Mystery crime fiction written in the Golden Age of Murder
'He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden.'
Amy Snowden, in middle age, has long since settled into a lonely life in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw, untilto her neighbours' surpriseshe suddenly marries a much younger man. Months later, Amy is found deadapparently by her own handand her husband, Wright, has disappeared.
Sergeant Caleb Cluffsilent, watchful, a man at home in the bleak moorland landscape of Gunnarshawmust find the truth about the couple's unlikely marriage, and solve the riddle of Amy's death.
This novel, originally published in 1960, is the first in the series of Sergeant Cluff detective stories that were televised in the 1960s but have long been neglected. This new edition is published in the centenary year of the author's birth.
About the Author
GIL NORTH was the pseudonym of Geoffrey Horne (1916-1988), a writer from Skipton who worked as a civil servant in colonial Africa for many years, before returning to his native Yorkshire. The best-known of his novels are the eleven detective stories featuring Sergeant Cluff.
Read an Excerpt
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
By Gil North
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Gil North Limited
All rights reserved.
Silent in the old cottage isolated at the foot of the moors. Silent except for the crackling of the log fire in the grate, or a sudden flurry of rain beating against the windows, or a more pronounced moan from the wind hurtling over the moor tops.
The silence shattered. The harsh ringing of a telephone, regular, unceasing.
The dog in front of the fire stirred and rumbled in his throat. In the passage outside the living-room the telephone continued its strident summons.
The dog was big, shaggy, of a working breed, descended from a line of collies. He climbed to his feet, his gaze shifting to his master, nodding in a large arm-chair, comfortable, at peace.
The dog began to bark. The man in the chair jerked, coming to life. A cat, built on the same generous proportions as the dog, slept on the man's knees. Everything alive in the cottage was huge in the dancing shadows cast by the fire and the dim light of the single oil-lamp, turned low. The long fur of the cat, grey, Persian, stood on end. The cat's claws unsheathed and dug through the cloth of the man's trousers, into his thigh.
"Quiet, Clive! Quiet!" the man ordered.
He heaved his bulk reluctantly from the chair, holding the cat. The cat protested, its protests dying as the man placed it in the warm hollow of the cushion on which he had been sitting.
The dog's tongue lolled from his open jaws. His flanks rose and fell. His alert eyes followed the man as the man moved slowly, deliberately, without haste, to the passage.
"Yes?" said the man into the mouthpiece of the telephone. "Of course. Cluff speaking."
His words dropped like stones into a pool, broad-vowelled, well spaced, with long pauses between them.
"What?" he said. "Where? Number thirty-three, Balaclava Street? I suppose so. Not long. Half-an-hour. No more. Less."
The cat did not move.
"Stay, Clive! Sit!" Cluff said.
The dog sank to his haunches. The dog's ears pricked as the outer door slammed. The dog's head inclined lower in disappointment as a car engine started with difficulty, wheezing and clanking.
Rain plastered itself against the yellowed windscreen of the bull-nosed, two-seater Morris, defeating the efforts of the worn wipers. The ancient car travelled the dark road, freewheeling into a deep dip, labouring up the opposite hill at snail's pace. The steering wheel twisted in Cluff's loose grip. Cluff's heavy tweeds were damp and redolent in the confined space under the tattered hood. His shapeless tweed hat, with the grouse feather in its band, hooded his eyes. On the seat beside him the handle of a thick, chestnut-wood walking-stick, its ferrule wedged against the gear lever, bounced with every jolt.
The lights of houses ahead. The main road into Gunnarshaw. The car knew its own way. Down to the church. The High Street. At the bottom of the High Street, left. Past shuttered shops. The glare of a hotel. Right, into Little Crimea.
Sevastopol Road. The car slowed. Side-streets ran away from the road, at right-angles to it, climbing a hill. Between the mouths of the streets rows of houses, opening directly on to the pavement, all alike, a door, a parlour window, the windows upstairs of a larger bedroom and a smaller one. Sometimes the glass in these smaller windows was frosted, where the room behind had been turned from its original purpose into a bathroom. The curtains in the light of the infrequent street-lamps were white, neat and clean, the doorsteps scrubbed and holystoned.
