I was a big fan of Jasper Kent's The Danilov Quintet, so of course I was curious to see what he would write next. And this is how the author is pitching this one: Something rather different. No vampires, no Russians. Just a detective story set in 1930s Brighton. I haven't read it yet, but I invited Kent to put up an extract on the Hotlist to give us a taste of Late Whitsun. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe. You can also download it on the cheap through these links.
Here's the blurb:
Brighton, 1938. Charlie 'Big Bad' Woolf thought it would be easy money, and there's precious little of that for a private detective in a seaside town. It was just a trip up to London to hand over an envelope - a favour for his old partner, Alan O'Connor. But Woolf couldn't resist taking a peek inside. The pictures were unadulterated smut; a man and a girl in a hotel room. Blackmail, pure and simple - right up O'Connor's street. Woolf was happy to be rid of them, handing them over to a masked man in a London park. When he gets home, O'Connor's waiting for him, which is a surprise. The bigger surprise is that he's dead; a bullet through the eye. Woolf is the prime suspect, but when he discovers that the man in the photographs is a German diplomat and the blackmail is being run by MI5, things get more complicated. It seems obvious who killed O'Connor, but Woolf soon realizes that he's the only one who cares. With war looming, the good of the country counts for more than the arrest of a murderer. If he's to see the killer caught, Charlie Woolf must prove that the crime has little to do with the world of espionage ...
There are ways to make a girl look prettier; changes that no one can quite put their finger on, but are what the man – or occasionally the girl herself – is paying for. Some of it’s just tidying up, things she should have done for herself before she stepped outside, like neatening the line of the eyebrow or defining the lip more clearly. Some of it’s more major: a little off the nose – or, once in a while, on. The same for the chin. The easiest thing to improve is the complexion; you’re starting with a blank sheet there. Sometimes it’s just a case of giving her a better hat.
But you can’t go too far. It has to be the same face you started with – recognizable. You don’t want the prospective mother-in-law coming round and asking ‘Who’s that?’ only to be told, with shuffling feet, that it’s her own daughter. And you don’t want to end up with something so beautiful that it eclipses the original, a Galatea for the man to gawp at and wonder what might have been, or for the girl herself to turn away from whenever she sees it, knowing that reality is its poor reflection.
This girl wouldn’t take much work. She was a real looker. She knew it, and he knew it. They were engaged, so the ring on her finger declared, and recently too, judging by the way she rested her hands in her lap to ensure that everyone could see it. They were down from London, as were more than half the people who paraded along the Palace Pier that day, the last Saturday in May. So far, 1938 hadn’t been a great season. Easter had been late this year, and so Whitsun would not be with us until the beginning of June, the following weekend. But then the bank holiday would bring them to Brighton in droves. If the weather was good then even more would come, but today the sun was coy, just visible as a glowing disk through the light cloud, not strong enough to cast much of a shadow.
I was nearly done. I’d got the chin wrong, but only slightly, and it didn’t do to rub anything out – not when the punter could see you. The hardest bit had been getting a smile out of her. That wasn’t something you could guess the look of. It wasn’t that she was unhappy, but neither of them seemed the sort to show their emotions in public; they were above that. They’d probably only come down this particular weekend to avoid the riff-raff that Whitsun would bring to the town. Eventually her fiancé said something that coaxed a grin out of her, though she immediately tried to conceal it. After that, she’d given me a quiet, apologetic smile, and that’s what I used – not quite the Mona Lisa, but something close.
I changed her hat. The one she was wearing was a couple of years out of fashion. I was good with hats. I spent a lot of time looking at them in the window of Hanningtons, especially when the new season began. I gave her what they called a ‘sport’ hat – a kind of fedora for ladies. It suited her. I’d seen a photograph of Rita Hayworth in one, but they had them in the shops in Brighton too. Maybe, if she liked the drawing, she’d get her fiancé to buy her one. I often wondered if I shouldn’t be charging the milliners some sort of commission.
I signed the sketch at the bottom, ‘C. K. Woolf’. It would probably be hidden by the frame – if they bothered to frame it. I handed it to the girl and she smiled again. It was a shame she didn’t do it more often. Her chap gave me a curt nod and handed over a crown. It was what I’d put on the sign: ‘Portraits 5/-. Graduate of the Royal College of Art.’ It was true, but for the word ‘graduate’. Sometimes they felt inspired to offer me a little more, but this one didn’t. He barely even glanced at what he was paying for.
The couple continued on their way up the pier. They passed two or three other artists who tried to catch their interest, but then noticed what she was holding. Business wasn’t good, not at this time of year, nor this time of day. Whitsun would be different. But, for now, I took whatever trade I could drum up. I had the best pitch, close to the turnstiles.
