Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941)
“Are you a detective, Mr. Terhune? If you will forgive my saying so, you do not look like one.”
Theodore Terhune, bookseller in the tranquil Kent village of Bray-in-the-Marsh, interrupts the attempted robbery of Helena Armstrong, secretary-companion to Lady Kylstone. Someone was trying to steal the key to the Kylstone burial vault, which will shortly be open to the public for the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. When the key goes missing, Terhune is certain there must be something in the barren vault the thieves are after, but why bother when it will shortly be accessible to all? A series of mysterious encounters leads the curious Terhune from one clue to another, and eventually to the secret past of two families.
A 1941 crime classic republished for the first time.
Available February 2021
By Bruce Graeme (pseudonym of Graham Montague Jeffries)
Introduction by J F Norris, vintage crime historian
First published in 1941 by Hutchinson & Co Ltd
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THE FIRST CLUE
Helena Armstrong peered through a damp, clinging blanket of fog, trying in vain to discover whether she was on the right hand side of the road or on the left, or whether, indeed, she was even
on the road to Willingham, and not in the middle of a bordering field—the car had just bumped over something which might have been a shallow ditch. At that moment, Helena’s world was a very sane, ordinary world, just the identical kind of a world it had been for the past two hundred and ninety-six days, and was likely to be for the next sixty-nine. But suddenly Helena’s world ceased to be sane and ordinary, for phantasmal shapes materialized from out of the wreathing bank of fog; she saw them silhouetted against the white background formed by the glare of her headlights; and they were vaguely and unreasonably menacing. She counted them—three, four, five—five nightmarish figures in shapeless mackintoshes, and soft hats crushed well down on their foreheads. She saw one of these mackintoshed, soft-hatted shadows flash an electric torch at the registration plate; she heard a grating, unpleasant voice call out: “It’s the Armstrong girl all right, boys; go to it.” Then her world became a world of clutching hands, hot breath—a world of evil and terror.
“Help! Help!” she screamed piercingly. One of the clutching hands was clamped over her mouth, stifling her cries; the hand was rough and calloused, and it hurt her because it squeezed her lower lip against the sharp edge of her teeth; she tasted blood, then swiftly realized that the harsh hand must have been in recent contact with raw onions.
“Damn you!” a voice said viciously; a strangely soft, liquid voice. She thought that she must be nigh to fainting, for her head swam, and the menacing face made visible by the dashboard light began to revolve in fantastic gyrations.
Resolutely she took a grip upon herself and mastered her hysteria in time to witness the continuation of the drama. A bicycle shot into the circle of light; it clanged against the rear mudguard as its rider jumped off. A voice demanded: “What is happening?”
Helena sobbed; the gagging hand could not prevent that bubbling gasp of disappointment. If only the newcomer had been a policeman, or at least a man with muscular limbs and burly shoulders. But no! She could just see, sideways through the corner of one eye, a slight figure in loose-fitting tweeds, a meek, ordinary face, horn-rimmed spectacles.
The soft, liquid voice spoke again—Helena realized that it belonged to the owner of the oniony hands. “Deal with him, Bert.”
Helena saw one of the shadows move towards the tweed-suited man; she wanted to scream a warning because, with illogical disregard of her own plight, she felt desperately sorry for the poor rabbit; he could not stand a chance of defending himself, and would suffer on her account! But the oniony hand was there to prevent any warning, and she saw a mackintoshed arm lifted in the air and come down again with a vicious swipe in the direction of the rabbit’s head. True, the rabbit moved his head with surprising swiftness, but even so the girl in the car heard a thud of flesh against flesh—or perhaps something harder than flesh against flesh. She heard the rabbit gasp, and her heart echoed the dismal sound, even though her mouth could not do so.
Probably the man with the torch flashed the light directly at the rabbit’s face, for it was suddenly and very clearly illuminated, just as though a limelight were being played upon it. Helena saw
quite distinctly the expression of reproach which flashed across the rabbit’s eyes—she was unable to decide whether it was a young face—and again she thought: “Oh dear! Why did I scream?” Then she saw the face become strangely angry, and suddenly things began to happen.
Precisely what happened was something which Helena was never able to describe with any accuracy. In the first place, Oniony Hands obstructed her view, for he still stood by the side of the car with his arm thrust through the window, clasping her in such a manner that she could neither move nor make a noise; the only way she could see what was happening was by peering over his shoulder out of the corner of her right eye. Then again, the characters in the drama seemed to move in and out of the enveloping shadows like wooden puppets, suspended by strings from above. Nothing was distinct; first the flailing arms had no bodies, then the bodies lacked arms and legs; it was not even possible to see whether there were two, three or four shadows taking part in the mêlée—she thought four must be the maximum number, for Oniony Hands took no part, nor did another man, who had opened the near-side door and was rummaging about the car.
Nor were her ears of much assistance; she heard thuds, bangs, groans, and other extraordinary noises, but the episode remained in her memory as formless and terrifying an adventure as any genuine nightmare. The last act of the melodrama was far more real: the arrival of another bicycle, and another person, this time in the longed-for blue, a real burly shouldered individual.
“What’s going on here?” he asked unoriginally.
“The cops!” somebody shouted—it was not Soft Voice, “Beat it!”
The five vicious shadows dissolved into the blanket of fog; Helena was left with her blue-uniformed rescuer and her rabbit.
But Rabbit lay on the road, motionless.