As a young medical student, Arthur Conan Doyle—the creator of Sherlock Holmes—studied under the pioneering forensic investigator Dr. Joseph Bell. Critically acclaimed author David Pirie has created an engrossing series of novels that pairs the two as partners in criminal investigations in the dark underworlds of Victorian England.
The Night Calls chronicles a most frightening and disturbing case: their encounter with the man who prefigures Holmes's arch-nemesis Moriarty. This literary tour de force takes Doyle and Bell from the heart of old Edinburgh to the depths of London's most violent streets, where they confront this villainous reprobate who is as brilliant as he is merciless.
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About the Author
David Pirie was a journalist and film critic before he became a screenwriter and novelist. An Edgar nominee, he has recently been working with Martin Scorsese’s company Cappa Films on his original thriller The 12. David Pirie lives in Somerset, UK. This is his second novel.
Read an Excerpt
PART ONE: HIS COMING
THE TUNE FROM ANOTHER WORLDI always think of the beggar as the beginning. His name was Samuel and, with his ancient red shirt and sky-blue eyes, he stood there like some vision from heaven on the corner of one of the most colourful and depraved streets in the whole of Edinburgh. I never once heard him play a real tune, only a series of wild and rambling flights of musical fancy which sounded eerie enough in themselves but all the more so in that spot, only yards away from the town’s more notorious brothels and drinking dens.The night I first heard him, I stood there for a long time, drinking in his music. To me it sounded a hundred times more spiritual than all the empty catechisms of the Jesuit boarding school I had just left. And the playing healed some of my anguish, for it so happened that evening had been particularly miserable at home.My mother was away delivering some mending. And for some reason I never fathomed, my small brother Innes, then still a very young child, climbed the stairs and ran along the red corridor which led to my father’s study. For some years our house had been blighted by my father’s condition. Now he was barely able even to speak, his mind utterly fogged by drink and near-insanity. Yet, unusually for him, he happened on this occasion to hear the infant playing and opened his door.Both of them undoubtedly had a shock as they faced each other. By this time my father, with his lank beard, unshaven pallor and stale clothes, was rarely sane or sober enough to venture downstairs. No doubt my mother was relieved that her four younger children, Innes and his three sisters (for the two older girls were seldom at home), saw him so rarely. I am sure at times he would hardly have recognised them.Even so, beyond a little fright for both of them, the incident might well have come to nothing. Except that someone else now appeared. Our so-called lodger Dr Waller, who was then in his midtwenties and not so much older than myself, had come out of his room and witnessed this unlikely meeting. I say ‘so-called’ lodger for really it was more as if we were his lodgers. For some time, Waller had paid the entire rent for the house as a favour to my mother and, though he was careful to be civilised and even fawning with her, I knew quite well in my heart he felt an unspoken power over all of us. Nor was he by any description a kind man. I will acknowledge that he was cultured, and when I was away I had on occasions corresponded with him about literature. But by this time I knew that his mask of sensibility concealed much that was arrogant and inhumane, including a deep distaste for children, which ensured that they generally kept out of his way.I can still see the little tableau in my mind’s eye framed in the dim light of the flickering corridor lamp. Innes was still, puzzled by these figures. My father was about to retire, the shadows playing over his whiskered head. But Waller stood upright beside them, a look of great irritation on his face. And then, quite suddenly, without the slightest provocation, he slapped Innes hard around the face and sent him, howling, away. After that, he gave my father a brutal shove that sent him back into his room and closed the door.I am quite sure to this day Waller did not know he was observed, and the sight confirmed all my suspicions. I had always strongly suspected that my father’s illness and our poverty suited the man admirably. It had allowed him to rule a roost of his own without all the tiresome effort of building one for himself. As he slammed my father’s door, he had never looked to me so much like a sadistic jailer.And then he saw me and we faced each other with poor Innes’s sobs still ringing in my ears from below.Given Waller’s arrogance, and his position of authority, you would think perhaps that I, then an eighteen-year-old student, would often have come into conflict with him. This was the opposite of the truth. My mother had enormous faith in the man, and never tired of reminding me of the unpleasant fact that he had kept us from the workhouse. So for her sake he and I both generally kept an uneasy peace. The night I describe was one of the few occasions our hostility erupted into the open.I walked towards him in fury at what I had observed and told him he had absolutely no right to strike Innes. ‘You are not even his father any more than you are—’I could not go on for I knew at once that I had given him his opening. Waller was aware I had been about to challenge his position in our house, and he stared at me, his brown eyes gleaming. ‘Any more than what? Would you like to consult your mother? I think you will find she enjoys my company here in this house.’I wanted to strike him. He was, as I have said, only a few years my senior, yet he was not a physical man, and always dressed with the meticulous care of someone much older. Tonight, as ever, he was immaculately groomed and coiffured, not a whisker of his thick dark hair was out of place. I clenched my fists, longing to let fly with a punch that would have ruffled that fine appearance. But, as ever, the thought of my mother restrained me and I offered no answer.