With the help of his literary agent’s assistant, the delectable Maria Dupre, Langham finds himself drawing on the skills of his fictional detective hero as he hunts a ruthless and fiendishly clever killer – a killer with old scores to settle.
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Langham sat at his desk and pecked with two fingers at the keys of his battered Underwood. He was halfway through the last chapter of his latest novel and the end was in sight. Sam Brooke, his private investigator, was trailing a villain down Regent Street, little realizing that he was being lured into a trap from which it would take all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to escape.
The shrill summons of the phone sounded beside him on the desk. He cursed it initially, then decided to take a break. There were times, especially towards the end of a book, when his enthusiasm to get it finished needed curbing. He'd answer the call, then have a spot of lunch and think about the dénouement.
He laid aside his pipe, long extinguished but still gripped between his teeth, and picked up the receiver – the 'bakelite bone' he'd called it in one of his early, more flowery novels. 'Donald Langham here.'
'Donald, Donald, my dear boy. Forgive my importunate call. You must curse me, curse me! Be honest now, have I interrupted the muse?'
Langham smiled to himself. 'Not at all, Charles. I was just about to knock off for lunch.'
'You assuage my guilt, my dear boy. Did you say lunch? Similar thoughts crossed my mind not two minutes ago. If you hie yourself towards Pimlico in thirty minutes I'll stand you a repast at the Beeches – though their standards have fallen somewhat of late. I recall the feasts we enjoyed in those far off, pre-war days ...'
Lunches with Charles Elder were always protracted, boozy affairs, with one postprandial drink turning into three or four, and often finishing not a minute before four o'clock. That would rule out an afternoon shift at the Underwood ... but the novel was almost finished anyway. He'd complete it in the morning.
He interrupted his agent's purple musings. 'Lunch would be excellent. I'm on my way.'
'I have,' Charles said, 'a delicate matter to put before you. Very delicate indeed.'
'Not over the phone, dear boy. Drop by the office and we'll pop around the corner. No doubt you'll want to pay your silvery-tongued respects to Maria.'
'She's working today?'
'On the phone to some spotty sub-editor at Gollancz as we speak. I've had to increase her hours of late – the agency has never been so busy. I'm working like a demon for my seven-and-a-half per cent, and the thanks I get?'
'You know I never begrudge you your pound of flesh, Charles.'
'I'm not talking about you, Donald. I refer to the baying hounds of Grub Street, the semi-literate hacks who think they're Hemingway and demand advances commensurate with their delusions. As if the importuning of talent-less scribblers were not enough, now this.'
'"This"?' Langham echoed.
'Over lunch, Donald. All will be revealed. Now, my ample stomach rumbles its discontent. Come hither, Donald, post haste!'
Langham replaced the receiver, fetched his overcoat and descended the staircase to the quiet side street. His battered Austin Healey sat in the bright April sunlight, as reliable as an old dog that had seen better days. He eased himself in behind the wheel and winced at a sudden twinge in his lower back. He was forty and, despite his usual sanguine take on life, had begun to feel old of late. Aches and pains, along with the fact that his father had died of a heart attack in 'thirty-five at the age of fifty, ushered in unwelcome thoughts of mortality.
He checked in the wing mirror and pulled out into the street.
Over the course of the past two decades – with a break during the war – he'd published over twenty mystery novels, several of which he was reasonably proud. He had a small group of friends, mainly men of his own age and in the same line of work, and a two-bedroom flat at the respectable end of Notting Hill.
He told himself that if his life lacked excitement these days, then that was fine by him. His wartime experiences had provided more than enough excitement to last a couple of lifetimes, and anyway he'd always daydreamed, during intolerably hot nights in Madagascar and India, of living the quiet life in London, writing mystery novels and seeing friends over pints of bitter in snug hostelries.
Now he was living that life and sublimating any subconscious desire for action by putting his hapless private detective through all manner of life-threatening perils. It was true what a friend had said in the pub last week: he lived vicariously via the exploits of Sam Brooke.
The tree-lined streets of Pimlico hove into view and Langham turned the corner into Cambridge Street. The Charles Elder Literary Agency was situated down the leafy side street, surrounded by expensive mansions and the occasional high-end solicitor's office. Elegant women in their fifties, draped with fox stoles, walked bouffant poodles and yappy Pekinese. This was a million miles from Sam Brooke's usual stamping ground, and Langham's, if truth be told, and he never visited his agent without being aware that he and Charles inhabited two entirely different worlds.
He parked outside the agency office, bought a bouquet of mixed blooms from a roadside vendor, then hurried up the steps and pressed the bell. He slipped inside, assailed by the scent of beeswax, and took the short flight of stairs to the first floor. Everything about the premises exuded a luxury at odds with the general post-war penury that prevailed in the capital: the brilliant white gloss paint that covered, in multiple coats, the banister and handrail; a carpet so new and thick that he was in danger of turning an ankle as he climbed.
