It's 1957, and Inspector Steine rather enjoys his life as a policeman in the seaside British town of Brighton. As far as he’s concerned, the town has no criminals, which means no crime, and no stress.
But much to Steine’s irritation, there’s a new constable in townthe keen and clever Constable Twitten, who sees patterns in small, meaningless burglaries and insists on the strange notion that perhaps all the crime has not been cleared out quite as effectively as Steine thinks.
Worse yet, some of Constable Twitten’s ideas could be correct: when renowned theater critic A. S. Crystal arrives in Brighton to tell the detective the secret he knows about the still-unsolved Aldersgate Stick-Up Case of 1945, he's shot dead in his seat.
With a new murder, a new constable, and a new lead on the decades-old mystery, the Brighton Police Force must scramble to solve this delightfully droll mystery in “the funniest crime novel of 2018” (Wall Street Journal).
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As his Brighton train drew out of Victoria Station five minutes behind schedule on the last day of his life, the theatre critic A. S. Crystal made a note in tiny handwriting: 'Complain to train company'. He had often travelled on this notorious line, and it had often disappointed, but until today he had let it pass. Today, however, he was in no mood to be charitable; the delay was unacceptable, and a complaint would duly be made.
Crystal was under no particular time constraints, as it happens. He would be spending the whole day in Brighton before attending a new play at the Theatre Royal in the evening. The lost five minutes were arguably immaterial. But he was a tightly wound man at the best of times and today he was especially tense, mentally girding himself for A Shilling in the Meter, whose reputation preceded it.
An angry play, by all accounts. A shocking play. A 'new' play, by a northern writer. Crystal hated it already, hence his fury with the train for starting late. Had he not met his end in Brighton within the next twelve hours, a swingeing letter on Daily Clarion headed notepaper would have been typed and dispatched as soon as his secretary Miss Sibert arrived the next morning at his serviced flat in Great Russell Street.
A middle-aged man in a smart grey raincoat, with a beaky nose and wire-rimmed spectacles, Crystal did not conform to the popular idea of the theatre critic. He had none of the flamboyance (long hair, opera cloaks, affected speech impediments) usually associated with the trade. His speaking voice was thin and reedy, and he had apparently never heard of deodorant. Arriving for a glamorous first night in the Haymarket or Drury Lane, Crystal looked more like a man sent in by the Revenue than an influential writer with millions of readers, who could decide the fate of a production by the use of one single, devastating adjective.
But he was rightly feared by everyone in the theatre. Today's paper contained a Crystal opinion piece lambasting the principle of knighthoods for actors; last year he had famously exploded the chances of a gritty northern drama called Clogs on the Batty Stones by dismissing it in just twelve (now-legendary) words: 'Wooden clogs, wooden dialogue, wooden acting; and thicker than two short planks'. There was something of Robespierre about Crystal. He was Robespierre with BO. It was his plain duty to point out deficiencies in every aspect of life. When something needed to be said, it was unthinkable that A. S. Crystal would not step up to the mark and say it.
Years before, in fact, when he had been assistant manager of the Aldersgate Branch of the Anglian Bank, he had spoken up even when armed criminals were holding him at gunpoint. Not to beg for his life, or to reason with the robbers. No, he had spoken up purely to press home some unwanted critical points.
'You're doing this very badly,' he had said, addressing a masked woman armed with an exotic Luger pistol.
'Put a sock in it, Stinky,' she had replied, pointing the barrel straight at him.
Those were her exact words. In his statement to the police afterwards, Crystal was able to reproduce precisely many things this masked woman had said; it was his facility with remembering dialogue on a single hearing that was the basis of his later confidence as a critic.
'You've also chosen the wrong day,' he had objected later, from his position tied to a cashier's swivel chair with a canvas bag over his head. 'There would have been far more cash in the safe if you'd come tomorrow afternoon.'
But no one cared what this little bespectacled assistant manager thought. Loud shots were fired at the ceiling, as the two robbers gathered the bags of loot in the middle of the banking hall. This was especially terrifying for Crystal. With his head in the sack, he alone couldn't tell the direction she was firing.
'I'm not kidding!' The woman was concluding the proceedings. 'I promise I'll shoot the next person who speaks. Now, I'm asking: any more for any more?'
At which point, she and her confederate had left the building with untraceable notes to the value of £25,000, never to be caught.
Crystal had at first seemed untroubled by the bank raid. For three months or so after the Aldersgate Stick-up (as the incident came to be known), he waved aside all offers of sympathy, and continued his work at the Anglian Bank. And then one day he found himself on a number 8 bus in New Oxford Street, weeping and shaking uncontrollably. For the next six weeks, his mother fed him ox-tail soup in bed at home in Hoxton, and when he finally re-emerged, unsteady, into the world, he found strange but wonderful solace in the theatre.
There was something cocoon-like in the darkness and the plush seats of those West End spaces; even if guns were fired in the plays, the bangs were planned for, written, part of the design. He loved drawing-room comedies and well-made plays. He revered the work of Terence Rattigan. Above all, he loved the community of the audience together in the dark – although people sometimes noisily vacated the seat next to him. After a while, he started submitting critical articles and feature pieces to the weekly papers, which he was delighted to see in print.
