From the acclaimed author of the Charles Lenox series of mysteries, including the Agatha-nominated novelA Beautiful Blue Death, comes a riveting short story of death and detection on the East End.
It's the end of winter 1865 when Lenox agrees to investigate the death of Phil Jigg, a beloved neighborhood regular, found strangled on Great St. Andrews Street. In a case that takes him through the noisy vendors and pickpockets, the rough-and-tumble back alleys and local pubs of the Seven Dials, Lenox looks for answers in a place that couldn't feel more foreign from his West End home--and where his presence is anything but welcome. The answer comes in the person of someone so ruthless and brutal that those who could help Lenox are terrified into silence.
A whodunit filled with the kind of brooding atmosphere that led Library Journal to remark, "Readers of Anne Perry should be snatching up Finch's books and clamoring for more" (starred review of A Stranger in Mayfair), this is a delightfully vivid addition to the Charles Lenox series.
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November 15, 2011
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Excerpt from An East End Murder by Charles Finch
AN EAST END MURDER (Begin Reading)
"Poor chap, Lenox murmured, walking up toward the scene of the crime. The still body sprawled along the cobblestones below him was cast over with the jaundice of evening lamplight. "You don't know what his name was, do you?"
"Phil Jigg, according to one woman. I asked something like eight people about him."
"Did she say anything else?"
The young bobby shook his head. "That was all, and she rushed off right quick."
"It looks like strangulation." Lenox pointed out the ring of deep scarlet around the man's neck. "His head is at that slightly unnatural angle, too. Was there anything in his pockets?"
"Probably, Mr. Lenox, but of course the beggars and the boys would have given it the thrice-over and taken anything worthwhile. I only arrived here half an hour ago. Nothing was left."
"Nothing at all?"
"Not even the buttons of his waistcoat."
Lenox looked down and saw the man's bare feet. "How about where he lived?"
"I wouldn't guess Pall Mall, begging your pardon, sir."
Lenox looked around the street, a long, deathly quiet one that by day would gradually become a carnival of pickpockets, jugglers, badger baiters, ball-and-cup shills, prostitutes, and street urchins who could turn a magic trick or do a few flips between the hansom cabs. It was famous, Great St. Andrew's Street, though not one of the British Empire's prouder adornments.
"I'll look the matter over," said Lenox, a soft sigh behind his words. "If you're sure you can't find the time."
The young policeman nodded dolefully. "If Inspector Exeter knew I was even here I'd be in trouble. Peacekeeping, he often says, not crime solving."
"I've seen exceptions to that rule," Lenox said dryly.
The bobby didn't respond, except to say, "Will you be needing a look at the body, then?"
"Could you keep it in the morgue for a day or two, just in case?"
"Very well. Thanks for calling me out, Jameson."
Lenox walked back to his carriage, took a brief glance around, stepped inside, and told the driver to go to Regent Square. The driver, Lenox knew, was only too glad to trade Great St. Andrew's for the square, and a six-hour-old corpse for the companionship of the other drivers who would be waiting outside at the Duke of Marchmain's dinner party.
Looking out of the window as the carriage bumped along, Lenox cast back his mind. It must have been 1862 that he had his last case here, a murder then, too. So it had been three years. The place doesn't look different at all, he thought, and gave a quiet sigh of despair. Only his closest friends could have seen the glint of interest in his eye, and known the excitement he felt that he was working once again.
The next morning was sunny and bright, a first intimation that spring was close. It had been a remorselessly cold and windswept April, and the first few days of May little better. As Lenox wandered through the churchyard of St. Giles in the Fields he undid a button on his overcoat, then another. It was a ten-minute walk from there, past Two Brewers Yard and Monmouth Street, down Great White Lion's, that brought him to the Seven Dials, the small circle at the heart of this rather poor area. Extending out from the circle were seven thin streets crowded with noisy vendors and high, shabby buildings full of underfed children and overworked mothers. One of the seven was Great St. Andrew's, and Lenox turned down it with a wary check of his billfold. The pickpockets worked toward the middle of the day, when the streets were thick with slumming gentleman and foreigners who didn't know better, but it was always best to be safe.
