Five and a Half Tons - not so much film noir as seaside gris. The year is 1962, and Westerby-on-Sea is slumbering through its drab off-season. Life is quiet for J.F. Springer, Private Detective - and, though he admires Philip Marlowe and Sexton Blake, quiet is pretty much how he likes it. Called in to find a missing woman, he has high hopes of solving the case and getting paid in double-quick time. But for Springer, life is never so simple. Soon he's embroiled in an affair that involves housebreaking, missing diamonds, threats to his life, an apparent suicide, and a pigeon-fancier who suspects Springer has amorous designs on his daughter. The police take an interest, first arresting Springer, then warning him off, and finally using him as bait in a trap. To further complicate Springer's life, Jim Tarbet, the local wideboy, is determined to make Springer repay a trifling debt... Like a famous predecessor, Springer tries to be taller, but all around there are too many goons and not enough brains.
|Publisher:||Holland House Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
John Bayliss was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire and spent most of his life in the English Midlands. He now lives in a seaside town in the West Country and still can’t get over how close he is to the beach. One of his earliest memories was writing a story in primary school, and he basically hasn’t stopped writing since. A veteran of many writers’ groups and creative writing courses, he’s tried his hand at historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy and now he’s having a stab at crime–though with a comic twist. When not writing he’s taking photographs of wild places.
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Five and A Half Tons
By John Bayliss
Holland House BooksCopyright © 2013 Richard Young
All rights reserved.
Why, in the name of all that is tax deductible, did I ever become a private detective?
There must be a billion and a half easier ways to make a living. Deep sea trawlerman, experimental test pilot, human cannonball, food taster for some despised third world potentate — these and many other equally intriguing careers all suggested themselves in a split second and, believe me, if a job offer had been pending for any of them I would have accepted in a flash.
So what brought on this overwhelming urge to re-evaluate my vocation all of a sudden? Well, in addition to my usual troubles (I won't bore you now — but stick around), it happened that some lunatic with a gun was shooting at me.
It was definitely a real gun, too, and those were definitely real bullets spewing from the nozzle, sizzling through the air and ricocheting from the flagstones yards behind me. Thank God he was a hopeless shot, otherwise that would have been it, finis, for my little life, and this story would have been considerably shorter — although I worried that maybe it was more accurate to say he was an unlucky shot, because that first bullet whistled so close to my right ear that I actually felt the heat it radiated.
Yes, friends, I really did come that close to cashing in my chips, few as they are.
The human mind can do some unexpected things in times of danger. Just this once, I didn't panic — or perhaps what I did was a particularly productive variety of panicking, because a kind of autopilot took over and launched me with unexpected velocity behind the nearest wall. Now, this wall happened to be no more than three feet high, and wishing it higher wasn't going to help much, but beggars never get to be choosers in my particular corner of the universe so I was simply praying that the masonry was thick enough to save my life.
Oddly enough, it was only now, as I crouched quivering in the shadow of that life-saving wall, that I actually heard anything go Bang!
It would be nice to say that it was mere bad luck that had put me on the wrong end of this fusillade, that my assailant was simply some ill-guided lunatic who'd picked me at random from the many individuals who passed his house on a daily basis. Had someone else been strolling by when he flipped, then it would be them cowering here like a scared rabbit, not I. Or if I had been on the point of uncovering some vast criminal conspiracy and made myself such a nuisance to the sinister mastermind behind it all that he was forced to put his best assassin on the case, then I might have understood — but unfortunately that wasn't so, either. I happened to know who this character was and it seemed he had some reason to shoot at me, though what that reason was remained a mystery. The rather more immediate and less appealing aspect of this situation was that it seemed to mean that he wasn't going to stop until he was quite sure I was dead.
The parapet might give me protection from his bullets, but I wasn't entirely safe from his wrath, because now he starting shouting at me. First he poured scorn on my claim to belong to the male gender, a little later he was claiming irregularities in my parents' matrimonial status, finally he was asserting that I have more in common with a whole catalogue of the most lowly and despised creatures on the planet rather than with anything human. In the midst of this tirade he called me by name, too, so any lingering hope that this might genuinely be a case of mistaken identity quickly dissolved like the morning mist. It is surprising how hurtful name-calling can be even when someone's trying to kill you.
