BY MICHAEL JOLL
This excerpt is from “Death by his Own Hand,” the first story in the author’s newest collection called Persons of Interest. Copyright is held by the author.
THE POWERS that be in Kuala Lumpur sent me down to Singapore in the Straits Settlements during the monsoon season of 1924 to look into a suicide. I had only recently arrived in K.L. and at that time I was the most junior Inspector in the Colonial Police in Malaya. I was naturally as anxious as most young Inspectors are to make a name for myself as an outstanding investigator, hopefully destined for greatness and honours, and to reach the pinnacle of the profession.
I had yet to make my first arrest.
As the perpetrator is deceased, a suicide does not generally lead to an arrest, so I anticipated my arrest tally would not advance. An investigation such as this is generally regarded as straightforward, and so quite why they needed an investigator from K.L. to assist the local police I didn’t know. I had thought to ask, but four years on the London Metropolitan Police before arriving in Malaya had taught me it was prudent not to swim against the stream of thought held by those placed above me.
For a suicide, which is what the death of the Englishman, Charles Richardson, concert pianist and one-time temporary resident of Singapore, appeared to be, all one generally needs is a body (deceased), a time of death (approximate), a method used to end life (usually gained from a post mortem), and an absence of motive that might indicate foul play by a third party. A suicide note is often helpful.
I checked in with the Straits Settlement Police, headed at that time by a chief superintendent on the cusp of retirement and possessing the florid complexion and expanded waistline that suggested an absence of physical exercise beyond bending the right elbow. The whites of his eyes were of a jaundice yellow tint. I never discovered why his skin, where it was exposed to view, was sallow, and wondered whether it was from too many years in the Tropics or from a liver ailment. His balding head and the backs of his hands were covered with liver spots as one might expect in a man of his age. How he had risen to his present position remained a mystery. He was known throughout the local Force, however, as a master of the art of delegation.
After a cursory handshake and a curt nod, the chief superintendent fobbed me off on one of the junior inspectors. While waiting for the Inspector to tear himself away from whatever had seized and occupied his attention since my arrival, I happened to glance at the large, wood framed clock of the type favoured by railway stationmasters and which hung on the wall opposite his desk. I noted that it was a few minutes before lunchtime.
“Inspector Masters,” I said, shaking the hand of the inspector with whom I would work. “Kuala Lumpur,” I added in case further explanation were needed. Detective inspector Claude Ashton-Browne – A-B he said to call him as they had at school – was a tall, thin and languid young man. He possessed an expensive accent and affected a distracted air, as if everything was a bit of a bore and beneath his English gentleman’s dignity, investigations into dead bodies being at the top of the list. So much for a first impression, gained in a brief introduction in the Chief super’s office before the latter burst out on his way to his appointment.
“He’ll be back around three, I expect,” Ashton-Browne said. “A good mind gone to waste. It happens so often around here. He’s been on the job for thirty years. I’m told he was good at it once but now he’s just hanging in, waiting for his pension to kick in next year.”
I recognized the man mirrored in my own chief superintendent in Kuala Lumpur, a man of similar age and experience likewise treading water and hoping to keep afloat long enough to draw his pension. During my years as a policeman I have observed that the cream rarely rises to the top. Perhaps it’s because outstanding investigators are too valuable as policemen to have their ability wasted in the ranks of senior management.
“He can’t go home to retire, you know,” Ashton-Browne said.
I must have looked blank.
“He’s been out here too long.” He sighed, as if an explanation were needed for someone who had yet to finish primary school. “Not that he’s gone native or anything. But England passes you by. Five years, maximum, that’s all it takes to realize one no longer fits in when one goes back on one’s second home leave. By then it’s usually too late.”
I regarded him questioningly.
“I’ve done two years here,” he said. “Home leave next year. Don’t say anything, old boy, but I don’t expect to return. This,” he swept an arm around to indicate the police station, or Singapore, or perhaps the entire Colonial Service, “is just something to keep me amused until something more my line turns up. Or my father pops off and leaves the lot to me.”
In common with many of his type — upper class, public school educated, and moneyed — the art of the not-too-subtle put down came naturally. In contrast to Ashton-Browne, I finished my (free), day boys only, grammar school education at eighteen and was on my way to London University to read French and German when the Great War broke out. In a moment of not completely sober patriotism, I volunteered for the artillery. In addition to proficiency in French and German, uncommon among the mostly unilingual English, I was good at maths. My ability to calculate ranges for gun laying purposes was quickly noticed and, in most un-army like fashion, made use of. For once, the army hammered a roughly square peg into a mostly square hole.
