It's Christmas, 1866, and amateur sleuth Charles Lenox, recently engaged to his best friend, Lady Jane Grey, is happily celebrating the holiday in his Mayfair townhouse. Across London, however, two journalists have just met with violent deathsone shot, one throttled. Lenox soon involves himself in the strange case, but must leave it behind to go north to Stirrington, where he is running for Parliament. Once there, he gets a further shock when Lady Jane sends him a letter whose contents may threaten their nuptials.
In London, the police apprehend two unlikely and unrelated murder suspects. From the start, Lenox has his doubts; the crimes, he is sure, are tied. But how? Racing back and forth between London and Stirrington, Lenox must negotiate the complexities of crime and politics, not to mention his imperiled engagement. But as the case mounts, Lenox learns that the person behind the murders may be closer to himand his belovedthan he knows.
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Lenox woke up with a morning head, and as soon as he could bear to open his eyes, he gulped half the cup of coffee that his valet, butler, and trusted friend, Graham, had produced at Lenox's first stirring.
"What are Edmund and Molly doing?" he asked Graham.
"Lady Lenox and her sons have gone to the park, sir. It's a fine morning."
"Depends what you mean by fine," said Lenox. He looked at his window and winced from the sun. "It seems awfully bright. My brother's in as much pain as I am, I hope?"
"I fear so, sir."
"Well, there is justice in the world, then," Lenox reflected.
"Would you like me to close your curtains, sir?"
"Thanks, yes. And can you bring me some food, for the love of all that's good?"
"It should arrive momentarily, sir. Mary will be bringing it."
"Cheers, Graham. Happy Boxing Day."
"Thank you, sir. Happy Boxing Day, Mr. Lenox."
"The staff got their presents?"
"Yes, sir. They were most gratified. Ellie in particular expressed her thanks for the set of —"
"Well, there's a present for you in the wardrobe if you care to fetch it," said Lenox.
"I would do it myself, but I doubt I could lift a fork in my present state."
Graham went to the wardrobe and found the broad, thin parcel, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with brown rope.
"Thank you, sir," he said.
"By all means."
Graham carefully untied the rope and set about unwrapping the paper.
"Oh, just tear it," said Lenox irritably.
Nevertheless, Graham stubbornly and methodically continued at the same pace. At last he uncovered the present. It was a broad charcoal drawing of Moscow, which he and Lenox had once visited. Both of them looked back on it as the adventure of their lives.
"I hardly know how to thank you," said Graham, tilting it toward the light. He was a man with sandy hair and an earnest, honest mien, but now a rare smile dawned on his face.
"I had it commissioned — from one of those sketches you drew us, you know."
"But far surpassing it in size and skill, sir."
"Well — size anyway."
"Thank you, sir," said Graham.
"Well, go on, find out about breakfast, won't you? If I waste away and die you'll be out of a job," said Lenox. "The papers, too."
"Of course, sir."
"And Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lenox."
Soon breakfast came, and with it a stack of several newspapers. These Lenox ignored until he had eaten a few bites of egg and bacon and finished a second cup of coffee. Feeling more human, he glanced at the Times and then, seeing its subdued but intriguing headline, flipped through the rest of the stack. The more populist papers positively screamed the news. Two of the giants of Fleet Street were dead, their last breaths exhaled within minutes of each other, according to household members and confirmed by doctors. Both the victims of murder.
Lenox picked up one of the papers at random. It happened to be the cheapest of the weekly Sunday papers, the threepenny News of the Day, a purveyor of shocking crime news and scurrilous society rumor, which had come into existence a few decades before and instantly vaulted to popularity among the London multitudes. Most men of Lenox's class would have considered it a degradation to even touch the cheap newsprint the News came on, but it was the detective's bread and butter. He had often found stories in the News of the Day that no other paper printed, about domestic skirmishes in Cheapside, anonymous dark-skinned corpses down among the docks, strange maladies that spread through the slums. The paper had recently played a crucial role in reporting the case of James Barry. A famous surgeon who had performed the first successful cesarean section in all of Africa, he had died — and after his death was discovered to have in fact been, of all things, a woman. Margaret Ann, by birth. It had been for a time the story on every pair of lips in London and was still often spoken of.
SHOCK CHRISTMAS MURDER OF FLEET STREET DUO, the headline on the front page shouted. Eagerly, Lenox read the article.
The SHOCK MURDER of two of London journalism's finest practitioners has shocked London this morning. "Winsome" Winston Carruthers, London editor of the Daily Telegraph, and the CATHOLIC Simon Pierce of the Daily News died within minutes of each other on CHRISTMAS NIGHT. An unknown assailant shot Pierce in the heart at Pierce's South London home, waking his entire household and throwing his wife into fits of HYSTERIA, at approximately 1:07 A.M. this morning. No witnesses have contacted the Metropolitan Police: COME FORTH IF YOU SAW ANYTHING, readers.
Not FIVE MINUTES before, according to police reports, scarcely an hour into Boxing Day, Winston Carruthers was STABBED in his Oxford Street apartments. Police found Carruthers STILL WARM after a resident of Oxford Street reported seeing a tall, disguised man climbing down a rope ladder!
