"In terms of plot, the novel is almost pure puzzle, making it a prime example of a Golden Age mystery, but Hay injects humor and keen characterization into the mix as well." —Booklist STARRED review
When Miss Pongleton is found murdered on the stairs of Belsize Park station, her fellow-boarders in the Frampton Hotel are not overwhelmed with grief at the death of a tiresome old woman. But they all have their theories about the identity of the murderer, and help to unravel the mystery of who killed the wealthy 'Pongle'. Several of her fellow residents—even Tuppy the terrier—have a part to play in the events that lead to a dramatic arrest.
This classic mystery novel is set in and around the Northern Line of the London Underground. It is now republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by award-winning crime writer Stephen Booth.
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By Mavis Doriel Hay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Mavis Doriel Hay
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Miss Pongleton on the Stairs
Dozens of Hampstead people must have passed the door of the Frampton Private Hotel — as the boarding house where Miss Euphemia Pongleton lived was grandly called — on a certain Friday morning in March 1934, without noticing anything unusual. When they read their evening papers they must have cursed themselves for being so unobservant, but doubtless many of them made up for it by copious inventiveness and told their friends how they had sensed tragedy in the air or noticed an anxious look in Miss Pongleton's eyes.
Actually there was nothing to attract the attention of the casual passer-by in the usual morning exodus of the Frampton boarders. Young Mr. Grange and middle-aged Mr. Porter, both quite unremarkable, stepped briskly out at about half-past eight and took the road to Hampstead underground station. Shortly before nine Betty Watson, trim and alert, opened the door and stood there rather impatiently, gazing alternately at the sky and back into the hall of the Frampton. Punctually at nine Miss Euphemia Pongleton herself pottered fussily out, hugging an enormous handbag and looking perhaps rather shabbier and more out-of-date than usual. Betty informed her that it was a nice morning, in response to which Miss Pongleton wrinkled her nose as if she didn't like the smell of it. At the end of Church Lane she turned to the right and doddered slowly down the hill towards Belsize Park underground station.
Before Miss Pongleton was out of sight Cissie Fain came bounding out, pulling on her gloves, and she and Betty followed Miss Pongleton almost at a run, but turned to the left, up the hill, at the end of Church Lane. Five minutes later Mr. Joseph Slocomb, swinging his neatly-rolled umbrella, sallied forth sedately.
Mr. Basil Pongleton's departure from his lodgings in Tavistock Square, a little later on the same morning, was less sedate. He was obviously in a hurry; yet it was after ten o'clock when he passed almost directly beneath the Frampton, whizzed along through the tunnel in the direction of Golder's Green. The underground train which he took from Warren Street at about 9.25 would have passed that spot nearly half an hour earlier, and his subterranean wanderings on that morning were to cause him a good deal of trouble.
As he sat in the train he held before his eyes a copy of The Times which he had bought specially so that he might be able to make some suitable remarks to his aunt, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (quite forgetting that she disapproved of spending tuppence on a newspaper, even for the benefit of getting the standard point of view). But he was too agitated to understand anything that he read. His sight laid hold of the single sentence: The death penalty is a subject on which every citizen ought to form a reasoned opinion, free from sentimental bias, and went over it again and again without being able to convey the sense of it to his mind. The bowler hat flung on the seat beside him seemed to have no connection with him; it was strangely out of keeping with his blue shirt and vaguely artistic appearance.
At the same time Mr. Crampit, a cheap dentist in Camden Town, was beginning to be a little put out by the lateness of his important patient, Miss Euphemia Pongleton, for her ten o'clock appointment. She usually came at least fifteen minutes before the time booked, in order to settle herself before the ordeal. Mr. Crampit was wondering if it would be safe to squeeze in old Mrs. Boddy, who was moaning with distress in his waiting-room.
Mr. Slocomb was, in accordance with the usual order of events, the first of the boarders to return to the Frampton that evening. He found the household in a very unusual state of agitation. In the "lounge hall" — where a couple of unused rickety wicker chairs attempted to justify the epithet "lounge" — he met the maid, Nellie, carrying a pile of plates.
