Superintendent Minter of the London Metropolitan Police, known by the nickname "Sooper", is the protagonist of several works that Edgar Wallace published in the 1920's. These include the novel Big Foot (1927) and the collection The Lone House Mystery and Other Stories (1929). Several short stories featuring the "Sooper" appeared in magazines in 1925 but were not collected during the author's lifetime. These include "The Get-Back," "The House of the Candles," and "The Little Dragon of Jade," all of which are available at Roy Glashan's Library and Project Gutenberg Australia. —RG
ALL women are subversive to discipline.
I put that in a report I made to Scotland Yard, and the next time I saw the deputy he started in to pull my leg.
'Sooper.' says he, 'you're a woman-hater.'
It was a reputation I always wanted when I was a young officer, because there's no better way of attracting the best girls than for them to think that you look upon woman as nature's greatest error of judgment. It is a sort of challenge that no high-spirited and Christian girl can pass. But it isn't true that I hate 'em. What I meant was—and only a deputy commissioner could have gone wrong on it—that when a policeman's married he joins another service, says good morning to a new superintendent, and answers a roll call that has nothing to do with police regulations.
You can roast the life out of a young detective if he gets fresh, but if his wife comes up to the station asking why her husband hasn't got his promotion after the wonderful work he has been doing and all the risks he has been taking, there's nothing to do but grin and lie. You've got to slop up when she comes into your office; you must kow-tow to her when she goes out. She's got to have the best chair, and when you meet her in the street you must touch your cap to her. Is that subversive to discipline or is it not? When I hear a young officer is going to be married and that his wife hates his job. I send 'em a wedding present.
In all the detective stories I've read there is usually a good-looking and highly educated young officer who falls in love with a rich and beautiful girl, and, after rescuing her every ten pages from a fate which is popularly supposed to be worse than death, marries her on page 366 and lives happily right up to the back cover. I'm strong for romance wherever I can find it. But if I had been put in the witness box a year ago and had to tell the truth on oath. I should have said that I'd never met her or him, and that most detectives marry sensible girls who do the laundry, cook the dinner, and look forward to going to the pictures twice a week. But I met the romantic detective at last.
We had in our division a smart young fellow called Brett—Sergeant Ronald Brett. I'm willing to admit that he came up to the book in almost every particular. He was a good-looker, he'd had a high school education, and he could talk on most subjects as if he'd invented 'em. He had swell manners and the knack of putting his views without hurting anybody's feelings, which means that he was well on the way to being a gentleman. The boys liked him; he was a keen and efficient officer, and when he went out after his man he got him. He was as much at home in a rough house as in the Duchess of Westminster's drawing-room. I made one or two reports on him to headquarters, and I know, from what I was told at the Yard, that he was marked for early promotion.
Then one night, in a thick fog, he bumped into Miss Evelina Buckland. She had lost her way, and Brett, who could have walked through every street of Notting Hill blindfolded, took her home. She lived in a big house off Ladbroke Grove with an invalid brother. I'd often seen the house from the railway. It had a big garden that backed on to the railway embankment, and a fine wireless aerial on high white poles. The Bucklands had servants, two motorcars, and money to burn. She was so struck on Ronald that she invited him into the house, and when he got into the lighted hall he saw that he had been walking with the prettiest girl he had ever met.
'They keep three menservants,' he told me, 'and the house is a dream. But the queer thing is, there is no electric light—only candles.'
Brett was impressed, and I hoped that he was passing on to this house all that he would like to have said about the girl.
'They've asked me to come to tea next Sunday,' he said.
If he had been invited to Buckingham Palace for a thé dansant he couldn't have been more proud. So I knew it was the girl and not the ormolu table, the French clock and the priceless velvet hangings.
I warned him against getting his name into a serial story, but he was very sure of himself, and I didn't bother my head about him until, about a month later, I saw him in full evening kit, handing her out of her car. This was about half-past eleven, and they'd been to the theatre together. Ordinarily. Brett would have recognized me as I strolled past, but his mind had got all undisciplined, and I might have been yesterday's joint for all the attention he gave to me.
