When a teenage girl disappears from a north London suburb a few days before Christmas, Detective Sergeant Effie Strongitharm puts would-be cult leader and reputed exorcist Nigel Tapster on her list of people to be questioned.
But when Effie witnesses Tapster's agonizing death during a church service, she needs to ask a different question: What holy terror spiked the sacraments with strychnine?
With her mentor Detective Superintendent Mallard battling forced retirement, Effie turns to children's book writer Oliver Swithin to help her in a double quest—to bring the girl home and the murderer to justice in time for Christmas.
But is there a connection between the cases? And what does any of this have to do with a Scotland Yard Commissioner's personal hygiene, a six-year-old Hell's Angel, a Guide to beastly behavior featuring Finsbury the Ferret, a touch of Shakespeare, and the return of the mysterious, virtually invisible Underwood Tooth?
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. Murdering Ministers is the second title featuring children's book author and amateur sleuth Oliver Swithin and his girlfriend, Scotland Yard detective Effie Strongitharm. They first met in An Embarrassment of Corpses, which The Bookshop Blog included in its list of the "Best 100 Mysteries of All Time," and reappeared in Murdering Ministers. Alan is also the co-author of a non-fiction book on American culture and values.
Read an Excerpt
An Oliver Swithin Mystery
By Alan Beechey
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Alan Beechey
All rights reserved.
Tis the Season to Be Jolly
Sunday, December 14 (Third Sunday of Advent)
Sitting down had clear advantages over kneeling, Oliver Swithin had decided. If anyone ever asked him to create a new religion—"Swithinism" had a lilt to it, but it might be a bit hard on lispers—he would make sure that everybody sat down for the prayers. For one thing, the position was more natural—rather like perching on the toilet, with much the same spirit of supplication and hope for a blessing.
And it was quicker. At his parents' parish church, the vicar's call to prayer would have been followed by several noisy seconds of cracking knees and the odd territorial grabs for hassocks. (Or were those cushions called "cassocks"? Not being much of a churchgoer, he could never remember the difference. Both words sounded vaguely like Scottish mountain ranges. Or indelicate parts of the body.)
"Amen," said the minister, at the end of a brief prayer that seemed largely improvised, like the many others that had preceded it. The tiny congregation mumbled a brief echo of the word, and Oliver realized that his mind had been wandering again. He shifted position on the uncomfortable pew and scribbled "Cassocks?" on his reporter's notepad.
"My text for today's sermon," the young man in the pulpit continued, "can be found in the gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter fifteen, verses ten and eleven."
"And the best I can get, even with four-hundred-speed film, is a thirtieth of a second at f-two-point-eight," Ben Motley whispered loudly into Oliver's ear as he loaded a new roll of film into his Canon.
"Our days are numbered," murmured Oliver.
"I'm reading from the Revised English Bible," the minister continued. A thick-necked, elderly man sitting in the pew in front of Oliver and Ben stopped flipping the pages of his well-thumbed King James's Bible and snapped it shut.
"'He'—that is, Jesus, of course—'called the crowd and said to them, "Listen and understand! No one is defiled by what goes into his mouth; only by what comes out of it."'"
The minister repeated the last sentence with quizzical pauses, a look of concentration on his ruddy, good-natured face, as if he'd momentarily forgotten why he'd chosen the text. The elderly man and his wife seemed to take it as scriptural dispensation to unwrap sweets.
Ben lurched away and tiptoed closer to the front of the church, training his camera on a small group of sullen teenagers sitting close to the left wall. Apart from this cluster, there were about a dozen worshippers, but the large, plain, nineteenth-century building with its parallel rows of high-backed pews could clearly hold a congregation thirty times as large. A group of older ladies had huddled like shamefaced latecomers in the rear pew, under the shelter of a dark balcony, although Oliver knew they'd been there at least twenty minutes before the service began.
