When children's book author Oliver Swithin, reluctant creator of the notorious "Finsbury the Ferret," finds an old friend's body floating in a Trafalgar Square fountain, he can't convince the police to treat the death as a murder.
But then more corpses turn up daily—on a tube station platform, in a botanical gardens hothouse, even in the middle of Piccadilly Circus—each murdered in an increasingly bizarre manner. It seems that a serial killer is at play, using London's landscape as his game board.
Oliver joins his uncle, Detective Superintendent Tim Mallard, in a race to uncover the pattern behind the growing number of deaths. But even if they solve the murderer's puzzle, will it help them identify the next victim before the killer strikes again? And will Oliver ever reveal his secret passion for Mallard's assistant, the forbidding Detective Sergeant Effie Strongitharm?
And what does any of this have to do with a battery-operated ferret, the works of Lewis Carroll, the great London Scorpion Scare, the episode of the nude Macbeth, and Underwood Tooth, the world's leading expert on being ignored?
About the Author
Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London. He moved to Manhattan in his twenties and now lives with his three sons in Rye, New York, a city named after the English seaside town where his grandmother was born. An Embarrassment of Corpses introduces children's book author and amateur sleuth Oliver Swithin and his girlfriend, Scotland Yard detective Effie Strongitharm.Alan is also the co-author of a non fiction book on American culture and values.
Read an Excerpt
An Embarrassment of Corpses
An Oliver Swithin Mystery
By Alan Beechey
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Alan Beechey
All rights reserved.
If Sir Hargreaves Random had been a character in one of his own adventure yarns—aptly named, for they were inclined to be woolly, drawn-out, and clumsily wound-up—he would surely have written a more glorious death for himself.
Not that death ever struck down the plucky heroes of Sir Harry's stirring stories for boys. And although the hero's best friend was occasionally required to hurl himself into the path of a flying kris, a rearing cobra, or a chillingly accurate Luger, Sandy (or Corky or Dusty) always managed to recover from his flesh wound in time for the next term's adventure.
But when an older and therefore more dispensable character was forced to sell himself dear for King or Queen and Country, Sir Harry made sure he was dispatched worthily: the Prof picked off by a Boer sniper as he tried to escape from the besieged fort; or the Doc stabbed with a treacherous alpenstock in the Klosterpass, wielded by that tall, blond guide (who'd claimed to be Swiss). Sir Harry would never have written an embarrassing end like his own. A Random character simply wouldn't be seen dead in a Trafalgar Square fountain on an August Bank Holiday morning, floating face down with a look of mild irritation on his face, mortified in all senses of the word.
It's also unlikely that the young man who had just run unsteadily into the deserted Square could have featured in one of Sir Harry's books. His fine, hay-colored hair was too straight and floppy for a Harry Random hero, his chin was insufficiently square and firm, his front teeth were too prominent, and his blue eyes were rather docile behind wire- framed spectacles. The tuxedo he was wearing had clearly seen better days, most of them upon a former owner.
The young man trotted across the empty street to Nelson's Column, and with a nervous glance around, clambered unsteadily onto one of the plinths that supported Landseer's sentinel lions.
"Snark!" he shouted halfheartedly. He paused, hoping to hear an answering cry over the gush of the fountains and the flapping wings of petulant pigeons. When none came, he stepped gingerly onto the lion's paw and dragged himself onto the beast's neck.
"Snark!" he called again, holding onto the statue's mane as he scanned the square for any other sign of human life. His voice echoed from the porticoed front of the National Gallery, but there was no other reply.
Far above him, the rising sun was gilding the pigeon guano on Nelson's hat. The young man sank down on the lion and studied his cheap wristwatch: 6:13 a.m. "Nearly quarter past six," he translated. Feeling no time-check was complete without an adverb, he detested the digital watch-face. Oliver Swithin believed the purpose of a timepiece was not to tell you what time it is, but what time it isn't.