A few days afterwards he told me he was engaged. Miss Buckland was a very sensible girl, and wouldn't let him spend more than a tenner on her engagement ring. That bit of thoughtfulness got him all thrilled. They were to be married the following spring, when Mr Buckland was going abroad to a clinic. The wedding was to be a very quiet one, and they were taking over her brother's house.
'That means you're leaving the service, Brett?' I asked.
'No, sir,' he said, to my surprise. 'Evelina wants me to stay on. She thinks the work is fascinating.' I groaned. 'And she wants to know if you will come to tea on Sunday.'
I'd never seen this girl, and I'm no woman-hater, as I said before. So on Sunday afternoon I dolled myself up and went round to Ladbroke Grove, and the door was opened by a swagger footman, who took me into the drawing-room. Brett hadn't arrived when I got there, and so I had a chance of a quiet heart-to-heart talk with the girl.
There was no doubt about her prettiness, though she was older than I'd thought—nearer twenty-eight than twenty-four, I should say, with a complexion like roses and cream, beautiful baby eyes, and the slim figure of a heroine out of a book.
She took me upstairs to the first floor, and I met her brother, a pale- looking man of forty-five, who lay on a long sofa, propped up with pillows. At the foot of the sofa was a pedestal with a big wooden loudspeaker.
'My only recreation,' he said, as he stroked his straggly beard. 'It's tough not being able to get about the same as other men, but I'm getting used to it now. I suppose you have a wireless set, superintendent?'
'Two,' I said. 'One out of order and one I don't use.'
I've never taken to wireless, and that's a fact. People say that it gets you out of yourself, and that is just where I don't want to be. My mind has got a comfortable home, and as soon as it starts paying calls I'm going along to my doctor and arrange to be put under restraint.
What I noticed about this house was the candles. They were everywhere; big yellow candles in sconces and in fancy holders, little white candles hanging in clusters on a silver candelabra, big red candles in the hall and on the stairs.
He saw me looking, and laughed.
'I hate the garish glare of electric light,' he said. 'You have no idea of the beauty of candles until you have used them.'
This Mr Buckland was an interesting sort of bird, and not altogether unknown to me. Twice a week he used to be put into a motorcar and driven about the country for an hour or two, with his own chauffeur at the wheel. I expected to hear a whole lot about his illness, because invalids, as a rule, haven't very much more to talk about; but he was an exception. He asked me what sort of a man Brett was.
'It's a queer thing, my sister falling in love with a detective,' he said, shifting himself with a moan, 'but I suppose there are decent people even in the police force.'
As he was an invalid I did not swat him. You've got to make allowances for the afflicted.
'Evelina is a clever girl,' he went on, 'and crime has always interested her. She will be a great help to Brett. Though what my poor, dear father would say if he could only look down from heaven and see Evelina walking to the altar with a detective-sergeant, I shudder to think!'
It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest that maybe his poor, dear father wasn't in a position to look down, but, as I remarked before, you've got to exercise a lot of patience with the sick.
When I went downstairs I found that Brett had arrived, and that the two of them were poring over a Sunday newspaper, discussing their favourite murder.
Age takes people different ways. It takes me so that I can stand for almost any kind of foolishness on the part of my fellow-humans. When I find young detectives taking a romantic interest in crime and raising theories about cases that are in other people's hand, I pat 'em on the shoulder and let 'em go on to their doom. And when I meet an outsize in fools. I just stroll out into the night and watch the stars twinkling miles away, and realize that I'm next to nothing riding free on a big chunk of stone, which, according to the books, is slightly flattened at each end, and goes shooting round the sun once in twenty-four hours, or, maybe, once a year. And no properly intelligent man can think of himself as nothing without having a pretty mean opinion of most everybody else.
So, though it made me ill to hear a man like Brett theorizing and deducting, I just thought of the stars and how mean the cleverest cop would look from a distance of umpteen million miles.
