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Authors: Charles Kingston

Murder in Piccadilly

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Murder in Piccadilly

Charles Kingston

With an Introduction
by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press


Copyright © 1936, 2015 by Charles Kingston

Published by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library

First E-book Edition 2015

ISBN: 9781464203749 ebook

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

Poisoned Pen Press
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Murder in Piccadilly
, originally published in 1936, is a lively mystery with an appealing final twist. In many respects, it forms a companion piece to a book which first appeared four years later.
A Scream in Soho,
by John G. Brandon, has also been included in the British Library series of Crime Classics, and the novels share elements in common, notably locale. But the pseudonymous Kingston was not quite as prolific as Brandon, and is even less well remembered today.

Kingston's book should not be confused with
The Piccadilly Murder
, an excellent whodunit written seven years earlier by Anthony Berkeley, one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of Murder between the two world wars. Whereas Berkeley was an innovator in the detective fiction genre, Kingston had a more traditional approach to his craft. He set out to write unpretentious entertainment, and won a modest but loyal readership. His work is competently plotted, and infused with a quiet sense of humour.

The central situation in
Murder in Piccadilly
is typical of many crime stories of its time, in that a wealthy older person stands in the way of an impecunious younger relative. Massy Cheldon, a waspish sceptic, is rather more neatly characterised than many of the innumerable elderly misers in Golden Age detective fiction. When his widowed sister-in-law Ruby asks why he remains a bachelor, he parries the question by retorting, ‘With a Socialist government composed of alleged Conservatives in power the landowner is a prisoner within his paltry income'. Ruby's son Bobbie, amiable but weak, lazy and none too bright, is by no means a conventionally attractive protagonist. Bobbie is infatuated with Nancy Curzon, a pretty young dancer (at the splendidly named ‘Frozen Fang' night club), but it is a truth universally acknowledged in books of this era that a girl like Nancy will only contemplate marriage to a single man in possession of a good fortune. His naive adoration of Nancy, rather than mere greed, propels Bobbie into the clutches of the engaging but ruthless Nosey Ruslin, who quickly realises that he too can benefit if Bobbie inherits Massy Cheldon's fortune sooner rather than later. Ruslin is shrewd, but not quite as shrewd as he thinks.

The murder promised by the book's title does not occur until halfway through the story, but Kingston describes the victim's last hours alive with a touch of irony that lifts his writing above the merely functional. The crime is committed at the crowded Piccadilly Underground station—this just two years after the Tube station homicide recorded in Mavis Doriel Hay's
Murder Underground
, another obscure book revived as a British Library Crime Classic. The stage is set for the appearance of Kingston's series detective, Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard. Wake is a nicely drawn character, genial but remorseless, and soon he is causing alarm amongst suspects with guilty consciences.

Musing on the notion of a crime committed with great daring in broad daylight, Wake recalls the case of Vera Page—one of those real-life murder mysteries that fascinated Golden Age writers, and influenced their work. Vera was a ten-year-old girl from Notting Hill who was raped and strangled five years before this novel was written; sadly, there is nothing new about child sex murders. The Vera Page case made headlines in its day, but nobody was ever charged with the killing, whereas with Wake in charge, there is never any real doubt that the killer in the fictional investigation will be brought to justice. Wake takes false confessions, misconceived accusations, diatribes against capital punishment, complaints about police incompetence, rubber-neckers who have trebled the population of Piccadilly, and ‘“shrewd guesses”—that was the invariable phrase—as to the identity of the criminal' all in his stride. Calmly and methodically, he works towards the moment when he will be able to make an arrest.

Murder in Piccadilly
echoes some aspects of a novel Kingston wrote two years earlier.
Poison in Kensington
was reviewed by Dorothy L. Sayers in
The Sunday Times
, and also had a romance at the heart of the narrative, while a rich old uncle was once again the murder victim. Sayers was mildly impressed: ‘we know that everything must end happily and virtuously in spite of all appearances. None the less, the tale…is worked out quite entertainingly for those who do not mind taking a good dose of sentiment and melodrama as a substitute for probability.' The plot twists in
Murder in Piccadilly
are contrived quite artfully, and the result is pleasing, even though Kingston was by no means working at the cutting edge of Thirties crime fiction.