He knew one woman on Great St. Andrew's, Martha Morris. She had a hot corn stand in front of the rag-and-bone shop twenty doors or so down the street. It was her husband who had been murdered three years before, though she hadn't been sorry to see him go. Abraham Morris had been a drinker and a gambler, the kind who hit his wife and took the money she had made, and it was only reluctantly that Martha cooperated with the detective. When he solved the case (a well-connected man named James Dewey had killed Morris when he threatened to expose Dewey's habit of going to prostitutes), she hadn't even been moderately glad, in fact not even all that interested. Still, in the end they had reached a position of mutual respect, if a grudging one on her side.
So Lenox sought her out first. Sure enough, there she was at her stand, selling the buttered ears of corn for fourpence each. Lenox asked for one and paid before she recognized him. As he took his first bite (and it was good, smoky and salty, the kind of food they would never have let him have as a boy), she looked at him through narrowed eyes and said, "Don't I know you?"
"You do, Mrs. Morris," he said. "Charles Lenox."
She looked him in the eyes. "Are you bearing any news for me, Mr. Lenox?"
"Oh no," he said. "Nothing like that." He waved a reassuring hand.
"Do you always get greeted as if you were the Grim Reaper?" she asked, expertly rolling the corn with a pair of blackened tongs.
"More often than I'd like, I'm afraid. No, in fact I was coming to ask you for a favor. I was wondering if you knew a man named Philip Jigg." He consulted his notepad. "That's right, Philip Jigg."
The guarded look her face had worn when she recognized him returned. "I expected that there'd be a price for your 'elp, if you can call it that," she said. "Big gentleman like you coming down among us."
Lenox was stung. "No, I don't expect you to say anything you don't want to. Or anything at all, for that matter. I only came here because I know you."
She wasn't mollified. "I knew Philly Jigg, all right. But I don't want trouble, so I'll be asking you to go on your way. And 'ere's your fourpence. No charity needed 'ere, I'll tell you."
"I won't take that fourpence, because I enjoyed the corn." He tossed the cob into a barrel by the stand. "But I will move on, if that's what you like."
"I reckon it is," she said.
"Was he a bad man?" Lenox asked, almost as an afterthought. "Was he like your husband?"
"Gentler than that, bless his soul." She said it almost involuntarily.
"Could you at least point out someone who knew him well?" Lenox said, trying hard to keep his voice nonchalant.
"The Plug brothers p'raps. Down by the arena. That's all I reckon I'll say."
"Thank you, Mrs. Morris."
She waved her tongs urgently, and he walked briskly away, aware that to be seen talking to him was a kind of danger, that in the Dials the unusual was always a kind of danger. There was no need to ask where the arena was--Lenox remembered vividly Abraham Morris's body slumped against the wall in the alley behind it. It was a place where a sixpence bought a quart of ale and a show of ratting or bear-baiting, famous in Parliament as the example reform-minded MPs would always draw on as a sign of London's moral degradation. As Lenox approached he could see the thicket of performers, beggars, and street urchins trying to make a penny or two. Many of them would use those pennies in the arena, in fact, betting and drinking.
"Plug brothers?" he asked a boy of six or seven, handing over two halfpenny coins.
Lenox walked to the storefront the lad had pointed out. It had grimy windows filled with rather garish suits of clothing and a more staid rack of hats. Red stencil lettering above the door read PLUG BROTHERS, and a signboard out on the sidewalk advertised all sorts of products, ranging from the banal ("hats") to the bizarre ("ratty pockets"). Lenox went in and found two identical men, each about forty-five, each with trim black hair, and each with an enormous stomach and about nine chins. These, evidently, were the Plugs, and in Lenox's opinion were the last word on what a Mr. Plug ought to look like. Both of them stood up when he came in, though the effort left them panting slightly as they spoke.
"Hello, sir," said one of them. "Timothy Plug. This is my brother, Thomas."
"How do you do," Lenox said.
"Can we help you today, sir? In the market for anything particular?"
"What are ratty pockets, if I might inquire?"
Thomas Plug frowned. "A gentleman square-rigged like you, I should say, could go without them."
"Respectably dressed, sir."
"But what are they? Just curiosity, you know."
Timothy Plug took this one. "Pants with extra large pockets running along the sides, for rat catchers to fill with feed, net, water bottle, in short, the entire apparatus of the rat catcher."
