Graham Marshall is a respectable husband and father and dedicated London businessman. He’s always played the rules, assuming that’s the surest way to climb the corporate ladder. When he’s passed over for promotion by a ruthless colleague, something snaps. On a drunken walk home late that night, Graham unleashes his fury on a hapless panhandler and dumps his body into the Thames. As days pass for the anxious exec, he realizes to his astonishment that he’s gotten away with murder. And it appears to be much easier than anyone’s been led to believe.
Feeling more powerful than he has in years, Graham now has his eyes on the future—and on everyone who stands in his way, professionally and personally. It might have all begun with a terrible accident but for Graham, his new objectives are entirely by design.
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A Shock to the System
By Simon Brett
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 1984 Simon Brett
All rights reserved.
The first murder was almost accidental. Indeed, if it had ever gone to court the charge would probably have been manslaughter.
But the legal difference between the two crimes can be one of intention, and there is no doubt that at the moment he hit the old man, Graham Marshall intended to kill him.
And that was his first taste of the power of death.
But murder can also be reduced to manslaughter by provocation, and there was no doubt in Graham Marshall's mind that at the moment he killed the old man, he was provoked beyond human endurance.
Not provoked so much by the importuning of his victim, as by the entire forty-one years of his life. It had been a life, it seemed to Graham, of false promise and false promises; a life of carrots dangled, prizes offered, a long sequence of incentives to lure him along a road which he had only recently discovered to be a dead end.
That the realisation had taken so long to come only made it the more bitter. Like the victim of an elaborate confidence trick, he had contributed to his own deception, and was that much more reluctant to accept the real facts. For a long time he had refused to believe that he was up against a blank wall, convincing himself that the way out was merely hidden, and that finding it was another challenge to his proven intelligence and acknowledged ingenuity.
But the events of the Thursday in March 1981 that led up to the old man's death left him no further excuse for self-deception.
He was sealed off in a dead end, too far along the road to turn back and make a new start. And the gold for which he had spent forty-one years prospecting was fool's gold.
His life up until that point had been a series of competitions, and the only thing they had in common was the fact that he had won them all. With his new cynicism, he could see that the competitions had been limited in scope, his aspirations prudently pitched at his own level of ability, but he had not realised this at the time, and had faced each new test with regenerated enthusiasm and the determination to pass, to come out on top.
His parents had set the competitive tone of his life. For their son, subsequently to prove their only child, conceived in 1939 and born into a Britain at war, they had wanted the best, better at least than the hard road they had travelled through the privations of the 'Twenties and 'Thirties. Graham's father, who had worked himself up from a local government office in Rotherham to clerical eminence in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, saw daily the easier advance of colleagues with public school and university backgrounds, and determined that his son should have these advantages. Economy came naturally to Eric Marshall, and he forced it on his wife. Economy was the reason they restricted their family to one child. Any parsimony in the small semi in Mitcham, where they moved after the war, was justified if it contributed to Graham's education. 'Public school and university,' Mr. Marshall kept saying, 'they're the keys to the system – got to have those if you're going to get anywhere, Graham.'
A prep-school was the first essential. Graham probably never knew his parents' tension as they presented their son to the ex-Harrovian headmaster of a minor establishment in Streatham. Nor their relief when he passed this, the first of his public tests.
The school's attitude mirrored his parents'. Weekly progress reports, and a seating plan regularly reorganised according to academic achievement, encouraged Graham's competitive nature. And the fact that he was rarely out of the top three desks gratified both pupil and parents. Meanwhile, he shed their Northern vowels and adopted the speech patterns of the other boys at the school.
Common Entrance was Graham's next public assessment and again he was not found wanting. A day-school in New Malden, whose headmaster attended the all-important conference which justified the name of 'public school', welcomed the aspirant with arms wide enough to include a small scholarship.
Once there, when the run-up to O-levels demanded that the pupils specialise, Graham followed his father's advice, based on the observation that 'there'll always be jobs for teachers', and concentrated on languages, intensifying his studies of French and adding German.
These disciplines, in which words corresponded with other words, and answers were either right or wrong, suited the analytical turn of his mind, and he easily cleared the next hurdles of good marks in O-levels, A-levels, and finally – a peak hitherto unsealed in the Marshall family – entrance with a much-prized 'State Scholarship' to the University of Leeds where he was to read French and German (and, incidentally, just miss National Service).
The cynicism of forty-one years diminished these achievements in retrospect.
Post-war stringencies had made the prep-school desperate for pupils; the public school had been an extremely minor one; and Leeds University was not Oxbridge. But at the time they had been important milestones on the road to being a 'success'. Indeed, Graham became accustomed to hearing the word 'success' associated with his name. His parents and their friends used it often; even some of his fellow students used it, not without ambivalence, but still with admiration for his quick intelligence and dedication.
