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Peter Diamond, British detective extraordinaire, must dig deep into Bath history to ferret out the secrets of one of its most famous (and scandalous) icons: Richard “Beau” Nash, who might be the victim of a centuries old murder.
Bath, England: A wrecking crew is demolishing a row of townhouses in order to build a grocery store when they uncover a skeleton in one of the attics. The dead man is wearing authentic 1760s garb and on the floor next to it is a white tricorn hat—the ostentatious signature accessory of Beau Nash, one of Bath’s most famous historical men-about-town, a fashion icon and incurable rake who, some say, ended up in a pauper’s grave. Or did the Beau actually end up in a townhouse attic? The Beau Nash Society will be all in a tizzy when the truth is revealed to them.
Superintendent Peter Diamond, who has been assigned to identify the remains, starts making discoveries that turn Nash scholarship on its ear. But one of his constables is stubbornly insisting the corpse can’t be Nash’s—the non-believer threatens to spoil Diamond’s favorite theory, especially when he offers some pretty irrefutable evidence. Is Diamond on a historical goose chase? Should he actually be investigating a much more modern murder?
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The kid was forever asking questions.
“What are those people doing, Dad?”
“I don’t know, son. Just looking.”
“Why are they looking?”
“It’s some kind of building site. The contractors put those high fences round for safety, but some people like to see what’s going on, so they make little windows in the panels.”
“What’s a contractor, Dad?”
“Can I look through the little windows?”
“Not now, son. We don’t have time.”
The kid had been taught the basic courtesies and he was smart enough to use them to get his way. “Please,
“Only for a moment, then.”
They crossed the road to the billboards and of course the observation window was too high for the kid, so the father had to lift him.
“What’s that, Dad?”
“I can’t see while I’m holding you.”
“That big ball.”
“What are you talking about? Let’s have a look.” The father held the kid aside for a moment. “I see what you mean. That’s a wrecking ball, son. You don’t see them much these days. They’re demolishing some old houses.” This, he now decided as a caring parent, was not such a waste of time, but should be part of the kid’s education. “It’s using what we call kinetic energy. The ball is solid steel, really heavy and hanging on a chain from the top of the crane high above the houses. The man in control pulls the ball back towards his cab with another chain and gives it a good swing at the building, like the conkers you and I played with last year. It smashes into the wall and knocks it down.” He shouted, “Wow! Just like that.”
“Can I see? Let me see, Dad.”
“Yeah. I suppose.” The destruction was so compelling that he’d forgotten the kid had his nose to the panel and couldn’t see a thing. He replaced him at the window.
“Is it going to smash the house down?”
“Not in one go. See if the ball is being hoisted back.”
“It is, Dad.”
“Good. Watch what happens, son.” Shame the peephole wasn’t big enough for two to look through at the same time.
“Crrrrrrrrash!” yelled the kid. And then on a disappointed note, “It’s still there.”
“I told you it takes several goes. Let’s see.” The kid was thrust aside again. “Yes, he’s hauling it back for another try.”
“Let me see.”
“In a tick.”
“Hold on, son.”
The ball smacked into the top floor of the end house of the terrace and produced a cloud of dust. Destruction is appealing. All along the barrier, people at the observation windows gave cries of satisfaction.
Like everyone else, the father was waiting for the dust to disperse to see the hole in the masonry.
Belatedly the kid was given his chance to check the damage.
“Now you know what happens.” The show wasn’t over, but the father had decided it was time to move on. He lowered the kid to the ground.
“I didn’t see.”
“Course you did.”
“Give me another look. Please.”
It was true that the kid had missed the best action. The father peered through again to check that the secondary steel rope was taut in preparation for another smack at the building. “Last time, then.” He lifted the kid again.
More shouts greeted another hit from the wrecking ball.
The kid said with delight, “Crrrrrrrrash!”
“Impressive, eh? That’s enough, then. We’ve got to get on.”
“Dad, what’s that man doing?”
“The man in the house.”
“There’s nobody in the house, son. It’s empty. It’s being demolished.”
“A man in funny clothes sitting in a chair. Look.”
“I’ve told you before, you mustn’t make things up.” He shifted the kid from the window and looked for himself.
In the attic of the end house, now ripped open, was a crumpled figure in an armchair. The dust from the demolition had coated it liberally and it was a parody of the human form held together by what appeared to be long outmoded garments: olive green frock coat, cravat, grey breeches, wrinkled white stockings. The head, sunk grotesquely into the shoulder bones and partially covered by a long black wig, was a skull and the hands resting on the chair arms were skeletal.
