The Reek of Red Herrings is the 5th book in the Dandy Gilver series (Available December 6, 2016).
On the rain-drenched, wind-battered Banffshire coast dilapidated mansions cling to cliff tops, and tiny fishing villages perch on ledges that would make a seagull think twice. It’s nowhere for Dandy Gilver, a child of gentle Northamptonshire, to spend Christmas.
But when odd things start to turn up in barrels of fish—with a strong whiff of murder most foul—that’s exactly where she finds herself. Enlisted to investigate, Dandy and her trusty cohort, Alec Osborne, are soon swept up in the fisherfolks’ wedding season as well as the mystery. Between age-old traditions and brand-new horrors, Dandy must think the unthinkable to solve her most baffling case.
Although English is the finest language ever to rise up from the strewn remains in Babel, subtle yet piercing, mellifluous yet plain, and much as it pains me to give the Scots any cause for that unwarranted sense of superiority which it is their risible but unshakeable habit to display, still there are times when the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible itself cannot furnish the moment and clothe the passing sensations with adequate words.
This was such a time. Alec Osborne and I were standing on a quayside at Aberdeen, the granite sparkling in the sun behind us, the sea sparkling in it before us, the stiff wind of a November morning tugging at our hat brims and whisking our coat hems up and around our legs like the petticoats of can-can girls in the last big number, and yet our cheeks were pale and our skin clammy as we worked our throats, swallowing hard and willing our troubled innards to subside.
‘I’m absolutely…’ said Alec, and I knew what he meant. He was more than sickened, more than disgusted, more than repelled. He was beyond the reach of English altogether.
‘Scunnered,’ I said. ‘Me too.’
‘It’s preposterous, what he’s suggesting.’
‘Utterly,’ I agreed.
‘It’s out of the question.’
‘Indeed it is,’ I agreed again.
Alec wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, then folded it and shoved it into his pocket, taking out his pipe instead.
‘But we’re going to do it, aren’t we?’
‘Of course we are.’
Alec grinned, settled his pipe in the side of his mouth and took my elbow to guide me back across the road and up the steps into Birchfield’s Buildings, where Mr Birchfield waited on hooks to discover if we would bite at his bait or call for a bobby; I could see him quite clearly at one of the ground-floor windows, shifting from foot to foot and worrying at his beard with anxious fingers. The sight of him brought back another wave of horror, however, and I faltered.
‘Second thoughts?’ Alec asked, slowing his steps.
‘Not at all,’ I said, trying to sound stouter than I felt. ‘Just that … our life is far from dull in general, but even so this has been a very strange day.’
It had started ordinarily enough. Granted, Mr Birchfield’s letter had had its peculiarities but we have become used to that in the years, eight now, since ‘Gilver and Osborne: servants of truth’ screwed their brass plate to the railings. Figurative plate and figurative railings, but eight years is right enough, for we fell into detecting in 1922, when death touched our two lives and joined them together. Alec’s young fiancée went missing from the house of a friend of mine and suddenly there we were, with a fire, a jewel theft, insurance fraud and murder. When the dust had settled and the broken bones had set again, we were detectives for good or ill and since then we have bumbled and bickered our way through the fog of countless crimes, solving most, giving up with the greatest reluctance on a few, and becoming friends.
Alec has not replaced the fiancée yet, despite some efforts, and my husband, Hugh, rumbles sometimes – I think George at his club teases him. But I am over forty, a matron with grown sons, and Alec is thirty-five. Odd that single men of thirty-five are a generation younger than married women of forty, but Hugh would rumble louder if matters were otherwise, I daresay.
So, old hands that we are, we took Mr Birchfield’s excesses with pinches of salt and were even amused as we reread portions of his letter to one another while coming north on the fast train.
‘“A matter of the utmost concern to a great many good people who are ignorant of their interest in it and must remain so”,’ I had said. ‘How can they be both concerned and ignorant? I don’t understand him.’
‘“Requiring discretion, confidentiality, and a fine feeling for the greater good”,’ Alec added. ‘Which sounds a bit ominous if you ask me. The greater good as decided by Mr H. Birchfield, I’ll bet.’
‘“The harm and horror which would be visited upon countless innocents by any impulsive broadcasting of such matters as a common humanity dictates we preserve in silence.” What can he be talking about? Horror? Harm and horror?’
