December, 1853. Having found fame as the inspiration behind Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens’ recent bestselling serialization, Bleak House, former Detective Inspector Charley Field has set himself up as a private enquiry agent – so far without success. Matters become personal however when the body of a local prostitute is found floating in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Having often enjoyed Rosa’s company, Charley is disinclined to believe the official verdict of suicide. Convinced Rosa was murdered, he determines to track down the mysterious client who visited her the day she died.
But when he finally encounters the man he believes responsible for her death, Charley discovers that there’s more to Rosa’s murder than even a veteran sleuth like himself could imagine.
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Before we begin, a word of warning.
A novel is like a police informant, or a witness at a crime scene. Even the best ones can't be trusted to tell the truth all the time. And the worst ones are wholly unreliable. This one, I think you'll find, falls somewhere in between.
I can say with some confidence that it comes nearer the truth than the so-called penny bloods. If you've read even a single installment of The Mysteries of London, for example, or The String of Pearls, you know how you come away feeling slightly soiled and more than slightly disturbed, convinced that every lodging house in the city harbors a fiend in human form who butchers a victim a week at the very least. Or perhaps a swarthy foreigner who snatches helpless women and children and delivers them to a fate worse than death.
But in fact killings and kidnappings are relatively rare these days. According to police records – and if we can't trust the police, who can we trust? – the city has seen a mere twenty murders in 1853, plus forty or so cases of manslaughter, and the year is nearly over.
Those sensational serials would also have you believe that around every corner lies a hell on earth whose residents are consumed not by everlasting fire but by ever-present filth. The tenements there teem with ragged urchins, folk dying in droves from typhus and cholera, others wasting away from consumption – consumption of gin, that is – and the lot of them engaged not in useful work but in all manner of vice and depravity.
Naturally a canvas the size of London can't possibly be painted with a single color, or a single brush. As the newspapers and members of Parliament declare at every opportunity, we live in the largest, most populous city in the world – in fact, the largest that has ever existed. Not that you can put much stock in either the papers or the Parliament, but even so.
It's no good denying, of course, that London has its share of squalor – perhaps more than its share. But it also boasts posh paradises such as the likes of Arlington Street, Park Lane, and Piccadilly, plus any number of neighborhoods that, though they may not be very models of morality and industry, are nevertheless quite respectable.
Mrs Bramble's introducing house is in such a neighborhood. Forgive me for not divulging the actual location; as I say, you can never expect the whole truth from a novel. I wouldn't like to advertise her address to the police commissioners or the magistrates; the coppers on the beat already know it, of course. Let's just say it lies (both geographically and economically) somewhere between Knightsbridge and Millbank, not far from Belgrave Square – but not too near, either.
I don't suppose that, strictly speaking, the establishment itself can be called respectable. Though a polished brass plaque next to the entrance reads Madame M'Alpine's Seminary for Young Ladies, there is no Madame M'Alpine – at least not here – and the place is nothing more nor less than a molly house. But it is a very well kept, very clean molly house. The same may be said of its occupants and, for the most part, its visitors. There's always the odd exception, of course, and we'll be meeting some of those later on.
Another exaggerated feature of those penny dreadfuls is the wooly fog that always seems to swathe the city, no matter what the season or time of day. In real life, there are days on end when a breeze from the river leaves the air almost as clear as in the country – especially summers, when no coal fires burn. And there are many nights when the gaslights don't flicker for want of oxygen but glow brightly, like lighthouses for weary workers and wandering wastrels alike, guiding them safely home.
This is not one of those nights. This is a swathed-in-fog night, a guttering-gaslight night, a night when no one is abroad without a compelling reason. The gonolphs and bug hunters are always on the prowl, of course, but tonight they will have very slim pickings.
From a lace-curtained window on the third floor of Mrs Bramble's introducing house, Charley Field surveys the street below, or what he can see of it, which isn't much. It's an old habit, this street-surveying of his, carried over from his early years as a police constable. Coppers are generally well regarded and respected these days, but it wasn't always the case. Back then, you never knew when a costermonger you'd chased off for obstructing traffic might heave half a brick through your window, nor could you tell where a cove on whom you'd been forced to use your truncheon might lie in wait, itching to return the favor.
Though his policing days are officially over, Charley knows there's no shortage of men out there, and a few women, who wouldn't mind caving his head in, now that it's not protected by a constable's reinforced chimney-pot hat. But it works both ways: The city is also full of old acquaintances that he wouldn't mind seeing put away for a while, or at least spooked so badly that they take their business elsewhere. In fact, just before his retirement – almost exactly a year ago – he compiled a list of the ones who got away, the ones he knows are guilty as sin but somehow managed to escape punishment.
Now that he's his own man, he intends to remedy that.
