Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman is the first in a new series featuring the 19-year old Lord Byron, a brazen poet and student with questionable behavior that decides solving a murder is more important than attending class (available December 1, 2015).
1807, Cambridge, England.
A young woman is murdered in a boarding house, and nobody knows what to do about it. The volunteer watchman who patrols the streets of this placid college town has no idea how to investigate a serious crime and the private bounty hunters the girl's family has hired to catch the killer employ methods that are questionable, at best.
What Cambridge needs is a hero, and, in a situation such as this, it's very easy for a gentleman with a romantic disposition to mistake himself for one.
19 year-old Lord Byron, the outlaw poet, is a student at Trinity College, though he can only be described as a “student” in the loosest sense of the word: He rarely attends class and, instead, spends his time day-drinking, making love to faculty wives, and feeding fine cuisine and expensive wine to the bear he keeps as a pet.
Catching a killer seems like a fine diversion, however, and Byron decides that solving the crime must take precedence over other, less-urgent matters such as his failing grades and mounting debts.
Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto 1
A poet must have a keen eye for details and for feelings; for subtext and for innuendo. This same set of skills is also essential if one hopes to have any success at the pursuit and capture of murderers. The 1807 publication of Hours of Idleness, my first collection of verses, cemented my reputation as the greatest poet ever to have lived. It therefore stood to reason that I also was the world’s greatest criminal investigator.
That autumn, I was bored with my studies at Trinity College and feeling quite restless. So I was intrigued and a little annoyed when my butler, Joe Murray, informed me as I enjoyed an otherwise-pleasant champagne breakfast that a young woman named Miss Felicity Whippleby had been butchered in her Cambridge rooms. She was said to have been a quiet and well-mannered girl, and nobody could fathom what she might have done to bring such a fate upon herself.
Murder was a rare thing in Cambridge, and mystery was unheard of. I had no doubt Felicity Whippleby’s name would soon be upon the lips of every local gossip and rumormonger, people whose time would have been better spent talking about me. I resolved to put my first-rate intellect to work capturing her killer. Such a diversion would burnish my notoriety and provide a good excuse to avoid attending classes. Anyway, Cambridge was large enough to support the misdeeds of only one villain. I would not be upstaged on my own territory by a knife-wielding interloper.
So, I roused my cohabitant, the Professor, from his hibernatory slumber, and after finishing off two bottles of Veuve Clicquot, we began canvassing the neighborhood, looking for the murderer. The air was crisp and fresh, and a stiff wind was blowing through the narrow streets, a welcome respite from the summer’s merciless heat. I would have found the weather invigorating, but I was animated that morning by something much more sinister than the apple-scented blush of early October in a leafy college town; I’d been awake for fifty hours, and I’d spent most of it drinking. I was, thus, in a state of near delirium. The Professor was better rested and had his wits about him, but grouchiness was intrinsic to his nature.
Our manhunt quickly turned up a suspect; as we wandered about near the scene of the murder, I noticed a shabby fellow staring at us with crazed, bulging eyes. My keen senses could not be fooled; something was out of place with this character.
“Do you have a problem?” I asked. He was taller than I, and broader through the shoulders, but I was younger and had become a skilled brawler during my years at boarding school. Still, if this confrontation devolved into fisticuffs, he might have been able to get the better of me, as I was not fully in command of my faculties. Fortunately, I was accompanied by the Professor, whose presence was sufficient to deter most evildoers.
“Perhaps it’s not my place to say,” said the suspicious man. His jacket was ill fitting and threadbare around the elbows. Unless he was the killer, he was nobody important.
“Perhaps it’s not,” I agreed.
“It’s just that there appears to be a rather large bear behind you.” He shrank away from the Professor.
I scowled at him. “Don’t you think I know that?”
He shuffled his feet and avoided meeting my accusatory gaze; a sign of guilt. Inconclusive, though. His behavior could merely indicate that he was intimidated by my estimable presence. Even if he didn’t know who I was, he must have known by observing my dress, which was only fashionably disheveled, and my carriage, which was just a little wobbly, that I was a quality sort. I was also uncommonly handsome, and my raw sexual magnetism had a tendency to frighten or confuse lesser men.
“I don’t mean to be impertinent, sir,” he said, his voice quavering. “But why is there a large bear behind you?”
“He’s shy,” I said. “He doesn’t like you.” I had little patience for the suspicious man’s hyperbole and histrionics. The Professor was of ordinary size for his genus. “I don’t like you much myself,” I added.
The man gurgled a little and tugged at his shirt collar. “I apologize, then, to the both of you. I’ll be going now.”
But I grabbed hold of his lapels to stop him. He had given himself away; for even a novice practitioner of the art of detection knows that murderers are terrified of bears.