So who exactly was Charles Kingston? Little information is available; he was one of that army of journeymen writers whose reputations fade once they have stopped producing new books. Allen J. Hubin's monumental bibliography of crime fiction indicates that, from 1921, Kingston published at the rate of about one book a year for a quarter of a century. His full name was Charles Kingston O'Mahoney, and it seems that, before turning to crime in the fictional sense, he wrote a book called
The Viceroys of Ireland
. His surname suggests Irish origins, but his favoured setting for fictional crime was London. His portrayal of the ‘Frozen Fang' and Soho nightlife indicates that he found the capital rather more attractive—gangsters and all—than the green and pleasant acres of the Broadbridge Manor estate. This is not a cerebral country house whodunit of the kind so often written during the Golden Age, but a good-natured, old-fashioned thriller that retains a warm period charm.

Martin Edwards

Chapter One

“My dear Ruby,” said Massy Cheldon with a vinous good humour derived from a delectable lunch for which he had not paid, “falling in love is like falling downstairs—you don't mean to do either.”

“But Bobbie's got it badly this time, Massy,” she said nervously, her eyes on the door which divided her son from the only person he detested as if fearful that it might open.

“Who is the girl?” The tone was a trifle hard now, and Ruby Cheldon observed apprehensively the sudden stiffening of the short, lean figure and the hardening of the habitually suspicious expression of her brother-in-law's microscopic eyes. “Did I understand you to say that she is a dancer in a night club?”

“That's where Bobbie met her,” she murmured, trying to bring her nerves under the control of her tongue. All the signs of a dangerous explosion were apparent to her, and she knew that she must placate, whatever the cost to her pride and veracity might be, the only man who had the power to lift her son out of the slough of despair into which his latest love affair had plunged him.

“What is her name?” As he barked the question at her she started out of the reverie into which she had been lured by irresistible memories of Bobbie's numerous affairs with women, ancient and modern.

“Nancy Curzon,” she stammered.

“Street or family?”

She laughed so as to flatter him.

“I don't know, Massy. Bobbie hasn't brought her to see me yet.”

“So you don't know her? But I might have expected it. However, it's really no business of mine.” He glanced from side to side of the attenuated room with its incurable furniture and faded oil paintings, the relics of an imaginary grandeur which Ruby Cheldon chose to regard as proofs of her gentility. But she was not following her brother-in-law's gaze. An analysis of his thoughts demanded all her attention now. She knew what “it's really no business of mine” meant. It was his way of declining to accept any responsibility in a cash sense for his nephew's vagaries. His presence there this afternoon had been the result of a conspiracy between herself and Bobbie, and they had rejoiced when he had accepted the invitation to call on his way from his club in Piccadilly to his mansion in Sussex. Between them they had drawn up a programme of tactics which they believed augured success, although both realised it was a forlorn hope to expect his uncle to disgorge anything of the large income he derived from the Cheldon Estate. Still, there was ever an outside chance of Uncle Massy creating a precedent and Bobbie was so passionately in love that he was only too willing to take a minor part in the conference and even eager to be conciliatory and submissive. For if at twenty-three he had some of his mother's pride he had none of her tact and discretion, while instead of her courage he had only the imitation of that virtue which is called recklessness.

“Cosy place you've got here,” said Massy Cheldon, who disliked silence even when he had nothing to say.

“It's the best we can afford,” she answered, a restless expression passing across her pale, faded face. She dare not retort with Bobbie preparing what he called a subtle appeal to his uncle's generosity. Yet if there was one word she detested it was “cosy” applied to her portion of the human rabbit warren which filled a corner of two of Fulham's least pleasing thoroughfares.

“If Bobbie could earn his own living you'd be able to afford something much better,” he snapped back at her. She knew he was thinking of the small allowance he made her and winced. “What with my contribution and your pension even a little assistance from your son would make all the difference in the world, Ruby, and you know it.”

He shifted his position to the right of the fireplace and stared at the remnant of his cigar.

“He has been so unlucky, Massy.” She flushed as she suppressed her anger.

“Nonsense. I can't understand why you should be clever enough in everything except the one thing that matters, Ruby, and that is your son. You've spoilt him from the day he was born, and look at him now. And in spoiling him you've spoilt your own life too. Don't tell me you couldn't have married. Why, you're still handsome and attractive with a son in the twenties. How do you keep your figure without giving your face that drawn bloodless look which so many women have? Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge.” He sighed with self-pity. “Life's nothing but worry on top of worry. A landowner nowadays, Ruby, is a compulsory philanthropist.” He sighed again and added the unsmokable portion of his cigar to the lingering fire.