The minister had already explained to the congregation that the evening's service would be photographed by Ben Motley, a man famous for his "spirited pictures of sporting women." Since Ben's notoriety actually came from his portraits of female celebrities and society dames at the point of orgasm, Oliver had to credit the clergyman's subtlety. And once past the embarrassment of being stared at by churchgoers, he was equally relieved to hear himself introduced as a "leading writer of instructive works for children," who was there to write an article about the United Diaconalist Church. If the congregation had found out the whole truth, they might have regarded Oliver's presence as one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't going to be Oliver's article, but the work of Finsbury the Ferret, the character he had created for his series of children's books called The Railway Mice. After several slender volumes of innocent tales (and months of negligible royalties), published under Oliver's pseudonym O.C. Blithely, the introduction of Finsbury into the series had made each subsequent book an automatic best seller, and gave British popular culture a new hero in the shifty, foulmouthed, evil-tempered beast. Oliver's friend and housemate, Geoffrey Angelwine, was a member of the public relations team devoted to squeezing as much mileage out of Finsbury as possible, and he had pushed Oliver into writing a piece for Celestial City, a new online guide to London Sundays, as a dry run for Finsbury's potential career as an opinionated commentator on the foibles of bipeds.
The editor of Celestial City, fearful of missing the bandwagon for the zeitgeist du jour (although Oliver had speculated that you had to be really slow to miss a bandwagon), had jumped on the publication of an ex-Spice Girl's recovered memories of her former life as Saint Theresa of Avila as a harbinger of the nation's millennial spiritual awakening. He had decided that an atheist ferret's satirical take on a small suburban church would make pleasant online reading for Christmas, especially if the pages included pictures by an absurdly handsome photographer whose career was entirely based on sexual ecstasy.
Oliver always liked working with Ben, partly because his friend and landlord owned a black Lamborghini, and partly because the attention Ben inevitably attracted gave Oliver an excuse for barely being noticed himself. Now in his mid-twenties, he had more or less accepted that, Ben or no Ben, his unkempt fair hair, cheap glasses, and that certain absence of firmness about his jaw were hardly the assets that would capture the interest of a sultry stranger across a less-than-crowded place of worship. Besides, he reflected proudly, he had a steady girlfriend now.
But what had intrigued Oliver about the assignment was the name of the minister of the selected church: the Reverend Paul Piltdown. Oliver had gone to school with a Paul Piltdown. And a call to the manse in the north London suburb of Plumley confirmed that this was indeed the same Pauly Piltdown who'd shared his first copy of Playboy and with whom he'd played baccarat during long winter lunchtimes, using rules learned from a James Bond novel. Which explains why Oliver was sitting in church that Sunday evening, thinking of rude things for Finsbury to say about the service and, despite his agnosticism, feeling thoroughly guilty about it.
Oliver had long suspected that his school friend would find a vocation in the church, ever since Pauly's whispered confession as a twelve-year-old that he thought he might look good in a cassock. (Ah, that's the difference!) But this church? In the sixth form, Piltdown had been addicted to High-Church Anglicanism, and when Oliver had last seen him, seven years earlier, he'd been heading off to Cambridge with ambitions for a bishopric, an almost gymnastic addiction to genuflecting, and a best blazer that always smelled faintly of incense. Yet instead of the surplices and stoles he had coveted as a teenager, Piltdown's only religious attire this evening was a white clerical collar, worn with a rumpled navy-blue suit that sat awkwardly on his hefty, rugby-player's body.
His surroundings were similarly unadorned. Above the dark oak wainscoting, the only ornamentation on the sallow walls was a row of dimly glowing electric heaters, which were doing little to lift the temperature on that damp December evening. Since there was no altar, Piltdown had conducted most of the simple service from behind a sturdy wooden table, set firmly on the lowest level of a carpeted platform. This platform, which stretched almost the full width of the building, rose a couple of levels behind the minister, presumably for a choir, but instead of an elaborate reredos or dazzling stained glass window, Piltdown's backdrop was the pipe array of a sizeable organ, painted an ugly battleship gray. (The hymns, however, had been accompanied by a young woman who played an upright piano, on the floor to the left of the platform.) The space struck Oliver as more like a theater than a church.