A short girl of about twenty was hovering nearby, considering the sign. I smiled at her, but she didn’t seem bothered enough to look at the artist himself. She tugged the sleeve of the man beside her, who turned to look.
‘Makes a lovely memento of your day together,’ I said. ‘Only five shillings.’
‘We could get a photo for less,’ he replied, not taking the cigarette from his mouth to speak.
‘A photograph won’t bring out the young lady’s true beauty.’
The girl grinned broadly, demonstrating that she didn’t understand the full implication of what I was saying. She was no looker, but I could improve on reality. Her fellow, on the other hand, seemed to get the idea.
‘Will it take long?’ he asked.
‘Ten minutes,’ I said.
He nodded and the girl sat down on the little wooden chair opposite me. I began to work my magic. To be honest, he’d have done better to spend his five bob in Boots, getting her some make-up and the free advice that comes with it. Her face was sweet enough, but there was more she could have done with it, if only she had the nous. No sisters, I guessed, and a mother who didn’t approve of such things.
I didn’t make small talk – I’d learned not to over the years. It looked like flirting and, however much the subject might like it, it wasn’t she who was paying. Sometimes you’d get a couple of girls come down to Brighton together, and each take a turn in the chair. Then it was a different matter.
‘Very good!’ The words, laden with sincerity, came from behind me.
I didn’t need to look – and I didn’t want to. I recognized the voice.
‘Thanks,’ I said curtly.
‘It’s amazing what he can do, you know,’ O’Connor continued, still out of sight. He was addressing the girl now, or perhaps the man. Both looked up in his direction.
I raised my hand slightly. ‘Could you just keep still there?’ I said. It didn’t matter for the drawing, but there was a chance it would curtail the conversation. However flattering O’Connor’s words might have been to begin with, it wasn’t going to last.
‘You wouldn’t believe some of the material he has to work with.’ He sucked air through his teeth to emphasize the point. ‘But they all end up looking lovely on the page.’
The girl was still smiling, responding to O’Connor’s tone, rather than his words. The man had cottoned on quicker. His face had become still – not angry yet, but ready to have his suspicions of what O’Connor meant confirmed.
‘Real sow’s ears, some of them,’ the voice continued behind me with a slight laugh. There couldn’t be much doubt left for either of them now.
I swivelled round on my stool and looked up at him. ‘Take a hike, why don’t you, old man? I’m sure we can manage without hearing your opinions.’
He raised his hands apologetically. ‘All right, I’ll go!’ He tried to make himself sound hard-done-by. I turned back to my efforts and sensed him beginning to move away, but still he wouldn’t shut up. ‘Some people just can’t take a compliment, can they? She looks beautiful in that picture.’ He paused – his timing exquisite – then concluded, ‘You wouldn’t recognize her.’
The girl’s face fell into an expression that was every bit the classic mask of tragedy. She looked up at her suitor, who was already on the move, pulling up his sleeves as he strode towards O’Connor. I stood and got myself between the two of them, though why I cared I wasn’t sure. He pushed against me, though if he’d really been trying, he could easily have knocked me down.
‘What are you saying?’ he growled at O’Connor over my shoulder. O’Connor made no attempt at an explanation. I managed to push the younger man away until he was at arm’s length.
‘I can only apologize,’ I said. ‘You get a lot of his type on the pier. They’ve got nowhere to go during the day.’ The man calmed a little. ‘Look,’ I continued, ‘let me finish the drawing – no charge.’
I showed him what I’d done already; it was almost complete. He took it from me and stepped back a few paces, staring at it. Then he looked up at the girl and back to the drawing. ‘No,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, he’s right.’ He crumpled the paper and threw it on to the decking, then marched towards the turnstiles. The girl stood there, abandoned and insulted, wondering which of us to be more upset with. She looked at the retreating figure of her beau, then at O’Connor and then at me, her eyes blazing. I felt the sting of her hand slapping my cheek before I spotted any movement. She’d had to stretch up to reach my face, but still managed quite a blow. A few stars twinkled in the left of my field of vision, but it didn’t seem they would amount to anything serious. She turned and walked briskly after her man, but he was already off the pier. She broke into a run. I heard laughter behind me. O’Connor was leaning against the railing, grinning triumphantly, his belly stretching the buttons of his shirt. He offered me his hand to shake, but I didn’t take it.
‘How’s business, Big-Bad?’ he asked.
Walt Disney had a lot to answer for. O’Connor had starting calling me ‘Big-Bad’ five years before, when we were still working together. He would sing the song day in day out, cutting out the ‘the’ so it would make sense: ‘Who’s afraid of Big Bad Woolf?’ He hoped the name would catch on, but few others took it up. Still he persisted.