He tapped on the door to the outer office and entered when Maria carol-led, 'Come in!' with a slight Parisian accent.
She was seated behind her desk, leaning forward with her hands clasped and her chin resting on the ridge of her knuckles, and a smile irradiated her features when she saw the bouquet.
'Donald! You are always smiling and bearing flowers.'
He handed them over. 'To brighten the place, not that the place needs brightening, what with —'
She stopped him. 'Always the same old line, Donald! And you call yourself a writer?'
He pointed to the communicating door. 'Charles ...?'
'He is waiting for you, but he is not well. I will tell you that now.'
'Something is troubling him, I know.' She held her head to one side and regarded Langham.
'No doubt he'll pour out his woes over lunch,' he said.
'Lunch,' she said almost wistfully, 'and while you are enjoying steak tartare and crème anglaise, I will be eating my Bovril sandwiches.'
He almost suggested, then, that she might like to share a more substantial meal with him that evening ... but his damned innate reserve stopped the words on his lips. Maria Dupré was ten years his junior, breathtakingly gorgeous, and the daughter of the French cultural attaché to London. She worked in the agency three days a week, but of her life outside the office Langham knew nothing.
What he did know was that, despite the superficial banter and the ease with which they swapped jokes when their paths crossed fleetingly, he was constitutionally unable to do anything to escalate the terms of their relationship. Charles Elder found his reserve amusing, and mercilessly baited Langham about it whenever he had the chance.
'Right-ho, I'll go and see what's troubling his nibs.'
Maria arranged the flowers in a vase and Langham tapped on the communicating door.
A stentorian baritone boomed, 'Enter!'
He stepped into Charles's hallowed, book-lined sanctum where the ever-present scent of Havana cigars vied with overtones of whisky. A monstrous aspidistra, which Charles playfully referred to as his child, loomed in one corner.
Charles himself was standing at the far end of the room, his corpulent figure silhouetted against the sunlit window. He resembled, Langham thought, a tweed-clad brandy glass.
'Donald, my dear boy! Delighted, absolutely delighted. Had you turned down my suggestion of lunch, I would have been bereft. Bereft.'
He approached Langham with his hand outstretched like some beseeching dowager, as if desiring it to be kissed. He took Langham's hand in limp fingers and squeezed. 'So glad you could make it. Let's eat!'
Charles's face was almost as vast as his stomach, pink and porcine and topped with a snowy peak of white hair. He was such a caricature of himself that passers-by were apt to turn and stare as he sallied forth, swinging his gold-topped walking stick and harrumphing snatches of Bach.
As they left the office – followed by an ironic 'Bon appétit!' from Maria – Charles was muttering about the quality of the menu at the Beeches, which Langham knew from experience would be excellent.
He had known Charles Elder for almost twenty years, ever since his first novel was taken on by the agency, and Charles had changed little in that time. He seemed always to have been in his mid-fifties, gargantuan and patrician, a refugee from an earlier, grander era that had vanished with the war.
At their first meeting, Charles had intimidated Langham with a casual remark. 'Very interested in the book. We don't usually touch mysteries, dear boy, but this one shows distinct promise. Now tell me, where did you school?'
'Ah ...' Langham had flushed, swallowed, and told the truth: 'I ... I didn't. That is, I left school at sixteen and worked in my father's office.'
'Good God, sir, for someone with no education you write like an angel. You read, of course? I mean Shakespeare, Milton, Marvell. If I'm not mistaken, I detected their influences.'
Langham had used this as ladder to climb from the hole he'd dug for himself. 'All those, yes,' he'd lied.
'Had you down as a fellow Oxford man, my dear boy. But no matter ...'
Over the years he had come to know and like the man – despite, or even because of, the fact that he was unlike Langham in every respect.
They strolled down Gloucester Street, Charles swinging his stick and humming to himself. Usually Charles would have been enquiring about Langham's latest book, muttering encouragingly about the next advance he'd screw from the shysters at Harrington, but today he was decidedly quiet. Preoccupied, Langham thought. Maria was right: something was troubling him.
They entered the Beeches and Charles made straight for his usual table by the window, the head waiter in flapping attendance. Langham watched the waiter slide the chair beneath Charles's buttocks, and mused that two chairs might soon be needed to bear the load. Charles busied himself with the wine menu, his piggy eyes scouring the vintages, and in due course ordered a claret.
'Chateau Pontet, nineteen thirty, Donald. One of the finest.'
Langham smiled, wishing he could order a pint of bitter. He glanced around the room at the well-dressed clientele. He forever felt out of place when dining with Charles, conscious of his elbow-patched tweed jacket and threadbare corduroy trousers.
They ordered; Charles a steak au poivre, and Langham a pork chop. The wine waiter poured Charles a taster, and he duly swilled the mouthful with a series of theatrical grimaces and pronounced it satisfactory.
Langham watched the waiter depart. 'The delicate matter?' he asked.
