Crime in Kensington
There is something amiss at the genteel Garden Hotel. New arrival Charles Venables overhears a threatening discussion between the proprietors. The prices are too low. The residents are jumpy. When the bedridden Mrs Budge disappears into thin air, it is clear that more than one inhabitant of the hotel has something to hide. A set of gruesome discoveries point to murder, and Charles must work with Detective Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard to prevent the killer from acting again.
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“How many times have I told you that we must appear to run this hotel as commercial proposition?”
Newly arrived in London, journalist Charles Venables has been invited by his friend Viola to stay – at least temporarily – at a residential hotel in Kensington. But there is something amiss at the genteel Garden Hotel. The prices are far too low. The residents are jittery and upset. On arrival, Charles overhears a threatening discussion between the proprietors Mr & Mrs Budge that suggests they are blackmailing some tenants. Is it Egyptian medical student Eppiloki who believes Charles is working undercover? Elderly Miss Geranium who receives messages from the prophet Ezekial? The fanatical Reverend Septimus Blood or the cat-loving Miss Mumby? When the bedridden Mrs Budge disappears into thin air, it is clear that more than one inhabitant of the hotel has something to hide. A set of gruesome discoveries point to murder, and Charles must work with Detective Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard to prevent the killer from acting again.
Crime in Kensington was originally published in 1933 by Christopher St John Sprigg. Although it was his first venture in detective fiction, Sprigg was already an experienced writer of short stories, and Crime in Kensington combined an intricate plot with an appealing sense of humour and ironic tone. ‘Viola had two passions in her life, her art and her bridge. Charles had hoped to be a third but he was beginning to abandon hope. He felt that while he might make her a satisfactory partner in life, he would certainly let her down at bridge.’ Over the course of a short life, Sprigg was breathtakingly prolific, writing seven detective novels, various technical books and dozens of short stories and book reviews. Conversion to Marxism encouraged him to write several theoretical works combining his interests in science, philosophy, politics, linguistics and poetry. He died in February 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.
This Golden Age crime classic contains a new introduction by Moonstone Press.
The Passing Tramp Blog on Christopher St John Sprigg
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Some Sinister Encounters
Charles Venables was walking slowly through the westerly and more unfashionable purlieus of Kensington. His subsequent adventures, remarkable though they were, are not in any way put forward as extenuating this action.
As he strolled along the stucco vista of Tunbridge Gardens, he pulled out a letter from his pocket to verify the address of the place for which he was looking.
“The Garden Hotel,
“My dear Charles,—How terribly amusing! The idea of you as a gossip-writer—sorry, society journalist—is distinctly funny. However, I imagine you will do it rather well, and you were certainly wasting your talents in the exclusively rural pursuits of Tankards. Now that you are coming to live in London you must definitely stay at this place for a time, until you can look round and find digs of your own. For one thing, you will amuse me—commercial art is perfectly utter at the moment—and for another, it is comfortable (good plain food, you know) and amazingly cheap. There is something rather weird about the place that I cannot quite make out yet, but nothing to complain of—rather intriguing, in fact. Such odd people. Anyway, I am expecting you directly you get to London.
Venables fished up his monocle from the end of its lanyard and through it scrutinized the letter again. Then he looked up. Like so many other residential hotels in Kensington, the Garden Hotel was an uninspiring arrangement of stucco, tiled doorsteps, aspidistras, revolving doors, verandahs and hall porter.
“It looks neither odd nor comfortable,” reflected Venables, negotiating the steps, the hall porter, the doors and the aspidistras.
He asked for the manager. Viola characteristically had mentioned no names. “The manager” was a proprietress, Mrs Budge. Venables was conducted into a secluded suite at the top of the building by an alert maid. She left him in the sitting-room, knocked on another door and went through. Scraps of conversation floated back to Venables.
“Someone to see you about living here, a Mr Venables. Friend of Lady Viola.”
“I’m too busy,” snapped a woman’s voice. “Tell him to go away.” “Don’t be a fool, Louisa,” said a man’s voice. “A residential hotel doesn’t turn away guests because the proprietress is too busy.
Ask Mr Venables to wait, Brown, and say Mrs Budge will not be a moment.”
Brown appeared again, gave the message more politely, and went out. Venables was somewhat intrigued by the Garden Hotel’s attitude to visitors. He had an intelligent curiosity, and its gratification was not interrupted by scruples against listening at doors and looking at other people’s letters lying round. He ambled towards the door and earnestly studied a Japanese print hanging near it. Meanwhile he listened carefully. He could hear the words of a conversation between Mrs Budge and the man distinctly.
“How many times have I told you that we must appear to run this hotel as a commercial proposition?” said the man emphatically. “All right; all right,” replied Mrs Budge. “Anyone would think
it was your idea the way you carry on.”
The remark appeared to infuriate the man. His voice was lowered, but the tone was sufficiently menacing. “Your idea! What’s the good of the idea without the brains to carry it out, tell me that. I’m the brains behind this concern, and don’t you forget it. My God, if you do, and try to do me down, I’ll slit your throat from ear to ear.” Venables had never heard a threat given with more sincerity.