"Oh, sir!" she gasped. "'V'you 'eard?"
He held up his evening paper gravely. "Yes; I have just read it in the Standard. A dreadful affair! That poor old lady!"
"An' my poor B-Bob!" spluttered Nellie, tears shining in her eyes. "'E's bin took by those p'lice. 'E couldn't 've done sich a thing, though the ol' lady did say she'd tell on 'im."
"Now, now; what's all this?" enquired Mr. Slocomb with paternal concern. "Do you mean to say your young man has been arrested for the murder of Miss Pongleton on the underground stairs?"
He had followed the girl into the dining-room on the right of the hall, where she set down the plates and extracted a handkerchief from the region of her knees in order to blow her nose defiantly.
"They took 'im this arternoon; 'is sister Louie come an' tell me 'bout it. Seems the ol' lady 'ad that brooch on 'er with 'is name on a paper, an' 'e bein' down in that toob station a-course it looks black for 'im; an' 'e may be weak, but brutal 'e never was, an' I know 'e couldn't've done any such thing, not if 'e wanted to which 'e wouldn't."
Nellie gave way to convulsive sobbing punctuated by loud sniffs.
"Now look here, my girl," said Mr. Slocomb kindly, patting her shoulder. "If your young man is innocent he'll be all right. British justice is deservedly respected all the world over."
"But the p'lice, they're something chronic; they'll worm anything out of you," blubbered Nellie.
"Don't get any wrong ideas about our excellent police force into your head," Mr. Slocomb admonished her. "They are the friends of the innocent. Of course this is very unfortunate for your young man, but surely —"
"There 'e is, my poor Bob, in a nasty cell! Oh, sir, d'you think they'll let me see 'im?"
"Well, really —" began Mr. Slocomb; but the conversation was interrupted by a strident call.
"Nellie! Nellie! What are you about? Pull yourself together, girl! We have to dine even if ..."
Mrs. Bliss, the proprietress of the Frampton, flowingly clothed in black satin, paused in the doorway. "Dear me, Mr. Slocomb; you must be wondering what's come to me, shouting all over the house like this! But really, my poor nerves are so jangled I hardly know where I am! To think of dear Miss Pongleton, always so particular, poor soul, lying there on the stairs — dear, dear, dear!"
Nellie had slipped past Mrs. Bliss and scuttled back to the kitchen. Mr. Slocomb noticed that Mrs. Bliss's black satin was unrelieved by the usual loops of gold chain and pearls, and concluded that this restraint was in token of respect to the deceased.
"Yes, indeed, Mrs. Bliss, you must be distraught. Indeed a terrible affair! And this poor girl is in great distress about young Bob Thurlow, but I would advise you to keep her mind on her work, Mrs. Bliss; work is a wonderful balm for harassed nerves. A dreadful business! I only know, of course, the sparse details which I have just read in the evening Press."
"You've heard nothing more, Mr. Slocomb? Nellie's Bob is a good-for-nothing, we all know" — Mrs. Bliss's tone held sinister meaning — "but I'm sure none of us thought him capable of this!"
"We must not think him so now, Mrs. Bliss, until — and unless — we are reluctantly compelled to do so," Mr. Slocomb told her in his most pompous manner.
"And Bob was always so good to poor Miss Pongleton's Tuppy. The little creature is very restless; mark my words, he's beginning to pine! Now I wonder, Mr. Slocomb, what I ought to do with him? What would you advise? Perhaps poor Miss Pongleton's nephew, young Mr. Basil, would take him — though in lodgings, of course, I hardly know. There's many a landlady would think a dog nothing but a nuisance, and little return for it, but of course what I have done for the poor dear lady I did gladly —"
"Indeed, Mrs. Bliss, we have always counted you as one of Tuppy's best friends. And as you say, Bob Thurlow was good to him, too; he took him for walks, I believe?"