From the other end of Whitehall, Big Ben tetchily confirmed the inaccuracy of its Japanese cousin. Swithin listened to the chimes, clear on the morning air, and yawned loudly into cupped hands, recoiling slightly from his recycled breath. He closed his eyes and gently massaged them with his fingertips. As he opened them again, he found himself staring at something black and shapeless, floating in one of the nearby fountains like an inflated rubbish bag. He frowned, aware that a terrible suspicion was penetrating his claret-fueled headache. Then he slithered awkwardly to the ground and ran across the square.
Sir Harry Random's corpse was bobbing gently on the choppy water, the arms floating on either side. As Swithin stared, an eddy dribbled it into a jet of water spouted by one of the fountain's bronze Tritons, and it swirled away again like an adolescent losing his nerve at his first dance.
"Oh my fur and whiskers!" Swithin muttered. "It's a Boojum!"
There was nobody in sight. With a haste that would have pleased his tailor—if such a person had ever existed—he wrenched off his jacket and suede shoes and plunged into the cold water, splashing across to the corpse. He tried to turn it over, but Sir Harry's waterlogged dinner jacket kept slipping from his grasp. So Swithin grabbed the body by one outstretched hand and hauled it across to the edge of the basin, as if he were towing a boat.
* * *
Police Constable Urchin longed for the day when he could say he'd seen everything, but so far he'd seen nothing. In his first week on the beat, he'd dutifully spent each night patrolling the streets around the British Museum, but to his disappointment, he and PC Grunwick, his more experienced companion, had made no arrests. Grunwick's conversation was also taking its toll, as it consisted almost entirely of pointing out some hapless passer-by and whispering: "I bet chummy there's got something to 'ide. I can spot a villain a mile off." When Urchin asked how, Grunwick would merely tap the side of his extensive nose and say "Ah, you have to be in the force as long as I 'ave, son," which only deepened the new policeman's discouragement.
But now Urchin, still in uniform as he made his way home through Trafalgar Square, was finally witnessing an incident. Two men were taking an early morning dip in one of the fountains. In black tie. The policeman locked his hands behind his back and strolled over.
"Bit early to see in the New Year, isn't is, sir?" he asked insouciantly, as he watched the younger man attempt to carry the older one over the fountain's rim. "Or is this perhaps some early morning baptismal rite?" Good, he thought, the right hint of erudition. More of the coiled steel than "Having a spot of trouble, sir?" and a considerable improvement on "You're bleedin' nicked, mate," which he suspected would be Grunwick's choice of phrase.
The young man, up to his hips in the cool water, stared at the policeman for a moment through glasses that were beginning to mist up. His lank, fair hair was dripping.
"So there is one around when I need one," he said calmly. "Here, take an elbow." Momentarily lost for a witty response, Urchin found himself obeying mutely, and between them, they maneuvered the body out of the fountain and onto the ground, where it lay in a spreading puddle of water. Swithin crouched quickly beside Sir Harry, grabbing him under the neck and sealing his lips over the older man's mouth.
"Here, I say, none of that, really, I don't care how drunk you are," protested Urchin, with an anxious glance to see if they were being watched.
"I'm giving him artificial respiration, you donkey," Swithin snapped between gulps of air. "If you want to help, check his pulse."
Urchin felt for a pulse at Sir Harry's wrist. There was none. He started to reach into the buttoned-up jacket to feel for a heartbeat, but recoiled as his hand scraped across something sharp. Several needles with trailing threads were stuck in the wet lapel.
"Shall I do CPR?" he asked, sucking at his grazed skin. Swithin broke away abruptly.
"No," he replied. He wiped his mouth on his wet shirt-sleeve.
"Well, how long has he been in the water? We shouldn't give up this easily."
"It isn't the water," said Swithin. He took his hand from behind Sir Harry's neck and showed it to the policeman. It was smeared with thick blood. Pink rivulets began to run down his soaking wrists.
They sat the body up and stared at the shattered skull.
"I'd better call for an ambulance," Urchin said eventually. He turned reverently away and began speaking in a low voice into his radio.