'Springer! Show your cowardly face, you scum!'
With a quavering voice I called back, making all the predictable entreaties about putting the gun down so that we can discuss this matter like civilised human beings (I'm sure you know the sort of thing) but in vain (seriously, has it ever been used not in vain?). His gun replied on his behalf, raising sparks when the bullet scarred the pavement no more than a couple of feet away from me.
When I realised he was no longer shouting abuse at me, the notion — one ridiculously optimistic in the circumstances — slipped stealthily into my brain that perhaps he'd finally seen sense and put the gun down. Perhaps now I should peek over the top of the wall and take in the lie of the land. On the other hand he might be laying a trap, wanting me to think he'd stopped shooting so that he could deliver the coup de grâce. I tell you, I wasn't putting my head above this parapet for anything, not even if five pound notes started to fall from the sky like snowflakes. I was staying exactly where I was until something resembling rescue arrived.
It's a good job I did, too, because after no more than five seconds later I heard another bang. I had not the faintest idea where that particular bullet went and, to be frank, I didn't much care. I was only glad it was one more that didn't hit me. About now I was cultivating an encouraging theory that he only had a limited number of bullets at his disposal and he'd soon run out. Believe me, I was more than happy to sit here until he did.
A fine theory, except that he seemed determined to milk the suspense for all it was worth. Several more long seconds of anxiety passed; now I started to wonder if it was because he had gone off to find himself a better firing position. Nervously, I looked over my shoulder, half expecting to be staring at the nastier end of a gun barrel.
What I saw was a small boy, no more than five years old, dressed like the Milky Bar Kid. We stared at one another for a moment or two.
'What ya doin', Mister?'
'Look, sonny, go home to your Mum. Now, at once. There's a bad man with a gun.'
The child looked doubtful. Worse than that, he wasn't showing any sign of leaving.
'Kid, just run off home. Please.'
The child wiped his snotty nose on the back of his hand and said firmly: 'He's gone.'
'The man with the gun. He's gone.'
The wild thought slipped into my brain that this miniature cowboy had ... no, impossible. The child sighed deeply, demonstrating a level of cynicism I would normally associate with someone at least twenty years older, and pointed. I followed the line of his finger but all I saw was a car pulling away from the kerb.
I now noticed that the small boy was not the only person to be intrigued by my predicament. In all the houses opposite, anxious faces were peering from the windows, and one of those faces was even holding a telephone to its ear. None of the owners of those faces had dared venture beyond their front doors; probably, like me, they were waiting to make sure that the shooting had stopped.
The child still wasn't showing any sign of leaving, either. I suppose the sight of a grown man crouching behind a wall, quivering like a blancmange and muttering all manner of nonsense about men with guns would be a source of endless amusement for any five year old, but I wasn't exactly enjoying the attention, I promise you.
'Look, son, this isn't a game. There really is a man with a gun and he's shooting at me.'
No reaction, although the child did glance towards the house. Out of curiosity as much as anything, I peeked timorously over the top of the wall. The bedroom window was wide open, with the curtain trying unconvincingly to imitate a flag of surrender. No sign of a gun; no sign of a gunman, either.
The sound of a giggle drew my attention back to the child.
'Policeman's coming!' he announced gleefully. Then (no less gleefully) he added: 'He's gonna lock you up!' He turned and ran off up the street, making excited Bang! Bang! noises.
The kid was right, too. I heard the approaching sound of a police car siren. The mighty forces of Law and Order, it seems, had finally deigned to put in an appearance.CHAPTER 2
Bearing in mind the ordeal I had just been through, you would think that Inspector Willis might have shown just a little sympathy, wouldn't you? You would expect him to have spoken quietly to me, offered his sincere commiserations for the ordeal I had just been through, and even sent one of his minions to fetch me a nerve-soothing cup of tea?
Fat chance of that.
