me a mug of Horlicks and we all turned in to sleep the sleep of the just. I lived, as I say, in a very dull household, and it was all light years away from grandsons of Marquesses and encounters with guardsmen in St. James's Park.

I tried very hard next day to be the same as usual to Timothy Wycliffe. Probably I tried too hard. I am not a good actor, and this often harmed my political career. People knew what I really thought. At any rate I became convinced over the next few weeks that Timothy knew that I knew, had worked out how I knew, and was amused that I was shocked. Sometimes when he was talking to me he looked into my face and there was a satirical turning-up of the corners of his mouth that was not malicious, but seemed to express a sort of delight in the absurdity of people — in this case me. It did not affect his friendliness and openness to me, only my friendliness and openness to him.

It was perhaps two or three weeks later that our friendship reached a decisive phase — a phase when I had to make a conscious decision whether to accept or reject him and his life. How far he deliberately brought this about I never quite knew, but he did admit that he wanted it brought out into the open.

There were many quaint survivals and oddities in Foreign Office practice at that time that had not been swept away by the advent of a Labour government. Bevin was interested in policy, and the implementation of policy, and if he knew of these oddities he probably regarded them with the Olympian amusement of a Trade Union baron at the eccentricities of the upper classes. One of these survivals was that certain great folk were to be dealt with whenever possible in person, rather than by telephone or letter. However low-level the personal contact (and they didn't come lower-level than me at that time) that was how the business was to be done. The list of these great folk, some or most of them obscure and quite unknown to the general public, had apparently come about in an arbitrary way, with a rhyme and reason that was scarcely discernible to the normal human brain, and this was the only reason I can give for the fact that on an evening in July 1951 I was given the assignment of calling on Lady Thorrington in Belgrave Square.

"A question of residency rights for three displaced persons," I grumbled to Timothy in the course of the day. "And for that I have to traipse all the way over to Belgrave Square to deliver the papers in person."

"My neck of the woods," said Tim. "I'll collect you later and we'll go together."

He turned up in my tiny office around four thirty, much earlier than need be, saying it was a fine afternoon and we deserved a break. Again we left the rambling pile of the Foreign Office, walked down the steps from King Charles Street, and began across the park. At least I'm keeping him from accosting guardsmen, I thought — a mean little thought, probably springing from embarrassment. We kept up a vigorous conversation, perhaps on my part to prevent him bringing up the question of my knowledge. We discussed, I remember, the Belgian king's abdication, and the prospects for the new king. I forecast that the country would be a republic within a year (my opinions on foreign affairs at that time were almost invariably wrong, which is still the case with many officials in the Foreign Office today). Tim put forward the idea that monarchies had usually survived in the twentieth century in countries with strong Labour Parties. Typically I regarded this as a brilliant paradox, though in fact it was simply a matter of intelligent observation. We had this conversation as we skirted Buckingham Palace, where the Queen's Gallery now is, and we walked on through an overcast afternoon towards Belgravia.

We were close to Belgrave Square itself when Tim slowed down and touched me on the shoulder.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Scandal in Belgravia by Robert Barnard. Copyright © 1991 Robert Barnard. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert Barnard's most recent novel is "Dying Flames". His other books include "The Graveyard Position, A Cry from the Dark, The Mistress of Alderley, The Bones in the Attic, A Scandal in Belgravia, Out of the Blackout", and many more. Winner of the prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger and Nero Wolfe awards, as well as the Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards, the eight-time Edgar nominee is a member of Britain's distinguished Detection Club. He and his wife, Louise, live in Leeds, England.

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