Thirteen crime writers were gathered together in a hotel in a small country town. Outside, the wind howled across the mellow rooftops and the wind lashed at the mullioned windows of the ancient coaching inn. Inside, a bright fire was burning in the lounge.
Seven of the novelists, all of whom had just attended an international crime-writers’ symposium, were British. Among them was Jonas Flay, only slowly recovering from a breakdown following spending three years writing a book of such devilish complexity that, by the time he got to the last chapter, he was so confused that he couldn’t remember who the murderer was. Also present was Selina Rosencratz, the celebrated creator of Lucy Parker, the five-year-old autistic savant musical prodigy sleuth. Jo Lacemaker was also there, fresh from receiving a garland of awards for A Question of Self-identity featuring perhaps the world’s first transgender detective. The more traditional form of the genre was represented by Samuel Fforbes-Taylor, whose traditional country-house mysteries had, in the words of one critic, ‘done more than anything else to make me want to cancel my membership of the National Trust.’ Rufus Raft, Jessie Pankhurst and Tariq Sem are surely well-enough known to require no introduction.
None of these were, of course, their real names.
France had a solitary attendee, the etiolated, taciturn Marcel LeFebvre, a leading proponent of the neo-reductivist school, whose novels were described as ‘small miracles of Gallic nihilism’. Many of those present doubted that his novels qualified as detective fiction at all as they contained no murders and no policemen and sometimes no characters or dialogue. Presenting a contrast both in literary style and physical appearance was the jovial and corpulent Saxon, Otto Weimar. His novels were long, rumbustious affairs in which the victims, and usually the murderers as well, were invariably senior ecclesiastics. From the USA came the well-known Josh Lashman. His stories featured his hardboiled Marlowe-esque PI Jake Holding attempting to solve complex cyber-crimes and terrorist outrages, so creating a collision of styles which was akin, according to the Wyoming Star, ‘to listening to a polar bear trying to play the Moonlight Sonata on a mouth organ.’
The other three writers were from Scandinavia, that present-day hot-bed of fictional crime. Jonas Trapp, creator of the deaf sleuth Smilla Tolsvaag, was celebrating having just had his latest novel, Come Again, translated into Basque. Ebba Clink was the youngest writer present and her first novel, of which great things were expected, was due to be published in 240-character instalments on Twitter in the summer. Finally, who can be unaware of Alix Luftholm whose latest opus had featured a serial killer whose victims included the entire population of three villages, a feat which the Upsala Nya Tidning described as being ‘an act of wholesale slaughter unmatched in the annals of popular fiction.’
These, then were the writers gathered together in the Three Horseshoes in Wantbury that fateful night. The symposium was over and the blood-thirsty pensmiths were now refreshing themselves liberally at the bar. Intoxication can pass for conviviality in a bad light: however, on this occasion it would have been obvious to any careful observer that all was not well.
The main problem, which affected each writer equally in respect of all the others, was a condition of simmering jealousy. There were now almost as many awards for crime fiction as there were crime novels published, sponsored by organisations as diverse as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, Dignitas, Bristol Rovers FC and the World Bank. For each winner in the room there were twelve others who begrudged them their success. As most were recipients of several awards and as it’s a fact that it the prizes we don’t win are the ones we most covert, the atmosphere was simmering with brooding unease.
All the objections were predicated on the idea that the award had been made to X either because of gimmicks in the plot or characterisation which should, in themselves, have disqualified the book from any consideration based on merit; or because bribery, intimidation, nepotism or blackmail had been employed. None of the alliances that formed around each accusation was permanent, for each writer was also party to, or the subject of, separate but overlapping groupings with a different author as its target. Only Ebba Clink, who had yet won no awards, was exempt from this and her opinions were not sought. It was, however, widely accepted that anyone who issued a first-time novel on Twitter was guilty of gimmickry of the first order. This was despite the fact that two of those present had published a novel on Facebook, one on Instagram and one on the dark web.
