The Manx Shearwater was scallop dredging—but it dragged up a body from the water instead. Considering that the corpse was tied at the ankles and weighed down with stones, it’s clear this was no accidental drowning—and now the locals are in an uproar.
The victim appears to be Cedric Levis, who had an extravagant house and a reputation for philandering. Was Levis murdered for his money—or was this a crime of passion? Under the pretext of a holiday, Chief Inspector Littlejohn is invited by his old friend Archdeacon Kinrade to unofficially assist with the murder investigation—but to separate fact from fiction, he’ll have to sort through accusations, town gossip, and mysterious stories surrounding the ancient Cursing Stones . . .
About the Author
George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902–1985), an English crime author best known for the creation of Detective-Inspector Thomas Littlejohn. Born in Heywood, near Lancashire, Blundell introduced his famous detective in his first novel, Littlejohn on Leave (1941). A low-key Scotland Yard investigator whose adventures were told in the Golden Age style of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Littlejohn went on to appear in more than fifty novels, including The Crime at Halfpenny Bridge (1946), Outrage on Gallows Hill (1949), and The Case of the Headless Jesuit (1950).
In the 1950s Bellairs relocated to the Isle of Man, a remote island in the Irish Sea, and began writing full time. He continued writing Thomas Littlejohn novels for the rest of his life, taking occasional breaks to write standalone novels, concluding the series with An Old Man Dies (1980).
Read an Excerpt
THE RETURN OF THE MANX SHEARWATER
Although nothing official had leaked out, the fishermen and idlers standing round Weatherglass Corner at Peel knew there was something amiss with the return of the Manx Shearwater. She was coming in from scallop dredging between Contrary Head and Jurby Point and instead of taking it easy on account of the weather, she was tearing across Peel Bay for all she was worth. A south-westerly gale was blowing and the sea was rough, but in her anxiety to make harbour she drove her bow into the steep waves until it vanished completely. Then she rose high in the air as though preparing to take a long jump for port. Even after the Shearwater had passed the breakwater her mast-head described a dizzy arc as she felt her way into the channel.
The eyes of the onlookers ashore turned first to the incoming vessel, then to the group of men standing on the West Quay where the Shearwater usually moored. Two policemen in uniform, a detective in a slouch hat and raincoat, and the local police surgeon who was starved to the bone and remained sitting in his car smoking a cigarette. By the time the boat docked, a knot of sightseers had gathered round the police party who didn't like telling them to clear off because normally they were all friends together.
Past the pier the water in the harbour was calm and the Shearwater settled on an even keel and slowly glided to her berth, her Diesel engine gently chugging as her skipper eased her alongside. A mooring-rope smacked the cobblestones of the quay and more men than were needed hurried to hook it round a bollard. She was a trim little craft, locally owned, which fished with the herring-fleet during the season and then in autumn turned to dredging for scallops in the rich beds off the Manx coast. Her crew of five were all on deck in stiff oilskins. They looked dazed and anxious for someone to tell them what to do next. The skipper in the small wheelhouse turned off the engine and joined them. Almost before the boat touched the side the police were aboard, walking gingerly like cats in the rain to keep their balance and avoid soiling their clothes. The detective, an Inspector in the C.I.D. from Douglas, was the first to speak.
"Nobody's to go on shore yet. Where did you put it?"
Cashen, the captain, pointed to the hold without a word. He was a tall, middle-aged, weatherbeaten man, tough and wiry, with a calm face and little to say for himself.
"There was nowhere else to put it. We laid a sack over the scallops ..."
One of the deck hands, an Irishman, thought he'd better say something. Nobody took any heed of him. A long line of spectators was festooned along the quay alongside the ship and a row of anxious faces followed every movement and word of those on board.
At five o'clock that afternoon the Shearwater had raised a body in her dredging gear. It had lain on the bottom because the trousers had been tied at the ankles and filled with stones. None of the crew had wanted to look at it twice; they'd wrapped it in a sail and lowered it among the shellfish in the hold. There was a short-wave wireless transmitter aboard and the skipper had at once sent a message to Port Patrick on the Mull of Galloway and from there they had telephoned the Manx police.
"It was like this ..."
The Irishman couldn't keep quiet. He wanted to tell someone all about it, but the detective waved him aside.
"Better take off the hatches then."
The crew looked at one another; four Manxmen and one from County Clare with a broken nose. The captain was the first to move and the policemen gave him a hand. The body lay below like a parcel in its shroud of sailcloth on the piles of scallop shells. The Irishman crossed himself.
"It isn't a pleasant sight. The fish have been at him."
The skipper spoke for the first time.
"We'll take it as it is to the mortuary, then."
The crew were obviously relieved. Two of them descended into the hold, their feet scrunching and rattling on the scallops. Cautiously they lifted the bundle in the sailcloth and raised it to the level of the deck, their boots slithering on the shells which were almost like quicksand.
An ambulance had drawn up on the quayside and the remaining three of the crew now carrying the wrapped-up corpse seemed in a hurry to dispose of it. They almost ran across the deck, manuvred their burden up the ladder to the causeway, and slid it in the vehicle, which hastily departed after the two policemen had climbed inside as well. It swished along the wet cobblestones, ringing its bell as though there were some hurry about it all. After the body had gone, the atmosphere grew less tense, the groups on the water-edge started to talk, and now and then somebody laughed.