'Charley?' says a drowsy voice from the bed behind him. 'You ain't leavin' yet?'
He regards the curry-colored mist that presses against the window pane like a burglar looking for a way in and sighs at the prospect of going out into it. 'I don't want to overstay my welcome. You'll have other customers to see to – paying ones.'
Rosa props herself against the wrought-iron head of the bed, a sheet held modestly over her bountiful breasts. 'I don't get so many as I used to. And if I do, Mrs Bramble will let me know. Come lie with me a little longer, won't you?'
Charley turns from the window with a sly smile. 'I've never been able to refuse a lady's request.'
She laughs softly. 'I don't often get accused of bein' a lady, neither.' She pulls back the blankets for him. 'You might turn up the lamp just a bit, love. I like to look at you sometimes.' When he passes by the coal-gas sconce without adjusting it, she shrugs. 'Only maybe you don't like lookin' at me so much.' She doesn't sound offended or hurt, just matter-of fact, as though she's well aware that she's no beauty.
'You know that's not so,' says Charley. He slides in next to her and places a noisy kiss on her plump cheek. In truth, he delights in her well-rounded body, which turns so rosy during their lovemaking, as if she's living up to her name. It's his own well-rounded body he doesn't care to display. Though he still has the thickly muscled arms and shoulders and neck of a bare-knuckle boxer, his midsection, from years of indulging his taste for good food and drink, has taken on a distressingly overstuffed appearance, like one of his wife's old-fashioned armchairs.
And then there are the scars. Every so often, Rosa runs her fingers over them lightly, and asks how he came by this or that one. He doesn't mind recounting their stories – at least the ones in which he acquitted himself well – but he sees no reason to show them off, as if they're a source of pride. If he'd been a better bobby in those early years, one who relied more on persuasion and less on pugnacity, he wouldn't have so many scars.
Charley is sure he has more aches and pains, too, than most men of forty-eight. But again, it's his own fault. He was foolish enough to spend his youthful years pounding on other prizefighters and being pounded on in return, all for a chance at some paltry purse of a sovereign or two. It seemed like a good idea at the time; he didn't consider the price he'd be paying a couple of decades down the road. Well, you never do when you're twenty, do you?
His body is showing its age in other ways, too. He's finding lately that he can usually manage only one turn among the cabbages in his weekly hour or two with Rosa. It's not as if he feels cheated – not in terms of money, anyway. After all, he enjoys her favors for free. And it's not as if Rosa minds; she's said enough times how pleasant it is to share her bed with a man who is more like a companion than a client. It's just one more reminder that, contrary to what he thought at twenty, he's not immortal. Immoral, perhaps, but that's never bothered him much. He's less concerned about Morality than about Right and Wrong.
Rosa turns to him and casually wraps one soft leg around him, as though to keep him here a while longer. 'Charley?'
'Hmm?' He buries his face in her wine-colored hair – the one feature of hers that any man would concede is quite beautiful. It smells a bit like wine, too – a warm glass of negus, with plenty of sugar and spices.
'You never have said what you done to make Mrs Bramble so kindly disposed towards you. I ain't complainin', you understand. Havin' your company is better than any amount of money. I'm just curious, is all.'
'I know. And maybe someday I'll tell you. But for now, it's between her and me.'
She walks her fingers playfully across his chest, down his belly. 'Oh, now, can't you give me a little hint, even? Just a teeny, weeny hint?'
Charley feels his wilted arbor vitae coming to life, pressing against her leg. He laughs and shakes his head. 'You're incorrigible, you are.'
'I ain't certain what that means, but I'm sure it's a compliment.'
When he was a bare-knuckle boxer, Charley prided himself on always being able to go another round, no matter how battered and exhausted he was. A pale, ghostly version of that pride returns as he finds himself able to go a second round with Rosa – a far more pleasurable experience than being pummeled by some bruiser's brine-soaked fists. What's more, it keeps Rosa's curiosity in check – for the time being, anyway.
There's nothing really shameful in his past history with Mrs Bramble, and she's never specifically asked him to keep it a secret. But one of the first things Charley learned about policing was to be discreet, not to discuss a case with anyone who wasn't directly involved.
Back when he was a Bow Street Runner, he encountered a six-year-old in a pawnshop, attempting to fence no less than four elegant pocket watches. He should have run the boy in, but he looked so scrawny and pitiful that Charley didn't have the heart. His real mistake, though, was relating the incident to an amiable drinking companion over a pint of grog. As it turned out, the fellow was not so amiable after all. He was, in fact, a kidsman, and the boy with the watches was one of his gang of young thieves. Instead of handing over his take to the kidsman, the enterprising lad had decided to keep the profits himself. Charley learned the truth only when he came across the boy again that same night, curled up in a doorway, dying from internal injuries from the beating he'd received.