Piltdown had only left his station to deliver the sermon, when he had climbed the steps to a high pulpit, rising out of the right-hand side of the stage like a submarine's conning tower. The one touch of color in the church was a garish, appliqué banner pinned to this pulpit, proclaiming JESUS IS LORD in childish lettering.
"As we draw close to Christmas," the minister was saying, unconsciously patting his thatch of thick, wild hair, "our thoughts naturally turn to that well-known story of our Savior's birth. Perhaps we first learned it from Nativity pageants performed by children, just like the one our own Sunday School will be performing during our Christmas Eve carol service. I myself can remember playing a king one year, wearing a splendid cardboard crown covered with silver foil and my new dressing gown with the gold piping as a robe ..."
Piltdown glanced across to the younger people, seeking a smile or nod that would accompany a similar reminiscence, but they remained unmoved. Most were staring dully at their hands while he spoke, avoiding his eyes. They had shown little enthusiasm during the earlier parts of the service, rising wearily to mouth the three or four hymns and bending over so deeply in the pews during the long prayers that they practically disappeared. Perhaps they were playing baccarat?
"And what do we find when we actually study the Christmas story in the scriptures?" Piltdown went on. "Do we find a harsh innkeeper turning Mary and Joseph from the door of the crowded inn, with his tender-hearted wife running after the couple to offer accommodation in their stable? No. Do we find an ox and an ass? No. Nor do we find a stable, for that matter. Or three kings, whom tradition has named for us."
"If I could get up to that balcony," Ben whispered, perching beside Oliver as he reloaded his camera again, "I could do a great overhead shot pointing down on the pews. But the door's locked."
Oliver swiveled to look up at the shallow balcony behind and above them, but from the low angle he could only make out more high-backed pews in the darkness. Lowering his gaze, he met the stern eyes of a middle-aged woman in the rear pew. She winked at him. He smiled weakly and turned around again, wondering what he was missing on television at that moment.
Paul Piltdown had been speaking now for fifteen minutes on the need for Christians to promulgate the biblical facts of the Nativity story without the accretions of tradition and myth. He paused suddenly, and although he did not utter a blessing, it was clear the sermon was over. Piltdown beamed around the church, coughed, and glanced down at his notes.
"Now before our final hymn," he continued, "I'm going to ask our good friend Nigel Tapster to share his musical witness."
Piltdown sat down in the pulpit, sinking from sight, and a man sitting among the teenagers rose to his feet and sidled out of his pew. He was tall and rangy, with a balding head and a sparse, straggling beard that had been fussily shaped to his chin. His gray suit seemed a size too small. He stooped to pick up a large twelve-string guitar, which had been lying in a case beside the piano, and passed its leather strap over his head and one arm. The teenagers all seemed suddenly far more animated, and smiled and whispered to each other as Tapster reached the platform.
He paused, his head down, as if listening intently to words whispered urgently into his ears. Ben's camera clicked several times. Then Tapster lifted his gaze, looking around the church with dark, intense eyes.
"Friends, dear friends," he said, his voice reedy and nasal. "The Reverend Piltdown has just told us what the world believes when it shouldn't. I'd prefer to sing about what the world doesn't believe when it should." He strummed the guitar strings, wincing momentarily.
"It's no good, I'll have to send it back to the shop to be tuned," he said apologetically, stepping off the platform and rummaging in the guitar case. One of the boys in the group let out a short, loud laugh. It echoed sharply off the bare walls of the church, as if the building was swatting away the unfamiliar sound. Tapster blew softly into a pitch pipe, fiddled with the tuning heads, and returned to the platform. "You know, not many people play the twelve-string guitar," he muttered, "because it takes a lot of pluck."