"He always seemed so fond of the poor little fellow; who could believe ... Well! well! And they say dogs know! What was that saying Mr. Blend was so fond of at one time — before your day, I daresay it would be: True humanity shows itself first in kindness to dumb animals. Out of one of his scrapbooks. Well, the truest sayings sometimes go astray! But I must see after that girl; and cook's not much better, she's so flustered she's making Nellie ten times worse. She can't keep her tongue still a moment!"
Mrs. Bliss bustled away, and Mr. Slocomb, apparently rather exasperated by her chatter, made his escape as soon as she had removed herself from the doorway.
As Mrs. Bliss returned to the kitchen she thought: "Well, I'm glad he's here; that's some comfort; always so helpful — but goodness knows what the dinner will be like!"CHAPTER 2
Dinner at the Frampton that evening was eaten to the accompaniment of livelier conversation than usual, and now and again from one of the little tables an excited voice would rise to a pitch that dominated the surrounding talk until the owner of the voice, realizing her unseemly assertiveness on this solemn evening, would fall into lowered tones or awkward silence. The boarders discussed the murder callously. One's fellow-boarders are apt to appear in the foreground of one's daily view unpleasantly larger than life but rather less than human.
Cissie Fain and Betty Watson, who shared a table and worked in the same office in the City, jabbered excitedly. Cissie was fair and round-faced with a slightly petulant mouth and innocent blue-grey eyes.
"It was nothing to do with the brooch that took Pongle to town this morning," she announced, tossing her fashionably long curls.
"It didn't take her to town," objected Betty, whose literal accuracy was invaluable to her firm. She was quieter in her manners than Cissie, brown-haired and brown-eyed; perhaps not so pretty but with more decisive features.
"Well, it was taking her and it would have taken her if she hadn't been 'took' on the way, as poor Nellie would put it," continued Cissie shrilly. "It was an appointment with the dentist. Too sordid!"
"You don't suppose the dentist throttled her on the underground stairs because he couldn't bear the idea of looking down her throat again?" enquired Betty.
"Don't be so asinine! I mean there is no reason why Bob should be so desperately anxious to stop her journey."
"But how d'you know Pongle wasn't going on afterwards to see the police about that brooch?"
"I don't believe she was. I don't believe she would ever have done a thing about it, except hold it over Bob's head as a threat. She simply loved a sense of power and she loved to be in the know."
"And in the limelight," Betty pointed out. "She would have revelled in the position of informer — all for the public good, y'know! Setting the police on the track of a dangerous gang; appearing as witness. Oh, can't you just see her?"
"P'rhaps so. But my idea is that Bob murdered her just out of revenge, because she'd threatened him and simply infuriated him. People do do that sort of thing. He never thought of recovering the brooch."
"That all sounds most unlikely to me, and there's no need to make up theories to show that Bob did it. I can't believe that he had anything to do with it. It's just his bad luck that he's connected with it, as it was his bad luck to get mixed up with the burglary."
At another table Mrs. Daymer was discussing the subject with Mr. Grange. A casual visitor would have wondered how they came to share a table. Mrs. Daymer was a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material — "by that wonderful man Blympton Torr; does the whole thing, right from the sheep's back!" Perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their peculiar unwieldiness.
Francis Grange was an unremarkable, youngish man who had not been long at the Frampton. Mrs. Daymer would have explained that she was studying him, for she was a novelist. She often told her friends, "I like to study types. When I have sucked one dry, then ..." A flick of her bony hand indicated the fate of the sucked type. Meanwhile Francis Grange seemed to be submitting meekly to the sucking process. A careful observer might have concluded that Mrs. Daymer's chief reason for keeping him by her was that he formed an attentive audience, and might have guessed also that even the best audience will in time feel that the performance has gone on long enough. But Mr. Grange was still sedately enjoying the first act.
"This is peculiarly interesting to me," Mrs. Daymer was informing him. "It would be hypocritical to pretend that any one of us is overwhelmed with grief at the removal of Miss Pongleton, though of course we all deplore the horrible nature of her end. The criminal type is one which I have in the past studied intensively. I have not formed any theory about the crime yet — it is too soon — but I shall see the whole thing plainly before long."