"They'll be here in a minute," he said, looking back at the corpse, which was once again flat on its back. Swithin sat damply on the ground beside it, gathering his knees in the crook of each elbow. He had draped his jacket around his shoulders.
"Aren't you going to take a statement?" he asked quietly.
"The duty officer will do that, Mr....?"
"Swithin. Oliver Swithin. And the recently departed is Sir Har–greaves Random. Harry to his friends."
"Is that the Harry Random? The writer of those old boys' stories? I didn't know he was still alive."
Swithin nodded sadly but inaccurately. "He was a good friend of mine. I've been with him for most of the night."
Urchin remembered from his recent training that in the presence of sudden grief, he should make a cup of tea for the bereaved. He scanned the terrain—plenty of water, but no kettle. "Then I offer my condolences, sir," he concluded lamely.
Swithin looked up at the policeman. "I really think you should take a statement, you know."
"And why's that, if I may ask?"
"Because Sir Harry was murdered."
Urchin started and closed his eyes, as if flinching from a momentary attack of vertigo. A murder! Alas, poor Grunwick, where be your jibes now?
"You saw it happen?" he asked eventually, moving his tongue across suddenly dry lips.
"No. I found him floating here, just a moment before you came on the scene."
"Then how can you be sure it was murder?" Urchin asked, his mind racing. "Because of that bash on the head? Isn't it more likely that he stumbled into the fountain and hit his head on the bottom?"
Swithin hauled himself to his feet and located his shoes, which he began to tug over his soggy socks. "It takes a lot of force to do that much damage to a skull. If Harry had fallen accidentally into the fountain, the water would have cushioned him."
"Perhaps he fell into the fountain from a height?" said Urchin, gazing first at Nelson's Column and then more realistically at the main water jet, which sprouted from the middle of the fountain like a giant chalice. Swithin smiled.
"Harry Random was born on the twenty-ninth of February, so he claims he's only nineteen, but he's actually in his late seventies. He hasn't scaled a national monument since VE-night." He looked tenderly at the body sprawled by his feet. Urchin, notebook in hand, noticed the emotion.
"I will take that statement, Mr. Swithin," he said, with sudden decisiveness. Grunwick! thou shouldst be living at this hour. "When did you last see Sir Harry alive? In your own words, please."
"A couple of hours ago."
"I assume from your dress that this is a late night rather than an early morning."
"Yes. We'd been taking part in our club's annual Snark Hunt."
"We play characters from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark. You've heard of it?"
"Of course I've heard of it," snapped Urchin in an offended tone. "I went to Christ Church, Lewis Carroll's college, as a matter of fact, although I suppose you think it beneath the dignity of an Oxford graduate to be a police officer." He chose to ignore the fleeting slap from his superego for implying that he had, in fact, graduated.
"Not at all," Swithin answered quickly, detecting the distant metaphorical click of a can of worms meeting a tin opener. "I have the highest respect for the police force. My uncle, as it happens, is—"
"Well, never mind about that," Urchin interrupted, with a petulant wave of his notebook. O mute, inglorious Grunwick. "What's all this about Snark Hunts?"
"Sir Harry and I both belonged to a club for authors of children's books," Swithin said. "The Sanders, on Pall Mall." He pointed west. "It's just a few hundred yards that way."
"Why's it called that?"
"The club operates under the name of Sanders. Not a Carrollian reference. We have to balance the enthusiasms of the members—the Pooh contingent can get quite militant."
"So you're a writer yourself?" Urchin asked, after taking down Swithin's exact words in longhand.
"I've written several books for young children."
Urchin looked up with interest. "What are they, perhaps I've heard of them? I've got two little nieces and I often read to them." He blushed. "They call me Uncle Plod," he added shyly.
Swithin was equally abashed. "Well, I write a series of books about a family of field mice who live on a British Rail train. They're called—"
"The Railway Mice!" exclaimed Urchin, with a slight hop from one foot to another. "I've read them! But I thought those books were written by O.C. Blithe–ly?"