“You’re not going anywhere,” I said. His clothes were stiff with filth and dried sweat, and when I shook him, I must have loosed the stink he held close to his body. It erupted forth, like a brown fog rolling off a rancid moor; a stench so powerful, it had a taste. I gagged and tried to hold my breath. I didn’t quite manage it, but I did hold on to the killer. I’d always wondered if evil had an odor. As the murderer’s filth laid siege to my poor nose, I knew it did.
The Professor growled and licked his paw, pleased with my display of prowess. He had the benefit of vast and subtle reasoning capacities as well as an ursine olfactory mechanism, a tool far more precise than the nose of a man. He must have long ago deduced that this miscreant slaughtered that poor girl.
“Why did you do it, you foul blackguard?” I wheezed. “Why did you kill her?”
The man’s eyes jerked around in their sockets, looking for a route of egress. But he was stuck between me and the bear, and there would be no escape. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
Less able explorers of the dark corners of the human heart might have been convinced by the killer’s display of confusion, but I didn’t believe him, and the Professor didn’t either. So I twisted the man’s stinky arm. Hard. Behind his back. He started to struggle, but the Professor growled again, and the man went limp. I drew the pistol I carried in my waistcoat and pressed it against my captive’s jaw, in case he had any ideas about resisting. Thus threatened, he became quite docile and allowed me to lead him back to the rooming house where the volunteer constable of Cambridge was guarding the murder scene.
The officer’s broad face swelled and reddened. “I still can’t let you examine Miss Whippleby’s room or the body, Lord Byron,” he said, smoothing his homemade uniform over the expanse of his belly. “I don’t care how important you think you are.”
This place had, of course, been the first stop in our investigation, but the constable did not permit us to hunt for clues. The house matron had dispatched a rider to carry news of the tragedy to the girl’s father in London, and Lord Whippleby would surely send a professional man hunter to run down the killer. The scene and the corpse would be preserved, untouched, awaiting such expert examination.
It would be waiting, however, for a while. It was an hour’s ride on a fast horse to the nearest station on the semaphore line, and it would take at least another hour to transmit the message to London. If fog obscured visibility between stations, relay riders would have to carry the news instead, extending the journey.
Once word of the tragedy reached the girl’s father, he’d need another hour, or perhaps even two, to make the necessary arrangements to get an investigator on the road. A fast rider could clear the fifty miles between London and Cambridge in under four hours, including a stop to change horses, but the investigator likely would not be an expert equestrian. Also, he’d be hauling his equipment or his belongings, so he’d hire a coach, which would take quite a bit longer. Meanwhile, the killer’s trail would grow cold.
I’d tried to explain that I was the world’s greatest poet and the Professor was a noted expert, but the constable, quite unmoved by our impressive credentials, was loath to permit a drunk and a bear to root around the premises. No matter. I’d solved the case regardless.
“I have captured your killer,” I announced. “This man did it.” I threw the culprit down at the constable’s feet. “Take him away and hang him, or do whatever it is you people do.”
“Please,” said the murderer to the constable. “This gentleman is quite mad, and he reeks of drink.”
“You’re the one who reeks,” I countered.
The constable scratched the stubble on his chin with a long, yellow fingernail. “This is no killer. He is only Mr. Collins, the wheelwright.”
The Professor sighed. We had both grown accustomed to dealing with our intellectual inferiors, but idiocy was tiresome nonetheless. “He is Mr. Collins, the murderer,” I said. “People are rarely only one thing. Wheelwrights can also be murderers.”
The constable didn’t look convinced. “But I’ve known Mr. Collins for near to twenty years. He goes to my church. Decent-enough fellow. Family man.”
I nodded. “Very well. You can tax his children to pay for his hanging, then.”
“I didn’t do nothing, Angus,” said Collins the Murderer.
“He’ll confess easy enough when the Professor interrogates him,” I said.
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea at all,” said the constable. “When Whippleby’s man arrives, he’ll sort everything out.”
“What are you going to do, then, with this criminal?” I asked.
Angus gave my suspect a dismissive wave with his fleshy hand. “You move on along, Mr. Collins. Send me best to the missus.”
Collins scurried off, probably to kill some more people.
“The mistake you’ve made today is very grave,” I told Angus.
“I don’t think Mr. Collins is the murderer. If I had to make a guess, I’d be inclined to blame Mr. Leif Sedgewyck.”
The name was familiar. “Sedgewyck is a student at the College,” I said. “What’s he got to do with this?”
“He was a frequent companion of the dead girl’s; a man who might have married her. I spoke to him earlier this morning.”
“Why do you think he did it?”