First (after the obligatory shake of the head and a muttered 'Bloody would be you, wouldn't it?') I was hustled into the back of a patrol car, then there was this hectic ride back to the police station ('Not a word, Springer!'). Once through the front door, I barely had chance to exchange a friendly nod with the slightly startled looking desk sergeant before Willis whisked me off to one of the interview rooms. There I sat, or rather collapsed, into a chair; Willis meanwhile stalked about the room as though looking for a chair to kick.
'All right, Springer, calm down!' he commanded, eyes glowing like something just emerged from the ninth circle of Hell. His voice softened briefly — but it was simply a run-up. 'Take a deep breath ... and tell me ... WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?'
I tried the best I could, honestly I did. I know in situations like this I was obliged to report everything that happened as accurately as I could so, despite the fact that my hands were still shaking and my ability to speak had deteriorated to a level close to incomprehensibility verging on baboon, that is precisely what I did do. Or tried to do. I don't think I should be blamed that the words emerging from my mouth more or less made no sense whatsoever.
'The man started shooting. I walked up to his front gate, minding my own business, when he opened his bedroom window, stuck a gun out and started shooting. Not a word of warning or anything. Started shooting. At me. Just "Bang". At me. If that wall hadn't been there, I'd have ... I'd have ... I don't know what I'd have done ... Do you think I would —'
All at once, Willis banged the table with the flat of his hand. He was only trying to get my attention but in my state of nerves, people really should have avoided making loud noises. Surely the police have courses for things like that? "Noises not to make when someone has been shot at ..." The fact I didn't have a heart attack was a miracle in itself.
'Springer? Springer! Look at me, man!'
Despite my better judgement, I looked. To sum up Inspector Willis' current demeanour in a single phrase, he resembled a grizzly bear who had issues to settle with a small blonde girl over a bowl of porridge.
'I am not a great admirer of firearms at the best of times,' he said, 'so when some miscreant decides to discharge a loaded weapon in a public place inside my patch, then as far as I'm concerned, it's not just a crime — it's a personal affront. This is an incident I take seriously and I look with great suspicion on all parties involved. ALL parties. I tell you, Springer, I am not going to rest until I've got to the bottom of this. So let's start again from the beginning, shall we? Exactly who was this individual and, more importantly, why did he take such a violent dislike to you? What,' he said, sitting opposite me at the table, 'did you do?'
Now that was a good question, I thought — and this was probably the first truly coherent thought that had managed to frame itself in my head since the first bullet sliced past my ear like a jet propelled bumble bee. For although I did know who this individual was (or at least I thought I did), why he had suddenly got it into his head to take pot shots at me was still a total mystery.
'Well, Mr Willis,' I began, hoping that the tone of my voice alone would signify that he ought to prepare himself for a very long story. 'It started like this ...'CHAPTER 3
On the face of it, it should have been a perfectly simple case. Indeed, what could be more simple than looking for a wife who had recently walked out on her husband? Though when I say "simple" I mean, of course, routine and commonplace. I don't really do "simple".
That particular Tuesday morning had been the usual sort of morning for me. It started with a trip to the corner shop for a loaf of bread, a copy of the local newspaper, and a Women's Weekly for Mrs Bennett, my downstairs neighbour (her leg was 'giving her jip again' as she put it, and as I was going to the shop anyway she asked me to pick up her copy.) Over breakfast (a bowl of cornflakes and a cup of instant coffee) I perused the paper. I wasn't really expecting my next case to come straight from the pages of the Gazette but, ever the optimist, I decided to take a look.
A promising front page story announcing a proposal to 'clean up the town' turned out to be more about litter than crime. A pity: despite the town's cheery, penny-arcade, bucket-and-spade image, there was all manner of unsavoury elements hiding just around the corners, and a good clean up was probably overdue. Not that I would really want to be involved, of course — actual serious crime is something I prefer to leave to the police. I get the impression from my encounters with the boys in blue that they prefer it that way, too.
