At Death’s Door
A WORKING HYPOTHESIS
The Queen’s School Newminster is, as its pupils find themselves under the necessity rather often of explaining, a public school. A minor, a small, a lesser-known one, they concede, but still in the required category. It has a hundred and sixty day boys, thirty boarders and a staff of eighteen. Its buildings are old, picturesque and very unhygienic and one of its class-rooms is a showpiece untouched from the Elizabethan age in which the school was founded.
About a year before the double murder in the town the school had been given a little reflected fame for its senior history master, Carolus Deene, published a successful book and did not scorn to print under his name “Senior History Master at the Queen’s School, Newminster”. The book was called Who killed William Rufus? And Other Mysteries of History and it Mr. Deene most ingeniously applied methods of a modern detective to some of the more spectacular crimes of the past and in more than one case seemed to have found new evidence from which to draw starting conclusions.
On the Princes in the Tower he was particularly original and perceptive and he disposed of much unreliable detail in his study of the murder of Edward II. The book was highly praised and sold a number of editions.
“It doesn’t, unfortunately, make Deene a good disciplinarian,” said the headmaster, a pompous man who valued discipline above learning. “His class is the noisiest rabble in the school.”
Carolus Deene, at the time when Emily Purvice was murdered, was forty years old. He had been a good all-round athlete with a half blue for boxing and a fine record in athletics. During the war he did violent things, always with a certain elegance for which he was famous. He jumped out of aeroplanes the parachute and actually killed a couple of men with his Commando knife which, he supposed ingenuously, had been issued to him for that purpose.
He was slim, dapper, rather pale and he dressed too well for a schoolmaster. He was not a good disciplinarian as the headmaster understood the word because he simply could not be bothered with discipline, being far too interested in his subject. If there were stupid boys who did not feel this interest and preferred to sit at the back of his class and eat reporting sweets and hold whispered discussions on county cricket, then he let them, continuing to talk to the few listened. He was popular but considered a little odd. His dressiness and passionate interest in both history and crime where his best-known characteristics in the school, though among the staff his large private income was a matter for some invidious comment.
The boys were apt to take advantage of his known interest in crime both ancient and modern. A master with a hobby horse is easily led away from the tiresome lesson in hand into the realms of fancy. He may or may not realize this as the end of the school period comes and he finds that he has talked for three-quarters of an hour on his favourite subject and forgotten what he was supposed to be teaching.
Carolus Deene was well aware of his weakness but he regarded his twin interests of crime and history as almost indistinguishable. The history of men is the history of the crimes, he said. Crippen and Richard III, Nero and the latest murderer to be given headlines in newspapers were all one to him, as his pupils delightedly discovered.
On the day after the first reports of the double murder in Newminster appeared, Carolus Deene had to take the Senior Fifth for a history lesson which was scheduled to deal with the Chartists. This was not a particularly troublesome class but it had among its members a certain Rupert Priggley whom most of the staff considered a detestable boy, an over-sophisticated only son who appeared to think that education was a waste of time and schoolmasters crashing bores, an attitude which scarcely made for his popularity with the men who taught him. But between him and Carolus Deene there was a sort of armed truce. Priggley respected Deene and Deene, in so far as he was aware of the boy, was amused by Priggley.
That afternoon the class had scarcely sat down when a small bespectacled boy, specially deputed to the task, asked Deene what he thought about the murder of Emily Purvice.
“We’re considering the Chartists . . .” Carolus tried rather feebly.
“You may be, sir,” said Rupert Priggley at once. “We’re madly interested in what has happened practically on our doorstep.”
“In 1838 . . .” began Carolus again, clearly weakening.
“But this is 1954,” Rupert Priggley pointed out. “And delicious murders are being committed almost every minute. Come on, sir. Who done it?”
“I haven’t the remotest idea,” said Carolus. “Almost everyone in the town seems to have had a motive.”
“That’s going to make it pretty awkward for the police, isn’t it?”
“I should imagine so. Motive is the first and often the only instrument of investigation. It nearly always gives a lead to everything else. It’s not proof, that’s another matter. That can be collected later. Motive points the way and investigation painstakingly confirms or rejects it. The murders which are never solved are those in which there is no motive, or in which the motive is not discovered. Or perhaps those few in which so many people have motives that you can’t pick the right one.”
The class settled down contentedly to listen. This was much better than Chartism.
“Don’t you think this one will be solved, then?” asked the bespectacled boy.
“I wouldn’t say that. There are some very interesting aspects of the matter. Very interesting. If I were investigating it I don’t think I should go about it in the usual way. I would not start by looking for a motive at all.”
“How would you start?” asked Rupert Priggley.
“I’d look for clues,” said Carolus.
“Surely that’s a bit corny, isn’t it? You mean cigarette ash and that sort of thing?”
“Cigarette ash and that sort of thing in this case will be very important, I think.”
“You wouldn’t go so far as fingerprints, would you?”
“Certainly. If there are any. But that’s not the only kind of clue. There can be clues in the behaviour of people, remember.”
“You ought to have been a copper, sir.”
“Doubtless you’d like to see me eliminated as neatly as poor Slapper was,” smiled Carolus.
“Neatly?” repeated the odious Priggley. “Do you call that neat? Blood all over the show from a bash on the head. It sounds pretty messy to me.”
“In its effect, probably. But neat as a crime—oh, very. It seems that the man who had murdered Mrs. Purvice was trapped in that room. . . .”