‘And where would you be? Where would that child be?’ he continued. ‘Where would your father and mother be if I were not here?’Still I would not reply.‘I will tell you, you would be in the workhouse. I wonder if you realise, Arthur, I am not exacting even a farthing for what I have done for you personally. I could, if I wished, insist it came out of any future earnings you make as a doctor – that is, if you make any at all.’ And with that he turned and walked away.I am sure the exchange had only occurred because my mother was out of the house. Even Waller would never have dared to express his own sense of power and supremacy so crudely in her presence. Of course, I could have tried to tell her, but I knew from countless arguments on the subject she would not have listened. And the bitter truth was that, even if I could have persuaded her to see the dreadful hypocrisy of our arrangement, I would only have hurt her more deeply. What, after all, was the alternative?So, as often before, I took to the streets. And it was this very night, with my emotions already stirred, that I first heard Samuel’s music and stood there on the pavement, quite overwhelmed by it.After a little I offered the player a coin I could ill afford, but he only wished me to buy him a cup of something warm. Naturally I thought he meant strong drink but it turned out he was an abstainer, or near enough, and we went to a little stall, not far away, where he had a mug of some hot cordial, made from blackberries. As I handed him his cup, I told him his music sounded like it came from another world.The large genial stallholder laughed at this. ‘That’s what I say, sir. Why can he not play an air like everyone else?’He moved away as Samuel looked over the steaming mug at me with a twinkle in his faraway eyes. It was impossible to tell his age, twenty-three or sixty-three. ‘Another world? D’you believe in one, sir?’The question was as unexpected as its speaker. I did believe in something, I knew that, but the discipline and eagerness for hell that I had seen at Stonyhurst, my Catholic boarding school, had clouded my vision.‘I do not know,’ I said simply. ‘Do you?’He smiled. ‘Well, as for my music I was taught by a man who sailed wi’ me. And aye, I believe in something. Something else. But I hope to bide hereabouts in this world a wee while longer. For I like to watch all that goes on. Some strange things there are too, sir, but the police willna hear o’ them from me.’With that he downed the drink and was soon back to his post where he raised his violin and took up an even sadder and more poignant form of that strange music. I walked on, trying to avoid the eyes of the women in the doorways as I reflected on his last remark. There was no doubt that any beggar on that street would see some odd sights, but his mention of the police inevitably brought my mind around to a subject I had been avoiding and to a person I had not seen for many weeks.Dr Joseph Bell was the extraordinary teacher at the university, who had first asked me to be his medical clerk, and then in great confidence initiated me into his pioneering study of criminal investigation, or what he called his ‘method’. I was of course intrigued and flattered, all the more so after he allowed me to accompany the police on a highly confidential case. But, although I was impressed, I had never from the beginning quite been able to accept the vast claims Bell made for his system of deduction. And so it was that one afternoon in February, shortly after he took me into his confidence, I had been bold enough to try and test the man’s deductive powers.Among the many claims Bell made for his precious method, one of the most outlandish was that a close study of any object could lay bare the character of its owner. I was highly dubious of this and had therefore offered him my father’s watch as a trial. It had been recently cleaned so I felt absolutely confident that he could get nowhere with it. However, Dr Bell proceeded to use every mark and feature of that watch – certain indentations, some pawnbroker’s notches, the tiny scratches around the key – to expose in unbearable detail its owner’s mental condition. It was utterly horrifying to me to hear the secret my family had struggled to conceal being analysed and reviewed in so casual a fashion. To his credit, the Doctor saw my anguish and tried his best to make me aware he had been indulging in pure deduction. But even so, for some time after that day, I did my best to avoid him and pleaded my studies as an excuse.Now, with the fiddler’s melancholy notes still in my ears, I thought of that incident with the watch once again. And I found that I missed my jousts with Bell even if, despite my painful lesson, I still had doubts about the man’s ‘method’. Perhaps he had won that particular contest, but was there not, even here, some plain old-fashioned luck? After all, in his attempt to divine human character from an inanimate object, I had fed his ego by handing over a damaged artefact. But supposing that cursed watch had belonged to some fussy old solicitor rather than an artist whose mind was giving way? If the thing had been in utterly pristine condition, what could Dr Bell have had to say then beyond some vague and useless observation? Much of my old spirit returned as I remembered how disconcerted the Doctor had