A wryly entertaining new crime caper from Lynne Truss, author of “the funniest crime novel of 2018” (Wall Street Journal) and the New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
1957: In the beach town of Brighton, music is playing and guests are sunning themselves, when a young man is found dead, dripping blood, in a deck chair.
Constable Twitten of the Brighton Police Force has a hunch that the fiendish murder may be connected to a notorious nightspot, but his captain and his colleagues are-as ever-busy with other more important issues. Inspector Steine is being conned into paying for the honor of being featured at the Museum of Wax, and Sergeant Brunswick is trying (and failing) to get the attention of the distraught Brighton Belles who found the body. As the case twists and turns, Constable Twitten must find the murderer and convince his colleagues that there's an evil mastermind behind Brighton's climbing crime rate.
Our incomparable team of detectives are back for another outing in the second installment of Lynne Truss's joyfully quirky crime series.
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It was a blazing day in July. The threepenny deck-chairs on Brighton seafront were in high demand; ice cream was melting fast; the aroma of cockles in vinegar wafted on the breeze, mixed with the distinctive smell of unprotected human flesh being slowly and painfully cooked on the bone. What a day to be at the seaside! If you closed your eyes, you could faintly hear – beyond the fluttering of the overhead bunting – a romantic medley from The King and I played by the brass band of the Grenadier Guards. Holiday-making parents watched proudly from their deckchairs on the shingle as their pasty, knobbly offspring cavorted in ill-fitting swimsuits under the scorching sun. If they considered the issue of infant catastrophic sunburn at all, it was only to make a (small) mental note to buy calamine lotion before the end of the day.
'You look like a ruddy lobster, Charlie!' mothers called, cheerfully. 'I shall have to pop into Timothy White's, the way you're going!'
Or, 'You mark my words, Dawn! You'll bleeding well suffer tonight!'
This being 1957, of course, attitudes to tanning were not sophisticated. You exposed pale city skin to solar rays for the first time in twelve months; some of it went a nice colour while some of it burned; the burned stuff could ultimately be peeled off by a skilled relative, with the larger sheets preserved for a while as souvenir curiosities. As for sunstroke, the same blithe unconcern applied. A child screaming and delirious in the night was just the price you paid for a day at the seaside, like Nan breaking her last molar on a stick of rock, or having to beat your carpets outdoors for the next fortnight to get rid of all the sand.
Along the Prom, two young women immaculately dressed like flying-boat hostesses – in white high heels, buttoned blue jackets, mid-calf skirts and smart little brimless hats – smiled regally at the tourists as they walked.
'Good morning,' they said, in a general kind of greeting. 'What a lovely morning! Welcome to Brighton. Good morning. Good morning. What a charming day!'
'Cor!' was the main response, and rightly so. These two elegant figures represented a body known as the Brighton Belles, attractive women hired by the council to make themselves useful to tourists during the summer.
'Enquire of a Brighton Belle!' ran the slogan on the posters on the wall outside the station, on hoardings and even on the sides of the buses. No one arriving in Brighton could miss the advertising, which depicted nicely dressed holiday-makers (small children holding multi-coloured beachballs aloft, mothers in headscarves and fathers in hats), all with happy cartoon question marks over their heads as they approached the blue-suited beauties.
Whatever you want to know, Wherever you want to go, Enquire of a Brighton Belle!
Incidentally, it had taken a small committee of men in suits around two hours to come up with that slogan. It was the grammar that worried them. Did you enquire of? Or enquire from? Opinion was divided equally, and there was an awkward impasse until the young clerk employed to take the minutes piped up unexpectedly that he couldn't listen to this any longer, and that 'enquire from' was technically illiterate, so at last they had their answer.
But the members of the committee were not embarrassed. They were pleased to have undertaken such a lengthy deliberation in the public interest. At this time in Brighton's iffy town-planning history, when great swathes of venerable Regency architecture were being demolished on a say-so to oblige the interests of dodgy developers, it was important that other matters municipal should appear to be above board.
