Malice in wonderland, p.1

Malice in Wonderland, page 1

 

Malice in Wonderland


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Malice in Wonderland


  CONTENTS

  Cover

  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Nicholas Blake

  Title Page

  PART I: Mr. Perry Observes

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  PART II: Mr. Thistlethwaite Measures Up

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  PART III: Mr. Strangeways Takes Tea

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  More from Vintage Classic Crime

  Copyright

  About the Book

  Private detective Nigel Strangeways receives a call for help from Wonderland, a new holiday camp that has recently opened only to be plagued by a series of cruel practical jokes conducted by someone calling themselves ‘The Mad Hatter’.

  The camp’s owners are convinced a rival firm, desperate to put them out of business, is behind the events. Or could it be a disgruntled employee, or even one of the four hundred guests currently staying at the camp? As the pranks become increasingly dangerous and tensions rise, Nigel must do all he can to uncover the Mad Hatter’s true identity – before it’s too late.

  About the Author

  Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who was born in County Laois, Ireland, in 1904. After his mother died in 1906, he was brought up in London by his father, spending summer holidays with relatives in Wexford. He was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1927. Blake initially worked as a teacher to supplement his income from his poetry writing and he published his first Nigel Strangeways novel, A Question of Proof, in 1935. Blake went on to write a further nineteen crime novels, all but four of which featured Nigel Strangeways, as well as numerous poetry collections and translations.

  During the Second World War he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information, which he used as the basis for the Ministry of Morale in Minute for Murder, and after the war he joined the publishers Chatto & Windus as an editor and director. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968 and died in 1972 at the home of his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis.

  Also by Nicholas Blake

  A Question of Proof

  Thou Shell of Death

  There’s Trouble Brewing

  The Beast Must Die

  The Widow’s Cruise

  The Case of the Abominable Snowman

  The Smiler with the Knife

  Minute for Murder

  Head of a Traveller

  The Dreadful Hollow

  The Whisper in the Gloom

  End of Chapter

  The Worm of Death

  The Sad Variety

  The Morning After Death

  PART I

  Mr. Perry Observes

  I

  YOUNG MR. PERRY was going to camp. Not a Territorial camp, nor a Scout camp, nor yet a Concentration camp. No, a very different lay-out indeed; a camp which would have made any nomad tribesman rub his eyes in amazement and take to his heels; one, Mr. Perry hoped, that would provide lavish material for the note-books which weighed down the suitcase in the rack over his head.

  With mild approval young Mr. Perry eyed the factories that flashed past into the wake of the train. Factories were permissible, to be encouraged even. Temples of the Machine. Mr. Perry, who had never worked at bench or conveyor-belt, was all for the Machine. Of course, there were factories and factories. One did not altogether allow those factories of an earlier day, ramshackle, all bits and pieces, leaking steam from every joint like superannuated dragons, standing amidst a desolation of rank grass, rusty boilers, discarded equipment, which studded the countryside where Mr. Perry had been brought up. Those gothic survivals of laissez-faire and individualist rapacity had served their purpose. History, as Mr. Perry put it to himself, had passed them by. There might be a certain romantic aspect in their decay; but, with all deference to the early Auden, whose weakness for rusting metal and escaping steam was a notorious instance of the foibles of genius, one must insist that such romanticism would not do.

  Mr. Perry, for his part, upheld the neo-classicism. He liked things to look prosperous and ship-shape. That factory over there, for instance, standing by itself amid green fields, white, spruce and functional as a gun-boat on the Chinese station—his heart warmed to it, particularly when it was shown to have been the last outpost of civilisation. For now the train had entered pure countryside, and for Mr. Perry the country was not so much lamentable as non-existent. People lived there, no doubt, for strange reasons of their own; but they were not people in the sense he understood the word: they were not crowds; and Mr. Perry quite genuinely felt at home only in a crowd—apart from the fact that crowds were, so to speak, his business.