But achievement in examinations, where the rules were simple and unvarying, did not inevitably mean success in 'the outside world', an expression he heard increasingly during his final year at Leeds. 'The outside world' was full of achievers of different backgrounds, making their own rules. To earn the title of 'a success', Graham knew he had to contend with, and beat, this new competition.
It was therefore regarded as a significant – indeed, huge – triumph, when he won, against a reputed opposition of six hundred applicants, one of six Management Traineeships with the British subsidiary of the international oil company, Crasoco. The achievement was the greater because the opposition was not made up exclusively of university graduates, but included applicants who had been through National Service and older men from other oil companies, candidates with long experience of 'the outside world'.
For Graham's parents the appointment was a vindication of the long years of abstinence. Their investment had paid off. Their pride in their son knew no bounds. But with the pride came a certain distance, a recognition that Graham had now achieved that step-up into another earnings-bracket – potentially even another class – for which they had so ardently worked. And that his experiences in life would have a decreasing amount in common with their own.
So when, during the two years of his traineeship, he came back to Mitcham with stories of flying to the Middle East to inspect oil wells, of staying in the best hotels on company expenses, they regarded him with something approaching awe.
And when he moved into a flat in Kensington with three other young men, one of whom had been to Eton, the awe increased. As it did when he spoke casually of dinners eaten out in Chelsea bistros, of sports cars bought and sold, or of foreign holidays.
So far as his parents were concerned, there was no doubt of Graham Marshall's right to the title of 'a success'.
And, within Crasoco, it seemed to be increasingly applicable. After his two years' induction Graham confounded the expectation that he would use his language degree in a foreign posting by opting for administration. He applied for, and obtained, a staff appointment in the Personnel Department, where he quickly demonstrated an unsuspected talent for management, his quick intelligence and sufficient personal charm steering him fluently through the intricacies of meetings and committees.
The move to Personnel was unpredictable but shrewd, a calculated step sideways which could in time place him higher on the management ladder than a more obvious, but more directly competitive, career pattern. Personnel was an area where a bright newcomer could make a mark more quickly than in the departments which were more glamorous, but in which bright newcomers were ten a penny. As in many large organisations, the Personnel Department of Crasoco was something of an elephant's graveyard. It contained its share of staffing and welfare specialists, earnestly flaunting their third-class degrees in Psychology, but too many of the senior posts went to staff with long service records who had been proved inadequate in other fields. Failed General Managers, pushed sideways from foreign postings which they couldn't quite handle, spiralled down to retirement finding accommodation for expatriate staff. There hung about the Department an air of resigned insufficiency, a tendency to live in a past which had never quite delivered its promise.
While some young men would have found this atmosphere depressing, Graham recognised how well it suited his talents. He would have little intellectual competition, and his achievements would shine more brightly in a prevailing atmosphere of defeat. It was an ideal position from which he could play the system, from which he could continue to be 'a success'.
His age was also on his side, at a time when youth was becoming fashionable. Rationed straight-talking and studied casualness of dress fostered for him an image amongst senior management of something between enfant terrible and whizz-kid, a phenomenon which was impressive, even to those who distrusted it.
As a result, he collected special commendations and increments, and achieved his first promotion, to Assistant Personnel Officer, after only four years with the company, in the process leap-frogging other contenders over ten years his senior. His rise did not always make him friends, but none could deny his intelligence and skill in the complex board-game of company politics.
By the age of twenty-five he was earning more than his father and had the money to enjoy the much-discussed excitements of 'Swinging London'. Though almost too old for the 'Beatles generation', he participated in the clubs, parties and pop concerts with his customary controlled abandon. He started to shop in Carnaby Street, finding the gaudy expanse of a flowered tie or the ill-disguised evidence of beads about his neck more valuable counters in the game of confusing his superiors.
He also took some advantage of the supposedly new sexual licence, though not as much as he liked to imply to older colleagues. One or two mini-skirted dolly-birds came back to his flat (he was by now buying one of his own in a modern block in Chelsea), but these random couplings were not as guilt-free as he would have wished. A Calvinist streak, inherited from his parents and inspired by their unimpeachable example, left him with the unfashionable conviction that sex should be allied to marriage.
But marriage, when it came in 1967, continued the image of 'a success'. In the June of that year, when Procol Harum topped the charts with the moody pretentiousness of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', Graham met at a party Merrily Hinchcliffe, the beautiful waiflike daughter of television actress Lilian Hinchcliffe and sister of pop journalist, Charmian Hinchcliffe. By the beginning of September, when Scott McKenzie, from every juke-box and radio, urged visitors to San Francisco to wear some flowers in their hair, he had married her.