The strained atmosphere in the hotel and the dark storm which raged outside it seemed the perfect and traditional setting for some heinous deed. With thirteen celebrated crime writers in residence it seemed impossible that this opportunity would be passed up.
By midnight, the last of the murder merchants had staggered upstairs to their various beds. Downstairs the tables were cleared and the lights were dimmed. The Night Manager, wearying of these overheard tales of slaughter and deception, settled down in his alcove with a large pot of tea and a copy of The Wind in the Willows. Outside, the rain was easing but still the wind howled, as strident and as menacing as the emotions which for the last two hours had been raging in the bar.
The call to the Police station came in at 2.11am. Within fifteen minutes Inspector Jack Crabtree had parked his 1963 E-Type outside the hotel and he and Sgt Paul Hastey were knocking on the door. Tom Gold, the ashen-faced Manager, ushered them inside.
“So, sir,” Crabtree said when the badges had been flashed, “what seems to be the trouble?”
Gold swallowed once or twice. “There’s a room we use for private functions,” he began. “We call it the Library, because…because…”
“Because it used to be a library?” Hastey suggested.
“No, no. We just thought it was a good name. It hasn’t got any books in it. That’s just what it’s called.”
“Yes, yes,” said Crabtree impatiently. “And?”
“As part of my normal rounds, I went in there about half an hour ago. And I found…I found…” He seemed incapable of continuing.
“For Christ’s sake,” the Inspector said under his breath. “You found what, exactly?”
“I found that there was no body in there.”
There was a shocked silence. “Who’s staying here tonight?” Crabtree asked. “You have 13 rooms, is that right?”
“Yes. And we have 13 crime writers in the hotel.”
“Jesus,” Crabtree said. He foresaw numerous problems with the investigation. Each writer would have already written the interview, or one like it, a dozen times and so be always a step ahead of him. “All of which makes it pretty bloody surprising that there should be no body, eh Hastey?”
The Sergeant looked about him slightly wildly but said nothing.
“All the guests still in bed?”
“So far as I know. Mind you, 13 crime writers, a country hotel, two in the morning – they could be anywhere.”
“Let’s have a look at the Library.” Gold led them across the hall and through a door with ‘The Library’ on it. Crabtree nodded. So far, matters could not be clearer.
Gold turned on the light. The room had a large table, capable of seating a dozen or so people. The walls were decorated with hunting prints. Against one wall was a sideboard. On the opposite wall was a large window. Crabtree spent several minutes examining the room.
“These look like bloodstains,” he said at last, pointing to the carpet.
“We have a local rugby club in once a month,” Gold said, “most recently, the day before yesterday. That sort of thing happens quite often.”
“Looks like a heavy object has been dragged across the floor, here.”
“Again, that would be the rugby club.”
Crabtree nodded, seemingly satisfied. He turned to Hastey with a dry grin. “This is a real snorter and no mistake. Well,” he added to Gold, “we’d better get the guests down.”
Ten minutes later, twelve writers were assembled in the main lounge. A lot of the bounce had gone out of them. Several were cross and yawning but all traces of tiredness vanished when Crabtree explained the sensational reason for their having been awakened.
The most immediate reaction was one of outrage. This confused Crabtree until he realised that it was collective embarrassment. The very idea of a dead body in the library (even though there was, technically, no library and there was no dead body) was feeble in the extreme. It was monstrous – and possible actionable, Selina Rosencratz muttered – that they, the cream of their profession, the thrusting vanguard of the Neo-noir, should be associated with it, even negatively.
This was followed by a general movement towards the Library but Hastey barred the way. In querulous tones, each explained how their peculiar expertise and knowledge was vital to solving the crime. It was so simple; so obvious; why, a child could see through it. Several claimed that they had already solved it in half a dozen different ways. LeFebvre said that it was incapable of solution as it was clearly a philosophical and not a criminal issue. Lashman was trying to persuade Tom Gold to sell him a bottle of Scotch. The Scandinavians were talking excitedly in Swedish. Crabtree closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“There are only twelve of you here,” he said. “Where is the thirteenth?”