Exclusively, the NOTD has learned that Carruthers's landlady and housekeeper, a Belgian woman, was on the scene and cooperated with the police officers — ONLY TO VANISH THIS MORNING, leaving her apartments and their contents behind save for several small bags. Her two children left with her. Word has been sent to the ports of England with a description of the housekeeper. She is fat, with a prominent nose and a shriveled left hand. IF YOU SEE HER, readers, contact the police, or the NOTD's editorial offices.
According to INSPECTOR EXETER, reliable and much decorated officer of Scotland Yard, the housekeeper (name withheld at our discretion) is NOT a suspect: At the same brief moments of the murder and the murderer's absconding, she was witnessed by a few dozen people along Oxford Street visiting a local alehouse. HOWEVER, readers, she MAY STILL BE AN ACCOMPLICE TO MURDER! If you see her, contact the police.
CARRUTHERS, forty-nine, was a native of our fair city, a childless bachelor who leaves behind a sister in Surrey. PIERCE, fifty-four, leaves behind a wife, BESS, and a daughter, ELIZA, who is stationed with her husband in BOMBAY. The NEWS sends its sympathy to all of the bereaved.
ADDED FOR SECOND PRINTING: INSPECTOR EXETER has already cracked the case, according to a reliable source, and found a definite link between the two men BESIDES their profession. WATCH THIS SPACE for more.
Below this piece of sensationalism were two lengthier profiles of the men. Turning to the other papers, Lenox found much the same stories, with minor variances of biography. A shooting and a stabbing, five minutes apart. He wondered what the "definite link" between Carruthers and Pierce might be. Straightaway he thought it must be some story they had both covered. Perhaps he would try through covert means to discover what it was. A fascinating case, certainly — but did he have time to try to help solve it?
It was a busy period in Lenox's life. Recently he had solved one of his most difficult cases, a murder in Oxford, and been shot for his efforts. Only grazed, but still. After a long life of solitude, too, he was engaged to be married. Most pressing of all, soon he was to participate in a by-election for Parliament in Stirrington, near the city of Durham. His brother and several other Members of the Liberal Party had approached him to ask him to run. Though he loved his work as a detective and bravely embraced the low esteem in which the members of his class held his profession, to be in Parliament was the dream of his lifetime.
Still — these murders would be the great story of the day, and Lenox felt a longing to be involved in their solution. One of his few friends at Scotland Yard was a bright young inspector named Jenkins, and to him Lenox wrote a short query, entrusting it to Mary's care when the maid came to fetch the remains of his breakfast. He felt better for having eaten. A third cup of coffee sat on his bedside table, and he reached for it.
Just then Edmund knocked on the door and came in. He looked green around the gills.
"Hullo, brother," said Charles. "Feeling badly?"
"Did eating help?"
"Don't even mention food, I beg of you," said Edmund. "I would rather face Attila the Hun than a plate of toast."
Charles laughed. "I'm sorry to hear it."
"Molly had the heart to take the boys out earlier. Not even a word of reproach. What a treasure she is." A sentimental look came into Edmund's eyes.
"Do you have meetings today?"
"Not until five o'clock or so. The Prime Minister has remained in town."
"You said last night."
"I need to sharpen up before then, to be sure. Perhaps I'll go back to sleep."
"The wisest course," Charles assured him.
"Then I'll have a bath and try to put myself into some decent shape. At the moment I feel like the offspring of a human being and a puddle on the floor."
"Have you seen the papers, by the way?"
"Two journalists were murdered last night — opposite sides of town within just a few minutes of each other."
"Oh yes? Well, you've other things to concentrate on at the moment."
"I do, I know," said Charles rather glumly. "I wrote Jenkins, though."
Edmund stopped pacing, and his face took on a stern aspect. "Many people are counting on you, Charles," he said. "Not to mention your country."
"You should spend this month before you go up to Stirrington meeting with politicians, granting interviews, strategizing with James Hilary." Hilary was a bright young star in the firmament of Liberal politics and a friend of Charles's, one of those who had entreated him to stand for Parliament. "This time can be quite as productive as any you spend in Durham."
"I thought you were sick."
"This is crucial, Charles."
"You never did any of that," the younger brother answered.
"Father had my seat. And his father. And his father. World without end."
"I know, I know. I simply feel irresponsible if I stay out of things, I suppose. My meddling ways."
"Just think of all the good we'll do when you're in the House," said Edmund.
"Especially if we don't stay up late drinking."
Edmund sighed. "Yes. Especially then, I grant you."
"See you downstairs."
"Don't let them wake me up before I'm ready."
"I won't. Unless it's nearing five."
"Cheers," said Edmund and left the room.
That afternoon Inspector Jenkins answered Lenox's note by visiting in person. Lenox was sitting in the long, book-filled room he used as library and study. Just down the front hall of the house, it had comfortable sofas and armchairs and a long desk, as well as a broad, high row of windows that looked out over Hampden Lane. The rain of the evening before had gone but left in its place a low, rolling fog that thickened over the streets of London. Lamplighters were out early, trying to provide the city with visibility.
