Authors: Frederic Lindsay
He said, ‘I don’t want any of my characters to be cardboard.’ Worried that was too abrupt, he went on at once, ‘In a crime story, the reader has to care about the victims. Sure, you can begin with a bang, start with a body, but sooner or later you have to care. Unless it’s just a puzzle, of course—’
‘And yours are certainly more than that.’ Alex Dickson was an interviewer who took books seriously. He was a man who made you feel better about yourself, Curle thought.
Relaxing, he continued, ‘It isn’t hard to get a good beginning. Middles are the hard bit. And the ending has to be right. It’s the ending that sums up the book, puts it all into some kind of perspective, leaves a good or bad taste in the mouth.’
‘Jack’s Friend. That’s how the killer signs his notes to the detective. He’s referring to Jack the Ripper, isn’t that right?’ Dickson, an interviewer who read the books he talked about, nodded encouragingly to indicate he knew the answer but that it would be a good idea to share it with their listeners.
Barclay Curle nodded, then remembered it was radio. ‘Yes, he’s referring to Jack the Ripper, of course. As far as crime goes, there’s only one Jack that matters. Jack the
Ripper is the prototype of what later, after the fad in the States for profiling and the invention of Hannibal Lecter, came to be known as the serial killer. In Victorian London he killed, what was it, half a dozen prostitutes?’
‘Your murderer has beaten that score. By my count, he’s disposed of fourteen women.’
‘As many as that? To be fair, it is over three books. In Russia, didn’t they catch someone who had killed hundreds? Fiction can’t keep up with reality nowadays. Never mind, Jack was the first serial killer. Same way, come to think of it, that Sherlock Holmes was the first consulting detective.’ Leaving aside, it occurred to him, Poe’s Dupin; never mind, push on. ‘Both of them looming out of a London fog, one of those pea-soupers they used to have.’
‘This murderer of yours, though,’ Dickson said with the air of a man getting back to the point. ‘He survived your first two books about him. And you haven’t killed him off in this one either – or identified him or had him packed off to jail. Does that mean we can expect another book about Jack’s Friend?’
‘It’s always nice to have the option,’ Curle said. ‘Anyway, it would have been wasteful to finish him off.’
‘A good villain is worth keeping.’
‘Don’t you mean a bad villain?’
Curle laughed. ‘As bad as they come.’ He settled back in the seat and then eased forward again in case that put him too far from the microphone. ‘Writing about him late at night when the house is quiet, I’ve got up from the desk and gone around checking the doors are locked.’
‘Did you do that when you wrote the chapter in which he kills the traveller?’
‘Traveller? Oh, you mean the guy in the next seat who
irritates him by being drunk on the plane.’
‘Drunk on the plane. Drunk when he gets off it with his new friend Jack. Drunk in the restaurant in Manhattan. In the taxi. In the hotel room. All the way through, in fact, until the moment before his death. It’s funny and horrible. There’s so much feeling there. Do drunks irritate you like that?’
‘I don’t kill them.’ He waited for Dickson’s chuckle then said, ‘I’ve known a lot of people who drank. I’ve even been drunk myself.’ That was all he needed to say. What made him go on? ‘I wouldn’t say my father was a drunk, but I came home a few times to find him sitting in front of the microwave waiting for the news to come on.’
Did he need another laugh? Whatever possessed him? It wasn’t true, but what humour would there have been in the real reason for the microwave incident? For the last ten years of his life my father had Alzheimer’s; and he wasn’t in his own house, it was in the kitchen of the Home where he was waited on hand and foot – they wouldn’t have let him boil a kettle even if he’d remembered how – paid for by me and my sister, or rather her husband who was generous that way. He could picture the face of the carer who had told them about the old man and the microwave, and the way she’d laughed, showing a wide strip of gum. Too much information. If she ever heard this broadcast, his sister would be offended, but chances were she wouldn’t; they didn’t get Radio Clyde in Sussex. If she ever did, he’d tell her: haven’t you heard? Drunks are funny, drunks are characters, nobody wants to think about old men with their brains addled, or at least I don’t. I’m a crime novelist not a peddler of self-pitying slop – I’ll leave that to others, plenty of them about, try any bookshop.
