The Unbelievers

The Unbelievers

by Alastair Sim

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A brooding, Victorian murder mystery set in the Scottish Highlands and featuring Inspector Allerdyce and Sergeant McGillivray

Scotland's richest man has been shot dead and dumped down a well. Was the Duke of Dornoch murdered by one of the miners whose wages he cut because of "market forces"? Was he killed in return for his part in clearing the Highlands of their people? Did a discarded lover take their final revenge?

Inspector Allerdyce and Sergeant McGillivray VC must find out before the killer strikes again. But their search, from the material heights of Victorian society to its moral dregs, threatens to overturn everything Allerdyce believes and loves.

In the tradition of Charles Finch and The Somnambulist, Alastair Sim has crafted a memorable, atmospheric novel that covers new ground in the world of Victorian mysteries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429941891
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/14/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,179,952
File size: 320 KB

About the Author

ALASTAIR SIM has published stories and playscripts in magazines, anthologies and on the web. The Unbelievers is one of two books which he wrote while in the University of Glasgow's prestigious Masters in Creative Writing course.

Alastair Sim has published stories and playscripts in magazines, anthologies and on the web. He wrote his book The Unbelievers while in the University of Glasgow's prestigious Masters in Creative Writing course.

Read an Excerpt

The Unbelievers

By Alastair Sim

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Alastair Sim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4189-1


Inspector Allerdyce clung firmly to the leather-covered edge of the basket as he hung three thousand feet above the city. The chill west wind stung his eyes and his cheeks. He pulled his hat down more firmly as the wind caught its brim.

The pilot leant against the tiller, holding his jacket shut at the collar with his free hand. The gusty breeze couldn't drown out the steady whish-whish of the propeller behind them.

"What do you think, Allerdyce?" shouted the pilot.

"I beg your pardon, Professor Boyd."

"What do you think? Are you enjoying it?"

"Very much. Very bracing."

"It's windier than I expected."


"It's too windy," said the pilot. "We won't be able to make enough headway against the wind to get back to Bonaly. I'll try and put us down near Musselburgh."

"All right then."

"It's the engine that's the problem. I can only get 5hp out of it, and I can only carry enough water to make steam for 40 minutes."

"It's still very impressive."

"It's only the very beginning, Allerdyce. If I can build a lighter, more powerful engine I can build an airship that would carry passengers as quickly and reliably as a steamship, or even a train."

"I look forward to that."

"I'll start letting hydrogen out of the balloon in about 5 minutes to start descending. In the meantime, enjoy the view."

"Thank you."

The same wind that was stinging his eyes had blown away most of the smoky mist which hung over Edinburgh on a still day. Little wisps of white steam or dark grey smoke rose from factory chimneys or from locomotives, but were quickly dispersed. Far away, a white line against the horizon marked the beginning of the snow-capped Highlands.

Beneath him, Allerdyce studied the city which had changed so much, almost beyond recognition, in his forty-four years.

To the north of the rigid grid of the Georgian New Town, and to the south of the crowded warren of the mediaeval Old Town, the farmland had been partitioned into little green squares of garden and in each of them had been planted a square sandstone villa as a home for the newly-rich. The spires of new churches for every competing denomination, temples of respectability for the credulous polite classes, broke the monotonous chequer-board of gardens and houses. To the west, along the canal and turnpikes, and to the north-east, spreading along the parallel roads to Leith, dense tenements crowded darkly around the mills and breweries which employed the more fortunate of their inmates. The workers' places of devotion – the public houses and cheap brothels – were invisible from this height, but the vast black mass of the Calton jail promised retribution for their sins in this life, if not the next.

Allerdyce looked beyond the jail, over the roofs of townhouses and terraces, towards a patch of green parkland, dotted with the leafless skeletons of trees. He grasped the edge of the basket harder as he recognised it as the Warriston Cemetery. It was nine years since he'd stood there on another winter's day beside an open grave as a minister murmured funereal banalities. Nine years, but in his mind he was still there as Helen's coffin was lowered into the frost-hardened earth, the crows cawing impatiently from the trees.

He told himself it was only the wind which was making his eyes water. Wiping them with the back of his sleeve he looked away to where the sun glinted on the silver steel of the railway tracks beside the cemetery. He let them draw his attention away from Helen's grave, looking up the raw cutting of the railway to where first one branch joined, then another, before the tracks swung round to join the main line.

They're like a circulatory system, he thought, penetrating every part of the city, nourishing both the healthy parts and the cancerous tumours of deprivation and pollution. Alongside the tracks ran the telegraph cables, the nerves of the city transmitting the data – stock prices, orders for goods, news from the Empire and beyond – which informed its actions.