The same aspect seemed to strike Mrs Budge, for her reply was the reply of a frightened woman.
“Now then, Georgie, I’ve never denied it, have I? I’ve always said you have been wonderful over the whole scheme.”
“Well, as I told you before, Louisa, that’s not enough. I’m not sufficiently covered, as things are at present, and that’s a fact. You’ve put it off and put it off too long. This evening you must write to your lawyers and see that I’m properly taken care of in case you die, and it’s no good your saying you’re a fine healthy woman. We are all mortal, and one day you may push things too far and get a clout over the head from one of your guests which will finish you.”
“Don’t say that, Georgie,” whined Mrs Budge. “You know I never push things too far with any of them. Small profits, quick returns has always been our motto. They’re all cowards, anyway. But I’ll see the lawyers look after you all right, and I’ve never refused to sign any cheque you asked me, have I?”
Venables felt that the conversation was coming to an end, and that it might cause mutual embarrassment if he were found in the suite. He slipped out of the sitting-room and took up his stand in the corridor, hat and stick in hand and with the air of a man who had waited on his feet for a long, long time.
His anticipation had been correct. In a few moments Mrs Budge came out, followed by her interlocutor. “Presumably Mr Budge,” thought Charles.
He found it rather difficult to believe that the couple he now saw were really responsible for the conversation he had just heard. Mrs Budge was petite, genial, and dressed in a severe but modern dress with perhaps a surplusage of black beads. A certain insouciance in make-up betrayed the proprietress rather than the manageress. About forty, thought Venables, after speaking to her for a few minutes, efficient, perfect manner. Now what on earth….?
Mr Budge looked strikingly incapable of slitting anyone ’s throat. Dressed in shiny black, with a wandering grey moustache and grave eyes, he looked somewhat like a Nonconformist lay reader. He glanced keenly at Venables and walked away.
Beneath the normal manner of a proprietress answering the inquiries of a would-be resident, Venables detected a searching scrutiny which was not the less keen for being veiled. He responded to it almost automatically, with a slight emphasis of his stutter and sufficient monocle-play to produce the required impression of vacuity. Mrs Budge saw a reasonably good-looking young man of about twenty-nine, with a colourless expression, and clothes, if anything, a little too well cut. Shoes and hair highly polished; natty hand- kerchief in breast pocket; spotless gloves; a friend of Lady Viola Merritt. Apparently she was satisfied, for Venables felt the scrutiny turned off like a tap.
They were looking round a suite, well furnished with plain, unpolished wood, no pictures, and an air of distinction foreign to a Kensington residential hotel.
“I’m a sneak-guest,” prattled Venables. “No relation to a sneak-thief, so you need not worry about the spoons. I put the bits in the Daily Mercury saying how charming Lady Blossom looked, who is, of course, the daughter of the Earl of Loamshire. A harmless profession, if somewhat monotonous.”
Mrs Budge appeared satisfied, and they discussed terms. Venables was frankly surprised. The Garden Hotel was a comfortable-looking place, and the staff, furnishing, and probably the food was good. The price was much too low. Decidedly the oddest thing about the place.
Charles was going down to dinner when he met on the stairs a queer little foreigner, obviously Oriental. He was comparatively young, but a battered glass eye and a small moustache asymmetrically mounted on a thick upper lip contrived to give him a sinister expression. He leered at Charles with what the latter rightly assumed to be a cordial look, but which was somewhat more sinister than his normal expression. Then suddenly he gave a start of recognition. He placed one finger against his nose and winked his good eye.
“So our little hostess’s game is up,” he said, evidently feeling that Charles would appreciate the purport of his remark.
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” apologized the other, effusively, his throaty accent still more pronounced. (Egyptian, thought Charles.) “Not supposed to know, eh? Well, well. You can rely on my not giving you away, what?”
“Do I understand you know me,” said Charles, edging away a little apprehensively.
“Your name—no! Your face, yes!” the man replied. “Still you wish to pull wool over our eyes, well, what?” He exploded in a cryptic sequence of explanatory gestures.
“You seem to be labouring under some mistake,” Charles answered kindly but firmly. “I’m afraid I don’t know you—”
“Of course not, ha ha, what?” the Oriental remarked. Charles came to the conclusion that the frequently repeated “what?” was merely rhetorical. “I hope very much you not know me, but I know you.”
“Well then, you have the advantage of me,” answered Charles, “with which words our heroine walked away, leaving Jasper biting his lips, speechless.”
“What?” the Egyptian said, and though this time Charles Venables opined that the “what?” was meant interrogatively, he did not answer him. He slipped past the fellow and hurried downstairs. “This is really too awful,” Charles remarked to himself. “When one hears a bloke threaten to kill his wife and then immediately afterwards meets a sinister and mysterious Oriental, it is time to move somewhere else, for one has obviously walked into the plot of a thriller of the vulgarest and most exciting description.”
“Well, Charles,” said Viola, as they sat in the lounge in the evening. “What do you think of this place?”