‘Is there anything of your father in the traveller who gets murdered?’ Dickson wondered.
‘What? No. Why do you ask that?’ The question made no sense to him for a moment. Recovering himself, he saw the connection. ‘You mean because he’s drunk?’
‘Oh, it’s more than that,’ the interviewer said. ‘Only five pages, but you feel you know the man. And you care when he is killed. It comes as a shock. You feel as if it is a man being killed, not a cardboard figure. That’s why I wondered if some of that emotion you create might have come, even subconsciously, from memories of your father.’
How the hell did I get into this? Curle wondered. ‘I doubt it,’ he said.
‘Looking at the other side of the equation, your killer, Jack’s Friend, seems very real. Is it hard getting into the mind of a killer?’
‘Anyone might kill, I think, if the circumstances were right. Call it war, provide a uniform and a clergyman to say bless you, my son, and you can mass produce human killing machines.’
‘Oh, no,’ Dickson said. ‘That’s too—’
‘Not the same. Not what we’re talking about. These serial killers provide their own context, they don’t need wars.’
Curle, who enjoyed an argument, leaned forward. ‘It’s interesting, though. The American military was shocked after the second world war that so few of their soldiers had actually wanted to kill the enemy. They brought in psychologists and set up programmes to get the numbers up. I believe now it’s eighty or ninety per cent, something like that. Young men and women primed to kill. Makes you proud of science.’ At Dickson’s frown, added on impulse, ‘Leaving that aside, in private life I do think almost all of us would be capable of killing. I was bullied at school, bullied
by one boy in particular. He made my life a misery. I still think of him sometimes. I don’t know what would happen if I met him again.’
‘You mean you might kill him?’ Dickson wondered with a sceptical shake of the head.
‘Or roll over again just the way I did all those years ago,’ Curle heard himself saying. He admitted, ‘That’s what worries me.’
Dickson studied him for a moment then said, ‘Let’s get back to the book.’
Ten minutes later they were finished. Walking him back out to the parking area in front of the studio, Dickson laughed and said, ‘Would you believe I’ve had writers on the show who managed to get the title of their new book into every answer?’
‘Don’t tell me,’ Curle said. ‘I’ve been told I’m a lousy salesman. It drives my agent up the wall.’
Curle fingered the card in his pocket. It had come in the morning post and he could still feel the sickness in his stomach at his first sight of the signature. He needed to talk out that odd feeling, but before he could draw the card from his pocket, Jonathan Murray asked, ‘I take it you got the title in a few times? And what about Doug Kirk? How many times did you manage to mention him?’
Barclay Curle turned his wineglass uneasily. ‘I’m sure his name came up,’ he said.
‘Came up? Came up?’ Murray repeated, pink cheeks flushing with scorn. ‘He’s just your bloody detective. Put it another way, he’s your bloody bread and butter.’
‘And not much more than a corner of a slice from your loaf, Jonah, with a dab of margarine on it.’
Murray, Johnny to friends, Jonah to people he’d gone to school with, frowned but in the same instant put a small plump hand over his lips to hide a smirk of pleasure. ‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers.’
Catching the gesture, Curle felt an impulse of affection for the plump little man seated across the lunch table. They had first met more than thirty years ago when Murray had arrived in midterm as a boarder to the school in which Curle was engaged in spending the unhappiest days of his life. Too late to become a friend, since Curle was already
isolated in his solitary ghetto as Brian Todd’s victim, the plump newcomer had at least remained neutral and even made stray offerings of sympathy. Given the schoolboy need not to be picked out from the herd, it had been as much as Curle could have expected. Even then, he had never been in doubt about the goodness of Jonah Murray’s heart. A conviction he’d seen no reason to change since they’d renewed their acquaintance after Murray’s return from London ten years previously to set up his own literary agency in Edinburgh.