Thomas Plug nodded to indicate that he thought this a satisfactory answer.
Lenox took the least offensive item in his purview off of the shelf--a pink lace handkerchief that looked to be about eight feet across--and paid half a shilling for it. As the Plugs went about wrapping it, no small job, Lenox asked a question. "I say, I wonder whether you two knew Phil Jigg?"
Both brothers froze. "Who might be asking?" one of them inquired after a moment.
"Charles Lenox. I'm looking into his death."
Thomas Plug went nervously to the door and looked at the street. "You understand," he said, looking back over his shoulder at Lenox, "that we don't know who killed him. It could have been anybody."
"Of course," Lenox said. There was always the danger that someone powerful, one of the minor monarchs of the Dials, had wanted Phil Jigg dead.
"But," Plug went on, "Jiggs was our friend, you know. We'd like to see some justice done."
"All too rare around here," Timothy chipped in.
Lenox nodded. "Can you tell me anything about him?"
Thomas sighed. "He was a nice chap. Never afraid to stand a pint at the pub, but not a drunk or a boaster. Generous, I mean. Bought his clothes here to support us."
"What did he do?"
"Ah--now he had ratty pockets. He was a rat catcher, wasn't he. About four times a month the arena has a dog-and-rat show, and Jiggs always used to supply about half the rats. He would wander all over the Dials until he had caught about eighty or ninety of the little fellers."
Timothy added, "And in between shows, if he ran a bit shy he was a pea-and-thimble man, like."
"You know, Mr. Lenox, sir, the fellow with three cups and a pea."
Timothy's pink face quivered. "Poor Jiggs, I'll say that much."
"Do you know anybody who didn't like him, if I may ask?"
"No, 'course not. I'm dashed if he wasn't one of the most popular chappies in these parts, Mr. Lenox."
"Who were his other friends, Mr. Plug?"
Both brothers thought for a moment. "We were the closest to him," Thomas said at last. "Some of the lads at the Queen's Arms knew him but weren't friends, like."
"Where did he live?"
"Ah--a sad story there, you know," said Thomas. Timothy nodded. "A right sad story, Mr. Lenox. Three weeks ago a slang cove--a showman, you know, one of these fellows outside the arena offering magic tricks and the like--well, one of these fellows stuck a knife to Jiggs's throat and made him turn over a whole week's rat-catching money. Disappeared after that, I can tell you. Jiggs near died of it. Then, next go-round, believe it or don't, it happened again! A fine wirer, though, no knife involved."
"Only the best of the pickpockets receive that precise appellation," Timothy said knowledgeably, shaking his great pink head up and down.
"What happened to Phil Jigg, then?"
"He was run out of his house. Had to go stay around back of the church. Not a bad deal, though they force you to listen to them sermons, you know."
"Rev Tilton's, it's called St. Martin's. Only a few hundred paces in that direction."
Thomas Plug said thoughtfully, "The lads there might know better than we what his habits have been."
Lenox nodded. "No idea, then, what happened to him? Enemies, I mean to say, or perhaps somebody whose turf Phil Jigg trespassed on?"
"Phil paid up promptly out of the pea-and-thimble money, I can tell you that," said Timothy. "And he was valuable to them at the arena. No, I reckon it was something else. Can't say what, though."
A short while later Lenox went back out into the street, which was much busier now. He had asked a few more questions, none of which yielded much. Jigg was from the county of Norfolk originally; orphaned early, without knowing whether his parents were alive or dead; raised in an orphanage; didn't have a wife, a child, or indeed any family of any sort; no, not at all the type to gamble or go into debt; no, never involved in anything criminal. Still, the Plugs had been helpful. Lenox had learned enough to begin looking more deeply into the case.
It was about eleven, and Lenox thought his next step might be to visit St. Martin's, where Phil Jigg had been staying since he was kicked out of his residence. Perhaps the other habituals there could give him fresher information. He stopped on the way and peered inside the arena, though there was nothing to see and he was rewarded only with a hundred different invitations to play a card game, a hundred different forms of begging. One of them caught his eye in particular, a little girl of ten or so with what appeared to be an awful wound on her leg. Though Lenox knew it was only a piece of meat strapped there, in some way that almost made him sadder. He gave the girl some coins and moved off down the street, thinking he would do an awful lot more good in Parliament than out here searching futilely for facts about a man who seemed almost eerily anonymous even to his closest friends.
