No one gets inside the head of the murderer—or makes it a more thrilling read—than the late, great P. D. James. Fast on the heels of her latest best seller: a new, fiendishly entertaining gathering of previously uncollected stories, from the author of Death Comes to Pemberley and The Private Patient.
It's not always a question of "whodunit?" Sometimes there's more mystery in the why or how. And although we usually know the unhealthy fates of both victim and perpetrator, what of those clever few who plan and carry out the perfect crime? The ones who aren't brought down even though they're found out? And what about those who do the finding out who witness a murder or who identify the murderer but keep the information to themselves? These are some of the mysteries that we follow through those six stories as we are drawn into the thinking, the memories, the emotional machinations, the rationalizations, the dreams and desires behind murderous cause and effect.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 3, 1920
Place of Birth:Oxford, England
Education:Attended the Cambridge High School for Girls from 1931 to 1937 and later took evening classes in hospital administration
Read an Excerpt
I found the yo-yo the day before Christmas Eve, in the way one does come across these long-forgotten relics of the past, while I was tidying up some of the unexamined papers which clutter my elderly life. It was my seventy-third birthday and I suppose I was overtaken by a fit of memento mori. Most of my affairs were tidied up years ago, but there is always a muddle somewhere. Mine was in six old box files on a top shelf of the wardrobe in my little-used spare bedroom, normally out of sight and out of mind. But now, for no particular reason, they intruded into my thoughts with an irritating persistence. Their contents ought to be sorted through and the papers either filed or destroyed. Henry and Margaret, my son and daughter-in-law, would expect to find that I, the most meticulous of fathers, had spared them even this minor inconvenience on my death. There was nothing else I needed to do. I was waiting, suitcase packed, for Margaret to come in the car to collect me for a family Christmas I would infinitely have preferred to spend alone in my Temple flat. To collect me. That is what we can so easily be made to feel at seventy-three; an object, not exactly precious but likely to be brittle, to be carefully collected, conscientiously cared for and as conscientiously returned. I was ready too early, as I always am. There were nearly two hours to be got through before the car arrived. Time to sort out the boxes.
The box files, bulging and one with the lid wrenched loose, were tied with thin cord. Undoing this and opening the first box, I was met by a half-forgotten, nostalgic smell of old papers. I carried the box to the bed, settled down and began leafing through a miscellany of papers from my prep-school days, old school reports—some of the inked comments yellowing, others as clear as if written yesterday—letters from my parents still in their fragile envelopes, with the foreign stamps torn away to give to school-friend collectors, one or two school exercise books with highly marked essays which I had probably kept to show my parents on their next furlough. Lifting one of these, I discovered the yo-yo. It was just as I remembered it, bright red, glossy, tactile and desirable. The string was neatly wound with only the looped end for the finger showing. My hand closed round the smooth wood. The yo-yo precisely fitted my palm. It felt cold to the touch, even to my hand which is now seldom warm. And with that touch the memories came flooding back. The verb is trite but accurate; they came like a full tide, sweeping me back to the same day sixty years ago, December 23rd 1936, the day of the murder.
I was at prep school in Surrey and was, as usual, to spend Christmas with my widowed grandmother in her small manor house in west Dorset. The rail journey was tedious, requiring two changes, and there was no local station, so she usually sent her own car and driver to collect me. But this year was different. The headmaster called me into his study to explain.
“I’ve had this morning a telephone call from your grandmother, Charlcourt. It appears that her chauffeur is unwell and will be unable to fetch you. I’ve arranged for Carter to drive you down to Dorset in my personal car. I need him until after lunch so it will be a later arrival than usual. Lady Charlcourt has kindly offered him a bed for the night. And Mr. Michaelmass will be travelling with you. Lady Charlcourt has invited him to spend Christmas at the manor, but no doubt she has already written to you about that.”
She hadn’t, but I didn’t say so. My grandmother wasn’t fond of children and tolerated me more from family feeling—I was, after all, like her only son, the necessary heir—than from any affection. She did her dutiful best each Christmas to see that I was kept reasonably happy and out of mischief. There was a sufficiency of toys appropriate to my sex and age, purchased by her chauffeur on written suggestions from my mother, but there was no laughter, no young companionship, no Christmas decorations and no emotional warmth. I suspected that she would much have preferred to spend Christmas alone than with a bored, restless and discontented child. I don’t blame her. I have reached her age and I feel exactly the same.