The joke was old and weak, but perhaps it was new to the young people, because they all laughed heartily for as long as it took Tapster to finish tuning the instrument. He played an E major chord, nodded with satisfaction, and began to strum in a different key. It was hardly an infectious rhythm, but within two bars, the young people were already swaying in time with the music. Tapster began to sing, very badly.
The song seemed to consist of little more than three chords and the word "Alleluia," but the youngsters were clearly enjoying it more than anything else in the service. Two or three of them began to clap, and the woman who had been playing the piano earlier now started to shake a tambourine in an arrogant fashion.
The performance ended, and Tapster stepped down from the platform, reverently replacing the guitar in its case. Oliver noticed that the young people mostly had their eyes closed now, with half-smiles on their faces, and one was raising a hand to the ceiling, as if asking God for a bathroom break. The old man in front of Oliver grunted.
Piltdown rose in the pulpit and announced the final hymn. The tambourine player stepped over to the piano and played the introduction to "As With Gladness, Men of Old." Oliver wondered if Tapster would return the earlier compliment and accompany her on the maracas.
After a final blessing and a moment of silent prayer, Piltdown came down from the pulpit and stalked along the aisle on the right-hand side of the church. His flock meanwhile began to gather personal belongings and fidget in their pews. The young people were the first to escape, shuffling up the left aisle and through a heavy velvet curtain that hung below the balcony and separated the sanctuary from the narthex beyond. Tapster stayed behind, collecting his guitar. The pianist waited for him. Oliver passed his hymn book to a young girl of around thirteen, who was already steadying a teetering pile with her chin. She grinned and hurried away.
In the pew in front, the older couple stood as if on cue and turned simultaneously. Though they were both clearly in their seventies, Time had so far treated them with uncharacteristic decency. The woman was tall and straight-backed, with milky skin and a braid of thick white hair. Her husband was stocky-framed, and his hair, while fine and thinning, still covered his scalp and was largely dark. The way he fixed Oliver with a critical gaze from his small, brown eyes indicated he had no need of spectacles.
"Cedric Potiphar," he announced solemnly, with a noticeable Cornish accent and a volume level that showed Time could still be a bastard. Oliver shook the large, dry hand and managed to introduce himself without mispronouncing his name. Potiphar took in this new information. "My wife, Elsie," he added eventually, as if unsure of the propriety of exposing her to a writer. Mrs. Potiphar rewarded Oliver with a nervous smile, but didn't speak. The couple then repeated the entire exercise with Ben.
"May I welcome you both to the Lord's tabernacle on this Sabbath day?" Potiphar intoned loudly.
"Thank you very much," said Oliver.
"We outstretch the hand of fellowship to all," Potiphar conceded. "No matter how unworthy," he added more quietly, with a sidelong glance at Tapster and the pianist, who were ambling past the pew. He fell silent. The girl with the pile of hymn books paused and watched Tapster until he disappeared through the curtain at the back of the church.
"I suppose the guitar-playing is a way to involve the younger folks," said Ben quickly, correctly guessing that the fishlike expression on Oliver's face masked a fruitless and increasingly desperate attempt to think of any conversational comment to make to the Potiphars. Although Oliver was the most polite individual he knew, Ben was also aware that his friend was utterly inept when it came to sustaining small talk.
Potiphar glared at the photographer as if he'd offered to take a set of boudoir shots of his wife. He tapped on the leather cover of his well-worn Bible. "There's nothing in God's word about preaching through entertainment," he grumbled.
"Nothing about hearing aids either, cocky, more's the pity," muttered his wife under her breath. Potiphar appeared not to notice.
They had edged their way to the aisle and joined a queue of people slowly passing through the curtain. The Potiphars seemed content to let Oliver and Ben precede them, and as the two men slipped through into the church's entrance hall, they saw the reason for the hold-up. A one-man receiving line, Paul Piltdown was now greeting each congregant in turn as he or she headed for the front door and the chilly night air of north London.
Excerpted from Murdering Ministers by Alan Beechey. Copyright © 2014 Alan Beechey. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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