Deadly Vices: A Novel of Crime and Intrigue in 19th Century London
Click on image to enlarge.
by Patrick Read
Category: Historical Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Description: Historical Mystery Featuring Algernon Swinburn. It's London, 1867, where Algernon Swinburne is a celebrated poet and dandy--he's also about to become a detective! Algernon's old college chum, Reginald Simpson lives the carefree life of a man about town. Unfortunately this life had led Reginald's wealthy parents to disown him. Forced to earn a living by his wits, Reginald has turned to smuggling valuable pornographic books into England at the behest of the Mrs. Addams, a shady bookdealer who blackmails the widows of her wealthy clients. When a titled collector of rare erotica, Lord Dinnister, passes away a destitute Simpson sees the opportunity for doing a bit of chiseling himself, and spills Mrs. Adam's plot to Theodore Watts-Dunton, attorney for the widow for a price. Soon Simpson is found stabbed. But by whom? That's what Algernon Swinburne wants to know. The police attribute it to one of Reginald's numerous lovers, and figuring he got no more than he deserved, put little effort into finding the killer. It's an investigation that leads him to Lady Dinnister, Watts-Dunton, her attorney, Mrs. Adams, various members of the oh-so hypocritical Society for the Suppression of Vice, and even a member of the royal family. Soon a battle-of-wits develops between Swinburne and the killer--one in which the poet slowly comes to realize he may be more than out matched. Patrick Read's new novel finds a master of suspense fiction in top form: he shows us the reality which lay behind the respectable veneer of Victorian England.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: September 2004
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [428 KB]
Reading time: 273-383 min.
A man died on the cross-Channel ferry boat, and Simpson was delighted.
If there was one thing Simpson welcomed when he was smuggling goods into England, it was a distraction--something which took the minds of the customs men away from their task of looking for contraband goods. Indeed, the very best of distractions were those which took the customs men away from their posts entirely.
In this case, the man died very soon after the ferry left Calais. He was traveling second class, it appeared, while Simpson was in the first-class lounge. Well, Simpson was an old Etonian, when all was said and done. A hard-up, down-on-his-luck old Etonian, but a wearer of the old-school tie none the less. But despite the difference in class between the man who died and the wealthy passengers on the higher deck, word of the sudden decease soon came drifting up.
A bearded old gentleman came bustling into the first-class lounge soon after the ship began to move.
'Bit of excitement down below!' he announced loudly.
Simpson thought this was a bit off, really, chap rushing in and shooting his mouth off uninvited. Especially as the bearded fellow seemed to be traveling alone, and he hadn't been introduced to anyone. He just burst in and proceeded to lecture all and sundry about what was going on.
Not that all and sundry appeared to object. There was a general stir of interest.
'Oh, dear me!' cried an elderly lady. 'Something amiss downstairs, you say? Nothing serious I hope?'
'Goodness me no,' the beard hastened to assure her. 'No cause for alarm, madam. There's no problem with the ship. It's just that an elderly gentleman downstairs has collapsed. In fact, they do say he's died.'
Well, there was quite a little flurry of excitement after that. All of those present in first class, about half a dozen in total, exchanged a few murmured words of dismay about how sad it was, and how regrettable, and what a shock for his family. And then a member of staff who passed through the lounge, inquiring whether passengers would like drinks, was promptly dispatched to find out more details. Even in first class, passengers knew that they would have to die some day, and the manner of a person's going was always of interest.
Simpson made a modest contribution to the earnest little debate by remarking on how we never knew the time and place of our departure. We must always be prepared to meet our maker, he volunteered solemnly; and then he settled back in his seat and pretended to go to sleep.
Not that he did go to sleep, of course. Christ no. He kept a careful eye on the travel bag which lay between his feet, and offered up a silent thank-you to his lucky stars that some boring old fellow had chosen to die. Just what he needed.
* * * *
Earlier that day, in Paris, Simpson had called on Mr Frederick Hankey, an English exile, at his flat in number 2, Rue Laffitte.
Hankey was an Englishman who had chosen to live in a country with more relaxed attitudes to erotic literature and sexual misbehavior than was the case in England in the 1860s. In Paris, Hankey was widely known as a collector and dealer in pornographic books and statuary, and he frequently needed to have material transported to London. Over the years, Simpson had found that a visit to Hankey's flat at the end of a sojourn in the French capital would quite often pay for the trip--and on this occasion, since he was completely stony broke, he most sincerely hoped that this would be the case once again.