“Can you see the man now, Dad?”
“Is he dead?”
Spectacularly, irreversibly, abso-bloody-lutely dead, but you couldn’t say that to a small child. “Em, he could be just a dummy like you see in dress shop windows.”
“I’ve never seen a dummy like that. Can I have another look?”
“Definitely not. We’re leaving.”
In the next hour, the observation windows were more in use than ever on the demolition site in Twerton, the southwesterly suburb of Bath. People were waiting their turn for a look. All work had ceased. The foreman had called the police. A number of patrol cars and vans were lined up on what had once been a narrow road in front of the condemned terrace. But no one had yet started any kind of close examination of the occupant of the attic. Slumped in its chair, exposed to the daylight, the weather and the gaze of everyone, the skeleton was a treat for voyeurs and a rebuke for anyone who believed in respecting the dead. Normally a forensic tent would have been erected by now, giving the deceased some kind of privacy.
The difficulty was that the wrecking ball had rendered the building unsafe. The floor might well give way if anyone tried using a ladder to get near. “What we need,” the senior police officer on the ground said, “is one of those basket cranes they use to inspect street lamps.”
“Cherry picker,” his assistant said.
“Right. See if you can get one. If nothing else, we’ll get a closer look at the poor blighter.”
“One is already on its way,” someone else spoke up.
“You mean I’m not the first to come up with this brilliant suggestion?” Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond swung around to see who had spoken. “Oh, you,” he said to Dr. Higgins, the police surgeon who routinely attended fatal incidents. “Should have guessed you’d be here chucking your weight about.”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Higgins said, but with a grin. He was about half Diamond’s size. “It was my call, so it’s my cherry picker and my duty to inspect the corpse and decide whether life is extinct.”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“It’s the law, Peter, and you know it.”
After making a show of another long look, Diamond said, “Unless my eyes are deceiving me, that thing up there is a skeleton. He’s been out of it a few years. A few hundred years, if his clothes are anything to go by. No one here is going to report you if you declare him dead without getting close up.”
“Sorry. You’ll have to take your turn.” The doctor meant business. He was already wearing a bright yellow hard hat.
Diamond turned back to his assistant, Keith Halliwell. “What’s his game?”
“Dunno, guv. Does he want a ride in the cherry picker?
Some people never grow up.”
“Where’s the site manager?”
“Gone. They all buggered off home.”
“Do we know who owns these houses?”
“Some private landlord. There was subsidence reported a couple of years ago and when the borough surveyor was called he declared the whole terrace unfit for habitation. The tenants had to leave and it was boarded up while the legal formalities were gone through.”
“That figures,” Diamond said. “There’s an appeal process.”
“Meanwhile some squatters found their way in and occupied it.”
“Finally a demolition order was made by the council and here we are.”
“But a ten-foot fence makes me suspicious. There’s more to this than demolition.”
“Someone must have paid for the perimeter fence.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Anywhere in Bath is a prime site. Mark my words, Keith—some sharp dealing has been done here.”
“They like to call themselves developers. And nobody thought to tell the guy in the attic.”
Halliwell had worked with Diamond long enough to treat his deadpan remarks as serious conversation. “No one knew he was there. It’s not a proper attic room from what I can see. I’d call it a loft.”
The cherry picker trundled in soon after and took up a position in front of the gaping building. Dr. Higgins in his hard hat stepped into the basket as if he was about to lift off from Cape Canaveral, pressed the right buttons on the control panel and was hydraulically raised to the level of what remained of the roof.
“Get your stethoscope out, doc,” Diamond shouted up. “We’re all watching.”
There was no response from above, but the diagnosis didn’t take long.
Only after the machine was lowered did Higgins say, “There was no call for sarcasm, Peter. It could have been a plastic skeleton put there by students. Didn’t that cross your mind?”
“Actually, no. Are you satisfied he’s real?”
“I am now. Real—and well and truly dead.”
“Job done, then,” Diamond said. “I’ll go up and introduce myself. How does this thing work?”
“Haven’t you used one before? You’ll need the hard hat.”
“I’m not going to fall out of the bloody basket.”
“Health and safety. I’m a doctor, remember.”
With so many witnesses, Diamond was forced reluctantly to comply. Being stubborn, he borrowed a white Avon and Somerset helmet from a police motorcyclist and wore it with the visor up and the straps hanging loose.