Ruby Cheldon winced as she detected the hint not to broach the subject of further assistance.

“How can I help spoiling him?” she asked abruptly. “He's all I have. You've never done him justice, Massy, you've never appreciated the fact that he never knew his father.” There was pride and pity in her large dark grey eyes as she looked him straight in the face.

“I've never forgotten that his father was a gallant soldier and that his mother is only foolish when her son is being criticised. She wants all the world to believe that he is perfect.”

“Everybody likes Bobbie,” she said, almost sullenly. “And he's a gentleman.”

“Are gentlemen scarce in the Cheldon family?” he asked curtly.

“He ought to have gone into the army,” she said, ignoring the question.

“But the army means examinations and hard work and obeying orders. And if I may say so, my dear Ruby, you've brought up Bobbie on the principle that the only orders worth obeying are his own. Come, Ruby, it's time you wakened up. Here's your son without a penny of his own proposing to marry a dancer from a night club. Do you seriously tell me that you approve?”

“Of course I don't.” A new note in her voice impressed him.

“Then you don't wish me to make it possible for him to marry this lady from the lower regions of some insanitary building in the environs of Piccadilly? Of course, I shouldn't do anything of the kind,” he added hastily, fearful lest her sense of humour should fail her.

She moved from her chair and stood beside him.

“Bobbie is bringing Nancy Curzon to see me next week, and I wish you could see her too.”

“I'm perfectly willing to meet the lady, but supposing she captivates us all and we become anxious to rope her into the family, the question will then arise, what can Bobbie do?”

She looked pensively into the air.

“It goes without saying that he can drive a car?” he said drily.

“He drives beautifully,” she answered, the irony in his tone escaping her. “And he knows how to dress,” she added irrelevantly.

“And I bet he also knows half a dozen night clubs and how to mix at least ten different cocktails. These alleged social accomplishments, my dear Ruby, have the merit of impressing the lower middle classes, but in a sordid age are not regarded as qualifications for the salary Bobbie naturally expects in his capacity of gentleman.”

She was not listening, a life-long familiarity with his vocabulary and humours as well as humour rendering such attention unnecessary. She had caught a sound from the next room and guessed that Bobbie had decided that her allowance of time for the purpose of bringing his uncle into the frame of mind essential to the experiment in generosity had elapsed and that he must now make his appearance on the scene.

“Bobbie's got to realise the unpleasant fact that he must take off his coat and forget his gentility. It's useless his thinking that I'm going to die to suit his convenience. The Cheldon estate has been his curse. Waiting for dead men's shoes always is. I'm good for another twenty years at least, although there are moments—” He turned mechanically to survey his features in the mirror over the mantelpiece. “If only the tenants would be reasonable, but they don't leave me a shilling. What with repairs and reductions and all the other encumbrances life's a burden. And now my nephew wants to marry a dancer at my expense.”

“Not at your expense, Massy,” she said quickly. “Naturally he looks to you for help and advice.”

“He can have the advice,” he said sharply, picking out the word that involved him in no liability. “Yes, he can have the advice,” he added, as if speaking to himself. “But it'll take the form of plain speaking and straight from the shoulder home-truths. He must be taught that sponging on his mother—”

“Hush!” she whispered, “here he is.”

As Bobbie Cheldon closed the door behind him and was in their midst the atmosphere became electric. Yet in that moment the older man could see, had it forced on him, in fact, that it was not altogether the awkwardly lazy, pleasure-tackling, colourlessly cynical youth of old who now extended towards him with composure and confidence a delicate hand which pressed his own firmly.

“Good afternoon, uncle,” he said, and his mother's heart ached with a delicious remembrance of his childhood, for in his voice there was something to remind her of the days when he had been so lovable because of all those dear faults of which a child is so delightfully unconscious. He had been a lovely boy whose every action savoured of a growing masculinity, sensitive to praise and blame, defiant and repentant, enchantingly original in his remarks, explorer, engine driver, pirate, cowboy, soldier and sailor, and all in a little back garden in a Surrey suburb.