“Fishy, my girl, fishy,” replied Charles. “I arrived in time to prevent Budge murdering his wife.”
“Good God, Charles, no!” said Viola, startled. “Are you serious? What on earth was happening? Tell me from the beginning.” “You forget I am a journalist now. A small copper coin will
purchase to-morrow’s Mercury, when you can learn the worst.” “Don’t be irritating, Charles. Did anything exciting happen?
I don’t suppose it did. There is something queer about this place, all the same. Look at Mrs Salterton-Deeley, over by the door.”
Charles looked. Her hair was of the dyed-in-the-wool flaming red colour, at the sight of which Charles instinctively crossed his fingers. Her eye looked as if it should rove, but it was not roving now.
“She ’s been crying,” said Viola with finality. “I ran into her once before when she was actually weeping. Somewhat awkward. Each time it has happened after an interview with Mrs Budge when she has been quite cheerful before.”
“Well, what’s extraordinary about that? I have staggered out of hotel managers’ offices absolutely broken up. There have been times when cashiers’ refusals to cash my cheques have been phrased in language so abrupt and insolent that I have only refrained with an effort from a burst of unmanly tears.”
“You will never get on in life unless you drop your deplorable habit of flippancy,” said Viola severely. “There are mysterious things about this place. Even if you think nothing of the Salterton-Deeley incident, look at the other guests. They are all absolutely gaga.”
Charles looked round with a certain amount of alarm. “Who is the gaunt lady, with the tightly rolled-back grey hair, and surrounded by cats?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s Miss Mumby. She’s terribly rich, but she spends all her money on séances and cats. I went into her sitting-room once and the whole place was absolutely covered with cats’ hairs, and there was some form of cat on every piece of furniture! How the Budges stand for it, I don’t know!”
“And who is the lady with the moustache and the mountainous contours?”
“That’s Miss Hectoring,” answered Viola. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard her utter more than two words since I’ve been here. She’s really a sort of guardian companion to Miss Geranium, who wasn’t at dinner.”
Tall, stout, and with the glittering black eye and dominant nose of the Highland female, Miss Hectoring stared at the other occupants of the lounge, daring them to invade the privacy which, like a banner, she flaunted in their faces. “A worthless, gangling pack,” her expression seemed to say. Women with the same disdain for their company, but with more sensitive skins, would have kept out of the most public of the hotel’s common rooms. But that, evidently, was not Miss Hectoring’s way. She preferred to be in the midst of them, proof-armoured with contempt, and if she could not create respect, she could make a desert around her.
“Well, what do you think of our menagerie?” asked a clear voice. It was the voice of youth, but the owner, whose name Charles learned in the subsequent introduction, was Miss Sanctuary, looked over sixty, with the wrinkled skin but calm eyes of serene old age. She sat down beside them and produced some knitting from an enormous work-bag. As she bent over the flying needles, with her pure white hair neatly tucked into a bun at the back of her head, she looked like one of those old mothers who wait interminably in the twilight of Hollywood for errant sons and daughters. But Charles detected in her eye a gleam of kindly irony which told him that her attitude of mild benevolence was not altogether disingenuous, that she had that union of a kind heart with a sharp tongue which is not uncommon in the spinster of too certain years.
“What are you doing here, young man?” she went on. “You’re a friend of Lady Viola’s, I suppose?”
Charles acknowledged it.
“Well, take my advice,” she said, “take her away from here! It’s unhealthy living with this crowd of old derelicts. I see the humour of being one myself, and I get a certain amount of amusement out of watching people like Miss Mumby; but it’s quite wrong for Lady Viola. Take her away!”
“Alas, Miss Sanctuary, the modern girl cannot be fetched and carried in the good old Victorian way. I may say that I have offered Viola a good home and a husband, who, although poor and indifferent honest, had a good heart. That was in the rural glades of Tankards, and I was told by the object of my affections that she would wait till we were both earning our livings, and further, that she would be prepared to bet that she was earning her living before I was.” He paused. “She was right!”
“Shut up, Charles,” said Viola, the equivalent of the Victorian maiden’s blush.
Miss Sanctuary looked at her keenly. “Well, I should persevere,” she said to Charles.
“I think I shall stay here for a little, at any rate,” Charles remarked suddenly.
Viola followed his eyes. “That’s Mrs Walton who’s just come in,” she answered. “She is lovely, isn’t she?”
“Divine,” declared Charles emphatically. “She looks exactly like those shepherdesses and nymphs that Greuze paints. I never thought them possible before, and I certainly never expected to see one in modern clothes.”
“I wish someone would take her away, too,” sighed Miss Sanctuary. “She’s a widow, I believe, but I can’t imagine that she will remain one long unless she wants to. By the way, have you heard about Mrs Budge?”
“She’s ill in bed—with pleurisy, the doctor thinks. It was very sudden. She thought she had a bad cold this morning. Then she got a temperature, and now she’s completely laid out. I shall go and sit with her a little, I think, and leave you two. You probably want to talk.