Inkerman Street. Alma Street. Scutari Street.
Cluff crouched forward, staring into the night. A grocer's on one corner. A cobbler's on the other. He swung the wheel, regardless of whether there was traffic behind him, disdaining the use of an indicator, sidling like a crab into Balaclava Street. The street was unadopted and the rear wheels of the car spun on the slope slippery with the rain, scouring the wet grass, sending mud flying. Cluff pulled on the brake. He climbed out and the car ran backwards a little, until chocked by a boulder.
He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden. The doors he passed should have been locked and bolted. In the dark they appeared closed, but Cluff had an impression that they were open, just the slightest of cracks, people listening behind them in unlit hallways. Pale patches showed in the upstairs windows of the houses on the side opposite to him, disappearing when he paused to look. Eyes watched him. More than once he heard a quick intake of breath. At the top of the hill a dog escaped. Someone shouted and a short, staccato yelp of pain came to Cluffs ears.
Three quarters of the way up light spilled from an open door on to the flagged pavement. Heavy-shod feet clattered towards him. A uniformed constable almost knocked Cluff down.
"There, Sergeant," the constable said, turning to point. "Up there."
A smallish man, stocky, with a permanently hostile manner, dressed in Inspector's uniform, hopped about in front of the open door.
"At last, Sergeant," the Inspector said. "Do we have to wait all night?"
Cluff ignored him.
Inspector Mole, dripping, angry to be called out on such a night, grew more irritated, conscious of Guff's physical mastery. Liberty of action amongst his inferiors offended him. Unorthodoxy was anathema to him. He was a natural man, suitably married, the father of a family. He conducted himselfwith decorum in all his actions, official and unofficial. He had a tidy mind and Caleb Cluff with his dog and his cat and his cottage two miles from town, fitted into none of his pigeon-holes. He supposed that one representative of the County Criminal Investigation Department was essential in the division. He was at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch in the first instance.
Behind Mole, in the doorway out of the rain, a little woman could not keep still. She was thin and angular, dried-up, with peaked features, wispy grey hair, a long nose, a receding chin. She wore cotton stockings under her crumpled skirt and her jumper was of a neutral colour. Her watery eyes stared past Mole at Cluff, through black-rimmed glasses fixed to her ears by metal sidepieces. A man without a jacket, his waistcoat unbuttoned, his collar and tie discarded, fat overlapping the belt holding his trousers up, leaned unperturbed against a passage wall.
"Well?" asked Cluff. "Well?"
"Next door —" Inspector Mole began.
"It's all nonsense," the man interrupted. "I told her so. She's got you out for nothing."
"Don't listen to him, Sergeant," the woman pleaded. "If the sky fell on him he wouldn't notice. I know there's something wrong. I know it!"
"Tell me about it, Mrs. Toogood," Cluff said, quietly.
"Damn him!" Mole swore to himself. "How does he come to know everybody in Gunnarshaw? What chance have the rest of us got?"
"I always said so," the woman went on, in a piercing voice. "Married. At forty-five. To him. Twenty years younger, if he's a day!"
"Look," said her husband. "Why don't you come in? She'll talk for hours."
"Amy?" Cluff asked. "Is it Amy?"
"The milk," Mrs. Toogood said. "It hasn't been taken in. On the back doorstep. The paper, sticking through the front letter-box. I haven't heard anything all day. There's no light."
"Gone out," said Mr. Toogood. "She doesn't have to account to you for her movements."
Cluff moved forward. "I'll take this way," he said. "It's quicker than going round the row."
Mole and the constable followed him through the house. Its owners tagged on to the end of the procession. Cluff led them into the backyard, out into the back-street, into the yard of the house next door.
"You can see for yourselves," Mrs. Toogood said. "The curtains, still over the window —"CHAPTER 2
"Thomas!" Cluff said to the police-constable. "Break it in."