‘It was all right until you turned up.’
‘Five bob a pop? And how many of those do you get a day? I meant your other business.’
‘Not bad. How about you?’
‘Since we parted company, I’ve gone from strength to strength. More work than I can handle. Which is what I wanted to talk to you about.’
‘Not interested, thanks all the same.’ I sat back down and picked up my pad and pencil, looking around for likely clients.
‘Well, let me buy you a drink, then. For old times’ sake.’
‘They’ll be closed soon.’
I glanced up at the clock tower. He was right. It was well after two. There’d be a rush of trade on the pier when the pubs turned out, so now would be a good time for me to get a drink – especially a free one.
We headed across to the Royal Albion. There was an empty table in the corner of the bar, close to the window where we could look back out at the Palace Pier and the sea. A waiter came over quickly.
‘Tamplin’s, isn’t it?’ O’Connor asked. ‘A pint?’
‘Scotch,’ I said, ‘since you’re buying.’
‘Two Scotches,’ he instructed the waiter.
We sat in silence until the drinks arrived. O’Connor poured a dribble of water into his from the jug that came with them. He looked at me but I shook my head.
‘So how you been, Big-Bad?’
‘As well as ever.’
‘Still getting the headaches?’
‘Now and then.’ I glanced around the room as I spoke, not to take in the surroundings, but to see if anything else was there, creeping in from the side. The slap I’d received on the pier probably wasn’t enough to start anything – but I was due.
‘Never stopped you working, though, did they?’
I was bored already, and the whisky wasn’t going to last me long. ‘What’s this about, O’Connor?’
‘Why do you never call me “Al”?’
I couldn’t picture him as an American gangster, and besides, his name was Alan, not Alphonse. Though I could hardly throw stones on that score myself. ‘What’s it about?’ I repeated.
‘I was wondering if you needed a little work.’
‘Not your kind of work.’
‘I’m a detective, just like you … when you’re not drawing pictures on the pier.’
‘We investigate different things.’
He shrugged, tricky though that was with his corpulent body wedged into a hotel armchair. ‘All I’m looking for is a courier.’ He reached into his case and brought out a large brown envelope. ‘I need this taken up to a man in London.’
‘Try the Royal Mail.’
He shook his head. ‘They might take a peek.’
‘And I wouldn’t?’
‘Maybe, but you’d deliver it anyway.’
I tried to judge what might be in there. I could make a good guess, but that wouldn’t quite explain why he refused to trust it to the post. ‘Why not go yourself?’ I asked. ‘It’s only London.’
He paused, choosing his words. ‘I don’t want him to know who it’s from.’
‘So he’d recognize you?’
O’Connor nodded. ‘But not you.’
‘What’s it worth?’ I asked, taking another sip.
‘In return, he’ll give you the sum of fifty pounds, in cash.’
I scarcely needed to pretend to choke. ‘Fifty quid? For a delivery?’
‘For content and delivery. You can keep ten.’
It was still a good fee. ‘How do you know I won’t keep it all?’
‘You’re an honest man. That’s why we don’t work together anymore.’
‘But you’re happy to work with me now?’
‘That depends. Are you happy to work for me?’
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said. ‘When do you need to know?’
‘It has to be delivered tonight.’
I looked at the envelope. He was holding it by opposite corners, twirling it between his fingers. I could see no name or address on it. I reached out my hand and the rotation stopped.
‘You agree, then?’ he asked.
‘I said I’ll think about it.’
‘Then I’d best keep this for now.’ He slid the envelope back into his case and brought out a notebook. He scribbled something on a page, which he then tore out and handed to me. ‘Call me on this number,’ he said. ‘Make it before seven or I’ll find someone else.’
‘Why not just find someone else, anyway?’
He smiled. ‘Maybe I will. Call me and you’ll find out.’
He downed what was left of his drink and stood up. It would have been impressive but for the way the chair rose with him for a few inches. He pushed his hands against the arms and it dropped back on to the carpeted floor with a quiet thud. He straightened his tie and headed across the bar to the door. I finished my Scotch, but remained seated, staring out of the window. Soon O’Connor reappeared outside. He crossed the road as if heading back on to the pier, but then glanced around furtively and squeezed into one of the red telephone boxes just beside the ice-cream kiosk, his backside preventing the door from quite closing behind him.
After I left the Royal Albion, I went back to my pitch on the pier. As I’d expected, business picked up during the afternoon, but then it began to rain. I packed up soon after four. I didn’t have much to take with me – the chair and my stool folded up nice and small, and the sketch pad was no weight. Even so, the rain persuaded me to take a tram. I popped into the newsagent’s and bought a copy of the Argus, along with a few other things, then walked the last few yards home. I trotted up the steps to the front door, trying to avoid looking at the chequered pattern of tiles that covered them. As usual for that time of day, the door wasn’t locked. Once inside, I shouted.