“How do you know it was a man?”
Carolus thought for a moment.
“I don’t, of course,” he admitted. “A woman could bring down something weighty hard enough to kill a man with a blow. It seems, as I said, that the murderer was trapped in that room. There was no other way out. The woman had not been dead long. Perhaps he had just committed the crime when the police arrived. Or perhaps he was searching for something. He must have heard the street door tried and hidden himself. Where I don’t know. I haven’t seen the room. Then when poor Slapper came in he was for it. The murderer knew he’d be found then and there, on the spot, practically in flagrante delicto. There was only one thing to do and he did it. He had the nerve to wait for the right moment when Slapper was bending down. He killed him with a single blow, it seems. He may not have meant to kill him, only to fell him and knock him unconscious while he got away. He did this without any sound reaching the street, though the street door was probably open. Two murders by violence which nobody heard or saw. That’s what I mean by neat.”
“We don’t know that nobody heard or saw them.”
“We don’t know anything yet. We’re making guesses based on a few acts given in the newspapers. A most fruitless occupation. We had far better return to the Chartists.”
This seemed to alarm the class. Even those dreamers at the back who rarely listened to Carolus were anxious to avoid Chartism. Questions were fired from all sides.
“Mightn’t it have been just robbery, sir?” suggested the bespectacled boy. “Someone who thought the old woman had money in the place?”
This question brought Carolus safely back from the threat of Victorian history.
“Again,” he said, “we’re plunging about in the dark. But if the case is as I understand it, the street door of the shop had been opened from the inside, not forced. If that is so the murderer must have been someone known to be old woman, someone whom she was willing to admit when she was in the house alone and probably late at night.”
“Oh brilliant,” said Rupert Priggley sarcastically. “You are a one for deduction, aren’t you, sir? Suppose he or she came in while the shop was still open and kept the old woman in the back room by force?”
Deene did not laugh at this suggestion.
“I admit that every possibility must be viewed,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s a very probable solution. A man would not stay long with a corpses, surely, so that presumably Mrs. Purvice was not murdered until nearly one o’clock. What was your murderer doing for seven hours? He might, I suppose, have entered while the shop was open, and hidden himself somewhere, but in that case why was the street door of the shop unlocked, when Slapper found it?”
“How do you know it was?”
“How indeed? That’s a thought. You mean, Slapper could have been called into the shop by the woman or the murderer? Slapper could be the murderer of the old woman and have been killed later by someone else?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“There is no absolute reason why not. But if you start applying that sort of speculation to crime you will only complicate the issue out of all recognition. You could go on and say that Slapper was killed by Emily Purvice who was not murdered till afterwards. You could suggest that the policeman who found the tragedy murdered both of them. You could speculate on some strange Chestertonian weapon that sent a weight hurtling through the air at their heads. You could say that the murderer of the woman was in the house all the time and after his crime opened the street door for someone else who murdered Slapper. But the investigation of crime is never as fanciful nor perhaps as interesting as that. What we have to do here is to form a reasonable working hypothesis and apply it until something emerges to prove that it is false. I believe that someone, probably a man but conceivably a woman, came to that shop door between twelve and one o’clock in the morning and rang the bell (if there is one) or tapped. I believe that Emily Purvice was expecting this person or, if not, that she was not surprised to see him and had reason to admit him. I think she did not lock the door thinking perhaps that the two of them would be standing in the shop for only a few minutes, or that in her interest in the person she forgot to lock it. I think that this person murdered Emily Purvice. If his motive was robbery he searched for what he wanted after her death. If not, he had killed her only a few moments when Slapper arrived, found the door unlocked, and entered. I believe that this person then killed Slapper because it was the only way to safety.”
“In fact,” put in Rupert Priggley, “it’s all admirably clear. Only one small detail remains to be sketched in. The murderer’s identity.”
“As you put it, Priggley, a small detail. The police will probably be able to supply it within forty-eight hours. If I knew a few more facts I could tell you myself.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident, sir. This isn’t ancient history, you know. The clues for this won’t be found in the British Museum. This happened two days ago in this town.”
“The principles of detection remain unchanged. What applied to a case in the eleventh century applies to this.”
“You really believe that? Are you prepared to prove it?”
“Look into this rather sordid affair, you mean? I don’t see why not. The only objection is that the police will race me to it. They’ll get their man this week.”
“But surely you know the form, sir? You the amateur with genius, find the right man while they are arresting the most obvious one.”
“I doubt if it works out like that.”
“Anyway, you’ll have a shot?”
“Oh jolly good show, sir. Topping, I believe, is the word. We really might be back with Valentine Box and Billy Bunter. It would be a laugh if you did discover something, wouldn’t it?”
“It might, Priggley. But, you know, quite easily it might not.”
“What makes you say that?”
“This is a small town in which quite a number of people are connected by ties of relationship and friendship. The murderer might turn out to be someone known to us all, or someone in a family connected with the school.”
“The headmaster wouldn’t be wildly enthusiastic about that, would he? Particularly if it was you who discovered it.”
“It’s all a bit near the knuckle,” admitted Carolus. “Murder in a small town is bound to be.”
“You’re really going to dive in and investigate it, through?”
“I’m going to consider what facts I can accumulate. I might even form a theory. And now, I think we will consider the Chartists. . . .”
Aptly and to everyone’s relief the bell rang for the end of the period.