Hankey's greeting was cordial enough--but then the man had always had the most exquisite good manners, everyone agreed on that; even when he was screwing you into parting with something for much less than it was worth, he was invariably polite. He and Simpson clinked glasses of cognac together.
The two men were much the same age--mid-thirties--and had much in common. Though unfortunately, Simpson was forced to admit, Hankey's financial situation was far superior to his own.
'Well, old chap,' said Simpson when he thought the time had come to get to the point, 'have you got any little items that you want sent back to the old country?'
The exile smiled. 'Well as a matter of fact,' he said, 'I have.'
Hankey was already rather bald, and he had curious swellings at each temple. But his eyes were what caught the attention: they were blue, clear, and piercing. And his smile was fascinating; almost entrancing. It was the smile, Simpson had often thought, of an ecstatic priest, of a man taking great joy in the celebration of the mass. In this case, the black mass.
Hankey now moved to a cupboard and took out what appeared to be an object wrapped in a towel, together with a book.
'Both of these are for Mrs Addams,' he said. 'Bookseller in Tavistock Street. Know her?'
'I should say I do,' said Simpson cheerfully. 'Bookshop Fanny they call her, though not to her face. Last man who did that got slashed with a razor. She told him that'd teach him not to be cheeky in future. Cheeky--get it?'
Hankey chuckled. 'I do,' he said. 'And I wouldn't like to upset her myself, I must say. But all you have to do is deliver these two items to her shop.'
'Better have a look at them first,' said Simpson. He always liked to know what he was carrying. That way you could work out some sort of story to tell the authorities if you were unfortunately found in possession of naughty goods.
Hankey unwrapped the towel to reveal a small bronze. He set it upright on the table, and Simpson examined it thoughtfully.
It was a seated female figure, nude of course, with a splendid bosom. The head was thrown back in an abandoned posture, the eyes closed, the mouth half open in a dreamy smile. The detail was impressive: whoever made the figure was a real craftsman. The legs of the seated woman were parted, and kneeling between the legs was another woman. The features of this second nude figure were largely invisible, because the mouth was pressed tight against the seated woman's groin.
'My word,' said Simpson, quite overcome with admiration. 'Here's a pretty piece I must say!'
Hankey chuckled again. 'Oh yes,' he agreed. 'Some collector will pay a fine price for it, I've no doubt.'
Simpson looked up. 'And the book?'
Hankey picked up the quarto volume and hefted it in his hand.
'The contents are nothing special. Justine, by our old friend the divine Marquis. But the illustrations are unusual--done by Rops--and it's the binding which gives the volume its special cachet.'
Simpson took the book from Hankey's hand and flicked through it. Yes, the drawings were Rops at his lewdest. Much sought after these days. But the binding... He couldn't work that out at all. Dark-colored, smooth, and almost transparent. Whatever it was, it looked thin and fragile.
Hankey could hardly contain his giggles as Simpson continued to be puzzled.
'I give up,' said Simpson in the end. 'Can't identify the material at all. Tell me.'
'It's the skin of a negress,' said Hankey gleefully. 'Flayed off her while she was still alive, of course.'
Well, it was probably nonsense, Simpson thought. Probably the skin of an animal and no nonsense about live victims. But it was a rare binding, whatever it was, and it would make a fine talking-point.
* * * *
So, here was Simpson, on the night ferry to London, with a light travel bag at his feet which contained two precious items and a few dirty shirts.
What he'd been hoping for was a good rough crossing, so that any sweatiness or paleness of face, any trembling or shake in the voice, all of those signs of an uneasy conscience, could be attributed to the violence of the ocean.
It was never a nice feeling, wondering how you might explain yourself to some snotty-nosed customs man if he asked you to unpack your case. Every item if you please, sir. And would you be good enough to undo this bundle here for me, sir? A present you say, from a friend? You had no idea that it was such a lewd item? Perhaps you should be more careful in your choice of friends, sir. Perhaps when you've been in front of the magistrate you might find yourself with a whole new circle of friends. Down in the prison on the Moor, a guest of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Not very nice on the Moor, they tell me, sir. Not even in summer.
But of course, Simpson tried to persuade himself, the customs men were not really interested in lone travelers with one modest bag. No, they were really there to check up on cargo. On the importation of brandy without payment of proper excise. That sort of thing. Still, it was nice when a good storm shook everyone up. You were less likely to face trouble in those circumstances.