Mrs Bramble's story had a happier ending. She'd been accused of poisoning her husband, a landlord with half a dozen lodging houses that earned him a good deal of money. Charley, who by then was chief of the detective branch, sensed that the matter was not nearly as simple as it seemed, and began poking about.
Poking about was his favorite part of police work, because you never knew what you might turn up. In this case, he turned up the fact that Mrs Bramble's husband, who suffered from stomach distress, had lately resorted to a popular patent medicine, Dr Benjamin's Panacea. Charley visited the families of other recent poisoning victims and found that a good – or rather an unfortunate – two-thirds of them had bottles of Dr Benjamin's in the house. When the contents of the bottles were tested, they proved to contain a very unhealthy proportion of arsenic.
There was no Dr Benjamin, of course; the stuff was concocted in a factory. Charley got hired on there and, after only one day, collared the cove responsible for adding the arsenic – an employee who had asked for a raise and been refused.
Mrs Bramble gained her freedom, and Inspector Field gained a good friend and a valuable source of information. Though London may be the world's largest city, the underworld it harbors can seem incredibly small, especially to those who are trying to hide within its confines. The criminal class – the residuum, some call it – are in many ways a community unto themselves, not unlike one of your rural towns where everyone knows everyone else's business. Though Mrs Bramble occupies a place on the outskirts of that community, its rumors waft to her on the wind; she crosses paths with its natives and observes their comings and goings.
In his quarter-century of policing, Charley has built up an impressive collection of such friendly informants, most of whom owe their freedom to him, and sometimes their lives. It was a running joke among the New Police that Constable (then Sergeant, then Inspector) Field had far more acquittals than convictions to his credit. Charley didn't mind; to his way of thinking, bringing a man to justice doesn't necessarily mean locking him up. If those penny bloods are to be believed, criminals are a sort of separate species, driven by evil desires and motives unknown to ordinary men. But in Charley's experience, the vast majority of wrongdoers have one simple motive: to put food in their bellies. Where's the justice in punishing them for that?
Technically, prostitutes like Rosa are part of the criminal class, but of course they ply their trade for the same reason everyone else does: not because they are depraved, but in order to provide clothing and food and shelter for themselves – and, in Rosa's case, for her young daughter. Still, it can be a dangerous trade, and Charley would like to see her take up a safer one – even if it means he can no longer visit her.
As if preparing for that eventuality, he pries himself away from her warm embrace and retrieves his clothing from the wooden valet at the foot of the bed. Once he's donned his union suit, he turns up the gas a little. He glances at the small watercolor that hangs, unframed, next to the bed – a fairly accurate representation of a bottle of wine, two plums, and an apple. 'This is a new one, isn't it?'
'Aye. I did it only yesterday. D'you like it?'
'I do. Looks good enough to eat.' He gives her a lecherous glance. 'Much like yourself.'
She guffaws and throws a pillow at him. ''Tis what they call a still life, y'know. I seen them at the museum.'
Charley sits on the edge of the bed and takes her hand. 'You've got talent in those fingers, Rosa. You should make use of it.'
'Well, that's what I'm doing, with the paintin', ain't I?'
'Of course, but I meant use it to make money.'
She gives him a startled look. 'Like counterfeit banknotes, y'mean?'
'No, no,' says Charley, laughing. 'A photographer I know is looking for someone to hand-color portraits for his customers. I told him I'd ask you about it.' He doesn't bother to tell her that the photographer is, in fact, a reformed counterfeiter.
Rosa smiles ruefully and squeezes his hand. 'I appreciate you thinkin' of me, Charley, truly I do. But we've been through this afore. You know yourself I make more here in one night than I could make in a week at that sort of a job. I figure that, if I can stick with this for another two years, and don't lose too many clients, I'll have enough saved up to start my millinery shop.'
'But you worked in that line before, my dear, and couldn't make a living at it.'
'That's because the scrawny shrew as owned the shop paid us by the piece – half a bloody crown per hat. Do you know how long it takes to make a decent hat? And of course she turned around and charged the customer at least a guinea.'
Charley throws up his hands. 'All right, all right. I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just concerned about you, that's all.'
'I know y'are.' She flings the sheet aside and gives him a hug around the neck that fairly strangles him. 'Not to worry; I'm careful. I have a little girl to think about, after all. If aught happened to me, heaven knows what'd become of Audrey.'
Charley disentangles himself and pulls on his trousers. 'Well, I suppose Mrs Bramble won't let in anyone too unsavory. I know I wouldn't care to try and get past her if she didn't approve.'
Excerpted from "Bucket's List"
Copyright © 2017 Gary Blackwood.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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