Inspector McHugh

Three excerpts from my spoof crime novel about an artistic serial killer with a grudge against old Music Hall entertainers. I never finished it but it kept me sane-ish for a while.

Excerpt 1:

The body sat propped up on a chair. Its arms had been arranged around an old banjo-ukelele. The dead man’s mouth was open and behind his rictus grin McHugh could see that the teeth had been struck from the inside, so that they protruded outwards. “Odd,” he said quietly.

“Of course it’s bl**dy odd!”

Ah, the pathologist has arrived thought McHugh to himself. Red-haired and rather red-faced, she had obviously not appreciated being called half way through her gym workout. Dr Wiggins was a fierce, argumentative woman. Some of her police colleagues muttered that the reason she’d gone into pathology was because the dead were the only ones who didn’t annoy her.

“Can’t you see, isn’t it bl**dy obvious”, she stopped and looked at them all in disbelief, “He’s been arranged to look like George bl**dy Formby!”

Except 2:

Just as McHugh was wondering if Wiggins would ever finish ranting the surly expression vanished abruptly from her face. God, not the Super, he groaned inwardly. Separately they were “challenging” – to use a term much beloved by the Superintendent. Together they were McHugh’s personal nightmare. Golfing partners, members of the same Rotary Club and, so it was rumoured, of another rather more interesting club too, they were like two peas in the pod.

“Good morning, Stella.” No-one but Hunter ever addressed the Professor by her forename, at least not at work.

“David, lovely to see you,” she smiled back. “I was just explaining my ideas about this case to your colleague, DI McHugh.”

“We’re always pleased to hear your ideas, Stella. Isn’t that right, DI McHugh?”

McHugh smiled politely. It was as much as he could manage in the circumstances. It seemed to satisfy Superintendent Hunter, if not Professor Wiggins herself. She gave McHugh a look which said that she knew full well he was not at all pleased to hear her ideas. McHugh met her gaze blankly. He waited for the conversation to turn as it always did to golf and then made his excuses.

He had a murderer to catch and he needed to do it soon.

It wouldn’t be long before Evans stuck again.

Excerpt 3:

“Good morning, DI McHugh!” Professor Wiggins’ voice sang out across the morgue. She advanced towards him, sporting a dazzling smile.

And I do mean ‘dazzling’ thought McHugh to himself as one of her assistants tripped over a gurney, apparently ‘blinded by the light’. “A good morning to you too, Professor,” he answered. “Am I right in thinking you’ve been to see the dentist recently?”

“I can see why you ended up a detective.” She never passed up an opportunity to be sarcastic. “They’re rather good, aren’t they, the crowns I mean. Top of the range.” Would they be anything else? “I did consider the stainless steel option – more hygienic for the work I do – but I thought the result might be a little off-putting. For colleagues”, she added as though there was a chance he might think she meant her ‘clientele’.

At that moment Hunter arrived. “Good Lord, Stella!” he exclaimed. “As if you weren’t beautiful enough already.” He was so enraptured it took him a while to notice McHugh was standing next to her. The atmosphere immediately became awkward, which wasn’t surprising given the events of the evening before. It was McHugh who eventually broke the silence.

“How is the wife, sir? She seemed a bit unwell at the Chief Constable’s party.”

Hunter flushed slightly.

“Dolores has always been rather delicate. I’m afraid she was rather under the weather.”

Which is why she ended up under the table. McHugh smiled. “Still, she has a grand voice, sir. I think the Chief Constable himself remarked upon it.”

The flush deepened.

Professor Wiggins had begun to grow restless next to them. Her smile and with it her new crowns had disappeared as soon as the Superintendent’s wife was mentioned. “Shall we get down to some work,” she said petulantly. “I really don’t have all day you know.”

Dedicated to my dear friends D, M and “Evans” who inspired three of the characters. Although let me assure you: D’s real life wife is no lush and there is nothing wrong with M’s teeth.

And, as far as I know, “Evans” isn’t a serial killer.

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Friends are always dropping keys

This poem was just sent to me by a friend. Thank God for friends!

Dropping Keys

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
She
Sees.
Instead, the sage,
Who needs to duck her head,
When the moon is low,
Can be found dropping keys, all night long
For the beautiful,
Rowdy,
Prisoners.

It’s by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315–1390).

Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.

Beautiful voices (or how i fell in love with extension 1147)

I have spent the last couple of days lying in bed and on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Yes, i have been ill. It has however allowed me to finally finish off the Doctor Who box set i blogged about last month. As i noted in that post the real highlight for me has been the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. Tom Baker, in particular, still has that marvellous voice, which to me has changed very little since he played the Doctor. In fact often i found myself imagining that he still was the Doctor, or still looked as though he was the Doctor, which with Tom Baker is almost the same thing.

And that got me onto thinking about how important voices are. We often talk about human beings as being influenced by how other human beings look, but how they sound can also be critical. I remember seeing a rock star i was crazy about interviewed for the first time on television. He had quite a craggy face and i’d always assumed his voice would be of a piece. When he opened his mouth and began to speak in a high-pitched whine… well, i was devastated. My feelings for him were never the same again. I suppose it must have been similar for those filmgoers in the early years of cinema when silent movies gave way to talkies. They would all have had their cherished notions about how their favourite stars spoke. Many, maybe most of them would have been disappointed.

Of course it works the other way too. In my early days with my current employer i used to liaise with a certain London hospital over medical data. My counterpart there had a voice to die for: soft, breathy, dreamy. How i used to love to ring her to query possible duplicates or investigate possible errors. I prayed for duplicates and errors. I also prayed that no-one ever noticed me almost fainting with pleasure as she read back dates of birth or spelt out surnames – ah, the magic of it all! When a colleague did notice however he thought my besottedness was hilarious. Apparently the ethereal princess as the other end of the phone was an extremely plain lady in her 50s. Even now i can’t quite believe it.

In fact, as long as i never meet her i never will believe it, because she will always be her voice. Likewise, the Swedish airline secretary with the most deliriously sensual tones who i rang up one day during a brief stint with a telemarketing firm. Extension 1147 i call her. I never found out her actual name.

If i did meet either of them their visual image would take precedence of course. A bad auditory impression can break the spell of a beautiful visual image, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Not in my experience. And that saddens me, not least because, as i noted earlier about Tom Baker, people’s voices tend to last far longer than their looks; but also because the voice is much more a product of the personality, much less an accident of genetics.

Mind you, i’m damned either way as neither by sight nor sound am i handsome. But can you imagine an audio-only world…?

My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.