Anyway, the slogan worked. Whatever they wanted to know and wherever they wanted to go, holiday-makers did enquire of a Brighton Belle. The whole scheme was a massive success. People asked the Belles everything they could think of: the quickest way to the station, how many pebbles were on the beach, which horse to back in the three-forty-five at Doncaster, where was the nearest place to spend a penny, how to tell the difference between heat rash and smallpox, and (most frequently) what time they got off work, and did they favour a Babycham, 'the genuine champagne perry'?
It wasn't easy to become a Brighton Belle: the prerequisites eliminated 99 per cent of the female population at a stroke. You had to be tall, shapely and fair of face, with excellent posture; also well-spoken, courteous, blind to class difference and fluent in at least three foreign languages. You must be helpful and kind – and a total pro at brushing off sexual advances without causing offence. Basically, you had to be Grace Kelly, only without the recent romantic attachment to a member of the House of Grimaldi (because you also had to be single).
And sometimes you didn't even wait to be enquired of.
'Good morning, madam, I see you've written some postcards!' said one of the Brighton Belles now, stopping to speak to a slightly startled pensioner, seated in a blue-and-white-striped deck-chair. 'I can post those for you if you like.'
The pensioner – a Mrs Tucker from Bow in East London, wearing a warm coat with a fur collar despite the temperature – instinctively gripped her postcards tightly. She couldn't imagine why this uniformed glamour-puss with the cut-glass accent was bending over her with white-gloved hand outstretched.
'Mavis?' she said, uncertainly. 'Woss appnin? Woss she want?'
'She's offering to post them, Mum,' explained the buxom red-haired woman in yellow gingham, sitting beside her. In this woman's hand was an open paperback book with a drawing of a Regency buck on the cover; she'd chosen it randomly from the stall beside the Palace Pier, and the edges of its pages were browned and crisp from being displayed for weeks in the sun.
'I expect posting other people's cards is her job, poor thing,' she said, looking up at the two Belles. 'Is it your job, dearie?' she asked, sympathetically.
'Well, yes,' said the Belle, whose name on a little gold lapel-badge was given as Phyllis. 'It's part of my job, anyway. I could also direct you to the Pavilion in Italian, if you wished. My colleague Adelaide here could point you to the public library in Serbo-Croat!'
Phyllis smiled and continued to hold out her hand, but the old cockney woman refused to surrender her postcards. This was the trouble with dealing with the public, Phyllis was beginning to realise: they never quite followed the script. You imagined they would be thrilled when someone who sounded like a lady-in-waiting offered them menial services; instead, you got awkward scenes like this.
'Let the poor girl do her job, then, Mum,' sighed the gingham woman, wresting the postcards from her mother, and checking they had stamps on. She handed them over quite grandly.
'There you are, dear. With our compliments. And I hope you won't mind my saying it, but I do hope you get a proper job soon.'
Luckily for Phyllis, the woman's attention was then caught elsewhere.
'Charlie!' she shrieked (with laughter) at a passing child. 'Bloody hell, you're so red now, you're blue!'
* * *
On such a bright day, it was a shame to find yourself inside a gloomy, airless wax museum, but such was young Constable Twitten's fate this morning. The great Inspector Steine, famous as a wireless personality and star of the Brighton Constabulary, had last week received an invitation from the historic 'Maison du Wax' in Russell Place, begging in very flowery language that he agree to the creation of an Inspector Steine mannequin. Hence the unusual visit.
All that was required of him (the letter had said) was his gracious consent, plus a short hour of his time sitting for the Maison du Wax's legendary blind model-maker Pierre Tussard (never for legal reasons to be confused with Tussaud, the similarity of the name being a mere unfortunate coincidence); it would also be appreciated if Inspector Steine would provide without charge a spare uniform and a pair of shoes, and the standard donation of thirty-five pounds ten shillings for unavoidable expenses such as wax, human hair, rent of building, fire insurance and so on.