  Averting his eyes from this barren spectacle of cows, barns and orchards, he turned to the proper study of mankind, his fellow-passengers. There were three of them in the compartment, a family party. An elderly woman, gazing placidly out at the scenery: a blonde, her daughter, who was lapping up Film Frolics: and the paterfamilias. The latter was certainly, for Mr. Perry, the show piece. A man of preternatural fatness, whose belly dwarfed even the Times newspaper that half covered it, his face a mass of folds and creases, his clothes miraculously uncreased. He wore a black cutaway coat, decorously striped trousers, and an old-fashioned cravat. His face, huge and grave, resembled that of a bloodhound afflicted with an excess of thyroid. He might have sat as model for the caricature of a Capitalist in a Bolshie newspaper.

  The man caught Mr. Perry’s eye, laid down his copy of the Times very deliberately, and, with an unobtrusive, cathedral sort of gesture towards the green, printed label on Mr. Perry’s suitcase, said:

  “I perceive that you too, sir, are going to Wonderland.”

  At this moment the train took its cue and, like Alice, plunged into a tunnel. The clattering din precluded conversation, so that Mr. Perry was free to analyse the tones in which that monumental figure had addressed him. They had been solemn and portentous as those of a whole Dean and Chapter discussing the question of grouting the East tower: at the same time there was something behind them—not quite servility, but the smooth, professional respectfulness of the upper servant. Perhaps he is somebody’s butler, thought Mr. Perry; but it’s rather surprising that a butler should be going to Wonderland, and in those Throgmorton Street clothes; and one doesn’t somehow associate butlers with cute blonde daughters. Still, there’s no law of nature against butlers reproducing the species.

  The train burst out into the dazzling sunlight again.

  “You are to be with us for some time, sir?” inquired the man.

  “A fortnight, probably. It depends——” Mr. Perry broke off, not wishing to say that it depended on how long his work would take. People did not normally go to Wonderland to work.

  “In that case, if you will permit the liberty——”

  Mr. Perry glanced at the visiting-card the man tendered him. “Mr. James Thistlethwaite, 29 St. Petrock’s Street, Oxford,” it stated non-committally.

  “And this is Mrs. Thistlethwaite,” the man continued, with the voice of a head verger pointing out the figures in a twelfth-century stained-glass window. “And my daughter, Sally.”

  Sally Thistlethwaite glanced up from a photograph of Robert Taylor, nodded coolly, and occupied herself with Film Frolics again. It was the kind of look Mr. Perry was quite used to getting from
blondes in tobacco kiosks: a large Players and that will be all, it stated in unequivocal terms. But to-day, for no apparent reason, it irked him to be dismissed with one glance. He replied, more aggressively than was his habit:

  “My dossier is as follows: Name, Paul Perry. Age, twenty-five. Unmarried. Educated, St. Bees, and Peterhouse, Cambridge.”

  Sally glanced up at him again, slightly puzzled. Her father, however, did not appear discomposed by Paul’s abruptness. He nodded benignly.

  “A University man. Quite so. The stamp is unmistakable. Even at Cambridge. And your occupation, sir? No,” he wheezed, holding up a fat hand, “don’t tell me. Let me see, now.” He measured Paul with a grave, curiously alert eye.

  “Mr. Thistlethwaite is a great judge of character,” said his wife comfortably. “You mustn’t mind him.”

  “Grey flannel trousers, good quality cloth, not kept in a press, though, I fear. Shirt with collar attached. Sports jacket, ready-made,” murmured the fat man, as if communing with himself. Paul Perry blushed and, catching a subdued merriment in Sally’s eye, blushed more angrily still.

  “The normal working attire of the schoolmaster,” continued Mr. Thistlethwaite. “But I observe the elbows are not unduly worn, though the jacket has seen considerable wear. No sitting at a desk, we may deduce: therefore not a schoolmaster. A journalist, perhaps. The pencils in the breast pocket. Bulge in right-hand side pocket. Might be a reporter’s note-book. I——”

  “You’re embarrassing the gentleman, Daddy. Isn’t he, my pet?” exclaimed the girl Sally.

  “Not in the least,” said Paul stiffly. “As it happens, I’m a scientist. A scientist of a sort, that is.”

  “What sort. D’you carve up guinea-pigs, my pet?”

