It’s the end of winter 1865 when Charles 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.
What follows is an excerpt of the short story “An East End Murder,” now on sale as an ebook.
“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.
Copyright 2011 Charles Finch
Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Fleet Street Murders, The September Society and A Stranger in Mayfair. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Oxford, England.