The generosity of this 'invitation' had of course caused general hilarity at the station.
Sergeant Brunswick, a down-to-earth man, chuckled, 'Thirty-five pounds ten! That's more than most people earn in a month! And I bet the inspector still falls for it!'
Mrs Groynes (the amusing charlady) had wholeheartedly agreed, saying that she would bet her entire – and famously comprehensive – collection of scouring powders on a positive outcome.
Only young Constable Twitten had loyally chosen to believe that vanity would not always prevail with Inspector Steine in the face of an obvious scam. Which was why, when Steine of course accepted the invitation without a second thought, Twitten had felt morally obliged to go with him to his first sitting, on this bright July day when the world outside was sizzling with life and ozone, and the world inside was airless and quiet, creepy and murky, and full of weakly spot-lit livid-coloured effigies helpfully labelled 'Winston Churchill' or 'Shirley Temple'.
Directed up the echoing stairs, Steine and Twitten passed through a room of such exhibits – the constable horrified by the general tawdriness, the inspector making enthusiastic remarks such as, 'Over here, Twitten! I had no idea Queen Mary looked like this! It turns out she's got a face like a bun!'
This particular wax museum had been part of the Brighton entertainment landscape for many years, and for this reason alone it demanded to be admired: for the way it had managed to survive despite its sheer and utter terribleness. To be fair, it owed its continued existence mainly to factors beyond its control, such as the regularity of sudden coastal squalls driving holiday-makers indoors, the system of landladies strictly locking out their guests until half-past four, and above all, the British seaside visitor's heroic determination to enjoy him- or herself, even when nothing remotely enjoyable was on offer.
Based loosely on the lines of the famous Madame Tussaud's, Brighton's Maison du Wax featured grisly execution tableaux (Mary Queen of Scots, complete with little dog under her skirts), effigies of notorious murderers (Dr Crippen, Neville Heath) and figures from modern-day entertainment (Gloria Swanson, Mr Pastry) – all bearing scant resemblance to the people concerned, although Robert Newton's peg-leg and threadbare parrot gave the onlooker a sporting chance of identifying him as Long John Silver. When you looked round in the gloom, you saw everywhere the same illuminated staring eyes and preoccupied (somehow constipated) expressions, the same wiry hair springing at unnatural intervals out of visible pocks in the scalp.
On the plus side, however, the museum charged only tuppence for admission, which made it the cheapest attraction on the entire South Coast.
Inspector Steine and Constable Twitten were greeted at the top of the stairs by Angélique, the middle-aged daughter of Pierre Tussard – and there was no mistaking her for someone unconnected to this dusty, moribund, phoney business. She was dressed in a high wig of ribboned brown curls and a full-length, short-sleeved frilly frock of acid green, like a revolutionary Parisian at the time of the Terror.
'Ah, Inspecteur!' she trilled, in a laboured French accent. 'We are honaired by your press-ance. Did you remembair ze thirty-five-pounds-ten?'
'I did, yes.'
'Excellent! Zut alors. Step zis way.'
Upstairs, in the special 'measuring room', Twitten sat in a corner, taking the whole thing in. For a keen amateur social anthropologist (and incorrigible know-all) such as he, it was all bally fascinating.
'You will meet mon père very soon, monsieur,' this bizarre figure twittered, encircling Steine's cranium with her tape measure.
'I see,' said Steine, keeping still.
'You have a fine as-we-say-in-ze-world-of-waxworks bonce, monsieur.'
'Well, thank you very much.'
'The making of the statue de cire is a combination of science and art, as you will discovair. Of measurement most precise, and of art most accompli.' She giggled in a theatrical manner and then added, 'It does not 'urt one beet.'
The inspector, who had seemed a little tense until now, was visibly relieved.