The detective turned to the skipper.
"We'd better take a statement at the police-station. There's no room to do it here."
"Will you be needing us ...?"
The crew stood in a compact body, their faces anxious, like schoolboys eager to get away and play. They felt they'd earned a drink and there were plenty willing to stand them a round to get a first-hand tale of the day's happenings.
"All right. But don't go far. We'll need you later on."
They'd no intention of going far! Only to the nearest pub.
"It was like this ..."
The Irishman had started telling them all about it already. A lorry drew up alongside and the crew got busy helping to load-up the catch for a quick dispatch to the mainland markets. Gulls hovered expectantly over the Shearwater, wailing and crying for the scraps and rubbish they expected to be tipped out of the galley. The onlookers waited till the crew were free; they even gave them a hand, and then they escorted them to a tavern just off the East Quay. They looked a ragged lot as they departed, like strikers on a hunger-march. Men in blue jerseys, in oilskins, in old overcoats, idlers, fishermen waiting for boats, all eager to loose the tongues of the Shearwater men and get their fill of the yarn. As they crossed the bridge over the river, a reporter from a Douglas paper joined them.
"It was this way ... Let's begin at the beginning ..."
Night was falling and on-shore lights were springing up in pubs and shops on the sea-front. The street lamps of the town came on, infrequent naked bulbs with reflectors which cast yellow pools below and intensified the darkness outside their orbits. The harbour lights on the breakwater and pier shone out and those of the marine parade threw long reflections like silver paths across the water. Over the river the huge masses of Peel Castle and the ruined St. German's Cathedral were just visible in the last of the daylight from the west.
At the mortuary Dr. Fallows, assisted by two policemen and with the detective, Inspector Perrick, in attendance, had opened the grisly sailcloth. Fallows was from the mainland and had set-up in Peel, it was said, for his wife's health. Previously, he had been a pathologist in a large English teaching hospital. The case in hand left him unmoved, but one of the constables had to go outside to be sick. The other looked ready to vomit at any time, too.
The report of the Manx Clarion was less gruesome than the surgeon's.
The body was that of a fairly tall man of early middle-age. Medical evidence showed that it had been in the water about a fortnight ... It had apparently been clad in a nylon shirt, flannel trousers and sandals. Little remained of the shirt, but the trousers were of stouter material and, when it was hauled aboard the Shearwater, the heavy stones which had kept the body immersed fell from the torn cloth. There were no signs of identification on the clothes, which bore certain proprietary labels of such general use as to be valueless.
There was a fracture of the cranium of considerable size, too large to be caused by accident and probably made by a blunt instrument or rock. The contents of the skull had almost completely disappeared, but the clothing had partially protected some of the organs and medical experts are of the opinion that the body was already dead when placed in the sea.
The teeth had all been extracted and upper and lower dentures were in place.
Inspector Perrick, of the Manx C.I.D., in charge of the case, is following several lines of inquiry and hopes ...
"Better tone it down a bit. Still too horrific," said the editor to the reporter, so the official edition omitted all references to what the fish had done before the body was recovered.
Tom Cashen, the skipper, had been away to reassure his wife and fortify himself with a meal and the sight of his home before resuming his ordeal. He turned up at the police-station an hour later to make a statement. He was a careful man and hadn't even had a drink to keep up his spirits, although there were plenty of offers. Through his day's adventures, Tom had become quite a local hero, but he wasn't drinking in case he muddled up his evidence.
"How did it happen? Tell us in your own words, Tom."
Inspector Perrick was homely, but he knew what he wanted. A cheerful leisurely man, middle-aged, medium-built, and running to fat a bit. He was locally known as Raincoat Perrick, for when on duty he wore the same shabby outer garment in all weathers, summer and winter. There wasn't much that Perrick didn't know about goings-on on the Island. The pair of them were smoking pipes and Perrick wore his raincoat, although there was a blazing fire in the room.
"There's not much to tell ..."
Cashen was a laconic and non-committal Manxman. One of the best skippers on the island, but a bit shy and short of the right word.
"You know what the dredging gear's like, Inspector?"
Sid Perrick knew all about that, too. The scallop boats dragged the beds with a large steel comb about a couple of yards long, attached to a hawser. Behind the comb followed a large frame like a spring mattress, a steel net made-up of rings three or four inches in diameter. As the comb detached the shellfish from the beds, they fell back on the mesh, which acted as a riddle as well, shaking out the rubbish and retaining the scallops. A fishing net attached to the steel one, made the whole into a huge bag, which from time to time was raised by a winch and the scallops inside it emptied in the hold.
The body had got entangled in the gear and was hoisted aboard.
"We knew what it was right away, lek. Now an' then, bodies from wrecks are washed ashore. But when we took a look at him ... we hurried to wrap him up and put him away."
"What time would that be, Tom?"
"Goin' on for five o'clock. I wirelessed Port Patrick right away."