Not that he was a push-over as a critic; quite the reverse. He simply applied his own rule of thumb. When he saw beauty and wit and order reflected on the stage, he hailed it. Conversely, when he saw ugliness, passion and violence, he bowed to no one in his determination to stamp them out. It was the same feeling he had had during the bank raid: when something needed saying ...
Tonight's play stood for everything Crystal detested. True, he hadn't seen it yet, but he knew all about its writer Jack Braithwaite's infantile ambitions to shock and outrage the theatre-going public. This being 1957, a revolution was already tearing down the comforting old French doors and drawing-room scenery; in its place were kitchen sinks, mangles, and actors in string vests. Beautiful diction was out; regional invective was in.
Jack Braithwaite was not a leader in this revolution, but he was an articulate follower, and a forthright spokesman, with the sort of youthful arrogance and broody bespectacled looks that evidently made quite sensible women fall at his feet. An actor-turned-writer, too (they were always the worst). Crystal had already gone head to head with him on a BBC discussion programme, during which Braithwaite said, memorably, that if he ever wrote anything well-made, he'd have to 'cut off his own two guilty hands'. He had also said that old-school critics like Crystal should be 'put out of their misery'. Miss Sibert, speaking out of turn for once (she usually knew her place), had begged her employer not to go and see the new play. 'It vill only upset you!' she had said (she had a German accent).
But he could not shirk a challenge, so here he was on the train. Also, there was someone he desired to speak with in Brighton, so he could kill two birds with one stone. A Shilling in the Meter was bound to be sordid, hectoring, formless, northern in origin, and long – Crystal's top five dislikes. As the train picked up speed on the outskirts of the capital, and the bombsites became fewer and farther between, he picked up his notebook. He had an observation for the review.
'Rather than putting his shilling in the meter, perhaps Jack Braithwaite should have given a bob to a Boy Scout, to write the play for him,' he wrote. (It had been Bob-a-Job Week quite recently; Crystal always enjoyed a topical reference.) 'The Boy Scout would undoubtedly have done a better job than our long-haired northern friend in his absurd black turtleneck sweater and winkle-picker shoes.'
If this excellent sentiment turned out not to work in the context of the review, he could save it for another day. It was all grist to the mill. If it worked nowhere else, he would squeeze it into the memoir he was currently writing with Miss Sibert's help – a memoir linking a) the restorative world of the theatre with b) the life-changing trauma of the Aldersgate Stick-up, and c) the role of chance in a person's life. The book was thus far tentatively titled A Shot in the Dark.
* * *
The same morning, in the Lanes in Brighton, a prematurely bald antiques dealer named Henry ('The Head') Hogarth paid £50 for a set of antique coins that he knew for a fact to be stolen. The anonymous seller of these dodgy goods – who sported an improbably large nose and a jet-black moustache – hinted that, all things being equal, there might be more business they could do. Henry the Head said he welcomed such news. He was 'always in the market', he declared, cheerfully – and tilted his head forward to show the words 'Always in the Market' tattooed in cursive script on the top of his shining, shapely pate.
Before he left, Henry's customer paused at the door and asked a bizarre question.
'You don't need to answer this,' he said, 'but would you say you are a fond father, Mr Hogarth? Would you say you love your children beyond the usual bounds?'
Henry the Head hesitated. Was this a threat? A threat to his kids? He tensed up. Under the counter – out of sight – was a cricket bat, and instinctively he grasped its handle.
'I'd never grass, mate,' he said.
The man held up his hands in a reassuring gesture.
'No, you misunderstand, Mr Hogarth. It's just an intuition I have about you. I wondered if I was right?'
Not letting go of the bat, Henry the Head decided to answer. 'I'd die for my kids,' he said. 'Now, what do you want to make of that?'
'Nothing,' said the man, opening the door. 'I'm very pleased to hear it, that's all.'
* * *
In the preceding two weeks, the police in Brighton had become aware of a spate of house burglaries. In all cases, there was little to go on, and the officers could only take note of the valuables stolen and 'circularise' (official word for circulate) the details to pawnbrokers within the town. Appearing on the most recent list was the same collection of priceless antique coins that had just come into the possession of Henry the Head. When the file of witness statements was perused by Inspector Steine of the Brighton Constabulary, nothing in particular stood out as offering a helpful clue, beside the fact that all the break-ins had taken place between 7.30 and 9.30 on weekday evenings when the houses in question were empty.
On the day of A. S. Crystal's visit to Brighton, Inspector Steine spent the first half-hour of the morning in his office examining this file, which had been prepared for him by his 'bagman' Sergeant Brunswick. It didn't make him happy. Being a sensitive soul, it pained Steine to think of innocent citizens arriving home in the evening to discover they'd been robbed; it was very depressing, and he was rather inclined to be angry with Brunswick for bringing it to his attention.
