'Scores of men and women died daily in London, but on this day of days one of them had died in the very midst of a crowd and the cause of his death was a dagger piercing his heart. Death had become something very real.'
When Bobbie Cheldon falls in love with a pretty young dancer at the Frozen Fang night club in Soho, he has every hope of an idyllic marriage. But Nancy has more worldly ideas about her future: she is attracted not so much to Bobbie as to the fortune he expects to inherit.
Bobbie's miserly uncle Massy stands between him and happiness: he will not relinquish the ten thousand a year on which Nancy's hopes rest. When Bobbie falls under the sway of the roguish Nosey Ruslin, the stage is set for murder in the heart of Piccadilly - and for Nancy's dreams to be realised.
When Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard enters the scene, he uncovers a tangled web of love affairs, a cynical Soho underworld, and a motive for murder.
This good-natured vintage mystery novel is now republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Martin Edwards, the leading expert on inter-war detective fiction.
About the Author
CHARLES KINGSTON (1884-1944) wrote over twenty crime novels in the golden age of British crime fiction between the two world wars. Many of his booksincluding Poison in Kensington and The Highgate Mysteryare set in London.
Read an Excerpt
Murder in Piccadilly
By Charles Kingston
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2015 Charles Kingston
All rights reserved.
"My dear Ruby," said Massy Cheldon with a vinous good humour derived from a delectable lunch for which he had not paid, "falling in love is like falling downstairs—you don't mean to do either."
"But Bobbie's got it badly this time, Massy," she said nervously, her eyes on the door which divided her son from the only person he detested as if fearful that it might open.
"Who is the girl?" The tone was a trifle hard now, and Ruby Cheldon observed apprehensively the sudden stiffening of the short, lean figure and the hardening of the habitually suspicious expression of her brother-in-law's microscopic eyes. "Did I understand you to say that she is a dancer in a night club?"
"That's where Bobbie met her," she murmured, trying to bring her nerves under the control of her tongue. All the signs of a dangerous explosion were apparent to her, and she knew that she must placate, whatever the cost to her pride and veracity might be, the only man who had the power to lift her son out of the slough of despair into which his latest love affair had plunged him.
"What is her name?" As he barked the question at her she started out of the reverie into which she had been lured by irresistible memories of Bobbie's numerous affairs with women, ancient and modern.
"Nancy Curzon," she stammered.
"Street or family?"
She laughed so as to flatter him.
"I don't know, Massy. Bobbie hasn't brought her to see me yet."
"So you don't know her? But I might have expected it. However, it's really no business of mine." He glanced from side to side of the attenuated room with its incurable furniture and faded oil paintings, the relics of an imaginary grandeur which Ruby Cheldon chose to regard as proofs of her gentility. But she was not following her brother-in-law's gaze. An analysis of his thoughts demanded all her attention now. She knew what "it's really no business of mine" meant. It was his way of declining to accept any responsibility in a cash sense for his nephew's vagaries. His presence there this afternoon had been the result of a conspiracy between herself and Bobbie, and they had rejoiced when he had accepted the invitation to call on his way from his club in Piccadilly to his mansion in Sussex. Between them they had drawn up a programme of tactics which they believed augured success, although both realised it was a forlorn hope to expect his uncle to disgorge anything of the large income he derived from the Cheldon Estate. Still, there was ever an outside chance of Uncle Massy creating a precedent and Bobbie was so passionately in love that he was only too willing to take a minor part in the conference and even eager to be conciliatory and submissive. For if at twenty-three he had some of his mother's pride he had none of her tact and discretion, while instead of her courage he had only the imitation of that virtue which is called recklessness.
"Cosy place you've got here," said Massy Cheldon, who disliked silence even when he had nothing to say.
"It's the best we can afford," she answered, a restless expression passing across her pale, faded face. She dare not retort with Bobbie preparing what he called a subtle appeal to his uncle's generosity. Yet if there was one word she detested it was "cosy" applied to her portion of the human rabbit warren which filled a corner of two of Fulham's least pleasing thoroughfares.
"If Bobbie could earn his own living you'd be able to afford something much better," he snapped back at her. She knew he was thinking of the small allowance he made her and winced. "What with my contribution and your pension even a little assistance from your son would make all the difference in the world, Ruby, and you know it."
He shifted his position to the right of the fireplace and stared at the remnant of his cigar.
"He has been so unlucky, Massy." She flushed as she suppressed her anger.
"Nonsense. I can't understand why you should be clever enough in everything except the one thing that matters, Ruby, and that is your son. You've spoilt him from the day he was born, and look at him now. And in spoiling him you've spoilt your own life too. Don't tell me you couldn't have married. Why, you're still handsome and attractive with a son in the twenties. How do you keep your figure without giving your face that drawn bloodless look which so many women have? Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge." He sighed with self-pity. "Life's nothing but worry on top of worry. A landowner nowadays, Ruby, is a compulsory philanthropist." He sighed again and added the unsmokable portion of his cigar to the lingering fire.