That newspaper should have reminded Brett that the majestic pageant of life was rolling on in the grand old way in spite of ten-pound engagement rings. The courts were still sitting, Dartmoor was open for the season, judges were still saying: 'I should not be doing my duty to society if I did not pass a severe sentence,' and the ratepayer was as usual putting his hand in his pocket to provide boots for policemen.
Just about that time Notting Hill was a pretty notorious place. We had the Yellow Man operating in the houses and Looey the Dip working the shops, with an occasional private burglary thrown in. I knew Looey was on the job, because the lady who used to wear his brass wedding ring came up one night and split everything.
'He's got a new girl called Annie, and if ever I get hold of her she'll want a new chassis,' said the late Mrs Looey. She said a lot of other things which didn't get past, but I gathered that Annie wasn't qualified for a Sunday-school teacher.
We went after Looey, but didn't find him, and the Yellow Man was just a name.
I had the brightest bunch of boys under me that any superintendent could wish. They could do everything except catch burglars. With a tape measure and a pair of rubber gloves they'd reconstitute the crime (to use a foreign expression) so that you could almost see Looey climbing up the rain-pipe or the Yellow Man swinging lightly on to the balcony. They'd deduce from the elbow mark on the mantelpiece that he was sixty-nine inches tall, had a yellow moustache, and was separated from his wife.
They knew he had a yellow moustache because the policeman on point duty had seen him walk out of the house as bold as brass, and had bid him good night.
After about six of these burglaries, four in Ladbroke Grove, one in Colville Gardens, and another in Elgin Crescent, I called together the Criminal Investigation Department.
'Boys,' I said, 'I'm going to give you a lecture on crime. Let me start right away by telling you that if Looey or that yellow man gets away with another "bust," I shall return you to the uniformed branch of the Metropolitan Police. Having seen your work as detectives, I think you'd make good traffic cops. Nothing smaller than an ice-wagon will ever get past you without you noticing.'
I was a little rattled at the time because Scotland Yard had been sending out 'all station' warnings every few hours about the Stricklands. I suppose the Treasury had been raising Cain—the one-pound notes that this gang printed looked better than the genuine article, and their thousand-franc notes had been cashed by the Bank of France without question. One of the messages I had ran:
Please render an immediate return showing the names and addresses of all users of electric power for driving machinery, photographic purposes, heating and cooking, etc. Report must be returned to Room 1275, Scotland Yard, by Monday without fail.
Fortunately I had the sense to get on to the local office of the Power Company, so I wasn't called upon to employ my detectives as electric light inspectors.
I had never met the Stricklands. They were an Irish crowd that had worked in Dublin till the Free State police got after them, and Scotland Yard wasn't much better off than I.
As I say, all these smoking 'confidentials' from Headquarters began to get on my nerves, and when they were followed by requests for special reports on our local burglaries, I felt like taking a gun up to the Thames Embankment and giving the reporters something to write about.
I'm not complaining very seriously that my boys couldn't pull Looey, because he's one of those fellows who has no locality. All criminals are homing pigeons, and picking them up is about as easy as finding a 'phone number in a guide book. When they are through with a job they go back where they live, and their idea of hiding themselves is to move into the next street, and change their name from Smith to Smyth.
But Looey was different. As soon as he'd finished a job he'd float away into Scotland or somewhere nobody would think of looking for him. He'd go over to Paris, or drop down into Cardiff—and he didn't booze. Drink and talkative women are the ruin of high-class criminals.
Matters had quietened down in Notting Hill, and we hadn't had a burglary for a month, and the Yard had lost interest in the Stricklands, when Looey came back. A policeman was crossing Wormwood Scrubs, towards the prison, at about two o'clock in the morning. A thin drizzle had been falling all evening; it was a cold and miserable night, and the patrolman was stepping lively to get that part of his job over. His duty was to reach the prison wall, make a circuit, and rejoin the road, and he was within fifty yards of the wall when he found Looey.
Wormwood Scrubs is a bit of rough common, and the officer was using his lantern to guide him, otherwise the poor devil wouldn't have been found till morning. The first thing the policeman saw was a boot sticking out of a bush, and, turning aside to investigate, he saw a man lying huddled on the ground. It was Looey, and he was dead.