Besides, there were plenty of other jobs for a private detective: all those niggling little things that lie just outside the boundaries of outright lawlessness, the things that the police aren't able to deal with but which still need someone to sort them out. Collecting evidence for a civil case, perhaps, or just helping put a person's mind to rest. No, Mrs Smith, you can rest assured that your husband isn't having an affair. I followed him all day, and believe me, he didn't speak to a single woman. Not one. That sort of thing. The hope I've been carefully incubating since starting this job is that any place where people live is going to have work for a jobbing private detective, even a slightly past-its-best seaside town like Westerby-on-Sea.
Well, that's the theory, anyway. And my philosophy was that you never know, one day a real mystery might come my way, with sultry blondes, hulking gangsters and reclusive millionaires.
I turned the page of the newspaper. Lots of pictures of donkeys on the beach, commemorating the fact that one had been named 'Glenn' in honour of the American astronaut (or something like that — I didn't actually bother to read the article; pictures of donkeys appear every so often in the Gazette, and I have a suspicion that the picture editor recycles the same old photographs over and over again, awaiting the slightest excuse to trot them all out again.). All very nice, of course, but donkeys generally don't have much call for private detectives.
I've pinned a poster of Robert Mitchum on the wall, so that I can see him from the chair where I usually sit. (I'd really wanted a poster of Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, but the best the shop could provide was a still of Mitch looking moody from Out of the Past, so he had to do.) In moments of self-doubt, I can glance up at him for inspiration. Today, he was looking particularly laconic, and quite frankly he was not being much help at all. He might not be playing Marlowe, but he was definitely in I think I'll drift mode.
So I went to the kitchen to make myself another cup of coffee.
When this house was a proper house, before it had been converted into flats and bedsits, the part where I live would have been the attic. For all I know, it could have been where the servants lived, but I'm not proud. Can't afford to be, to be honest. The disadvantage of living here (other than the sloping ceilings, the cause of more than one bruise on my forehead) is that it's freezing in winter and like an oven in summer, but at least the landlord lets me have it for a reasonably economical rent. The wallpaper has a bold, geometric pattern that can induce a headache if you stare at it for too long. The furniture and carpets have seen better days, and there are plenty of places that need a lick of paint. I'll do something about all this one day, promise. Though I think if you saw the place at the moment you'd probably realise why I prefer to meet clients on neutral territory.
Sipping my coffee, I returned to the paper. I reached the classifieds and small ads section, with its myriad of offers for second-hand cars, seasonal jobs and inscrutably cryptic lonely hearts, when the telephone rang. It took me so much by surprise that I nearly spilt my coffee. I don't get many calls.
One advantage of living in such a small flat is that it only took me three strides to get to the telephone on the landing.
Excerpted from Five and A Half Tons by John Bayliss. Copyright © 2013 Richard Young. Excerpted by permission of Holland House Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Lit Amri for Readers' Favorite Set in the Sixties, author John Bayliss introduces us to J.F. Springer, a private detective in Five and a Half Tons. He is not the usual noiresque, suave kind of sleuth, but his bumbling personality and lucky streak will keep us amused. It all starts with a case where Springer is required to find the missing wife – who is not missing at all – of a man named Boesmann. Rather than a case, Springer seems to be caught up in a terrible feud between husband and wife. When the husband commits suicide, Springer unwillingly gets mixed up with all sorts of problems. On top of that, the police, particularly Inspector Willis, are keeping a close eye on him. So what did Springer get himself involved with? It is hilarious and entertaining from the get go; Springer was getting shot at whilst still having the time to contemplate his life and his case. I absolutely love the illustrations included in the book – the Robert Mitchum poster bit is very witty. It is not hard to find Springer as a likable, rather inept private detective. The simple setting in a quiet English town in the early Sixties is perfect. John Bayliss has produced an entertaining, high-class plot that perfectly progresses with clever twists from start to finish. Overall, Five and a Half Tons is a great, light detective novel for any reader to enjoy in their relaxing time. The swift pacing of the story, coupled with the faultless prose, enabled me to finish it in two sittings. Bayliss is another great gem in the sleuth genre and I look forward to another bumbling misadventure from Springer in the next book.