But as I closed the door of the headmaster’s study my heart was heavy with resentment and disgust. Didn’t she know anything about me or the school? Didn’t she realise that the holiday would be boring enough without the sharp eyes and sarcastic tongue of Mike the Menace? He was easily the most unpopular master in the school, pedantic, over-strict and given to that biting sarcasm which boys find more difficult to bear than shouted insults. I know now that he was a brilliant teacher. It was to Mike the Menace that I largely owe my public-school scholarship. Perhaps it was this knowledge and the fact that he had been at Balliol with my father which had prompted my grandmother’s invitation. My father might even have written to suggest it. I was less surprised that Mr. Michaelmass had accepted. The comfort and excellent food at the manor would be a welcome change from the spartan living and institutional cooking at school.
The journey was as boring as I had expected. When the elderly Hastings was at the wheel, he would let me sit in the front seat beside him and keep me happy with chat about my father’s childhood; instead, I was closeted in the back with a silent Mr. Michaelmass. The glass partition between us and the driver was closed and all I could see was the back of the rigid uniform hat, which the headmaster always insisted that Carter should wear when acting as chauffeur, and his gloved hands on the wheel.
Carter wasn’t really a chauffeur but was required to drive the headmaster when his prestige demanded this addition to his status. For the rest of the time Carter was part groundsman, part odd-job man. His wife, frail and gentle-faced and looking as young as a girl, was matron at one of the three boarding houses. His son, Timmy, was a pupil at the school. Only later did I fully understand this curious arrangement. Carter was what I had overheard one of the parents describe as “a most superior type of man.” I never knew what personal misfortune had brought him to his job at the school. The headmaster got Carter’s and his wife’s services cheaply by offering them accommodation and free education for their son. He probably paid them a pittance. If Carter resented this, we, the boys, never knew. We got used to seeing him about the grounds, tall, white-faced, dark-haired, and, when not busy, playing always with the red yo-yo. It was a fashionable toy in the 1930s and Carter was adept at the spectacular throws which the rest of us practised with our own yo-yos but never achieved.
Timmy was an undersized, delicate, nervous child. He sat always at the back of the class, neglected and ignored. One of the boys, a more egregious snob than the rest of us, said, “I don’t see why we have to have that creep Timmy in class with us. That’s not why my father pays the fees.” But the rest of us didn’t mind one way or the other, and in Mike the Menace’s class Timmy was a positive asset, diverting from the rest of us the terror of that sharp, sarcastic tongue. I don’t think in Mr. Michaelmass’s case the cruelty had anything to do with snobbery, or even that he recognised his behaviour as cruel. He was simply unable to tolerate wasting his teaching skills on an unresponsive and unintelligent boy.
But none of this occupied my mind on the journey. Sitting well apart from Mr. Michaelmass in the corner of the car, I was sunk in a reverie of resentment and despair. My companion preferred to be driven in darkness as well as silence, and we had no light. But I had brought with me a paperback and a slender torch and asked him if it would disturb him if I read. He replied, “Read, by all means, boy,” and sank back into the collar of his heavy tweed coat.
I took out my copy of Treasure Island and tried to concentrate on the small moving pool of light. Hours passed. We were driven through small towns and villages, and it was a relief from boredom to look out at brightly lit streets, the decorated gaudy windows of the shops and the busy stream of late shoppers. In one village a little group of carol singers accompanied by a brass band were jangling their collecting boxes. The sound seemed to follow us as we left the brightness behind. We seemed to be travelling through a dark eternity. I was, of course, familiar with the route, but Hastings normally called for me in the morning of December 23rd so that we did most of the drive in daylight. Now, sitting beside that silent figure in the gloom of the car and with blackness pressing against the windows like a heavy blanket, the journey seemed interminable. Then I sensed that we were climbing, and soon I could hear the distant rhythmic thudding of the sea. We must be on the coast road. It would not be long now. I shone my torch on the face of my wristwatch. Half past five. We should be at the manor in less than an hour.
And then Carter slowed the car and bumped gently onto the grass verge. The car stopped. He pulled back the glass partition and said, “I’m sorry, Sir. I need to get out. A call of nature.”
The euphemism made me want to giggle. Mr. Michaelmass hesitated for a moment, then said, “In that case we’d better all get out.”
Carter came round and punctiliously opened the door. We stepped out onto lumpy grass, and into black darkness and the swirl of snow. The sea was no longer a background murmur but a crashing tumult of sound. I was at first aware of nothing but the snowflakes on my cheeks, the two dark figures close to me, the utter blackness of the night and the keen salty tang of the sea. Then, as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could see the shape of a huge rock to my left.