By the armistice, the army had unexpectedly recognized my overlooked ability to speak German with reasonable fluency. They dragged me away from my no longer needed guns, bumped me up to lieutenant colonel (temporary/acting) in the (well-intentioned but badly misnamed) Intelligence Corps and instructed me to lead the interrogation of senior German prisoners-of-war. Two years and a salute later I was out the door, back in civilian clothes and in need of a job. With no rich father to fall back on and an intended career as a German teacher barred by an understandable general aversion to the German language and an overabundance of men with better credentials, a career with the London Metropolitan Police beckoned. I joined. Four years later I found myself in the Colonial Service as an Inspector in Malaya, which I found a generally more comfortable and far less onerous occupation than being a London Bobby.
Which brings me back to why I was in Singapore that summer — it being a time of year on the calendar that has nothing to do with the weather, which is unvarying in its temperature and stickiness, the only measurable difference being the amount of daily rainfall. As I still hadn’t a clue why I was needed here, I did the first thing that came to mind — I asked Ashton-Browne as soon as the chief super was out of earshot.
“I knew him,” Ashton-Browne said. “Richardson. The deceased. The chief super has a policy that we don’t investigate people we know personally except possibly for background. ‘Without fear or favour’ I think the expression is. Not that I think I have anything to fear from Richardson, and it’s too late to do him any favours now, or vice versa.”
“But why me?”
“Search me, old boy. All the others here are tied up on other stuff, I expect, so, tag, you’re it.”
“I see,” I said, none too clearly.
“The body’s at the morgue. Single gunshot to the head. Temple. Apparent suicide. Shouldn’t take too long to untangle the usual who, what, when, where, why and how of the matter, then back to K.L. As there’s no room here in the inn we’ve put you up in Raffles Hotel for a couple of nights.”
“The police accommodation,” he said with a sigh, as if talking to a halfwit was simply too much and beneath his pay grade. “There’s a chap lives in the hotel who also knew Richardson. English fellow. A writer of sorts. Greenwood’s his name. They say he’s quite good – good enough to earn a living at it anyway. Popular back home. You might want to talk to him and see what he has to offer by way of background.” He sighed again.
The effort of speaking that many sentences one after another seemed to exhaust Ashton-Browne.
“I’ve heard the name,” I said, “although I can’t say I’ve read any of his stuff.”
He shrugged. “Well, don’t burst a blood vessel over this. It’s pretty cut and dried, but all sudden deaths have to be investigated. Usually nothing to them, but you never know until you look and ask a couple of quick questions. Two days should do it. There’s a car and driver at your disposal while you’re here.” He glanced at the chief super’s clock. “Lunchtime. The bar’s open in the mess. The beer isn’t up to much, but it’s more reliable than the water and doesn’t need to be boiled first. And the Chinese curry’s not bad most days.”
I took that as an invitation to join him. It would have been impolite to insist on getting the investigation under way immediately, and boys educated at grammar schools mostly possessed manners, if not quite as polished as public school types.
I knew better than to broach the matter over lunch. “No shop talk in the mess,” had been the rule in the army and not a bad one all told, even if what was left to talk about always seemed to revolve around Labrador Retrievers, horses and cars, the last of which none of us had but which we all coveted. Women were off limits as a topic of conversation too, though I never did discover why, which probably explained why conversations in the mess were as boring as Ashton-Browne’s.
“The chief super lunches at his own club,” Ashton-Browne said. “He says the menu’s better and more varied. Translation — a longer wine and whisky list. Still, it means we don’t have to be on absolutely best behavior all the time.”
I kept my thought to myself. Somehow I couldn’t quite see A-B horsing around in the Inspectors’ mess after an evening of beer, debagging the most junior member and running his trousers up the flagpole. But I could be wrong.
Back in his office after lunch I asked him how he knew Richardson.
“Small world. We were at school together for five years, in the same House, the same dorm, everything. Most people need to be good at something, and he was always very good at the piano. I wasn’t surprised to hear he carried on with it after school. Then of course, the war.”
“He couldn’t get out of it. Conscripted. Spent a bit of a rough time in the infantry before he cracked up rather badly and got sent home before he could do anything silly. It looks as if things caught up with him in the end.”
“How do you mean?”
Ashton-Browne sighed, one of those long, painstaking ones with audible eye-rolling, reserved for boys consigned to the Remove form at school. “It stands to reason his lack of moral fibre caught up with him and he blew his brains out rather than face up to facts like a man.”
I thought that a rather cruel assessment of someone he knew from their schooldays. I had known and served with many who had suffered shell-shock. What reasonable, sane man wouldn’t after all they had had to endure in the war? At least in the artillery you don’t actually get to meet the enemy at bayonet point. Killing Germans with a long range shell was not personal, not like it was in the infantry.