"What I can't understand," said Mr. Grange — "and perhaps you as a student of human nature can explain it — is how we all seem to know so much about Miss Pongleton's affairs and Bob Thurlow's affairs immediately she is dead and he is suspected of her murder."
"An interesting point," conceded Mrs. Daymer, nodding at him and waving a large knuckled hand encumbered with several enormous silver rings obtrusively "hand-wrought". "It's partly due to the fact that our interest is now concentrated on these figures and automatically we rake up from our minds any scraps of information about them which may have lodged there unnoticed. And it's partly due to lack of reticence in the lower classes. That poor child Nellie has been blurting out the whole story of the brooch to anyone who would listen to her."
"I suppose that's it. That brooch affair makes the whole case against Bob Thurlow look pretty black, I must say. And his being on duty in the station, too."
"Ah!" Mrs. Daymer gloated over Mr. Grange's uncritical acceptance of the obvious. "That's just the sort of coincidence that leads the police astray in these murder cases. You must consider all the probabilities: an underground station, to begin with. Anyone might be there — an ideal scene for a murder. Then Miss Pongleton's character: she was a hard old woman, without doubt; she was reputed to be rich; she was secretive and revengeful. She may have had hundreds of enemies. She was just the kind of apparently respectable old lady who may have had a questionable past."
"But really," Mr. Grange protested; "isn't that going a bit too far — I mean about her past? You don't know anything?"
"You mustn't take me too literally, Mr. Grange. As a novelist, I am surveying the possibilities of the situation."
"And then about the place of the murder," Mr. Grange went on. "Anyone might be in an underground station certainly; but on the stairs — the stairs at Belsize Park too; why, it's the deepest of the lot, next to Hampstead. And, by the way, why was Miss Pongleton at Belsize Park? Hampstead station is much nearer."
"Although Miss Pongleton was rich she was fantastically miserly," Mrs. Daymer informed him solemnly. "That is why she always walked to Belsize Park and so saved one penny. Also she had a horror of lifts. Whether it was purely the sort of unreasoning fear which sometimes afflicts even the most sensible types, or whether there was some reason for it hidden among the secrets of her past, I cannot say — at present. But she always walked down the stairs."
"Perhaps she just disliked the sensation of leaving one's stomach behind," Mr. Grange suggested. "Well, that accounts for her being there, but it doesn't explain how the murderer came to be there. Belsize Park station stairs are not worn hollow with constant use, I should say."
"No. That points, of course, to someone who knew her habits — and it doesn't point very strongly to Bob Thurlow. Why should he know that?"
"Well, he works on the underground and lately he's been at that station. He may have noticed her coming down the stairs on other occasions."
"But equally anyone who had known her for long, or had lived in the same house with her for some time, would know her cranky ways. Moreover, such a person would be more likely to know of her appointment with the dentist this morning."
"She struck me as a secretive old lady — and I think you said that she was so — not much given to discussing her affairs with others."
Excerpted from Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. Copyright © 2016 Mavis Doriel Hay. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Miss Pongleton on the Stairs, 5,
II The Frumps, 11,
III Gerry Blunders In, 18,
IV A Confession, 35,
V Mr. Slocomb Advises, 47,
VI The Press Does Its Duty, 64,
VII Basil Elaborates, 79,
VIII Basil Appeals to Betty, 97,
IX Basil Thinks of Gloves, 107,
X Tuppy Performs His Trick, 112,
XI Mrs. Daymer Decides to Investigate, 122,
XII Hunt The Pearls!, 137,
XIII Mamie Turns Up, 149,
XIV Betty Decides to Cook the Evidence, 161,
XV Basil Reports Progress, 176,
XVI Gerry Causes Anxiety, 189,
XVII Discoveries, 198,
XVIII Clues in Coventry, 213,
XIX Conspiracy!, 226,
XX What Nellie Heard, 234,
XXI "Some Valuable Information", 243,
XXII Mr. Slocomb is Surprised, 250,
XXIII Comments by the Frumps, 257,