‘That you, Mr Woolf?’ Her voice came from the kitchen at the end of the hallway. There were few other places she was likely to be.
‘Indeed it is.’ I put my head around the door. Her hands were plunged in a large mixing bowl, her forearms coated in flour. ‘Any telephone calls?’
‘Your mother rang. We had a good long chat.’
‘She wanted to remind you you’re going there for lunch on Wednesday. She wants to know if you’re bringing anyone.’
‘Well, are you?’
‘Am I what?’
It would have been easy just to tell her, but it was none of her business. ‘Any other calls?’
‘Your friend Mr O’Connor.’
‘What did he want?’ I hardly needed to ask.
‘He didn’t say. He didn’t even leave his name, but I knew it was him.’
‘Thanks, Mrs Croft.’ I stepped back into the hallway.
‘Will you be in for dinner?’
It was a good question. I still hadn’t decided about O’Connor’s offer. ‘No, thank you. I’ll find something for myself,’ I shouted back. Perhaps I had decided.
I went upstairs and unlocked the door to my rooms. My office was at the front of the house, facing south, so even on a cloudy day like today it was still bright. This was where I received my clients, when I had any. Two other doors led off to my private rooms – a bedroom and a living room. I dumped the two seats and the rest of what I’d been carrying in a corner, then sat down at the desk. I opened my diary where the strip of gold braid marked the current week, then turned the page. Only one word was written there, under Wednesday: Mum. I could hardly count her as a client. I turned the page again. The Whitsun bank holiday was printed in there on the Monday, but there was nothing that I’d filled in. I didn’t bother to look any further. I had no work coming. Not the kind of work I wanted.
I’d been right in what I said to O’Connor: we investigated different things. The things he concerned himself with happened every day; for me it was once in a blue moon. And so he got the cases and I didn’t. When we’d worked as partners there had been more of a mixture, but he’d always been keener to deal with the simple, lucrative stuff. And that, in a word, meant divorces. O’Connor was a genius at finding evidence of adultery, but my heart wasn’t in it. That was why we’d gone our separate ways – that and a few other things. His business was thriving, from what I’d heard – not least from his own lips. I hadn’t been offered a case in weeks.
There wasn’t much room for a private detective in Brighton, not between the police and the gangs. The police dealt with the normal crime, the offences you’d find in any town: burglary, assault, the occasional murder. But Brighton also had the fun crimes, the crimes that ensnared willing victims: gambling, drinking, prostitution. That was what the tourists came down from London for – some of them, at least. And those things didn’t just happen; they needed organization. If people got out of line, they had to be dealt with. Brighton Borough Police didn’t want to get involved and so the gangs policed themselves. Sometimes there was an overlap of jurisdiction, and that would lead to trouble, but it meant that there wasn’t much room in the middle for a privateer like me.
So in my case it was mostly persons gone missing, or the occasional blackmail. And there’d been none of either for a while. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the phone number that O’Connor had given me. Ten pounds was good money. I’d sold three drawings on the pier that day – fifteen shillings’ worth. It wasn’t that I was desperate for income. Mum was always willing to give me some, but that would mean she’d have won. And there was more to it than that. Ten pounds wasn’t just good money – it was ridiculous. There was more to this than being a simple delivery boy; more to it than an envelope full of photographs of some rich husband caught in flagrante delicto to be delivered into the hands of the aggrieved wife’s solicitor. O’Connor could have done that for himself. So perhaps it would lead on to something more interesting: a real case.
I went back down to the hallway. From the kitchen I could hear Mrs Croft singing to herself, picking a new key for almost every phrase. ‘Isn't it romantic? Music in the night; a dream that can be heard. Isn't it romantic?’ The telephone was on a stand at the bottom of the stairs. I picked up the receiver and dialled the number. It rang three times and then a woman answered.
‘Mrs O’Connor?’ I began. I’d never used her first name. I wasn’t even sure I could remember it.
‘Who’s that?’ She sounded annoyed.
‘It’s Woolf. Charlie Woolf.’
‘Who?’ It must have been a bad line – she couldn’t have forgotten me.
‘Is Alan there?’ I remembered that she, like me, was loathe to abbreviate his name.
‘Al!’ she shouted, turning away from the receiver. It seemed I’d remembered wrongly, or times had changed.
Moments later another voice spoke. ‘Hullo?’
‘O’Connor?’ I said. ‘It’s me. Is that job still going?’