Authors: Linda Stratmann
‘If Jane Austen had lived a few decades longer, and spent her twilight years writing detective stories, they might have read something like this one’
Sharon Bolton, author of the best-selling Lacey Flint series
‘A gripping and intriguing mystery with an atmosphere Dickens would be proud of’
Leigh Russell, author of the best-selling Geraldine Steel novels
‘I feel that I am walking down the street in Frances’ company and seeing the people and houses around me with clarity’
Jennifer S. Palmer, Mystery Women
‘Every novelist needs her USP: Stratmann’s is her intimate knowledge of both pharmacy and true-life Victorian crime’
‘The atmosphere and picture of Victorian London is vivid and beautifully portrayed’
‘Vivid details and convincing period dialogue bring to life Victorian England during the early days of the women’s suffrage movement, which increasingly appeals to Frances even as she strives for acceptance from the male-dominated society of the time. Historical mystery fans will be hooked’
‘[Frances’] adventures as a detective, and the slowly unraveling evidence of multiple crimes in a murky Victorian setting, make for a gripping read’
Historical Novel Review
‘The historical background is impeccable’
This book is dedicated to all who suffer from hyperacusis and those who are working to make their lives better.
ll through the long hot summer of 1880 the thick, dark, greasy waters of the Paddington Canal Basin bubbled with noxious gases. The warehouses and inns that flanked the wharf side were so closely crowded and decayed that each building seemed to be standing only because it could lean on the one beside it. Porters like swollen crows toiled back and forth unloading the barges that brought bricks, coal, timber and cattle to this busy terminus of the Grand Junction Canal. Towering dust hills, hot with decay, were constantly fed by carts piled with rubbish culled from the ashbins of the metropolis, and ragged women crawled over the smoking debris, sifting the rotting material for anything of value. The worst of the stench was by the cattle pens, where animals waiting to be transported to market were crowded into stalls hoof-deep in dung, and the semi-fluid waste swept from the streets of Paddington by scavengers accumulated in overflowing slop pools. Liquid filth drained freely into the stagnant waters of the basin, which also served as a common convenience to the numerous inhabitants of the barges. When warm summer breezes passed over the canal, they carried poison into the homes of Bayswater and flowed like a cloud of infection into the wards of nearby St Mary’s Hospital.
Concerned residents had addressed increasingly urgent complaints about the nuisance to the Paddington Vestry, that body of well-meaning gentlemen responsible for the highways and health of the parish, and a report had concluded that widespread sickness and early deaths amongst those employed in the area of the Paddington Basin was due not so much to trade in offensive material but bad air from the miasmic slurry that filled the canal. The Grand Junction Company that managed the waterway had often expressed itself willing to deal with the hazard, but words were cheap and easy, and the task of cleansing the four-hundred-yard-long basin and the canal approach was a monumental and daunting prospect. Admittedly, the waters were only five feet in depth, but at the bottom was a thick layer of clinging foetid mud into which all manner of revolting material had sunk and which when disturbed emitted the suffocating odour of bad eggs.
The protest came to a head in August when a deputation of influential citizens confronted the vestry with a petition signed by over six hundred ratepayers, deploring the filthy and unwholesome state of the Paddington Basin, whose water, according to a professor of hygiene, was ‘nothing better than sewage’. Faced with the horrible prospect of a withholding of rates, the vestrymen finally took action and secured an agreement that the basin would be cleansed. The eye-watering stench that hovered over the canal and its environs meant that nothing could be achieved in safety during the heat of summer, but early in November teams of labourers arrived to carry out the unpleasant task.
As the work commenced, thousands of people poured into the area and assembled for the free spectacle of the great canal laid bare. From St Mary’s Hospital all the way to Westbourne Park, the murky sulphurous waters were pumped away, and shapeless globs of detritus were slowly revealed. The labourers set to with shovels, and as they worked a grim atmosphere settled over the scene as the men, their clothes, bodies and faces smeared with mud, toiled without speaking. In places the deposits they dug into were two or three feet thick, and from the layers of semi-solid sludge a few recognisable forms began to emerge: bricks, broken and rusted fragments of chain, the metal portions of carts and barrels with some splinters of darkened wood. There were bones, too, of animals fallen or thrown into the canal, or the gnawed remains of meals. Had any of the fragments been human, which was not impossible, they were many years old, long disarticulated and beyond any prospect of knowing to whom they had once belonged and how those lost individuals had died.