Constable Thomas drew himself up. He spat on his hands and rubbed them together. Then he took the doorknob in his fingers and pulled and pushed without effect.
"I don't like it," Inspector Mole told Cluff. "After all, there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation. The Superintendent —"
Constable Thomas retreated as far as the yard would let him. He charged at the back door, sideways, with all the force of his sixteen stones. Something cracked and the wood of the jamb splintered.
"Ah," said the constable.
He tried again and the door burst open.
"My God!" Mole exclaimed. "My God!" Mrs. Toogood screamed, holding her hands to her nose.
Sergeant Cluff looked about him. A tiny rockery occupied the corner of the yard wall and the house side. Cluff picked up one of the rocks and hurled it through the ground-floor window.
Gas flooded out into the night.
"Take her home," Cluff told Mr. Toogood. "Go on. Take her home."
Mr. Toogood laid his hand on his wife's arm. He led her away and she was unwilling to go.
"What did I tell you?" Mrs. Toogood sobbed. "Didn't I say all along? —"
They waited in the yard. Voices hummed about them, people moving in and out of their houses in the night.
Cluff put his handkerchief over his mouth and nostrils. He blundered into the scullery, out of it into the living-room, from there to the passage. He groped for the lock on the front door. He found it and pulled the door open, taking gulps of pure air, while a draught surged past him. The lower floor cleared gradually of gas, but it was thick on the stairs, slow in dispersing.
Cluff went back to the yard.
"You can come in now," he said to Mole.
"Thank you," the Inspector replied, with sarcasm. "It's kind of you to invite me." He turned to the constable. "Keep people out down here, Thomas," he ordered.
Cluff was at the bottom of the stairs. He pressed a light-switch and mounted quickly. The three doors on the landing were all closed. Cluff pushed open the one nearest to the stairhead and knew at once that he had found the source of the gas. He stumbled across the room in the light shining from the landing and got the curtains drawn back and the window up. He leaned dizzily over the sill. His brain cleared and he could hear a tiny, hissing sound.
Cluff staggered back to the door and put the light on. A pipe, bent at the top, with a tap on its arm, stuck through the floor on the hearth of the fireplace. Cluff twisted the tap with his fingers and it moved stiffly. The hissing stopped.
"Are you all right?" Mole said, from the landing.
Mole stared about him at a room like hundreds of other rooms in Gunnarshaw. In the corner, a fireplace, its grate, which had probably never held a fire since the house was built, black-leaded. A double-bed, for which there was just space, was squashed close to the fireplace. An upright chair stood on one side of the bed. At the foot of the bed, hardly separated from it, a dressing-table. A wardrobe by the window. The wallpaper had a glaring, flowered design. Linoleum covered the floor, relieved by runners of carpet on either side of the bed and in front of the dressing-table.
Mole bent to look more carefully at the gas-tap. "They must have had a gas-fire once," he said.
Cluff was at the bed.
"Is she dead?" Mole asked. "It's lucky the window wasn't quite closed at the top and that the doors don't fit properly. The whole concern might have gone up."
On the side away from the fireplace the covers on the bed were smooth, flat. They were moulded into a hump where the body lay on the other edge. She was turned on her side, her hair long and silky, her face younger looking than Mole had expected. Her features were calm and compassionate. Mole decided they wore an expression of pity, as if she was sorry, not merely for herself, but for the world as well.
Her clothes were on the chair beside her head, a brassière dangling from the chair-back, a vest with shoulder-straps of pink ribbon, a slip, a pair of knickers, elastic round the waist and legs.
Mole's eyes wandered farther. A brush and comb lay on a glass tray on the dressing-table, together with a jar containing hair-grips. There was nothing else he could see except a lavender-bag, of faded blue velvet, hanging from one of the uprights of the mirror.
Mole said, "You'd have thought she would have left a note. But they don't always. What are you doing?" he added.
The Sergeant was folding back the bed-covers. He felt the dead woman's head gently with the tips of his fingers. She had on a nightdress of some thin stuff, not transparent, but not too thick to hide the shape of her breast. The point of her nipple pricked against the cloth.