The advisability of protective headgear was proved at once. His efforts at the controls were cack-handed.
There were smiles all round when the basket made a jerky ascent.
He didn’t learn much from his first close look at the skeleton. The figure was well coated in every sense. No doubt it had gathered dust from centuries in the loft, and the latest covering of powdered mortar had spread over that wherever it could settle. Only in a few places did the fabric of the eighteenth-century clothes show through. The skull with its lopsided black wig was at a weird angle, supported by the left shoulder. It was toothless.
As for the chair, it could have been from any period, with sturdy wooden legs, high upholstered back and armrests. There didn’t seem to be any other furniture about, but not much of the loft space was visible. Broken tiles were scattered across the floor.
How does a thing like this happen? Diamond asked himself. “I’m just going up into the loft, dear, and I may be some time.” Heart attack, stroke, overdose? The poor guy had found some privacy here, for sure, but why hadn’t anyone gone looking for him? A missing person must have caused some concern, even a century or more before the police were created.
The big detective gripped the crossbar and leaned as far forward as he dared for a better view. Too far forward.
To his alarm he lost balance and felt himself tipping. His face came within inches of the skull. Only by flexing his legs and hanging on to the bar did he avoid a catastrophic nosedive.
In the middle of this undignified manoeuvre, something flashed.
“Sonofabitch.” He knew what it was. Should have expected it. “Keith, grab that camera.”
A great picture for the papers, him in his police helmet leaning out of the cherry picker like Narcissus face to face with his reflection, except it was the skeleton. Muttering obscenities, he fiddled with the controls until one swung the boom left and another jerked him savagely to terra firma.
Halliwell had gone in pursuit of the press photographer, but with little chance of success. The age gap was probably twenty years. Presently he returned, panting and apologetic. “None of us spotted him on the site, guv. We were all watching you.”
This investigation was off to a bad start.
Little else could be done that afternoon. They ordered scaffolding for the front of the building, but the crew couldn’t start for at least an hour and then it wouldn’t be simple. A platform for access would have to be constructed and a waterproof canopy rigged over the top.
“This is going to eat into our budget,” Diamond complained to Halliwell. “It’s already a major operation and it isn’t even a crime scene.”
“It could be.”
“If it is, it’s a cold case and they don’t come colder than this.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read all of the Peter Diamond series and they only get better. The characters are so real it is easy to read yourself into the story. I look forward to more of Peter Diamonds cases.
Love all of Peter Lovesay’s Bath series.
From the publisher: A wrecking crew demolishing a row of centuries-old townhouses in Bath, England uncovers a body in one of the condemned buildings’ attics. The dead man has been in the attic a long time: all that’s left is a skeleton dressed in authentic 1760s garb, and a distinctive white tricorn hat. Could the body be that of Richard “Beau” Nash, Bath’s most famous historical dandy, the 18th-century Master of Ceremonies who turned Bath into the Georgian-era fashion icon it became, only to fall on hard times and supposedly be buried in a pauper’s grave? Thrilled by the possibility of proving the body is the Beau, Detective Peter Diamond rushes to learn all he can about the famed Beau and what became of him, but is he on a historical goose chase? Diamond undertakes painstaking and very impressive research into all sorts of aspects of the people and events during the time frame in question, including the underwear worn by them, and eventually to try to pinpoint who was, or was not, the victim. The demolition is taking place as the novel opens. An observer sees, “in the attic of the end house, now ripped open, a crumpled figure in an armchair. The dust from the demolition had coated it liberally and it was a parody of the human form held together by what appeared to be long outmoded garments.” It immediately appears that the man is “spectacularly, irreversibly, abso-bloody-lutely dead. As Diamond observes, “He’s been out of it a few years. A few hundred years, if his clothes are anything to go by.” What immediately concerns him is “why hadn’t anyone gone looking for him? A missing person must have caused some concern, even a century or more before the police were created.” A challenge to the famed detective, at the very least. As he says to a colleague, “it’s a cold case and they don’t come colder than this . . . Anyone can see it’s an ancient set of bones. It’s history, almost archaeology.” The first thing to be determined is whether or not it’s murder. When, soon after this discovery, there is another, current, murder. “Two sets of clues, two grids and two solutions. Or perhaps one grid after all, one diabolically difficult cryptic challenge.” He finds himself “dealing with two cases twenty years apart.” The author really makes 18th century Bath come alive, and this fascinating novel is recommended.