By that time, Curle had published two novels. The first had done well enough for him to give up working in the library; the second, in which he’d attempted to break new ground, had been a disappointment. When the third one came out three years later, it did even less well and the fourth two years after that had been refused by his then publisher and afterwards by five others. ‘And they keep the book for months and you have to chase them up even to get a no,’ he’d complained to Murray. With most people pride had kept him silent about the dreariness of that process, but the casual meeting with someone he’d known at school, at a party to which he’d been almost too depressed to turn up, had opened the floodgates. ‘I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day. When you start, it never occurs to you it could end this way. I’m going to have to look for a job.’ Murray had offered to read the manuscript. Collected it on the Monday and rung the next day to say, ‘I’ll get it published for you. But you’ll have to rewrite it. There’s a crime novel in there, heavily disguised at the moment. Why should the old man’s death be suicide? If the work he’s done for this secret group was so shameful, there would be people who couldn’t take the risk of him getting a bad conscience. Suppose he’s confided his doubts
to the wrong person, an old colleague say. Simple as that, we’d have a murder and be getting somewhere. And you can’t get away with vague secret groups any more; go the whole hog, and let it be MI5. And you need a villain; a good public-school type never goes wrong. And this nephew Doug Kirk who stumbles over the body and sets out to find out why his uncle committed suicide – forget about him being a librarian. Make him a policeman; amateur sleuths are out of fashion. Call him a detective inspector and I’ll get a series for you.’ And so he had, in the process adding Curle to his client list.
‘And you know the next question,’ Jonah Murray said, lovingly deconstructing the tower of meat and vegetables in the middle of his plate, ‘Have you started the new book?’
‘Early days yet,’ Curle muttered.
‘You’re a lazy bastard. That was the trouble with the first books – too long between them. Crime is a book a year game.’
‘Five out in five years,’ Curle said. ‘When you told me it would have to be one a year, I wasn’t at all sure I could do it.’
‘You looking for sympathy? Next book would make six Doug Kirks and that will finish the second contract. If you don’t want another one, you only have to say.’
‘Doug,’ Curle said moodily. ‘Why do all fictional policemen have names like Bob, Jim, Jack?’
‘They do in Edinburgh. Monosyllabic names to go with their personalities. Dour buggers. I’d like to break new ground. Why shouldn’t I have a Church of Scotland minister as my sleuth?’
‘Because you’re an atheist?’
‘Agnostic,’ Curle said.
By the time they had finished arguing the contrasting prospects of an updated Father Brown as against a reheated version of Philip Marlowe, the meal was over. They had got up from the table before Curle thought again of the card that had troubled him. As they walked through the restaurant, he took it from his pocket, but as he did a flurry of movement at the corner of his eye turned into a man starting up in his path.
‘What a coincidence,’ the man said, catching him by the arm as he went to step aside. He felt the muscle of his arm tighten under the man’s grip as if in protest.
‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’
Reddy-brown hair, plump cheeks, smooth shaven, the neck thickening and fleshy under the chin, a man who had eaten a lot of good meals in places like this. Three other men at the table, his lunch companions, were looking up in curiosity. And Jonah, belatedly realising, broke stride and turned to see what was going on.
‘Forget it. Stupid of me.’ As he spoke, the man released his grip, but said something else as he sat back down with his companions. It might have been, ‘Another time,’ but Curle was already moving away and couldn’t be sure.
‘What was that about?’ Jonah asked.
‘I’m not sure… He seemed to think he knew me.’
‘Too much wine with the meal.’
It was only as they parted company that Curle remembered the card in his pocket, but he didn’t feel like calling his friend back specially to show it. That might have seemed to give it too much importance. Drawn to his attention like that, the little man might even find it funny. Best to let it go. He didn’t want to seem overly concerned.