Charles pulled a pained face, took a swallow of claret, then said, 'I will come to that in due course, my dear boy. Such things cannot be rushed.'
Langham ventured, 'Harrington getting cold feet about the Sam Brooke series?'
'What?' Charles waved his napkin. 'They love the books, dear boy. Don't fret on that score.' He paused, the acreage of his pink face rearranging itself into a frown, as if he were attempting to recall something. 'Remind me, Donald, immediately after the war ... what did you do?'
Thrown by the question, Langham sat back, nursing his glass. 'A friend I met in field security in India, Ralph Ryland, set up an investigative agency. He wanted someone to do the legwork.' He shrugged. 'I decided to write part time and work three days a week for Ralph. I saw it as an opportunity to get some experience that might feed into the books.'
'And I think it did, dear boy. Your books positively reek of your time spent chasing cut-throats through Whitechapel.'
Langham smiled. 'I'd hardly say that ...'
'Too modest! Too modest by half. That is why maiden aunts up and down the country positively lap up your thrillers, Donald. Authenticity. You scare the pants off them with your villains because you're so convincing. The doyen of the lending libraries!' Charles finished.
'Thank you. I'll have that carved on my gravestone.'
Their orders arrived and Charles, goggle-eyed at the prospect of tucking into his inch-thick steak, inserted a napkin between the collar of his shirt and his bullfrog's throat. He looked for all the world, Langham thought, like a pensionable Billy Bunter.
'Why the interest in what I did back then?'
Charles slipped a wedge of steak into his mouth, chewed, then said, 'Let me ask a question of my own, dear boy. Is the investigative agency still running?'
'Well, it was when I bumped into Ralph just before Christmas.'
He started on his chop, watching Charles as he did so. His agent was nodding slowly, mulling something over behind his bright blue eyes. 'That is interesting ...'
Langham leaned forward. 'Would you mind telling me what all this is about, Charles? Do you need a private investigator?'
Charles masticated another mouthful of steak with porcine industry, laid down his knife and fork, and stared across the table at Langham. 'My dear boy, how long have you known me?'
Langham blinked. 'Twenty years, give or take a few months.'
'And you know very well what I am?'
Langham found himself smiling. 'An agent of impeccable taste, a gourmand, a bon viveur, a collector of objets d'art nonpareils ...'
'Your flattery brings a blush to my already sanguine countenance. I mean,' Charles persisted, 'you are well aware of my predilections? My – how shall I say? – my preferences?'
'How could I not be?'
'And yet, for a man of your age and upbringing, you show a remarkable tolerance.'
Langham smiled. 'I had my eyes opened during my time in the army, Charles.'
'Ah, the armed forces, my boy! I attempted to enlist in 1916; did I ever tell you? Myself and a sweet little thing I first met at Eton. We drilled together in the OTC. Needless to say, I was deemed surplus to requirements. And tragic Crispin stopped a bullet at Ypres.'
While Charles's dewy eyes focused on the past, Langham smiled as he considered his shock, back in 'thirty-seven, when he first realized that Charles Elder was homosexual. He'd kept his agent at a mental arm's length at the time, and it was not until Madagascar, when he met and fought alongside other men of the same persuasion – one of whom became a good friend – that his prejudices were dispelled.
'Very well, Charles. Out with it. What's happened?'
'That's what I like about you. You're down to earth, you speak your mind, and if you have any prejudices you keep them well hidden.'
'You haven't heard my drunken rants about the local Tory council.'
Charles smiled. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, stared at Langham, and then sighed. 'I've been a damned fool, Donald.'
Langham nodded. 'Tell.'
'The same old story, Donald. The cravings of the flesh are tied ineluctably to the desires of the heart; in my case, my boy, the sexual and the personal are, shall we say, conflicted ... In here,' and Charles lodged a fist against his breastbone, 'I want nothing more than the bliss of domesticity, the faithful love of a good man, while another part of me loves, I mean loves, the thrill of the chase ... Do you appreciate my meaning?'
'Ah ...' Langham nodded. 'I think so.'
'I waffle, Donald; I waffle. I could never write with the clipped precision of yourself. My screeds would run to Jamesean prolixity. But I digress. Where was I?'
'Quite. You see, in a word, I made a silly mistake and now I am reaping the dire consequences. I met a young gentleman ... Gentleman? What am I saying? He was a scallywag, albeit a charming scallywag. He works in Hackney swimming baths, where I am wont weekly to disport myself. One day, perhaps six months ago, we found ourselves in conversation and he tipped me the old "How do you do" and suggested I come back at six, when he'd be closing the place, for a few extra-curricular lessons. Do you see what I mean, Donald, about the weakness of the flesh?'
'That is one way of describing it, my dear boy. I will spare you the details, suffice to say that we had the place to ourselves and the rapscallion exhibited a desire to please matched only by his gymnastic prowess. I'm sorry, I'm making you blush.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder by the Book"
Copyright © 2013 Eric Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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