Ruby Cheldon winced as she detected the hint not to broach the subject of further assistance.
"How can I help spoiling him?" she asked abruptly. "He's all I have. You've never done him justice, Massy, you've never appreciated the fact that he never knew his father." There was pride and pity in her large dark grey eyes as she looked him straight in the face.
"I've never forgotten that his father was a gallant soldier and that his mother is only foolish when her son is being criticised. She wants all the world to believe that he is perfect."
"Everybody likes Bobbie," she said, almost sullenly. "And he's a gentleman."
"Are gentlemen scarce in the Cheldon family?" he asked curtly.
"He ought to have gone into the army," she said, ignoring the question.
"But the army means examinations and hard work and obeying orders. And if I may say so, my dear Ruby, you've brought up Bobbie on the principle that the only orders worth obeying are his own. Come, Ruby, it's time you wakened up. Here's your son without a penny of his own proposing to marry a dancer from a night club. Do you seriously tell me that you approve?"
"Of course I don't." A new note in her voice impressed him.
"Then you don't wish me to make it possible for him to marry this lady from the lower regions of some insanitary building in the environs of Piccadilly? Of course, I shouldn't do anything of the kind," he added hastily, fearful lest her sense of humour should fail her.
She moved from her chair and stood beside him.
"Bobbie is bringing Nancy Curzon to see me next week, and I wish you could see her too."
"I'm perfectly willing to meet the lady, but supposing she captivates us all and we become anxious to rope her into the family, the question will then arise, what can Bobbie do?"
She looked pensively into the air.
"It goes without saying that he can drive a car?" he said drily.
"He drives beautifully," she answered, the irony in his tone escaping her. "And he knows how to dress," she added irrelevantly.
"And I bet he also knows half a dozen night clubs and how to mix at least ten different cocktails. These alleged social accomplishments, my dear Ruby, have the merit of impressing the lower middle classes, but in a sordid age are not regarded as qualifications for the salary Bobbie naturally expects in his capacity of gentleman."
She was not listening, a life-long familiarity with his vocabulary and humours as well as humour rendering such attention unnecessary. She had caught a sound from the next room and guessed that Bobbie had decided that her allowance of time for the purpose of bringing his uncle into the frame of mind essential to the experiment in generosity had elapsed and that he must now make his appearance on the scene.
"Bobbie's got to realise the unpleasant fact that he must take off his coat and forget his gentility. It's useless his thinking that I'm going to die to suit his convenience. The Cheldon estate has been his curse. Waiting for dead men's shoes always is. I'm good for another twenty years at least, although there are moments—" He turned mechanically to survey his features in the mirror over the mantelpiece. "If only the tenants would be reasonable, but they don't leave me a shilling. What with repairs and reductions and all the other encumbrances life's a burden. And now my nephew wants to marry a dancer at my expense."
"Not at your expense, Massy," she said quickly. "Naturally he looks to you for help and advice."
"He can have the advice," he said sharply, picking out the word that involved him in no liability. "Yes, he can have the advice," he added, as if speaking to himself. "But it'll take the form of plain speaking and straight from the shoulder home-truths. He must be taught that sponging on his mother—"
"Hush!" she whispered, "here he is."
As Bobbie Cheldon closed the door behind him and was in their midst the atmosphere became electric. Yet in that moment the older man could see, had it forced on him, in fact, that it was not altogether the awkwardly lazy, pleasure-tackling, colourlessly cynical youth of old who now extended towards him with composure and confidence a delicate hand which pressed his own firmly.
"Good afternoon, uncle," he said, and his mother's heart ached with a delicious remembrance of his childhood, for in his voice there was something to remind her of the days when he had been so lovable because of all those dear faults of which a child is so delightfully unconscious. He had been a lovely boy whose every action savoured of a growing masculinity, sensitive to praise and blame, defiant and repentant, enchantingly original in his remarks, explorer, engine driver, pirate, cowboy, soldier and sailor, and all in a little back garden in a Surrey suburb.
"You're looking as healthy as a young giant ought to look," said Massy Cheldon enviously. "But sit down. I haven't more than a few minutes to spare and I've heard your news."
Bobbie glanced inquiringly at his mother, but did not speak. It was common knowledge that Uncle Massy disliked being overlooked and that Nature having fashioned him as a monologist, dilettante, poseur and valetudinarian, he chose to regard his lack of inches as a handicap and a grievance. He could not, therefore play the role of heavy uncle with a nephew whose seventy-two inches dwarfed his own sixty-eight unless that nephew sprawled on the hairy sofa while he stood before the fireplace and frowned and fumed as his humours enjoined.
"Yes, Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge," he said again, envying the attractive, open countenance of Bobbie, his strong shoulders, balanced limbs, and the eager vitality in his eyes.