Modern science made the city's functioning, and even its malfunctioning, as predictable as a printing-press. Today, in 1865, in the twenty-eighth year of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's reign, human understanding of nature and society was surely nearing completion. Economic science showed the inexorable law by which wealth was generated by the poor and flowed to the rich. Social science revealed the inevitability that a sizeable segment of the poor would sink towards crime and depravity. Statistical science showed the precise extent to which this would happen. On a day like today, according to forensic mathematics, there would most likely be:

113 crimes against property in the street – pickpocketing or theft without assault.

76 burglaries by night.

48 housebreakings by day.

43 assaults causing bodily harm.

14 disturbances at public houses requiring the attendance of the constabulary.

7 cases of rape or sexual assault, disregarding any purely domestic disturbances.

3 abandoned babies found, dead or alive.

And 1 murder.


Warner glanced over his shoulder, down the long carpeted corridor.

He was carrying a tray with a bottle of whisky, a siphon of soda and a glass, so there was no reason why any of the other servants should think he was up to anything. Even so, as he knocked gently on the door of his master's dressing room and softly turned the handle, he was grateful only to see the empty corridor and the gaslight reflecting against the glass of the paintings which lined it.

As he opened the door he heard the first tinny chimes of the clock which stood on the mantelpiece. He shut the door behind him as it struck for the fourth time, standing still until the twelfth ring had subsided.

The fire was lit in preparation for his master's return, though he could see on the table, curling up at one edge under the yellow light of the lamp, the telegram which had so agitated His Grace earlier.

He'd delivered it, sealed, when it had arrived from the telegraph office at four o'clock. Glancing at it later, after he'd helped his master to dress for dinner, he'd noted its promise of his master's absence.

He put the tray down on the table, covering the telegram. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror which stood beside the Duke's wardrobe. He turned to get a better look at himself, smoothing down his jacket as he did so.

Not bad, he thought, looking up and down at his slight, well-dressed figure. Especially in this light, not bad at all. His hair was neatly parted and its oiled gloss reflected in the dim lamplight and the flickering gold of the fire. He'd always liked the delicate darkness of his brows, the slimness of his nose, the paleness of his lips and the clear definition of his chin. He'd been lucky to have a complexion which had never been marked by pox, though tonight his cheeks looked, he thought, a little drawn, and the semi-darkness of the room seemed to accentuate the dark lines under his eyes, which still looked as bright and vigilant as a kestrel's. Standing here in a sober black suit, with shiny patent leather shoes and a neat black tie, he didn't see why he shouldn't be taken for a gentleman.

In fact, he thought, the only thing that distinguished a servant from a gentleman was money, and he could do something about that.

He crossed the room to his master's chest of drawers, which stood to the right hand side of the door. The way the door was hinged meant he should be hidden if someone opened it.

He only needed to open one drawer. Every night, after he'd dressed His Grace for dinner, he put away his master's daytime clothes and belongings – suit, hat, boots, shirt, riding-crop and wallet. He pulled the top drawer out a few inches, lifting it gently by the handles to stop it from scraping against the runners. He slipped his hand in and, brushing light silk handkerchiefs out of the way, closed it round the fat bulk of His Grace's wallet.

He eased the wallet out of the narrow opening, careful not to touch it against the wood, as if it was nitro-glycerine. He unfolded it, smelling the tang of old leather and the dryness of banknotes.

He checked the contents under the lamplight. From a quick flick through it he reckoned there must be about £250 in notes, stuffed in roughly and randomly in different denominations. Enough for a gentleman to live modestly for a year.

He didn't reckon that the old bastard was too careful about counting his money. He didn't need to be, seeing as he owned five coalmines and three estates. Even so, it didn't do to take too much of a risk, at least not all at one time.

Warner slipped a £10 note out of the wallet and into his trouser pocket. He was £10 closer to being a gentleman. He folded the wallet back up.

As he turned back towards the chest of drawers he heard a door open. It sounded as if it was opening at the near end of the corridor, where the servants' staircase came up. He froze.

Bugger. If they come in here and see me standing with the Duke's wallet in my hand I'm done for. If I put it away and make a noise they might look in here and wonder what's going on. He felt sweat on his back and in the palms of his hands.

The footsteps drew nearer, the floorboards creaking gently under the carpet with each pace. Before he knew he'd made a decision Warner had stuck the wallet back in the drawer and shoved it closed with a 'thunk' which he prayed hadn't been heard.

He picked up the tray – if the door was opened he could pretend to be arranging his master's drinks in anticipation of his return. His heart was pounding, though, and as he held the tray unsteadily he heard the glass chink-chink against the soda syphon in time to his racing pulse.

The light tread approached the door. He felt sure that the clinking glass was ringing out his guilt to anyone who had ears to hear. He swallowed, hoping his voice would sound steady when he was asked to give an account of himself.

The footsteps passed by with what sounded like the swishing of a skirt. A little way down the corridor he heard a door open – he guessed it must be the door to the Duchess's dressing room or bedroom. Presumably her maid was taking her something.