“How did you get to meet him here?”
“Bumped into him quite by chance. He was playing at Raffles Hotel one evening and I was propping up the bar with a couple of chaps. I turned round when I heard the piano start and couldn’t believe my eyes. When he finished playing I went up to him. He recognized me straight away in spite of the years apart.”
“When was this?”
“A few months ago. Six, eight perhaps. I’m not quite sure. I don’t keep a diary.”
He sounded cross, as if I was questioning him as a key witness and should mind my own business.
By the time I reached Singapore I had been in Malaya a few months and was slowly adjusting to their style of police work. It’s different from being an English Bobby. In England there are the criminal classes: Saxons mostly. Then there are their victims, sometimes members of the same class as the villains, but more often considered a better breed of men and women; the Normans. In Malaya, where the rule of English law largely applied, with allowances for some native customs on a case-by-case basis, there were two distinct categories of individuals – those who committed crimes, and white men. White men, almost by definition, did not commit crimes of any sort, and it was important for the Colonial power to show the superiority of the white race as being above low criminality. It was equally important not to embarrass British Colonial Institutions, such as the Church and the Law Courts, by charging white men with the kind of atrocities normally only associated with the depravities of the natives.
All hogwash, of course, but in 1924 it was determined that in order to keep those parts of the world map shaded pink properly subjugated, peaceful, and its populace grateful to be citizens of the most gracious Empire ever to rule such a large part of the world, white men and women would enjoy a status well above that of native people. Any sins committed by white men, and the occasional white woman, were written off as errors of good judgement, minor peccadillos at worst, and easily forgivable. At the very worst a repeat offender might be persuaded to return home to England.
“I’d start at the morgue,” Ashton-Browne said, as if he wanted to be rid of me, which no doubt he did.
I took the hint.
The Medical Examiner, Dr. Morton, was there when I called on the morgue, all glaring bright lights and white tiled walls with a pervasive aroma of death, disinfectant and formaldehyde. A morgue attendant pulled open a refrigerated steel drawer with some fanfare and drew back the cover from Richardson’s face with a dramatic flourish.
“I will let you have a photographic copy of my report,” Dr. Morton, said. “I think you will find it succinct, but thorough.”
“Cause of death?”
He pointed to a small hole in Richardson’s left temple. “A single bullet wound angled slightly upward and at almost ninety degrees to the side of the skull. I recovered a lead bullet from the inside of the skull, lodged against the bone above the right temple. There was no exit wound. I examined and weighed the brain. It was of normal size and weight and showed no sign of cognitive deterioration or evidence of alcohol abuse.”
I examined the skull closely. I had seen many dead bodies over my years in the army. Too many. Some had been shot. Some blown to atoms by a shell or a mine. Some lay in bits and pieces, picked up and shoved unceremoniously into piles or laid out in rows to be buried later. Sometimes a body comprising parts from several different individuals was buried in the same hole and a name ascribed to it on a marker as temporary as the cemetery immediately behind the line. Richardson seemed like most of the bodies I’d viewed in Flanders – peacefully at rest, whether willingly in that state or not, his skin smooth as if the wrinkles caused by the pain of living had been wiped away by death. Someone had closed his eyes and pulled the skin back over his head where the top had been sawn off for the post mortem.
A trace of dried blood surrounded the bullet’s neat entry wound and the narrow circle of skin tissue immediately around it had turned a purple-blue from post mortem bruising. I noticed the pinkness of the tissue on the underside of the body caused by morbid lividity as the blood had pooled by gravity to the lowest level of the supine body.
I examined the hands. “Did you wash off powder burns or residue from his hand?” I said. “There doesn’t seem to be any.”
“No. We haven’t touched him other than to remove his clothing and to conduct the autopsy. As far as I know, he’s in the same condition as they found him.”
“When was he discovered?”
Dr. Morton checked his notes. “Eight days ago.”
“Were you able to determine a time of death?”
“Between one and three a.m. the same day. Someone heard a gunshot but the caller had no watch. I gather it took him a while to find a phone or a policeman to report it. You’ve seen the police report?”
I was embarrassed – I hadn’t. “It’s in my briefcase.” A small, face-saving subterfuge, but one I felt necessary if I wasn’t to appear a complete clot. “I just came from the police station. I was hoping to catch you in before you left for the day.”
“I leave at five,” he said coldly, implying that I’d had ample time to read the report before disturbing him and asking foolish questions.
“And before you ask, he was discovered by a native police officer doing his rounds at 3:18 a.m. It was raining, and had been raining hard for several hours before the body was discovered. Consequently, the hands and face were clean of powder residue and burns, as were the clothes.”