‘Horror for Mr Birchfield’s wife and eight little children, I think,’ said Alec. ‘And harm to the man himself when it all comes out.’
‘Ah,’ I said. The conductor came into our compartment just then and I bit my lip until he had punched our tickets and left again, for I did not want to shock him. ‘Blackmail. Do you really think a respectable Aberdonian merchant with a letterhead like the Albert Memorial would get up to that sort of nonsense?’
‘A sovereign says so,’ Alec declaimed. ‘A sovereign says that Mr Birchfield, of Birchfield and Sons, distributers and exporters since 1871, had a cosy arrangement with an obliging woman until he forgot himself and put something in writing.’
‘And shall we take the job?’ I asked. ‘We’ve always tried to keep away from seaside hotels and suchlike.’
‘As far as divorce goes,’ said Alec. ‘But blackmail is another question altogether. I’ll happily bang on her door and put the willies up her. I can’t abide a blackmailer.’
‘It’s news to me that you’ve had cause to form a view.’
Alec grinned and wiggled his eyebrows.
‘Let them try,’ he said. ‘I’d like to see them catch me.’
I was thoughtful for a while after that, gazing out of the window at the rolling fields. They were ploughed and bare this late in the year but no less orderly looking for it, if a little cheerless, punctuated only by wind-bent hawthorns and very occasional stone byres. If Alec had an arrangement with an obliging woman of his own he might never stir himself to marriage, and I should be sorry to see him grow old without children about him. Then I frowned as my thoughts caught up with me. If Alec, a bachelor, had a companion tucked away somewhere handy, what could anyone make of it anyway? Unless she were married. If so, I could only hope that her husband was indeed a blackmailer and not a crack shot with a hunting rifle.
‘Do you take the bet?’ Alec said, drawing my attention from the passing scenery and back to Mr Birchfield and his travails.
‘I’ll take your sovereign certainly,’ I replied, with more ebullience than I felt; if one were going to gamble one should surely do it with a bit of flair.
An hour later, the sovereign was mine and I would gladly have given it back and ten more with it, to be spared the knowledge Mr Birchfield had imparted to us and the illustrations my fancy had supplied.
To begin with, he had sounded exactly like his letter.
‘A delicate matter,’ he had said, once we were settled in his private office, in the red studded-leather chairs, the door shut tight against all ears. He had even sent his clerk on an errand and checked to see that none of the harbour worthies were loitering under his window. ‘And strictly speaking, you could say a police matter, plain and simple. I only beg you to hear me out before you act. I beg that of you.’
I could not meet Alec’s eye. Of course a police matter should be taken straight to the police. Of course it should. On the very fingertips of the other hand, though, it is the curse of the amateur ever to be forbidden the best of the fun and required to make do with such little matters as police ignore, so that at times one is practically coming along with a shovel behind the horses. And while all honest toil is noble, as the Bible and more recently the Russians have told us, still no one could resist a good bite at the juiciest meat when it was dangled so expertly.
‘Of course we shall,’ I said and noticed Alec sit back a little, happy to have the knot cut for him.
‘Well now, someone has died,’ Mr Birchfield began, rather chattily given the subject matter. ‘This summer, in July or August most likely. Along the coast from here. At Gamrie. Or Gardenstown, I should call it.’ Then he stopped.
‘Who?’ asked Alec. ‘Natural causes, one assumes.’ Of course one did not, but we had to observe the niceties.
‘I cannot tell you the unfortunate creature’s name,’ Mr Birchfield said. ‘For I do not know it. As to the cause…’ This time the silence lasted even longer. ‘If it was an accident, or if he was ill, or even if the poor soul had troubles he couldn’t bear, then surely we’d all agree that it’s a private matter.’
‘But?’ I supplied.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Birchfield, repeatedly performing a kind of genuflection comprised of patting his watch-pocket, refolding his perfectly folded handkerchief and pulling on his top waistcoat button until it seemed sure to give way. ‘Yes, there is certainly a but, Mrs Gilver. Or an if, anyway.’ At which tantalising moment he ran dry again. I sat forward to prompt him further but, seeing Alec give the tiniest shake of his head, said nothing and subsided. Mr Birchfield rose – he had only been perching on the front edge of his seat anyway – and crossed over to look out of the window at what he no doubt viewed as his domain: the quayside with its sheds; the harbour with its boats; the very North Sea itself with its treasure of herring, the pot of silver which had made Mr Birchfield rich.