He resented the insurgent jealousy which compelled him to catalogue all the advantages his nephew held as against his own age, wealth and worries. Underneath it all, too, there was a dread that sooner than either of them knew the Cheldon estate might pass to Bobbie, and youth and health with unusual powers of enjoyment would be reinforced by great possessions. It was enough to make a mean man meanly irritable.
"Why is it, Bobbie," he asked testily, "that the moment a man discovers he has the best mother in the world he wants to leave her?"
"Because, uncle, it's time I married and settled down," was the mild reply. Ruby Cheldon interpreting the motive, marvelled at the transformation that even an ignoble love could effect in her son.
"I'm glad to hear you intend to do something." He moved a couple of paces forward and returned to his original position. "It's about time."
"I agree with you uncle." Bobbie rose, and then remembering that his uncle had the "chair" sank back on to the lifeless conglomeration of horsehair, defunct springs and faded tapestry. "I can see now what an ass I have been, but I mean to make up for lost time."
"Let me think," said Massy Cheldon, wondering what had happened to Bobbie, ignorant of the fact that youth can work miracles when animated by a pure idealism, and unable to share his sister-in-law's belief that it was all the doing of the unknown Nancy Curzon.
Ruby Cheldon was too conscious of the presence of the men to have to scrutinise their faces as she reviewed the situation and its immediate past. Bobbie's hatred and contempt for his uncle were ingrained and nothing had ever happened to weaken them. The boy had grown up to idealise a father who had died in action on the very day that Massy Cheldon had received the O.B.E. for his eminent services as the Food Controller of a small provincial town. There had been nothing for the soldier except a shell which had torn him to pieces, but for the civilian there had been a reward for successful evasion of military service. That had been a bad beginning to their relations during the years when Bobbie had been at his "prep" school and worse when Massy Cheldon visited him at lengthy intervals at Marlborough and managed to collect some of the credit that accrues to the brother of a hero. It had been cheaply acquired, too, for Bobbie's school fees had been paid out of the meagre savings of his father, savings religiously preserved by his mother for his education, and Massy had gone on his way rejoicing and economising.
But Bobbie's hatred lost something if not all of its virility when he was old enough to appreciate the financial importance of his uncle and his exact place in a scheme of things which included all the male descendants of Jonathan Cheldon, merchant adventurer in India and founder of the family fortunes. For Jonathan, returning home with profits and plunder and a record comparatively venial in an age of wholesale corruption, determined to force the yeoman Cheldons into the ranks of county gentility by purchasing and amply endowing the mansion and estate known as Broadbridge Manor. Ever since then his descendants had buttressed and strengthened the family pedigree. Two of Jonathan's sons had entered the army and the younger had risen to the rank of general. A son of the general had become an ambassador and another had achieved a little fame at the Bar. Meanwhile, the Cheldon estate, losing something every decade by the advance of taxation and the failing strength of the pound, had descended with the solemn inevitability of a dukedom from heir to heir until Colonel Henry Cheldon held sway for nineteen years and departed, leaving his elder son, Massy, in possession of Broadbridge Manor, and a younger son in the army.
That younger son was Bobbie's father, and unless Massy Cheldon married and had a son the Cheldon estate must pass to Ruby's only child. She recalled now the wonder and the pride with which Bobbie had received the news that only one life stood between himself and the family estate. In almost the same breath she winced as she remembered his bitter railings against the Fate that permitted "that pompous bore" to keep him out of the money that he was certain guaranteed happiness.
The net result had been the tightening of the tension between uncle and nephew that had never really slackened. In vain had Ruby pointed out that Bobbie owed something to the uncle who avoided matrimony as carefully as he avoided generosity. "No woman would have him," was Bobbie's contemptuous retort, and so the guerilla warfare had continued.
Now, however, Bobbie was in the position of suppliant and a very humble suppliant at that. He was in love and an uneasy, tremulous, agitating love it was, too. Whoever this Nancy Curzon might be it was evident that she had many admirers and that competition for her hand in matrimony was keen. Only the fear of losing her prevented Bobbie meeting his uncle's fussiness and contempt with insolence and ill-temper. Well, that was to the credit of the night club dancer. Ruby sighed. She wished she could do something, but then since Bobbie had begun to talk vaguely of "doing something" on his own account she had been helpless. Perhaps, Massy was right and where Bobbie was concerned she was foolish. But could she help it?
She half-wished there was no Cheldon estate and no entail. The zeal of Jonathan Cheldon had become a curse after a century, a curse to herself and a danger to her son. How often had Bobbie grumblingly adverted to the fact that every day his uncle lived he, the misunderstood heir, lost a day's income. There lay the explanation of his unwillingness to study, his failure to pass the preliminary examinaton for the Bar, his diurnal dissatisfaction with all the world and its inhabitants except a small coterie of imitation intellectuals which infested the purlieus of Fulham and Chelsea.
"What's the use, mother, when I'll have ten thousand a year when Uncle Massy dies of overeating?" had been his invariable rejoinder to her mild suggestions that a more active life would make him happier.
Excerpted from Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston. Copyright © 2015 Charles Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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