At the wedding, held in Chelsea Register Office, Merrily obeyed the musical injunction and was crowned with a garland of Michaelmas daisies. Her dress, of plain white Indian muslin, left no doubt that she wore no brassière. Graham, for his part, had on a see-through patterned shirt beneath a gold-frogged guardsman's jacket and, around his neck, a small brass temple bell.
They made a fine couple – Graham nearly six foot, dark-haired and handsome to those who did not look too closely at the narrowness of his eyes, Merrily a blonde wisp of thistledown on his arm. So they figured in the wedding photographs, kept framed and fading through the years ahead.
Graham's parents, stiff respectively in three-piece and two-piece suits of the sort people they knew wore to weddings, gaped throughout the proceedings. The presence at the reception of Lilian Hinchcliffe, informally famous in a turquoise kaftan, and Charmian, in a totally transparent blouse, urging a tame pop group to yet another chorus of 'All You Need Is Love', left them in no doubt that their son had arrived socially. They talked a little to some of his (also three-piece-suited) Crasoco colleagues, such as his immediate boss, George Brewer, but generally found the occasion bewildering. When Graham and Merrily set off in his latest car, a Mini-Moke, for what they called 'four weeks of love and freedom on the Continent', Mr. and Mrs. Marshall returned to Mitcham, doubting whether they would ever see their son again.
Graham and Merrily, after a wedding which was a hymn against materialism, had their month of 'dropping out', mostly on the Greek island of Mykonos (which had yet to go completely gay), and returned, she to the expensive flat in Chelsea and he to his well-paid job at Crasoco.
A year later they sold the flat at a handsome profit and moved to a three-bed-roomed house in Barnes. Within another year they had a son, Henry, and in 1970 Merrily gave birth to a daughter, Emma. By that time they had also accumulated a colour television, a hi-fi, a washing-machine and a dishwasher, and changed the Mini-Moke (whose unworldly zip-on top leaked rather badly in the rain) for a Citroen DS.
Through the 'Seventies, which coincided exactly with his thirties, Graham Marshall's main concern was work. Deploying his old skills with a new toughness born of experience, he continued to climb up the Crasoco management ladder from his unchallenged outpost in Personnel. Promotions and increments rippled along in a predictable sequence. He kept his finger on the company's pulse, noting whose opinions carried weight and whose were ignored. He went on management training courses, where he demonstrated great aptitude for the sterile exercises which were then fashionable. He was offered the chance of going on computer courses, but turned them down on the grounds that 'some gnome could always be summoned from the computer room to produce the figures'.
In this opinion he echoed George Brewer. Indeed, he kept very close to George Brewer and made himself an indispensable assistant when his mentor was elevated to the post of Head of Personnel. It meant rather more sessions than Graham might have wished of drinking in the company bar, lighting his boss's nasty little cigarettes, helping out with The Times crossword and agreeing with George's plans for Crasoco's future, but Graham knew it was worth it. The occasional insincerity could only strengthen his position in the system.
He did not agree with all of George Brewer's opinions, but usually kept his own counsel. George was a businessman of the old school, who constantly bemoaned the dearth of 'gentlemen' in the oil industry. He liked to conduct his affairs over lavish lunches and to spend the mimimum of time in the office. Though always ready with an 'Old boy' and bonhomous arm clapped around the shoulders, he was less good at the minutiae of grading systems, budgeting and job evaluation. Increasingly he was grateful to Graham for taking the burden of some of these tedious details off his shoulders.
George's antipathy to computers was almost Luddite in its intensity. They represented to him the threat of the unknown, and he was constantly heard to remark, 'I'm glad I'll have retired before the bloody things take over completely.' The whole Operations Research Department (or O.R.), computers and those who tended them alike, he dismissed under the derisive soubriquet of 'Space Invaders'.
In the early 'Seventies, under George's predecessor, most of the Personnel Records had been put on to computer, a proceeding which George regarded as 'more trouble than it was worth'. There was a feeling in certain areas of the company that the system was now outdated and should be replaced with something more modern, but George resisted the change. 'Over my dead body,' he would splutter after a few whiskies in the bar. 'Not while I'm in charge. I don't care what they do after I've gone.'
And Graham Marshall, the Head of Personnel's customary companion, would nod agreement while he made his plans for what would happen after George had gone. The system would be modernised. Though he knew nothing of their technicalities, Graham recognised the power that computers could bestow. And it was a power he intended to harness when he was in a position to do so.
Because there was little doubt by the end of the 'Seventies in the Department, or elsewhere in the company, that Graham Marshall was poised to take over George Brewer's job (and the five-thousand-pound increase in salary it entailed), when the incumbent reached retirement age in 1982.
Excerpted from A Shock to the System by Simon Brett. Copyright © 1984 Simon Brett. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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