  “Sally, you should not call strange gentlemen your pet in a railway carriage,” protested Mrs. Thistlethwaite unconvincingly. “Please forgive her, Mr. Er. She’s that impulsive.”

  “Not at all,” Mr. Perry said. “I’m a field-worker, as a matter of fact.”

  Sally opened her eyes wide. They were remarkably pretty eyes. “A field-worker,” she said. “Oo-er. Artificial manures, I suppose. Well, everyone to his taste.”

  “Sally, that will be enough,” said Mr. Thistlethwaite. “The scientist is the benefactor of humanity. Several of my gentlemen have chosen that walk of like. Artificial manures are of incalculable service to the agriculturist, and the land to-day is——”

  “But I’ve nothing to do with artificial manures,” exclaimed Paul a little desperately. “Why you should think …” His voice tailed off, for he became aware of Mr. Thistlethwaite’s eye fixed, with a somewhat censorious expression, upon his neck.

  “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Haven’t I washed my neck this morning?”

  Mr. Thistlethwaite raised a shocked hand. “Please, sir. Please. No, I was referring to the lapel. Just a leetle too broad, wouldn’t you say, sir? A trifle outré? Where, if I may make so bold, did you purchase the garment?”

  “In Cambridge. Why?”

  “Ah, I thought so. Well, youth may perhaps be permitted a little excess, a certain rodomontade of attire, if I may so express myself. The garment does not become you ill, sir. Though, as I always tell my own gentlemen, a gentleman should wear a suit if he wishes to look distinguished in the quadrangle.”

  “You’re connected with the university?” asked Paul, who had now decided that his vis-à-vis must be a college servant.

  “We have that honour, sir. For the last hundred and fifty years we have had that honour.”

  “Indeed? A hundred and fifty years? You’ll be thinking of retiring soon, I suppose?” replied Paul, bemused by the apparently royal use of the “we.”

  “I allude to my firm,” said Mr. Thistlethwaite with dignity.

  Sally glanced up, giggling pleasantly. “Come off it, Daddy. Mr. Perry’s just itching to know what it’s all about. Daddy keeps a shop,” she exclaimed.

  An expression of horror convulsed her father’s huge face at this meiosis. “A shop! My dear! Please! An establishment.”

  “I’ve got it,” said Paul. “You’re a tailor.”

  “A master tailor,” amended Mr. Thistlethwaite, recovering his poise. “Very sharp of you, sir. It is easy to see that you are a scientist. Observation and analysis. I myself, in my amateur way, am a dabbler in science. Criminology to be specific.” He whipped out a luridly-covered book from behind his back. It was entitled The Body in the Bassinet. “A very pretty little problem. It was recommended to me by one of my late gentlemen—no less a person that Lord Hugh Willoughby.”

  “Good gracious, do you read that sort of stuff? Why?”

  Mr. Thistlethwaite directed an overwhelming Johnsonian gaze upon Paul. “I read them, sir, because I take pleasure in them. Intellectual pleasure, sir.”

  “Mr. Perry’s a high-brow, I expect,” said Sally, very much up in arms. “Spends all his time reading about phosphates.”

  “My good girl,” retorted Paul, “a high-brow is only a person with a heightened awareness of life. The infant, when he first uses his fingers to grasp an orange and transfer it to his mouth, is a high-brow. The——”

  “Do we pay at the door, professor, or will you be sending round a plate?”

  Paul gave her a look. It was no good, though; the young woman was quite impossible. Pert, semi-educated, low intelligence quotient. A type interesting enough objectively as a subject of research, but its individual members of no importance. Mr. Perry docketed her in his mind and pushed the file well out of sight, unaware that—like her father—Sally was no type, but a genuine original character. Indeed, Mr. Perry did not really hold with “characters”; they had a habit of upsetting both one’s equanimity and one’s statistics.

  “This is your first visit to Wonderland?” Mr. Thistlethwaite was inquiring.

  “Yes.”

  “I hope it may come up to your expectations. Mrs. Thistlethwaite and I spent a very pleasant fortnight there last year. I myself,” he added coyly, “had the satisfaction of winning the Beetle Drive.”

  “Indeed? You astonish me.”