"A pen name, invented to spare me this kind of embarrassment."
"Oh, but you shouldn't be embarrassed," said Urchin sincerely. "My nieces love your books, especially since you introduced Finsbury the Ferret. But it's funny, I always pictured you as a woman. Oh well, back to business." The smile rapidly faded from his face, and he officiously licked the end of his pencil, only to discover with a grimace that it was a pen. "Go on about this Snark Hunt."
"Every year, the club organizes a Snark Hunt, in which ten members impersonate the fabled hunting party. You know, the Bellman, the Boots, the Beaver, the Banker, the Billiard-marker, etc. Sir Harry was the Bonnet-maker. Hence the needles and thread in his lapel—we all had a few props to identify ourselves. Well, all the other members who turn up become Snarks, and disperse themselves around St. James. We give them a few minutes' head start and then come after them. When they're all caught, we can 'softly and suddenly vanish away'—usually back to the club bar. That's where most of the Snarks hide in the first place, anyway."
"And what time did the Snark Hunt start last night?" asked Urchin.
"So you and Sir Harry had both been wandering the streets for six hours?"
"Good heavens, no, Constable! Harry and I very quickly gave up and went back to the club. We've been playing poker most of the night. I'm afraid I dozed off about four o'clock, and when I awoke a little while ago, Harry was gone. The club porter told me he'd left ten minutes earlier, heading toward Trafalgar Square. I followed, and that's how I found him."
Oliver Swithin shuddered, as much from the memory as from his clammy clothes. Sunlight was trickling down the column above them like peach-colored paint, but the Square was still cool in the shade.
"Okay, how about this?" said Urchin suddenly. "Sir Harry gets to the Square and wonders if any of your Snarks could still be hiding. There are plenty of statues and bollards and parapets to conceal themselves behind. He notices that the water in the fountains is off and the basin is empty, and so he takes a look inside. In fact, he climbs in and looks around." The policeman started walking around the perimeter of the fountain until he drew level with a statue on an island a few feet from the rim. It was a half-man, half-fish figure holding sea creatures in his hand. Water gushed loudly from their mouths into the basin.
"He gets in front of this statue," he shouted, "just at the very second the water gets turned on. The force of it, flowing out of this dolphin's mouth, knocks him off his feet and onto the bottom of the fountain, stoving in the back of his skull. By the time you get here, ten minutes later, the fountain's filled up."
The harsh notes of an ambulance siren, like a crudely synthesized cuckoo, could now be heard above the steady rush of the water. Oliver Swithin, crouching over Sir Harry's body, looked up.
"Rather a convenient coincidence," he remarked.
"All right," said Urchin huffily, "the CID will need to check to see what time the water came on, but as a theory, it's no worse than yours, which posits the existence of a murderer for which we have no evidence. The principle of Occam's Razor would say mine's the more likely explanation."
"Really," replied Swithin casually. "Then how do you explain this?" He unbuttoned Sir Harry's sodden jacket and flung it open. On the starched front of the dead man's dress shirt were a series of blue lines—a straight line drawn vertically, crossed twice by two semicircles, like a double-ended trident. "That wasn't there the last time I saw him."
The ambulance swerved into sight, slowed to mount the curb, and coasted toward them, scattering the slow-witted pigeons. A moment later, a crowded police car also made the turn from the Strand.
"You realize what you're saying," said Urchin hastily, as several men in belted raincoats clambered out of the car. "You're saying that a murder has been committed, and you are the only person known to have been in the vicinity at the time of death."
"Well, yes, I suppose so."
Urchin tucked his notebook into the breast pocket of his tunic and placed his hand grandly on Swithin's shoulder.
"In that case, Oliver Swithin, alias O.C. Blithely, I arrest you for the murder of Sir Hargreaves Random. By the way," he added quickly, as the ambulance team descended on the body, "can I have your autograph? It's for my nieces, you understand."
Excerpted from An Embarrassment of Corpses by Alan Beechey. Copyright © 2014 Alan Beechey. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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