"She doesn't look her age," Sergeant Cluff said.
"Nearly as old as me," Inspector Mole muttered. "Or you. Was she a friend of yours? Most people in Gunnarshaw seem to be."
"When you've been here as long as I have," Cluff said, "you'll know people like I do."
"It's not difficult," said the Inspector, "in a town this size."
"I was born not far away," Cluff said. "Even as a boy I used to come in with my father every market-day."
The Sergeant stooped over the bed, sniffing at the woman's mouth.
"Can't you leave that sort of thing to the doctor?" Mole demanded.
He watched Cluff turn the tap on the gas-pipe backwards and forwards.
"It wasn't turned on accidentally," Mole said.
"I was making sure," Cluff replied.
"She did it herself," Mole stated.
"Why?" Caleb Cluff asked. "Why?"
"How do I know why?" the Inspector exclaimed. "It's obvious, isn't it? It'll be something for you to find out, a nice change from petty thefts and amateur attempts at burglary. I can't see that it matters."CHAPTER 3
Mole and Cluff waited for the surgeon. They killed time by going through the house together. The wardrobe in the bedroom held a man's suit and one of the drawers in the dressing-table contained a man's underwear, vests and pants and stockings, a couple of shirts.
"No children?" Mole asked.
"No," Cluff told him.
"She left it a bit late, didn't she?" Mole said.
The second bedroom, overlooking Balaclava Street, was furnished but sterile, as though no one ever slept in it. The bathroom into which the third bedroom had been converted offered nothing. Downstairs the front parlour smelt musty and showed no indication that it was ever used, unless on special occasions or at times such as Christmas.
In the living-room the rain blew through the smashed window. There were cold ashes in the grate. The room was clean, tidy, crockery stacked neatly away in the cupboards, everything as it should be, bearing the stamp of a careful housewife. Newspapers and some copies of a women's magazine were lumped together in a rack near the hearth. The mantelpiece held a clock and two vases. A handbag on the side-board contained a purse and a few oddments, a handkerchief, a folder with five one-pound notes and three ten-shilling ones.
"It's not often you find a woman who doesn't use powder and lipstick," Mole remarked, noting the lack of cosmetics.
"She wasn't any the worse for that," Cluff said.
"There's nothing to get excited about," Mole replied.
The police surgeon arrived. He made entries on a form he held in his hand.
The surgeon said, "Amy Wright. Born Snowden, you say?" Cluff nodded.
"Married," the surgeon wrote. He paused. "Where's her husband then?" Neither Cluff nor Mole enlightened him.
"Well," the surgeon said, "someone'll have to identify her formally. I can get the details later." He looked down his nose. "You can never tell," he said. "Especially at the menopause."
"You didn't know her," Cluff said.
The doctor closed his bag with a snap: "She can be moved now, so far as I'm concerned. A foregone conclusion."
"The post-mortem?" Cluff said.
"Naturally. We have to go through the motions. Tomorrow, when I get the coroner's order."
The doctor laughed: "There's nothing to worry about, Cluff. This case isn't going to get you promotion."CHAPTER 4
Caleb Cluff lay on his back, arms on the pillow behind his head, staring at the sloping roof of his bedroom. Early winter light crept through the dormer window, which had a broad, cushioned sill. His bed was big, to accommodate his bigness. The counterpane rose in a hill over his large belly. The floor was of dark, oak boards, resting on the oak beams of the room beneath, strewn with sheepskin rugs, the fleeces intact. Books filled shelves fixed round the walls. When he turned his head he could see through the window, pastures rising steeply to a plantation of firs. The cottage was too far from the road to be disturbed by the sound of traffic. The only noises he ever heard were the hoot of an owl, the shriek of a hare as a fox leapt on it, the cries of the peewits, the occasional far-off bleat of a sheep on the fells, his hens clucking in their run.
Excerpted from Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North. Copyright © 2016 Gil North Limited. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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