"It's a busy part of the coast?"
"Middlin'. The tanrogans are pretty thick there. The boats are often around. Then there's yachts and off-shore boats always about. It's prettybusy."
Perrick nodded and removed his pipe.
"Tanrogans. You don't often hear that word now, Tom."
"It's the Manx, you know. Scallops they call them across the water."
"Had you been dredging long?"
"Maybe four hours."
"Been there before lately?"
"Not this season. The herrings are only just off. Then we laid-up a bit for painting and repairs to the gear ..."
"Any of the other boats been there?"
"No. We were the first to start just there."
The door opened and the two policemen appeared. Rain had started to fall and they wore dripping capes. Both of them looked a bit white about the gills.
"We've finished, Inspector."
They took off their capes, shook them, hung them up and started to forage around for materials to make some tea.
"We need a cup ..."
"Bin a nasty job?"
"You're telling me! The doctor says he'll see you after surgery. In about an hour. He's a cool fish. Never turned a hair. You should have seen the body. It turned us up."
The bobby was an enormous figure. The idea of turning him up seemed preposterous. His mate was the opposite; thin, hungry-looking and with a long red nose. He seemed in a daze and let the other do all the talking. He was a thoughtful man and didn't like death in any form.
"How long had it been in the water?"
The thin constable hiccupped and made himself scarce. Outside, in the other room, the kettle started to boil. It was a patent one and blew a whistle as the steam emerged.
"A fortnight to three weeks, the doctor said. I don't know how he knows. There was part of it left and he seemed to know from that. I suppose it's his job."
The large bobby's eyes grew round with admiration at the powers ofscience.
"He also said his head had been smashed-in before he was put in the sea. He was dead before he got in the water."
The smaller policeman appeared in the doorway carrying a tray with a teapot, four thick cups, a large milk jug, and a blue bag containing sugar. He still had his helmet on. He paused as he heard his mate's final words.
"The fish 'ad been at him good and proper ..."
"Oh, shut up!"
The younger policeman shouted it in anguish and looked ready to tip the tray and its contents on the floor in despair. Then he halted.
"I'm sorry, sir. But I won't sleep for a week after what we've seen tonight. 'orrible! I've seen a lot but never anything like this one ... The skullwas ..."
The fat constable's jaw dropped.
"You're at it now. You tell me to shut up because you can't bear it and then you start details more 'orrible still. What's the matter with you, Edgar?"
"Get your tea drunk and stop chivvying one another. You shouldn't be at the seaside if you can't bear seeing an odd body washed-up now and again. Come over here, Tom."
Perrick led the way to where a large framed map of the Isle of Man hung on the wall. Behind, the constables amicably helped one another to tea and started to blow on it and drink it with eager gulping noises.
"Just show me where you were exactly."
Cashen didn't even pause to find the place. A good skipper, he could read a map or a chart with the best.
His large finger fell on a spot about three miles out to sea from the coast, approximately midway between Peel and Kirk Michael, and at right-angles to a creek marked Lady Port on the chart.
Perrick scratched his head.
"Anybody might have sunk it there. We get yachts sailing those waters from all over the shop. England, Ireland, Scotland. Some of 'em don't even put in here at all; just race out from their home ports and back ..."
Cashen put in a word. Although he didn't say much, he wasn't a slowthinker.
"But the body was weighted with stones, you know, Mr. Perrick. They'd hardly bring it far like that. Wouldn't you say it was more likely done on the Island and whoever it was took it out and sunk it off shore."
Perrick didn't lose his good-humoured smile, but there was something unhappy in it all the same.
"That doesn't really get us any nearer, does it? If the body isn't identified ..."
"Not much chance of that! The doctor went all over it. Unless we get a description, we're sunk."
Perrick almost jumped. The voice of the heavy policeman came from behind him between noisy swigs of hot tea. He'd forgotten, in his concentration, that there was anybody else in the room.
"He'd got his false teeth in. Grinnin' away in his skull that the fish had ..." triumphantly went on the constable.
The thin one made a choking noise and ejected a spray of tea.
"Don't ... I can't stand it."
"Get on with yer tea, Edgar. Don't let your imagination get the better ofyou."
Perrick broke in:
"There've been French, Scotch and English boats in here up to last week. Any of them might have done it. As I said, unless we hear of somebody disappearing and are able to fit in the body with the description, we've a tough job on."
He was right. In spite of all his efforts and over a week's hard work, he got no further. There were plenty of people missing from all over Europe, but none of them tallied with Perrick's own particular corpse.
There was an inquest and an open verdict and then the funeral of an unknown body recovered from the sea. It looked as if the case would have to go in the unsolved files.
And then, one morning, the constable from Bradda rang-up Douglas headquarters. A Mrs. Ashworth, who kept house for a man named Levis, had received back from San Remo a bundle of letters she'd re-addressed to a hotel there, where Levis was supposed to be staying for six weeks. It seemed Levis hadn't arrived in San Remo, so the hotel proprietor had returned his correspondence with a bill for twenty pounds for compensation for keeping a room which hadn't been claimed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cursing Stones Murder"
Copyright © 1954 George Bellairs.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
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