They all looked round. “Ebba Clink,” Jessie Pankhurst drawled. “She’s not here.”
The writers all forgot about the Library and at once fell to a wholesale denunciation of the missing crime-tyro. At last, here was something on which they could all agree. Crabtree could make little sense of what was being said beyond the fact that she had done or was about to do something truly awful. Twitter was involved but he couldn’t work out how. He looked at his watch: just gone 3am. He had been here for barely thirty minutes and already felt unequal to the demands of the investigation. He thought longingly of the company of the supple Latvian twins in Thatchford from whose embraces the Chief Inspector’s phone call had torn him an hour before.
He was about to appeal for silence and attempt to discover what everyone was talking about when there was a far more dramatic development. The back door, which led to the courtyard, opened. Everyone fell silent. There, in the doorway, stood the elfin figure of Ebba Clink, dressed only in a yellow nightdress.
“What is going on?” she asked.
Everybody started to explain at once.
Ebba Clink’s tinkling laugh cut through the hubbub and eventually silenced it. “But that is so simple to explain,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs. I remembered that there was a room marked ‘Library’ and so thought I might find a book. Instead I found a man slumped across the table, dead. He had been stabbed in the neck…with a stiletto.” All of the writers let out a groan.
“I know,” Ebba said, “so crude, so…clichéd. I mean, we have a reputation to protect, no?” She looked round the room, a faint glint of malice in her eyes. “I know we may not have agreed on everything tonight but this device, this…clumsy incident, would be a disaster for us all, would it not?” They all nodded, none more so than Fforbes-Taylor who had always ensured that his country-house victims were murdered anywhere other than in the library, believing that this helped his plots appear fresh and original.
Crabtree breathed a sigh of relief. At last there was some light in the darkness. “So – what happened to the body, Miss Clink?”
“What do you think?” she asked, her eyebrows raised. “I dragged it out and dumped it in the river.” She pointed at the stone floor: un-noticed until now, there were several tell-tale spots of blood leading from the Library to the doorway at which she had recently made her dramatic reappearance. “There was some blood on my dressing gown as well but I burnt that in the incinerator.”
Crabtree swung round to Tom Gold. “Is that true?” he asked crisply.
“Oh, yes,” the Manager said. “We always have a small incinerator ready whenever we have crime writers staying, just in case.”
The Inspector nodded approvingly. “The river’s flowing quite fast at the moment, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Tom Gold said.
“And the county line is about four miles downstream, where my jurisdiction ends.” He thought for a moment. “There are no weirs or obstructions, are there?”
“No,” Gold assured him. “The river’s quite clear. The last time, at the Pen of Death convention, the body was out of Brockshire within ten minutes.”
“Well,” Crabtree said after a long pause, “that seems to be that. I’d like to congratulate Miss Clink on her prompt action. It seems to me,” he went on, glancing round the room, “that all you have a good deal to thank her for, newcomer to your circle though she is.” No one disagreed. “A convention of cutting-edge, innovative, original crime-writers,” he continued slowly, injecting into each word as much sarcasm as he thought it could bear, “and a body is discovered, stabbed with a stiletto, in a library!” Why, you’d have been the laughing stock of your profession.” He paused to allow this to sink in. In every face, the Frenchman’s most of all, he read the same horror at the thought that they might suddenly have been made to look conventional and staid. The scandal – for scandal it would have been – would have demonstrated a collective failure of creativity on a truly colossal scale. As it was…
“As it is,” he concluded, “you’re off the hook, as am I. The body is Woldshire’s pigeon now.” He checked his watch, considering whether the Latvian twins would have waited for him: probably not, he reflected, as they were paid by the hour. “And so, as no crime has been committed that I have any evidence of or which you would choose to write about, I suggest a small celebration is in order. Mr Gold?”
“Fourteen pints of lager, please, and an orange juice for the Sergeant.”