He waited for a moment, feeling himself breathe again. If the maid did whatever she had to do and left quickly, then he could follow a couple of minutes later and no-one would know he'd been here. He stood, counting slowly up towards a hundred as he listened for any sign that the maid was coming back out, but all he could hear was a faint banging as if drawers or doors were being opened inside the room.

He'd reached seventy-three when he decided there was no point in waiting any longer. His hands felt steadier and the glass had stopped clinking. He might as well get going before anyone else interrupted him.

He opened the door and checked either way down the corridor before, carrying the tray in front of him, he walked steadily towards the servants' staircase.

* * *

Alice rushed into the small parlour in her white night-dress, holding a toy rabbit by the ears in one hand and a book in the other.

"Daddy, daddy, daddy, read me a story."

"Darling, I have to go out."

"Daddy, please, I've brought the book with me. Mummy said you'd read to me."

Allerdyce paused from pulling his boots on. He could hear the baby crying upstairs, and in the hall outside the parlour Albert was banging away at a drum with the full force of his three year old arms. Margaret must have sent Alice downstairs to get some peace while she tried to pacify the baby. For an instant he thought how blissful it would be to be at Professor Boyd's house already, with a glass of Boyd's excellent Burgundy and the company of his oldest friends. He checked that thought, recalling the chill and maddening silence of his house before Margaret and the children had saved him from his solitude. He knew he should cherish even their noise.

He looked down at little ginger-haired Alice, who was giving her best six year-old pout. If he had to guess, he'd say she was less than a minute away from a flood of tears if he didn't read to her.

"All right then. But only a little bit. I do have to go out very soon."

"Thank you daddy. I want to sit on your knee."

He lifted her up and sat her on his knee. It always amazed him that a whole human being, with all her moods and questions and smiles, could be so light. There was something so complex and wonderful about a child, and he chided himself for being in such a hurry to rush out to a Speculative Society dinner.

"What book did you bring, darling?"

She handed it to him.

"Ah, The Water Babies. A good choice. Where do you want me to start?"

"The beginning again."

She nestled herself against his jacket with her thumb in her mouth, squirming to get comfortable as he put his right arm around her. He opened the book dextrously with his free hand and started to read.

"Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there are plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either, and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived ..."

The doorbell rang and Alice looked up. Allerdyce stopped reading and heard the maid's quick footsteps to the door. Damn, he thought, that can't be anything good. He put the book down and put his hands round Alice's chest, preparing to lift her from his knee.

The maid came into the parlour with an envelope.

"Message for you, sir. The lad said it was from Superintendent Burgess and required your immediate attention."

Allerdyce lowered his daughter to the floor. She kicked out helplessly into space as he did so.

"You said you'd read to me daddy! You said you would!"

"I'm sorry, pet, I'll have to read this. It sounds important."

"Daddy! Please!"

He opened the envelope with his thumb and took the handwritten message out. As he tried to read it Alice attempted to clamber back up into his lap.

"Will I take her up to her room?" asked the maid.


The maid picked up the child and took her up the stairs. Allerdyce could hear her accusing sobs, and the baby's continued crying above the drumbeats in the hall, as he read the message.


I require your immediate attendance at the house of the Chief Constable, 38 Heriot Row.

Trusting that this finds you swiftly,


He folded the paper away into the inner pocket of his jacket and finished pulling his boots on. As he took his heavy tweed coat off the coatstand in the hall and pulled it on he felt himself, yet again, assuming the mantle of duty. He opened the door and stepped, unnoticed, into the night.

* * *

Heriot Row was only five minutes walk away, up the steep, broad thoroughfare of Dundas Street. Not so much a hill, thought Allerdyce, as a social gradient, from his little two-storey tenement house in Cumberland Street, past the residences of bankers and solicitors in Northumberland Street, to the great terraced palaces of the Law Lords and Queens Counsel in Heriot Row.

It was a fresh night and he could see his breath in front of him as he climbed, inhaling the city's pungent blend of chill air and coal-smoke.

Whatever he was being summoned to must be important if both the Chief Constable and Burgess were involved. Nothing in the usual round of assaults, thefts and murders had merited the Chief's involvement.

He quickened his steps as he turned into Heriot Row. The three-storied houses rose to his right, set back from the pavement, with well-lit steps leading up to double doors which, for the most part, opened into bright vestibules to receive guests. To his left, across the wide cobbled street, rose the dark shapes of the trees in the locked private gardens.

As he walked along, a closed carriage stopped a few doors ahead of him, and a footman dismounted from the step at the rear of the carriage to open its door. The footman held out his hand as two giggling young ladies, girls really, stepped down onto the pavement.

As Allerdyce approached the carriage the footman stood in the middle of the pavement.


Excerpted from The Unbelievers by Alastair Sim. Copyright © 2009 Alastair Sim. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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