Jenkins was young and clever. He wore glasses on his earnest face and had an unruly crop of light brown hair.
"How do you do, Lenox?" he asked and accepted a cup of tea. "Exeter's not letting me near the case, so I thought I'd come by."
"I know how he can be."
"Oh, of course, of course."
Inspector Exeter, a powerful man in the police force whose blunt tactics and lack of perception had both alienated him from the amateur detective and pushed him up through the ranks, was famously territorial about his cases and particularly disliked Lenox's occasional interference. Despite that, Exeter had had occasion tocall on Lenox's skills and might not entirely reject his help if the case of the two journalists reached an impasse.
"What details did you keep out of the papers?"
"The Belgian housekeeper?"
"Martha Claes, she's called. Apparently she had bragged to one or two of her friends that she was coming into a bit of money. We think the murderer paid her enough that she could leave."
"That tells us something about the criminal, then."
"Well — that he would rather use money than violence. Not many criminals are that way, in my experience. Not many criminals have enough money to send three marginally genteel people out of London, leaving all their possessions behind. No robbery from Carruthers's rooms, I presume?"
"That's correct, actually, yes."
"Probably he knew the household well enough to approach Mrs. Claes as an acquaintance."
"You think the criminal had visited Carruthers?"
"Wouldn't he have had to? Simply approaching the man's housekeeper on the street would have been extremely foolhardy."
"Yes, of course."
"It seems more likely that he was visiting upstairs than downstairs, given that he offered Mrs. Claes money."
"Of course assuming she didn't actually inherit it."
"A lone foreigner in this country, without a husband? Then, too, if she had come by the money honestly, why run?"
Lenox shook his head. "I doubt it. The murderer is either very rich or willing to spend his last farthing to murder these two men. More likely the first than the second, I would wager."
Jenkins took a note of this. "Yes," he said. "We hadn't thought that through."
"How is Exeter handling the matter?" asked Lenox.
"As he usually does," said Jenkins without inflection, his loyalty in this instance to the Yard rather than his superior.
"With all the tact of an angry bull, then?"
Jenkins laughed. "If you choose to say so, Mr. Lenox. He's roused every able-bodied stable boy and driver on the street to accuse them of the crime."
Lenox snorted. "A clever stable boy, to use a rope ladder rather than risk getting caught by servants who walk between houses every day."
"Indeed," said Jenkins. "Though it backfired in the end, that cleverness — we found the ladder, after all."
"One other thing about Carruthers."
"There were a pen and blotter on his supper table, both freshly used, and ink on his hands."
"But no paper in evidence, I suppose you'll tell me. So the murderer was partly there to steal a damaging document."
"He might have filed it away, Inspector Exeter argued."
"Yes, yes, or brought it from his newspaper's office, or given it to a dove to fly to Noah's Ark with. I'm familiar with the inane pattern of thought Exeter might employ."
Lenox sighed. "I'm sorry. I oughtn't to talk like that."
"No, perhaps not."
"What about Pierce?"
"That's altogether more mysterious, actually. Nobody saw or heard a thing, other than the shot."
"Nothing missing from his house?"
"Do you read the News of the Day?" asked Lenox.
"Since you recommended I do so, Lenox, yes."
"What was the 'definite link' between Carruthers and Pierce?"
"Ah — you must have gotten up early to get the first edition."
"Yes, I've been up all night, trying to help."
"According to the second edition of the News Exeter had discovered a solid link between the two men, aside from their careers."
Jenkins looked uneasy. "Oh, yes — that."
"What was it?"
"It's sensitive information, in fact. I fear I must exact the traditional promise from you."
"Nothing you say will leave this room," promised Lenox gravely.
"According to Exeter, Pierce and Carruthers were two of the three journalists who gave testimony against Jonathan Poole at his trial."
Lenox inhaled sharply.
The British government had executed Poole six years before for high treason. During the Crimean War, Poole, born an aristocrat but with a grandmother from the Baltic region, had spied on England for Russia. Poole's subordinate, an anonymous navy officer called Rolk, had written to three newspapers in England when he started to suspect his superior of treason. Before the letters made it home Rolk was dead — accidentally drowned, or so it appeared. By then Poole was already making plans to defect to Russia, but the British navy had apprehended him at the last moment. The trial had been a celebrated one, titillating both because of the high-ranking personages who spoke on behalf of Poole's character and the perceived heroism of poor Rolk. Three journalists had testified behind closed doors to receiving Rolk's letters. Apparently two of them were Carruthers and Pierce.
"Yes," said Jenkins, as if to confirm Lenox's surprise.
"Have you looked out for the third journalist?"
"He died four years ago."
"Naturally, from all we could gather this morning. His widow didn't appreciate our questions. According to the coroner it was an entirely average death. In his sleep."
"Still — Poole has been dead for years! I doubt most people have thought of him since it all ended."
"Well — yes," said Jenkins in a measured tone.
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure I should say before we've gathered all of the information we need."
Excerpted from "The Fleet Street Murders"
Copyright © 2009 Charles Finch.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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