  “Every taste in recreation is catered for. You yourself, sir, are perhaps a cricketer?”

  “No. No, I’m not.”

  “Never mind,” Sally interposed darkly. “There’ll probably be a knock-knees competition.”

  Paul turned, in a marked manner, to his New Statesman. After a while, the train was climbing and twisting through a landscape of small green hills, pastures and unkempt hedgerows. At the junction they got out and boarded another, smaller train, which puffed cheerfully towards Wonderland. Paul was thinking of the task ahead of him. If he carried it out successfully, the Chief might find him a permanent place in the organisation. But it was nearly all voluntary work, and the legacy his aunt had left him would not last much longer. He began to run over in his mind the system on which he would work: it depended in the last resort, of course, upon the local conditions, but there was no harm in having the general line of activity plotted out …

  The train halted abruptly at a small station in a deep combe. They all got out. Mr. Thistlethwaite, taking Paul by the arm, led him aside and whispered coyly:

  “If you will be so good, sir—do not mention the nature of my profession when we get there. I am holidaying incognito, so to say. In Wonderland we have no class distinctions, of course; but it will preclude any possibility of embarrassment on the part of some of our fellow-visitors, if they remain unaware of my—how shall I put it?—more fortunate social status. Let us enter as equals this true democracy of holiday-makers.”

  The extraordinary man bowed gravely, removed a speck of fluff from Paul’s collar, and waddled off towards the station yard, where a bright green bus, with Wonderland written on its side, awaited them. An attendant, dressed in bright green livery, was piling the luggage on top of the bus. Paul, who had lingered outside to study his fellow-visitors, finally entered the bus and secured the last available seat. At this moment, Sally Thistlet
hwaite walked down the gangway and stopped beside him.

  “Rush hour,” she said.

  Paul indicated, with rather ill grace, that she could have his seat.

  “I wouldn’t disturb you for worlds,” she said. Then, with a mischievous curl of her lip: “I’ll sit on your lap, my pet.”

  “I would prefer to stand,” retorted young Mr. Perry coldly.

  “Oh, well, have it your own way. It’s not every day you have a pretty girl asking to sit on your knee, though, I bet.”

  Paul moved forward, took up his stand where he could see ahead through the glass partition at the front of the bus. They careered along narrow lanes, past farms sheltered under the lee of the hills, then climbed a steep gradient till they attained a hilltop from which a great panorama of cliff and sea spread out. The line of cliffs, curving in from the distance, was golden from the evening sun: the inshore sea held the purple bloom of grapes. But it was not at sea or cliffs that young Mr. Perry was gazing with such satisfaction and excitement. His eyes were attracted by the huge white streamer, Welcome to Wonderland, that made an archway for the bus, and the spectacle of Wonderland itself displayed down there along the cliff-top between the hill and the sea.

  II

  THE CORE AND centre-piece of Wonderland was a huge white building, modernist in design, flat-roofed. Its walls seemed to be made of glass, so great was the extent of its windows, and this gave the severe lines a not ungraceful look of insubstantiality, as though at any moment it might open great white wings and float off into the summer blue. The side which faced the sea curved in a semi-circle, so that it commanded a wide prospect to south, west and east. A balcony overhung from the top storey on this side, curving like the bridge of a liner: it was, in fact, called “The Captain’s Bridge” by the habitués of Wonderland.

  Young Mr. Perry gazed his fill upon this edifice, and found it good. Good, not only for its hygienic-factory lines, but because of what it stood for. It stood for Organised Recreation, with the accent on the “organised”: and anything that was efficiently organised was O.K. by Paul Perry. Within that massive fun-factory (so a careful study of the brochure issued by Wonderland Ltd. Holiday Camp had informed him) were vast dining-halls where ravenous visitors could partake of epicurean meals cooked by London chefs in hygienic kitchens and served on spotless napery by cheerful waitresses to the accompaniment of a string band: there was also a ballroom, whose sprung maple floor positively incited you to the light fantastic; to say nothing of bars, an indoor swimming-bath equipped with Aerofilter and coloured fountains, a concert hall, a gymnasium, and innumerable playrooms.

 
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