Mr. Michaelmass said, “Go behind that boulder, boy. Don’t take long. And don’t go wandering off.”
I stepped closer to the boulder, but not behind it, and the two figures moved out of sight, Mr. Michaelmass walking straight ahead and Carter to the right. A minute later, turning from the rock face, I could see nothing, not the car or either of my companions. It would be wise to wait until one of them reappeared. I plunged my hand into my pocket and, almost without thinking, took out the torch and shone it over the headland. The beam of light was narrow but bright. And in that moment, instantaneously, I saw the act of murder.
Mr. Michaelmass was standing very still about thirty yards away, a dark shape outlined against the lighter sky. Carter must have moved up silently behind him on the thin carpet of snow. Now, in that second when the dark figures were caught in the beam, I saw Carter violently lunge forward, arms outstretched, and seemed to feel in the small of my back the strength of that fatal push. Without a sound Mr. Michaelmass disappeared from view. There had been two shadowy figures; now there was one.
Carter knew that I had seen; how could he help it? The beam of light had been too late to stop the action, but now he turned and it shone full on his face. We were alone together on the headland. Curiously I felt absolutely no fear. I suppose that what I did feel was surprise. We moved towards each other almost like automata. I said, hearing the note of simple wonder in my voice, “You pushed him over. You murdered him.”
He said, “I did it for the boy. God help me, I did it for Timmy. It was him or the boy.”
I stood for a moment silently regarding him, aware again of the soft liquid touch of the snow melting on my cheeks. I shone the torch down and saw that the two sets of footprints were already no more than faint smudges on the snow. Soon they would be obliterated under that white blanket. Then, still without speaking, I turned and we walked back to the car together, almost companionably, as if nothing had happened, as if that third person was walking by our side. I have a memory, but perhaps I may be wrong, that at one place Carter seemed to stumble and I held his arm to steady him. When we reached the car he said, his voice dull and without hope, “What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. What is there to do? He slipped and fell over the cliff. We weren’t there. We didn’t see, either of us. You were with me at the time. We were both together by that rock. You never left my side.”
He said nothing for the moment, and when he did speak I had to strain my ears to hear.
“I planned it, God help me. I planned it, but it was fate. If it was meant to be, then it would be.”
The words meant little at the time, but later, when I was older, I think I understood what he was saying. It was one way, perhaps the necessary way, to absolve himself from responsibility. That push hadn’t been the overwhelming impulse of the moment. He had planned the deed, had chosen the place and the time. He knew exactly what he meant to do. But so much had been outside his control. He couldn’t be sure that Mr. Michaelmass would want to leave the car, or that he would stand so conveniently close to the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t be sure that the darkness would be so absolute or that I would stand sufficiently apart. And one thing had worked against him; he hadn’t known about my torch. If the attempt had failed, would he have tried again? Who can know? It was one of the many questions I never asked him.
He opened the rear door for me, suddenly standing upright, a deferential chauffeur doing his job. As I got in I turned and said, “We must stop at the first police station and let them know what has happened. Leave the talking to me. And we’d better say that it was Mr. Michaelmass, not you, who wanted to stop the car.”
I look back now with some disgust at my childish arrogance. The words had the force of a command. If he resented it he made no sign. And he did leave the talking to me, merely quietly confirming my story. I told it first at the police station in the small Dorset town which we reached within fifteen minutes. Memory is always disjointed, episodic. Some impulse of the mind presses the button and, like a colour transparency, the picture is suddenly thrown on the screen, vivid, immobile, a glowing instant fixed in time between the long stretches of dark emptiness. At the police station I remember a tall lamp with the snowflakes swirling out of darkness to die like moths against the glass, a huge coal fire in a small office which smelt of furniture polish and coffee, a Sergeant, huge, imperturbable, taking down the details, the heavy oilskin capes of the policemen as they stamped out to begin the search. I had decided precisely what I would say.
“Mr. Michaelmass told Carter to stop the car and we got out. He said it was a call of nature. Carter and I went to the left by a large boulder and Mr. Michaelmass walked ahead. It was so dark we didn’t see him after that. We both waited for him, I suppose for about five minutes, but he still didn’t appear. Then I took out my torch and we explored. We could just see his footsteps to the edge of the cliff but they were getting very faint. We still hung around and called, but he didn’t reappear, so we knew what had happened.”