And this time, of course, he'd been a little more fortunate than on any previous occasion, even when there'd been really bad weather. This time there'd been this death in the second-class lounge. Elderly gentleman, a retired shopkeeper they said, traveling with his son, and the little fizz of excitement caused by the man's collapse had lasted all the way over the Channel.
At Dover, Simpson was pleased to see that every official in sight--and there weren't many, because it was late in the evening--every available man in uniform seemed to be rushing about trying to find a stretcher or bellowing for a sheet to cover the poor fellow's corpse.
Simpson glanced out of the lounge window as he waited for the gangplank to be opened up and watched the men shouting here, shushing there, all of them far too busy to worry about a solitary Englishman who knew how to disappear quietly into the shadows.
All the customs men were busy that is--except one.
There was always one. One suspicious, sneaky, officious and nosy bastard, lurking in the background. Just waiting for his moment to pounce.
This one appeared in the lounge from behind Simpson, just as he was standing up and preparing to leave the ship.
'Anything to declare sir?'
Simpson actually jumped and cursed himself for a fool.
'Oh--er, no, no,' he said hastily. 'Sorry old chap, you took me unawares. No, no, I only wish I did have something to declare. But I met a fellow on the train from Paris who talked me into a game of cards. Never play cards with a Frenchie, my friend, that's all I can say.'
Simpson gave a laugh which sounded unconvincing even to his own ears. Still, a chap who'd lost at cards wouldn't have much to giggle about, would he?
The customs man gave Simpson a thin smile, but he seemed satisfied and moved on to make the same inquiry of the other passengers in the first-class area.
Simpson allowed his breath to exhale very slowly and silently. But he could still hear his pulse, pounding fiercely in his ears.
All things considered, he was mightily relieved when the train for London gave a hooting whistle and began to chuff its way out of Dover station.
* * * *
From Charing Cross, Simpson took a hansom cab to his lodgings in d'Arblay Street. It was well after midnight when he arrived, and he was looking forward to flopping into bed, but for some reason the key to the door of his rooms wouldn't turn. Most odd.
He was still fiddling with the lock when Mr Hoffman, his landlord, appeared beside him. Appeared silently, making him start yet again. His nerves really were rather frazzled.
'Having a little trouble, Mr Simpson?'
'Yes, I'm afraid I am,' said Simpson abruptly.
'That's because the locks have been changed.'
'What? Changed, you say?'
Mr Hoffman seemed most amused. He was an elderly man--Jewish, Simpson suspected. Certainly foreign in origin, anyway, and he was apt to find humor in things which ordinary Englishmen did not find amusing at all.
'Yes,' chuckled Hoffman. 'Had 'em changed while you were away. Off in Paris I understand. Cavorting with little French girls I shouldn't wonder.' And he smiled knowingly.
Simpson's patience was definitely at an end. Really, the effrontery of this man was intolerable. Simpson was tired, hungry, and still a little nervous at being in possession of valuable items which he must not, must not at all costs lose. And now here was this ghastly Hoffman fellow telling him he couldn't even get into his own rooms!
'Perhaps you would be kind enough, Hoffman,' he said, in a tone which any Englishman would have recognized easily as one of icy politeness, 'perhaps you would be kind enough to admit me to my own premises and allow me retire to bed.'
'Certainly, certainly!' cried Hoffman. 'I shall open the door immediately. Once you have paid me for the last seven months' rent.'
After that there was a vigorous exchange of frank views and opinions.
Hoffman, it appeared, had not only changed the locks but had also removed Simpson's meager possessions, and was now threatening to sell them if the few miserable pounds that were owing were not coughed up immediately!
No use for Simpson to point out that at this time of night the banks were long since shut. Valueless for Simpson to declare that he would write a check. Too many worthless and rejected checks had been written in the past. No, Mr Hoffman would take gold, cash, and nothing less. And if dear Mr Simpson did not have the necessary amount in full, upon his person this very instant, why that was very unfortunate but Mr Hoffman regretted that in those circumstances the door would have to remain locked.
Simpson, grinding his teeth with fury, was obliged to take a cab to his club, the Arts Club in Hanover Square, where he added the cost of both cab and room to his already substantial tab. And, as if he had not suffered enough inconvenience and trouble that evening already, the night porter informed him curtly that the club secretary, Mr Marsden, wished to speak to him as soon as possible. The man didn't even try to be polite. Mr Simpson's annual membership subscription was, it appeared, well overdue.
Simpson snarled and ordered himself a triple brandy as a night-cap.