Angus started to say something, and then stopped, and paused to rub the loose flesh beneath his chin. “I’m sorry for wagging my tongue; I oughtn’t have. I’m only an amateur constable,” he said. “I’m just fine at running off rowdies from a pub, and I can patrol the streets well enough, but unless it’s pretty obvious, I really don’t have any way of knowing who has done a murder. That’s why a professional is coming.”
“You’re keeping something from me,” I said.
“Nothing that’s really any of your business, Lord Byron. Why don’t you go home? I think I got things squared until the man from London gets here.” He kept his voice low and soothing, but he was obviously relishing this rare opportunity to pretend to be a figure of some importance. I didn’t appreciate his condescension. “You should head back to your rooms and write some more of them pretty poems. I quite enjoyed Hours of Idleness.”
Maybe he was right, and I ought to have just gone home. But I rarely do the things I ought.
Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,
That clay, where once such animation beam’d;
The King of Terrors seized her as his prey,
Not worth, nor beauty, have her life redeem’d.
—Lord Byron, “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin to the Author, and Very Dear to Him”
Leif Sedgewyck was the son of a wealthy family, but his people were common, so he had rooms in one of the less prestigious residential buildings abutting Trinity’s Great Court; accommodations of a quality that barely toed the threshold of being adequate to almost justify the egregious tuition the College demanded in exchange for admitting men of his sort.
A pretty housemaid let me into his quarters, and Sedgewyck received me in his sitting room, which was expensively appointed, but garishly so. His furniture was upholstered in purple velvet and fringed with gold. Bad art hung on his walls in heavy gilt frames, and his rugs were so thick and opulent that treading upon them felt like walking in mud. It was a room decorated by the sort of person who believed that wealth conferred credibility, and that the wanton display of wealth was an adequate proxy for good taste.
“The notorious Lord Byron!” he said as I entered. “Even on this blackest of days, it is very much an honor to receive you.” He was drinking wine straight from a bottle and looked somewhat impaired. I was probably drunker than he; I had not been sober in days. But I knew how to carry it better, so I figured I had the advantage.
“I am so sorry to hear of your loss,” I said. “I wish you my utmost sympathies.” It was a meaningless thing to say; idle chatter masquerading as sentiment. But it seemed wise to stick to pleasantries and volunteer as little as possible of my own agenda until I could take measure of the man.
He did not rise to greet me, but he did raise the bottle toward me and, in doing so, spilt some on his plush velvet divan. I could tell from the yellowed label that his wine was of an excellent vintage and most likely the good French stuff, which had become difficult to obtain due to His Majesty’s little quarrel with Napoleon. I envied Sedgewyck’s furnishings, and particularly his cellar; though I’d been in high spirits of late, lavishing champagne on the bear, my resources were dwindling, and I knew I’d soon be back to drinking sour German hock.
“Can I offer you a drink?” he asked.
My loathing toward him abated slightly. “I’d never refuse such an offer, but I’ll have mine from a fresh bottle,” I said. “Yours looks somewhat unsanitary.”
Sedgewyck flapped his arm at the maid, spilling wine all over his trousers and his sofa. “I am normally more hygienic,” he said. “I am grieving for my murdered betrothed.”
“Is this the fashionable manner of mourning, then?” I asked. “I’m a bit traditional myself. I favor tearing one’s hair and rending one’s garments.”
“Heavens!” he said. “My attire is quite expensive, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Father would be ever so disappointed if my clothing got rent. I suppose he will be disappointed regardless; he was so very keen on my match with Felicity.”
He wore his grief like a coal miner wears a dinner jacket: with considerable discomfort and no small measure of irony. I couldn’t tell if he was insincere, or if he was merely trying to impress me with his inelegant approximation of wit.
“You must send him my deepest condolences,” I said.
The girl brought me a bottle and a glass, and then retreated from the room. I was peeved to have to pour it myself, but the wine was, indeed, of the highest quality. Being well mannered, I quickly began matching my host, drink for drink.
“Is that your bear you’ve brought with you?” he asked. “How terribly eccentric it is to keep such a creature. It is precisely the sort of weirdness one might expect you to engage in. You know, it’s been my aspiration to join your glamorous circle of associates for some time, but you are always so contemptuous toward everyone, and I find you difficult to approach.”
I decided to respond to only the least offensive of his various observations: “Yes,” I said. “It is a bear.”
“Christ.” He seemed genuinely impressed, and he lifted himself into a seated position for a better look. “Is it safe to have him around?”
“There’s an implicit limitation on how safe a live bear can be. But he’s reasonably placid, so long as he’s well fed.”
“Should I feed him?”
“He’d also never refuse such an offer,” I said.
Sedgewyck, seeing the wisdom in my words, summoned his girl to fetch some meat. She found a lamb shank in the cool part of the pantry; a fresh one, which the Professor preferred to salted varieties.