‘Let me start at the other end,’ he said presently. ‘It’ll be easier understood that way. We had a complaint, you see. And Birchfield’s prides itself on quality. We take complaints seriously when they come, and they seldom do. But, as I say, we had a complaint about a foreign object in one of the barrels. And then another one, abroad thankfully. And before we had stopped reeling, four more reports of barrels quite spoiled. All from last July. That is to say, all from Gamrie where July is the height of the season. Unusable and offensive. Noisome. Not at all what Birchfield’s customers have been used to.’
‘Oh God,’ Alec said. I had yet to make the connection.
‘And the thing is, sir,’ said Mr Birchfield, turning all his attention to Alec like a compass to north, ‘we reckon – the very few who are privy to it at all – we reckon there’s only two to go. Three at the most. If we could weather it. If we could only weather two more…’
His little round of pattings and pullings looked fair to start up again; at least, he took out his handkerchief and shook it loose for refolding. ‘It’s not myself I’m thinking of,’ he said. ‘If it were all to come out then my business would suffer, it’s true, but I don’t think I’m being fanciful when I say it would spread beyond Birchfield’s if it were known.’
‘If what were known?’ I asked.
‘No, I don’t suppose you are being fanciful,’ Alec said.
‘I have three hundred men, good hard-working men, arled to me at Gamrie and Macduff,’ said Mr Birchfield.
‘Arled, sir?’ said Alec.
Mr Birchfield puffed out a thoughtful breath.
‘Contracted, near enough,’ he said. ‘Three hundred men on fifty boats. Five hundred boats along this coast. More yet in the islands. Not to mention the gutting quines and coopers. And then arling aside there’s the chandlers and boat-builders, and the shopkeepers and innkeepers and outfitters. They all rely on the wages of the fishing folk. Do you see, sir? Do you see?’
‘But what does it have to do with the person who died?’ I asked.
‘And it’s not as though times aren’t hard already, I daresay,’ Alec put in, in a musing sort of voice.
‘They’re not what they were,’ Mr Birchfield agreed, although I could see how it grated on his businessman’s pride to admit it. I could see that, if nothing else. ‘And if the papers got a hold of something like this,’ he added.
‘Two more?’ Alec asked. Birchfield nodded.
‘The first spoiled barrel got sent back without us asking. After that we put the word out, if I have the expression right. We dressed it up as a new endeavour in giving full satisfaction. Money back on returned stock, all carriage paid for by us. And so we got the other three. And ah … piecing things together, as it were, we’re only short two more. I can’t sleep at night waiting for word that they’re coming. Or for the loud knock on the door. It was my wife who suggested you to me. She reads the papers. She knows all about you.’
‘I still don’t follow,’ I said. ‘What have spoiled barrels of herring got to do with a dead man?’ As I spoke the words, though, I began to see the first distant glimmers, like the scales of a shoal turning deep underwater, reflecting only the faintest gleam.
‘Or perhaps three, you say?’ Alec asked him.
‘Maybe three,’ Birchfield agreed. ‘One of the ones we got back was rather … muddled.’
I was suddenly aware of a dreadful cold clammy feeling beginning to crawl up the back of my neck as though it bore the idea to my reluctant brain. And for some reason, the word ‘muddled’ was the detail above all which troubled me.
‘A leg and an arm,’ said Birchfield. I saw Alec turn pale. ‘Well, arm and shoulder together really.’
That was when Alec and I bolted for the door, the fresh November air and quite the thorniest question we had ever had to answer in all our days.
Ought we have gone to find a constable? I still cannot say. Might lives have been saved? Hindsight, smug and unassailable, tells me yes. But as Mr Birchfield had seen so clearly, if a little conveniently, lives would have been ruined too: the lives of those fisherfolk, coopers and quines; the grocers and barbers and chandlers in each of the fishing villages strung out along the Banffshire coast like beads on a necklace. Not to mention the life of anyone who had ever boiled a potato, steamed some kale and poached a herring for his tea.
Copyright © 2016 Catriona McPherson.
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Catriona McPherson was born near Edinburgh, where she received her Ph.D. Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains won the Sue Feder Memorial Award in 2012, and Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder won an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. Catriona lives in Davis, California with her husband and two cats.