The Sergeant said, “Hear anything, did you?”
I was tempted to say, “Well I did think I heard one sharp cry, but I thought it could be a bird,” but I resisted the temptation. Would there be a seagull flying in that darkness? Better to keep the story simple and stick to it. I have sent a number of men down for life because they have neglected that simple rule.
The Sergeant said that he would organise a search, but that there was little chance of finding any trace of Mr. Michaelmass that night. They would have to wait for first light. He added, “And if he went over where I think he did, we may not retrieve the body for weeks.” He took the addresses of my grandmother and the school and let us go.
I have no clear memory of our arrival at the manor, perhaps because recollection is overshadowed by what happened next morning. Carter, of course, breakfasted with the servants while I was in the dining room with my grandmother. We were still in the middle of our toast and marmalade when the parlour-maid announced that the Chief Constable, Colonel Neville, had called. My grandmother asked that he be shown into the library, and left the dining room immediately. Less than a quarter of an hour later I was summoned.
And now my memory is sharp and clear, every word remembered as if it were yesterday. My grandmother was sitting in a high-backed leather chair before the fire. It had only recently been lit and the room struck me as chill. The wood was still crackling and the coals hadn’t yet caught fire. There was a large desk set in the middle of the room where my grandfather used to work, and the Chief Constable was sitting behind it. In front of it stood Carter, rigid as a soldier called before his commanding officer. And on the desk, precisely placed in front of the Colonel, was the red yo-yo.
Carter turned briefly as I entered and gave me one single look. Our eyes held for no more than three seconds before he turned away but I saw in his eyes—how could I not?—that wild mixture of fear and pleading. I have seen it many times since from prisoners in the dock awaiting the pronouncement of my sentence, and I have never been able to encounter it with equanimity. Carter needn’t have worried; I had relished too much the power of that first decision, the heady satisfaction of being in control, to think of betraying him now or ever. And how could I betray him? Wasn’t I now his accomplice in guilt?
Colonel Neville was stern-faced. He said, “I want you to listen to my questions very carefully and tell me the exact truth.”
My grandmother said, “Charlcourts don’t lie.”
“I know that, I know that.” He kept his eyes on me. “Do you recognise this yo-yo?”
“I think so, Sir, if it’s the same one.”
My grandmother broke in. “It was found on the edge of the cliff where Mr. Michaelmass fell. Carter says that it isn’t his. Is it yours?”
She shouldn’t have spoken, of course. And I wondered at the time why the Chief Constable should have allowed her to be present at the interview. Later I realised that he had had no choice. Even in those less child-centred times a juvenile would not have been questioned without a responsible adult present. The Colonel’s frown of displeasure at the intervention was so brief that I almost missed it. But I didn’t miss it. I was alive, gloriously alive, to every nuance, every gesture.
I said, “Carter is telling the truth, Sir. It isn’t his. It’s mine. He gave it to me before we started out. While we were waiting for Mr. Michaelmass.”
“Gave it to you? Why should he do that?” My grandmother’s voice was sharp. I turned towards her.
“He said it was because I’d been kind to Timmy. Timmy is his son. The boys rag him rather.”
The Colonel’s voice had changed. “Was this yo-yo in your possession when Mr. Michaelmass fell to his death?”
I looked him straight in the eyes. “No, Sir. Mr. Michaelmass confiscated it during the journey. He saw me fiddling with it and asked me how I came by it. I told him and he took it from me. He said, ‘Whatever the other boys may choose to do, a Charlcourt should know that pupils don’t take presents from a servant.’ ”
I had subconsciously mimicked Mr. Michaelmass’s dry sarcastic tone and the words came out with utterly convincing verisimilitude. But they probably would have believed me anyway. Why not? A Charlcourt doesn’t lie.
The Colonel asked, “And what did Mr. Michaelmass do with the yo-yo when he’d confiscated it?”
“He put it in his coat pocket, Sir.”
The Chief Constable leant back in his chair and looked over at my grandmother. “Well, that’s plain enough. It’s obvious what happened. He made some adjustments to his clothing . . .”
He paused, perhaps feeling some delicacy, but my grandmother was made of tougher metal. She said, “Perfectly plain. He walked away from Carter and the boy not realising that he was dangerously close to the cliff edge. He took off his gloves to undo his flies and stuffed the gloves in his pockets. When he pulled them out again the yo-yo fell. He wouldn’t hear it on the snow. Then, disorientated by the darkness, he took a step in the wrong direction, slipped and fell.”