'It doesn't hurt, you say?'
'Non, non, non.'
'So you won't be turning me upside down and dipping me in hot wax like a toffee apple?'
The woman shrieked with laughter. 'Non, non, non!' she said. This was good news for Steine. He'd been seriously wondering where they would put the stick.
'I think someone has been to see Monsieur Vincent Price in ze film House of Wax, peut-être?' trilled the woman.
'Well, yes,' Steine admitted. 'But not me, I assure you. I rarely visit the cinema. No, it was my sergeant. He went to see House of Wax several times, and said it was terrifying. He also said that if I spotted a boiling vat in here, I should exit the premises at once, the extorted thirty-five-pounds-ten notwithstanding.'
Twitten, from his corner, watched Angélique's reaction. Had she noticed the word 'extorted'? Apparently not. She worked on with her pretty tape measure, unperturbed. But she did explain that whereas the Vincent Price film House of Wax had been quite a shot in the arm to the entire wax-model business (admissions had more than doubled the year of its release), it had also engendered some very misleading and unhelpful ideas about how the models were made. In the film, Vincent Price basically killed people and then coated them in wax (like, indeed, a toffee apple). Here at the Maison du Wax, by contrast, sitters could remain alive throughout. They merely had to submit to an examination by touch – a touch so light and gentle! – from Angélique's dear blind papa. At this point Angélique was called away to the telephone, leaving Steine and Twitten alone with a wall of hand-tinted photographs of famous people gamely posing alongside their Maison du Wax figures and looking understandably uncomfortable. Some of the figures weren't even the right height, and the celebrities were obliged to crouch slightly, or raise themselves on the balls of their feet. If you hadn't known the old model-maker was blind to begin with, you would certainly be able to deduce it from the results.
'Sir,' said Twitten, carefully. Should he mention how dreadful the wax models were here? Should he point out that 'remembair' and 'discovair' were not proper French words, and that 'bonce' was not a specialist term?
'What now?' snapped Steine.
Twitten decided against it. 'Nothing, sir,' he said. And, on balance, he was probably wise to do so.
Things were still uneasy between Inspector Steine and his clever new recruit. In general terms, the twenty-two-year-old Twitten's quickness of mind combined with his inability to shut up about anything – ever – was simply irksome to the inspector, who valued a sense of ordered calm. Moreover, Twitten's zeal for raking up old cases that had been – quite satisfactorily, in Steine's view – filed away under 'unsolved' was both unnecessary and intolerable.
However, something in particular had caused a greater strain between them. Within days of joining the Brighton Constabulary, young Constable Twitten had publicly denounced Mrs Groynes the station charlady – and this bears repetition: he had denounced Mrs Groynes the charlady – as a criminal mastermind responsible for a massive network of underworld operators in Brighton as well as for cold-blooded murder!
Under pressure from all directions, Twitten had now formally retracted his absurd allegations, and pledged never to repeat them, on pain of being dismissed from the force. But seeing as Mrs Groynes had happily admitted to him in private that she was a criminal mastermind responsible for a massive network et cetera (and had been getting away with it for years), this wasn't easy. In fact, it had brought him close to tears of frustration.
'Don't cry, Constable dear,' Mrs Groynes had told him, quite kindly, when they had discussed his unusual predicament. 'You have to accept defeat graciously, that's what. Everyone believes your insane idea about me was planted in your brain in front of hundreds of witnesses by a hypnotist, who was then unfortunately shot dead in a bloody fracas before he could de-hypnotise you. I beat you, dear; just admit it. I'm a genius who destroyed your credibility in a single stroke.'
'You are a bally genius, Mrs Groynes,' he had conceded, 'and I take my hat off to you. The hypnotism ruse was brilliant.
No one will ever believe me now when I point the finger at you. They'll say it's all in my mind.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Man That Got Away"
Copyright © 2019 Lynne Truss.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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