But he took some small comfort from this file nevertheless. Two or three of the victims, he noticed, mentioned that on the day of the burglary a smartly dressed woman with bright auburn hair had called at the house in the afternoon and interviewed them on behalf of the national Public Opinion Poll. She had stayed around forty-five minutes and taken a particular interest in whether the householders kept a dog, whether they had any plans for the evening, and whether any window catches at the back of the property were especially in need of repair. This was all great news as far as Inspector Steine was concerned. He had always hoped one day to be interviewed by the Public Opinion Poll. How pleasing to discover that attractive female pollsters were operating in the Brighton area!
'Circularise details to pawnbrokers,' he wrote on the cover of the file, and handed it to Sergeant Brunswick, who was standing patiently beside the desk.
'Yes, sir,' said Brunswick, reading the instruction. 'You don't think the red-head is important?'
'Not really,' said Steine. 'She was only mentioned by one or two people. But I certainly hope she calls at my house, don't you?'
And there the investigation might have ended. But as Brunswick turned to go, the station charlady, Mrs Groynes, entered Steine's office with his ten o'clock cup of tea and plate of custard creams, accompanied by a tall young police constable in a helmet, who politely helped her with the door.
Inspector Steine acknowledged him, with a questioning raise of an eyebrow.
'Constable Twitten, sir,' said the unknown young man. He sounded well educated and unusually keen. He also sounded as if he thought his arrival was expected. 'Reporting for duty, sir,' he added, in a rush. And then, unable to suppress his excitement: 'Reporting for duty to the great Inspector Steine!'
Steine nodded. 'Th ank you, yes, that's me,' he said, quite kindly. 'You may remove the helmet.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Twitten.
Steine hoped this would mark the end of the interview. 'Good, good,' he said, and shuffled some papers on his desk. The day ahead looked unusually demanding: first, he had to finish writing a talk for his weekly BBC Home Service series entitled Law and the Little Man. Later, the theatre critic of the Daily Clarion was intending to visit him at the police station. Evidently this man remembered Steine from a long-ago case called the Aldersgate Stick-up.
Crystal had been a witness, apparently; Steine the investigating officer. In his letter to Steine, typed on Daily Clarion headed notepaper and postmarked WC1, Crystal claimed that the trauma had altered the course of his life. Steine's total lack of success in breaking the case at the time (by finding no leads) had robbed Crystal of both his chance to obtain justice, and also to shine in court. Steine sincerely hoped he wasn't about to receive some sort of ticking off.
'He's seen that film of yours any number of times, isn't that right, dear?' said Mrs Groynes, nodding towards young Twitten, who was still standing awkwardly to attention in front of Steine's desk, helmet under his arm. She flicked a feather duster over Inspector Steine's Outstanding Policing Award certificate in its ornate silver frame. Mrs Groynes wore a floral overall and brown lace-ups. Her hair was tied up in a paisley scarf. Steine had spoken to her before about her habit of wittering on, but it turned out that the wittering was nonnegotiable if you wanted the tea and biscuits.
'It was The Middle Street Massacre that made me decide to become a policeman, sir,' gushed Twitten. 'Father wanted me to study kinship systems in the Fens! But I saw The Middle Street Massacre, and then I read all the books about it, and I'm afraid I defied Father and enrolled for Hendon, and – I'm sorry, sir, you'll know all this already from my file, of course. The awards and commendations and so on. So I'll pipe down, shall I, sir? Yes, I think I should probably pipe down.'
Steine smiled again. He had no idea who Twitten was. He had seen no file. He looked optimistically at Brunswick, but from the sergeant's dazed expression, it seemed that he didn't know anything about Constable Twitten either.
'Just so,' Steine said.
And then Mrs Groynes said something that brought Inspector Steine a strange discomfort, and had such a powerful effect on Sergeant Brunswick that it seemed to raise the temperature in the room.
'This young man won a prize at Hendon for forensic observation,' she said.
'Did you, son?' said Brunswick, powerfully interested. 'Forensic observation?'
'Yes, sir,' said Twitten, blushing.
'Top of his year,' added Mrs Groynes.
Steine said nothing. Was this young know-it-all coming to work here? He hoped not. It was bad enough keeping Sergeant Brunswick in check.
'How do you feel about criminals, son?' Brunswick demanded.
Twitten looked surprised by the question, but answered it. 'I wholeheartedly oppose them, sir,' he said. 'Don't you?'
At this, a mixture of unfamiliar emotions appeared on Sergeant Brunswick's face – his usual pained expression giving way to amazement, disbelief, a little bit of triumph, and (most unfamiliar of all) hope.
* * *
At the Theatre Royal, the five cast members of A Shilling in the Meter were assembling on-stage for a meeting with the author. Prior to its opening night in London the week after next, the play was being 'tried out' in Brighton – a place famous for the regular tipping up of seats during performances, as outraged retired colonels struggled to their feet and hobbled out in noisy protest. The actors were right to be worried about tonight's first public performance. A Shilling in the Meter was over-long, quite hectoring, utterly sordid, unapologetically northern in origin, and completely formless – the five top dislikes of retired south-coast colonels (although they wouldn't have been able to compile the list themselves: they relied on A. S. Crystal to do it for them in their favourite establishment newspaper).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Shot in the Dark"
Copyright © 2018 Lynne Truss.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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