looked at first when he realised it had been cleaned. Supposing it had not only been cleaned, but bore no marks whatsoever? Bell’s expression might well have remained just as unhappy for the whole test.As the music faded behind me I smiled to think of that, and before the walk was over I had made up my mind that I was ready to see him again. Not that I would abandon my scepticism. Perhaps now a part of me wanted to challenge his method because it had inflicted such pain. But surely such challenges were good for him and for me, just as long as I took more care? And so the next morning I made my way along the dark stone corridors to Bell’s strange vault-like room in the university. As you entered it, you passed through a kind of tunnel between huge shelves of various compounds and chemicals until you arrived at an enormous tank which ran halfway to the ceiling. Today that tank was dry, rather to my surprise, for I was used to seeing strange things in its watery depths. Beyond it a huge bookcase towered to my left and I came past it to find his empty desk.‘Well,’ said a familiar and sharp voice from somewhere below me. I whirled round. At first I could see nothing at all in the shadows, but eventually I made out a shape lying down very flat between two low bookshelves. The space was so confined you could hardly see Bell’s wiry body. But slowly I made out his features and saw he was staring at me. He was indeed quite horizontal, lying between two shelves that were so close together only the smallest volumes could possibly have fitted them, and yet Bell had somehow clambered in and managed to lie flat. He had a watch in one hand.‘Doctor?’ I said in amazement.He ignored me and looked at the watch. Then his legs moved and he wriggled out from under that tiny crevice and drew himself up to his full height, which was more than six foot. His expression was fierce. ‘Your business?’ he said.‘But what are you doing?’‘I am establishing whether a man called André Valère was truly able to lie in a chimney space much smaller than a grave in order to conceal himself from the constabulary of Rouen in 1780.’‘1780?’‘Nothing has been presented to me in months, but I do not wish to remain entirely inactive in the field. If I cannot obtain fresh material, I can at least occasionally exercise my powers with older cases, especially those unsolved. Perhaps you are not aware of the Rouen matter? Valère was a suspected strangler, but they could not place him near the scene. I think he was in a chimney crevice no bigger than this when the third murder was discovered. He seemed to vanish into thin air and, though there was speculation, they thought the space was too small. This bookcase is a few inches smaller and I could have stayed longer; he only needed twenty-three minutes. So I am convinced.’ He had taken up a brush and was removing some dust from his jacket lapels as his tone became more clipped, but his eyes never left me. ‘Now, your business, please, I have a lecture to give.’And he continued to stare at me with a somewhat pugnacious expression.As I think back to this small reunion I sense again how energised and indefatigable the Doctor was in those days. Recalling his eager yet assertive gaze, I can see now that there was still almost an innocence in him for he had not as yet been fully tested. His most recent case at that time, involving a man called Canning, had proved a typical triumph, even if it had irritated the local constabulary. The Doctor was yet, in fact, to be seriously bloodied in any quest he had undertaken. That would come, and a good deal sooner than either of us might have wished.‘I merely came to tell you I could make myself available again for my duties.’He looked at me with a certain amusement. ‘Your letter said you were obliged to undertake intensive studies for another course. So in that at least you must now be accomplished?’After the business with the watch I had written him a polite but vague letter, explaining that I had to take a leave of absence as his clerk to further my studies and his written reply did not press me though he must have guessed the real reason.‘I feel enough time has been devoted to them.’‘Do you really, now? Well, you may assist me in my operating theatre today.’Of course it was the lowliest task he could have offered, and an hour later I was running around like a madman fetching instruments and dressings as he desperately tried to speed the progress of a woman patient having an emergency amputation. In those days patients survived in a fairly direct ratio to the speed with which their doctors worked, and I truly sensed the Doctor’s frustration for I had to mop his brow over thirty times as he cut and cleaned. I had rarely seen him so determined, but he managed to get the woman off the table alive.Later, as I performed the mundane chore of sorting through his surgery papers, he sat in his workroom making a few notes and offering very little in the way of conversation. Then he got up, without even glancing in my direction, and disappeared through the locked door leading to the extraordinary room where he kept relics and other more private records of criminal cases. Clearly I was not be admitted to this inner sanctum again for the moment.It took me some time to finish my work and at last I walked home, deliberately extending my journey until I reached the street where the beggar Samuel played his violin. The night was cold yet clear, and the stars above made a perfect setting for the player, who seemed in a kind of trance and did not notice me. But I paused some minutes to listen and am glad that I did, for it was a sound I was destined never to hear again in this world.THE NIGHT CALLS. Copyright © 2002 by David Pirie. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.