I searched in vain for a cave deep enough and black enough to crawl into. For something to do, and possibly to cover up my mortification, I examined the hands again. The fingers were long and bony and the palms soft. Slight calluses at the base of the fingers of his right hand and absent from his left suggested he had probably been right handed. His fingernails were cut short and showed no dirt on, or under them, which I did not find out of the ordinary for someone who made his living by playing the piano. I spread the fingers with some difficulty — not from rigor mortis which had long disappeared, but from being in a freezer drawer — and noted a wide span that would encompass an octave on a piano without difficulty. A bruise and a graze on his right wrist raised my interest and my eyebrows.
“Probably when he fell,” the pathologist said. “I doubt if he was sitting when he shot himself, particularly out of doors at one or two in the morning. A gentleman would shoot himself standing up, if he’s a gentleman.” I sensed a barrier just slammed down. Dr. Morton’s accent reeked of Public School, like Ashton-Browne’s. I sensed the doctor looked down on a mere Grammar School-educated copper questioning his findings, or his suppositions, but he had the grace not to express his distaste to we hoi poloi.
Something about the corpse bothered me. It was something one of my lecturers at the London Met police college had said on examining dead bodies, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. I examined Charles Richardson from head to toe, searching for some clue to suggest that, although death came from a single gunshot to the head, there was more to it than appeared on its face. It didn’t make sense that Richardson, being right handed, would shoot himself in the left temple. And I didn’t buy into the notion that the rain must have washed away any trace of powder burns from his hand or clothing.
I stood back and nodded to the attendant to close the drawer. I heard it slam shut, the noise echoing around the white-tile-walled morgue. “His clothing?” I said.
“At the police station, presumably in the evidence locker.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“Robbery does not seem to be a motive if it wasn’t suicide, which in my professional opinion after twenty-five years as a Medical Examiner, is what it was.” Dr. Morton enunciated each syllable clearly for the benefit of the hard of hearing and the borderline lunatic. “Suicide,” he repeated. “No question.”
“Any suicide note on him, or at his lodging?”
“It’s in the report.”
I sensed the meeting was effectively over. I thanked him for his time and expertise as sincerely as I could and beat a tactical retreat to the hospital car park where I found my driver nonchalantly smoking a cheroot while leaning against the Wolseley’s gleaming black coachwork and chatting with a young woman in a nurse’s uniform. He stiffened, then snapped to attention when I hove fully into view. The nurse disappeared without a word.
“The police station,” I said. “Then you’re done for the day.”
“Sir!” He cranked the motor and we were off, beating the afternoon thunderstorm and cloudburst to the police station by a few minutes. Looking to find the property of the late Charles Richardson, I checked with the native duty Constable on the front desk. He examined a ledger at considerable length. He must have sensed my impatience, or tacitly admitted he couldn’t read English because he turned the ledger upside down so I could read it. I pointed to an incident number. He grunted something at me in what I took to be Mandarin and went off to fetch an English-speaking sergeant.
“Bagged and tagged and in the evidence locker, Sir.” The sergeant took me to a locker in the secure exhibits room, unlocked the door and withdrew a cloth bag. I went straight to the outer clothing, such as it was; a lightweight tropical linen jacket, a cotton shirt and white duck trousers. The trousers revealed mud stains but nothing else of interest. I checked the cuffs of the long sleeved shirt.
“Yes, Sir.” The sergeant handed me a small bag containing a wallet, a watch, a signet ring and a pair of cufflinks.
One cufflink appeared slightly scuffed. I held it up to examine it in better light. I picked up the wallet. “Contents in the police report, I take it?” I said.
“Yes, Sir. Not much. A little money. A couple of business cards in the name of Charles Richardson. A letter from England, dated eight months ago and signed by his mother offering him his old room back if he wants to come home and the piano for as long as he wishes to stay.”
“His passport was in his jacket pocket. The photo is a good likeness. Inspector Ashton-Browne also confirmed his identification. Folded in two in the wallet was this ticket for the Orient Line passenger liner leaving Singapore for London, Tilbury docks, sailing six days ago.”
So, nothing I didn’t already know. Not robbery. Not an accident. A single gunshot to the temple. The gun not found, probably stolen by a local and which would have found its way into a gangster’s hands within hours. Like Ashton-Browne said, and Dr. Morton confirmed, a run-of-the-mill suicide for reasons not yet apparent.
I thanked the sergeant and picked up a copy of the police report from Aston-Browne’s deputy. I ascertained that A-B had left for the day and had not extended an invitation to drinks or dinner. I retrieved my valise and hailed a rickshaw to take me to Raffles Hotel where I intended to go through the police report with the proverbial fine tooth comb. Looking for what, however, I had no clue.