Colonel Neville turned to Carter. “It was a stupid place to stop, but you weren’t to know that.”
Carter said, through lips almost as white as his face, “Mr. Michaelmass asked me to stop the car, Sir.”
“Of course, of course, I realise that. It wasn’t your place to argue. You’ve made your statement. There’s no reason for you to stay on here. You’d better get back to the school and your duties. You’ll be needed for the inquest, but that probably won’t be for some time. We haven’t found the body yet. And pull yourself together, man. It wasn’t your fault. I suppose by not saying at once that you’d given the yo-yo to the boy you were trying to protect him. It was quite unnecessary. You should have told the whole truth, just as it happened. Concealing facts always leads to trouble. Remember that in future.”
Carter said, “Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir,” turned quietly and left.
When the door had closed behind him, Colonel Neville got up from his chair and moved over to the fire, standing with his back to it, rocking gently on his heels and looking down at my grandmother. They seemed to have forgotten my presence. I moved over to the door and stood there quietly beside it, but I didn’t leave.
The Chief Constable said, “I didn’t want to mention it while Carter was here, but you don’t think there’s any possibility that he jumped?”
My grandmother’s voice was calm. “A suicide? It did cross my mind. It was odd that he told the boy to go over to the boulder and he walked on into the darkness alone.”
The Colonel said, “A natural wish for privacy, perhaps.”
“I suppose so.” She paused, then went on, “He lost his wife and a child, you know. Soon after they married. Killed in a car crash. He was driving at the time. He never got over it. I don’t think anything mattered to him after that, except perhaps his teaching. My son says that he was one of the most gifted men of his year at Oxford. Everyone predicted a brilliant academic career for him. And what did he end up doing? Stuck in a prep school wasting his talent on small boys. Perhaps he saw it as some kind of penance.”
The Colonel asked, “No relations?”
“None, as far as I know.”
The Colonel continued, “I won’t raise the possibility of suicide at the inquest, of course. Unfair to his memory. And there isn’t a shred of proof. Accidental death is far more likely. It will be a loss for the school, of course. Was he popular with the boys?”
My grandmother said, “I shouldn’t think so. Highly unlikely, I would have said. They’re all barbarians at that age.”
I slipped out of the door, still unobserved.
I began to grow up during that Christmas week. I realised for the first time the insidious temptations of power, the exhilaration of feeling in control of people and events, the power of patronage. And I learnt another lesson, best expressed by Henry James. “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Who would have believed that Mr. Michaelmass had once been a devoted father, a loving husband? I like to believe that the knowledge made me a better lawyer, a more compassionate judge, but I’m not sure. The essential self is fixed well before the thirteenth birthday. It may be influenced by experience but it is seldom changed.
Carter and I never spoke about the murder again, not even when we attended the inquest together seven weeks later. Back at school we hardly saw each other; after all, I was a pupil, he a servant. I shared the snobbery of my caste. And what Carter and I shared was a secret, not a friendship, not a life. But I would occasionally watch him pacing the side of the rugger field, his hands twitching as if there was something he missed.
And did it answer? A moralist, I suppose, would expect us both to be racked with guilt and the new master to be worse than Mr. Michaelmass. But he wasn’t. The headmaster’s wife was not without influence, and I can imagine her saying, “He was a wonderful teacher, of course, but not really popular with the boys. Perhaps, dear, you could find someone a little gentler, and a man we don’t have to feed during the holidays.”
So Mr. Wainwright came, a nervous, newly qualified teacher. He didn’t torment us—but we tormented him. A boys’ prep school, after all, is a microcosm of the world outside. But he took trouble with Timmy, giving him special care, perhaps because Timmy was the only boy who didn’t bully him. And Timmy blossomed under his loving patience.
And the murder answered in another way—or I suppose you could argue that it did. Three years later the war broke out and Carter joined up immediately. He was one of the most decorated Sergeants of the war, awarded the Victoria Cross for pulling three of his comrades out of their burning tank. He was killed at the battle of El Alamein and his name is carved on the school war memorial, a fitting gesture to the great democracy of death.
And the yo-yo? I replaced it in the box among the school reports, the old essays and those letters from my parents which I thought might interest my son or my grandchildren. Finding it, will he briefly wonder what happy childhood memory made an old man so reluctant to throw it away?