We watched as she approached the bear, holding the meat at arm’s length and moving with small, halting steps. Sedgewyck laughed aloud. Her fear seemed to amuse him.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Noreen,” she said.
“You needn’t be afraid, Noreen,” I told her. “The Professor is a civilized sort of beast, and he mauls people only on the rarest of occasions.”
She threw the lamb at the bear and then scurried out of the room. The Professor settled down to gnaw his prize and sharpen his claws on the walls.
Sedgewyck waited just long enough for Noreen to get wherever she’d run off to, and then he began ringing a little bell to summon her back. As he did this, he grinned at me, as though the two of us shared some secret.
After a moment, she returned. It was really unusual that she was there at all; it was customary for a gentleman to staff his Cambridge residence with only a single manservant while studying at the College. I, for example, was attended by a wheezing seventy-year-old valet named Joe Murray, whom I had inherited from my great-uncle, the previous Lord Byron. A larger retinue would seem fussy, and would crowd even the most spacious student rooms. If young men were ordinarily allowed to keep nubile servant girls like Noreen in their quarters, nobody would ever get married.
“So, is it the murder that has finally made me worthy of your esteemed attention?” Sedgewyck asked.
I drained my wineglass and refilled it. “Do you desire attention?”
“I’ve got lots of desires, but my desire for attention is among the most urgent.” He smiled at me again, as if he and I were engaged together in some sort of conspiracy.
I was starting to grow bored of the conversation, so I said: “Is that why you killed Felicity? Because you wanted to be noticed?”
Sedgewyck was so surprised at the accusation that he spat a mouthful of wine onto Noreen’s apron. “You think I killed her? Why on earth would I do such a thing?”
“Perhaps you’d grown sick of making love to her, and wanted to be rid of her,” I said. “I couldn’t blame you for wanting to unencumber yourself, but there are other ways to break an engagement.”
He laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I never tasted Felicity’s fruits. Nobody did. Her knees were tougher to pry open than the sturdiest of padlocks. Marriage was a precondition to rummaging that girl’s nethers. I courted her chastely, and I was most gentle and proper in my pursuit. I’m disappointed to have missed my chance, and in any case, her death is injurious to my interests.”
“And what interests are those?” I asked.
“I seek to improve my social standing, of course,” Sedgewyck said. The dilated pupils of his eyes seemed to contract partway, and his brow knit with concentration. Other than the deliberate and self-evident care that he put into preventing himself from slurring his words, he seemed remarkably lucid for a drunk. “My grandfather was a Dutch sailor. He made a few lucrative voyages before he settled in London and left a small fortune to my father, who made it much larger through prudent business maneuvers. But wealth means little in England unless it is properly aged, and the Sedgewycks and their new money are unwelcome among London society. My father perceives this as a slight, and my mother finds it humiliating.”
He tilted his body into a seated position on the damp sofa cushion and mopped at his purple-stained lips with the back of a hand. He was a tall, striking man with white-blond hair and high, sharp cheekbones. If his eyes weren’t so red and his nose weren’t so inflamed, he’d have been nearly dashing enough to pass for the sort of person he seemed to want to pretend to be.
“There are two ways to become respectable in England. The first is to befriend the King and get him to bestow an honor upon you. The second is to marry into a good family, which has become my parents’ greatest aspiration for me. It’s easier to do that than it used to be, since people like my parents have amassed great wealth while people like Lord Whippleby have squandered theirs. Felicity’s father drank away his fortune. He needed our money, and we wanted his friends and his name. Felicity had only one older sister, a woman who has given her husband no children. With only a little luck; a fortuitous case of tuberculosis, perhaps, my own son might have been a baron. But now, Felicity is dead and my family’s hopes are dashed.”
I imagined what it might be like to punch him. I suspected it might hurt a little. He was thin and rangy, and his face was all angles, without flat or soft surfaces to properly accommodate a fist. “You’ve clearly suffered a great loss,” I said.
“Felicity had a pretty laugh,” Sedgewyck told me. “And sometimes, she played the piano.” As he said this, he looked almost wistful, and I wondered if perhaps my suspicions were mistaken, and he might be innocent.
But then, he smiled at me again. “Tell me, Lord Byron, is it true you’re about to be kicked out of school?” he asked. “I’ve heard the faculty has finally tired of your outrageous conduct.”
I finished my wine, rose from my seat, and left him there without giving any further response.
Copyright © 2015 Daniel Friedman.
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Daniel Friedman is a graduate of the University of Maryland and NYU School of Law. Don't Ever Get Old won a Macavity Award for Best First Novel, and Lionel Wigram, the producer of four Harry Potter films and the Sherlock Holmes sequel, is both producing and writing the script for the movie version. Daniel is also the author of Don't Ever Look Back, the second book in his Buck Schatz series. He lives in New York City.