There was only one moment when the labourers recoiled and the crowds gasped. Work stopped, and a pail of clean water was brought to better reveal the horror and consider what ought to be done. Protruding from the upper layers of mud was something more recent, a ribcage, and clinging to it some tattered fragments of clothing rotted to a black pulp. It was attached to something grey and glistening, smelling fouler than the mire from which it had emerged. A spine and a cranium, its jawbone fallen away but still with some flesh congealed into a glutinous mass, its shape a perverse travesty of what it had once been: a face.
Seven months later, with the canal imperfectly cleansed and refilled, and the water rather less dangerous than before, the identity of the person – a man, judging from the shape of the skull – whose remains had been found and removed, examined and argued over, was still a mystery.
Frances Doughty, Bayswater’s youngest and only lady detective, had not imagined that she would be employed in the case, which seemed to be more appropriate to the mortuary table than the consulting room, but unexpectedly, she was about to receive a visitor who wished to engage her. Many Bayswater ladies came to Frances about matters that concerned their husbands, and she had often observed that the difficulties associated with a deceased husband were as nothing compared to those that attended one who was living. Mrs Harriett Antrobus, however, had a more complicated problem. Some three years ago her husband Edwin had journeyed to Bristol on business and failed to return or communicate with his family and friends. Mrs Antrobus was convinced that he had met with an accident and died, but in law he was alive and could not be declared dead until either a body was found and identified or a total of seven years had elapsed. The situation was compounded by the fact that Edwin Antrobus’ will, which could not be proved but existed in a legal limbo, had been drawn up under a misapprehension which had plunged her into grave financial difficulty.
The man whose remains had been found in the Paddington Basin was of about the right age to be Edwin Antrobus, and he could well have died as long as three years ago; moreover, the fragments of fabric found clinging to his bones showed that he had been respectably dressed. It was far from being a complete skeleton; unfortunately, despite the strenuous efforts of the labourers, only the ribs, spine and upper part of the skull had been recovered. The rest of the body, thought to have been torn away by the action of canal traffic, must still lie irretrievably buried in the mud of the basin, since the Canal Company had admitted defeat and abandoned the cleansing work only half-done. It was, however, possible to suggest a cause of death, since the flesh of the corpse’s throat, which had been transformed by its long watery immersion into a soap-like material called adipocere, exhibited a deep transverse cut.
Harriett Antrobus had tried to obtain a formal ruling that the body found in the Paddington Basin was that of her husband. It was surmised that he had returned from Bristol, arriving at Paddington Station, which lay close to the canal basin, and on his way home had been waylaid, lured to the wharf side, murdered and robbed. The court proceedings had been widely reported in the
and Frances had read them with interest. Mrs Antrobus was unable to give evidence, since she suffered from an affliction that kept her confined indoors, and she was represented by Mr Stephen Wylie, formerly of Bristol and a business associate of her husband’s who had been one of the last people to see Edwin Antrobus alive. However, the medical evidence, supplied by Dr Collin who had examined the remains, had, to Mrs Antrobus’ great disappointment, proved insufficient to determine identity and the action had failed.
Mr Wylie had written to Frances to make an appointment, enclosing a letter from Mrs Antrobus pleading for assistance, and it was the gentleman who was due to arrive.
‘Sounds like she’d rather her husband was dead,’ said Sarah, Frances’ burly and no-nonsense assistant, ‘but who’s to say he is? If he made a will that didn’t do right by his wife then that marriage was a sour one. Perhaps she drinks. He could be in Bristol right now all alive-o, with a new name, a new business and a new wife.’
‘How cruel if he abandoned a wife who was in need of his care and left her unprovided for,’ mused Frances.
It was not, she thought, a case that promised easy success, but since a great deal of her work involved investigating light-fingered servants and faithless lovers, she was glad of something that piqued her interest. She awaited her visitor, wondering if, as so often happened in her investigations, she was about to uncover worse things than had ever been found sunken into the slime of the Paddington Canal Basin.
tephen Wylie, who arrived promptly to his appointed hour at the apartment Frances shared with Sarah, was a youngish man, that is to say he was not yet middle-aged, perhaps little more than thirty-five, but his youthfulness was obscured by a high forehead lined with worry, from which dark hair was making a stealthy retreat. He brought with him the scent of tobacco, not the stale odour that always clung about the habitual smoker, but the warm fragrance of the freshly rubbed product. He was ushered into the parlour clutching a hat and a document case, and he almost dropped both at the sight of Sarah’s imposing bulk and intense, searching gaze. Frances quickly precluded any objections by introducing her companion as a trusted associate. Sarah had never been slight of build, but she had recently been supervising classes in calisthenics for the ladies of Bayswater and looked more confident and powerful than ever. Mr Wylie afforded her a nervous acknowledgement, as if to say that he pitied anyone who might attempt to burgle the premises, and sidled into a chair.