“You're looking as healthy as a young giant ought to look,” said Massy Cheldon enviously. “But sit down. I haven't more than a few minutes to spare and I've heard your news.”

Bobbie glanced inquiringly at his mother, but did not speak. It was common knowledge that Uncle Massy disliked being overlooked and that Nature having fashioned him as a monologist, dilettante, poseur and valetudinarian, he chose to regard his lack of inches as a handicap and a grievance. He could not, therefore play the role of heavy uncle with a nephew whose seventy-two inches dwarfed his own sixty-eight unless that nephew sprawled on the hairy sofa while he stood before the fireplace and frowned and fumed as his humours enjoined.

“Yes, Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge,” he said again, envying the attractive, open countenance of Bobbie, his strong shoulders, balanced limbs, and the eager vitality in his eyes.

He resented the insurgent jealousy which compelled him to catalogue all the advantages his nephew held as against his own age, wealth and worries. Underneath it all, too, there was a dread that sooner than either of them knew the Cheldon estate might pass to Bobbie, and youth and health with unusual powers of enjoyment would be reinforced by great possessions. It was enough to make a mean man meanly irritable.

“Why is it, Bobbie,” he asked testily, “that the moment a man discovers he has the best mother in the world he wants to leave her?”

“Because, uncle, it's time I married and settled down,” was the mild reply. Ruby Cheldon interpreting the motive, marvelled at the transformation that even an ignoble love could effect in her son.

“I'm glad to hear you intend to do something.” He moved a couple of paces forward and returned to his original position. “It's about time.”

“I agree with you uncle.” Bobbie rose, and then remembering that his uncle had the “chair” sank back on to the lifeless conglomeration of horsehair, defunct springs and faded tapestry. “I can see now what an ass I have been, but I mean to make up for lost time.”

“Let me think,” said Massy Cheldon, wondering what had happened to Bobbie, ignorant of the fact that youth can work miracles when animated by a pure idealism, and unable to share his sister-in-law's belief that it was all the doing of the unknown Nancy Curzon.

Ruby Cheldon was too conscious of the presence of the men to have to scrutinise their faces as she reviewed the situation and its immediate past. Bobbie's hatred and contempt for his uncle were ingrained and nothing had ever happened to weaken them. The boy had grown up to idealise a father who had died in action on the very day that Massy Cheldon had received the O.B.E. for his eminent services as the Food Controller of a small provincial town. There had been nothing for the soldier except a shell which had torn him to pieces, but for the civilian there had been a reward for successful evasion of military service. That had been a bad beginning to their relations during the years when Bobbie had been at his “prep” school and worse when Massy Cheldon visited him at lengthy intervals at Marlborough and managed to collect some of the credit that accrues to the brother of a hero. It had been cheaply acquired, too, for Bobbie's school fees had been paid out of the meagre savings of his father, savings religiously preserved by his mother for his education, and Massy had gone on his way rejoicing and economising.

But Bobbie's hatred lost something if not all of its virility when he was old enough to appreciate the financial importance of his uncle and his exact place in a scheme of things which included all the male descendants of Jonathan Cheldon, merchant adventurer in India and founder of the family fortunes. For Jonathan, returning home with profits and plunder and a record comparatively venial in an age of wholesale corruption, determined to force the yeoman Cheldons into the ranks of county gentility by purchasing and amply endowing the mansion and estate known as Broadbridge Manor. Ever since then his descendants had buttressed and strengthened the family pedigree. Two of Jonathan's sons had entered the army and the younger had risen to the rank of general. A son of the general had become an ambassador and another had achieved a little fame at the Bar. Meanwhile, the Cheldon estate, losing something every decade by the advance of taxation and the failing strength of the pound, had descended with the solemn inevitability of a dukedom from heir to heir until Colonel Henry Cheldon held sway for nineteen years and departed, leaving his elder son, Massy, in possession of Broadbridge Manor, and a younger son in the army.

That younger son was Bobbie's father, and unless Massy Cheldon married and had a son the Cheldon estate must pass to Ruby's only child. She recalled now the wonder and the pride with which Bobbie had received the news that only one life stood between himself and the family estate. In almost the same breath she winced as she remembered his bitter railings against the Fate that permitted “that pompous bore” to keep him out of the money that he was certain guaranteed happiness.

BOOK: Murder in Piccadilly
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