St. Martin's was nicer than the neighborhood it served, a wide, airy, whitewashed church surrounded by dim, narrow buildings. It had a spartan altar and a modest sort of organ in the rear of the nave, as well as some rather pretty scenes from the life of Christ in stained glass. Behind it, according to the Plug brothers, was the long room that transient men either paid threepence or did chores to sleep in, with a large central fire that ran day and night, summer and winter, and cots along its walls. And behind that were the St. Martin's orphans.
The Reverend Tilton was a tall, thin man with a shock of white hair. He met Lenox in a small but immaculate office behind a door by the chapel. A page (perhaps one of the orphans) had taken Lenox's card in.
"Phil Jigg?" he said without preliminaries.
"That's right," said Lenox. "Did you know him well?"
"I only made Mr. Jigg's acquaintance when he first began to frequent our refectory here."
"How long ago was that?"
"I first saw him perhaps ten weeks ago, and then more regularly for the past month."
"Not before that?"
"He did not attend our services here, no, Mr. Lenox. I have time for little else than the work of the church."
"Of course, Reverend Tilton, I understand. If I may ask another question--what was Mr. Jigg like?"
"To me he had only just become one of the thirty or so regular inhabitants of the church, so I couldn't say specifically, Mr. Lenox. I know that he didn't fall into any sort of trouble while he was staying here, and I know that he was what's called a ratter, but beyond that not much."
"Did he pay or work for his bed?"
"Both at different times. His means were variable, like many people of this neighborhood."
"He never had any trouble with the other inmates?"
"Not at all, no. I make a point of finding out who has."
"Did you ever have any conversation with Mr. Jigg?"
"Not really, no. He mentioned that he was an orphan, too, lost his parents when he was two to a fire, and complimented our work here."
"With the orphanage?"
"Yes. London's a sight more difficult than Norwich, but we get by. Food, clothes, shelter. The three priorities in my life. In the boys' lives."
"That was all you and Mr. Jigg talked about?" Lenox asked.
"We may have traded a word or two about his chores for the day, and I certainly might have quoted a passage or two from the scriptures to him."
None of it was very promising, and neither was Lenox's conversation with the men staying in the long room behind the church, many of whom were doing chores. Only one man, John Mason, said anything interesting, and that was that he knew Philip Jigg to be a troublemaker.
"I'm surprised to hear that," Lenox said. "From what I've heard he seems to have been a man who kept his own counsel, Mr. Mason."
"You'd'a been surprised."
"Can you give me any example of what you mean?"
"Chap didn't know 'is business, and chaps like that don't come to no good," was all Mason could offer, even when Lenox prodded him for more.
Lenox left St. Martin's puzzled. The next step, he thought as he walked back toward the circle at the heart of the Seven Dials, was to talk to the other ratters and the men in the arena. After a bite of lunch, perhaps. Coming up to the circle he saw an inoffensive-looking pub called the John o'Groats. It was just by Martha Morris, who studiously ignored Lenox's glance as she turned her corn. Lenox turned into the pub with a sigh--always grim to lose another source, to alienate another acquaintance. It would only be worth it if he could find the murderer.
At the pub, Lenox sat by a dim transom near the fire, which was roaring despite the improved weather. He ordered half a pint of mild and a slice of steak-and-kidney pie from a young woman of perhaps fifteen, then looked over the notes he had taken from the Plug brothers as he waited for his food. Just as it came, though, Lenox saw a young boy and a man come into the pub, the boy point him out, and a few small coins change hands. The boy scampered out of the pub, and apprehension rose in the detective's chest as he saw that the man coming toward him was John Mason.
"Ain't a bobby, is you?" he asked.
"No, I'm not. Can I help you?"
Mason sneered. "Maybe. Though' I'd just repeat myself--a chap what don't know 'is business don't come to much good." As he said it he pulled his hand outward from his pocket, and with a flash of panic Lenox saw the dull black sheen of a pistol in the man's hand.
"All right," Lenox managed to mutter.
Mason stormed off, and Lenox pushed away the steaming pie, suddenly finding that the clich� was true: He didn't have an appetite any longer.