The local station 'phoned me, and I drove down with the police surgeon, and was with him all the time he was making his examination. The body lay on the top of a crushed bush. There was no sign of shooting or stabbing, and it looked almost as though it were a case of death from natural causes, when Dr Hackett made his report.
'This man has hardly a sound limb in his body,' he said. 'He has fallen from a considerable height.'
Except the prison there was no building within five hundred yards.
'Has he fallen out of an aeroplane?' I asked, and the doctor shook his head.
'No.' he said, 'it's not bad enough for that. I should say he fell some fifty feet. And the curious thing is that there's no vital injury to him, not sufficient to cause death.'
We had half a dozen policemen on the spot by now, which was unfortunate, because their big feet blotted out all footprints. By the light of their lanterns he continued his examination, and then he made the discovery which puzzled me for a long time.
Across the two palms of the dead man ran the ugly mark of a burn. It was as though poor Looey had tried to pick up something nearly red-hot, for not only the palms, but the tips of his fingers were scorched.
The doctor moved him into the nearest hospital for closer examination, and I went back to my office to puzzle out what looked to be like a mystery.
Now, if there's one thing that a real policeman hates it's a mystery. We have burglaries and murders that are mysteries to the public and the newspaper boys, but, as a rule, there's nothing mysterious about them to the man in charge of the case. In nine instances out of ten he knows the man who did it, and the only hard work he has is to connect the killer or the burglar with the crime so surely that a pudden-headed jury will convict.
But this was a real mystery to the police, though it was not to the newspapers, because we told them nothing about the broken bones or burns, and all they could see in the case was that a man had been found dead on Wormwood Scrubs.
I sent for Brett.
'Sergeant,' I said, 'if you can tear yourself away from Ladbroke Grove, and can bring down your mighty mind to the study of human perversity, I'd be glad if you'd take charge of this case and worry out the how-it-happened of it.'
He was a bit touchy on the question of his love-making, but being a good officer he swallowed his feelings and went about in his usual bloodhound way to trail Looey to his last place of residence. There were no papers on the body—nothing that could give us a clue, except that the watch in his pocket was one he'd pinched from Gardner's, the jewellers in High Street, and this only told us that he was a burglar, and we knew that already.
A night or two later. Brett came to see me at my house just as I was going to bed.
'I've been wondering, chief,' he said, 'whether there might be some sort of trouble between the Yellow Man and Looey. They were both working the same district, and from what I heard today they were pretty bad friends.'
'Where's the Yellow Man?' I asked.
'I don't know,' he snapped.
He got sore at me for that, and I don't blame him. We'd searched every dive in London, and we'd had a report from every 'nose'—you don't know what a 'nose' is, I suppose? If you're being very polite, you describe him as a police spy— anyway, there wasn't a 'nose' who'd smelt him, and we'd reached the dead end of our investigations in spite of all the expensive sleuths they sent down from the Yard to help us, when the Yellow Man was picked up at three o'clock in the morning in almost exactly the same spot as we'd found Looey. It was a cyclist sergeant who found him, and 'phoned to me direct. I happened to be at the station when the call came through. We'd arrested a member of Parliament for driving his car whilst he was in a condition that wasn't excusable even in a politician. Naturally we had to send for his own doctor and a dozen Harley Street specialists to prove that what a low-down policeman thought was drunk was merely the after-effects of the war. By the time we got him bailed out, the street in front of the station was filled with motor-cars belonging to a good half of the medical faculty of England.
I was seeing Sir Charles Bromgrove into his car—he's the biggest surgeon in London—when the policeman came running down the steps to tell me about the Yellow Man. It would be an hour before I could get the police surgeon, and it struck me that it would be an excellent idea if I had the assistance of Sir Charles. In a few words, I told him what had happened, and he was a good scout, for he drove me out to Wormwood Scrubs in his own car, and on the way I told him about Looey.
It was the Yellow Man right enough, I realized when I saw the body, and I was curious to know what Bromgrove would say.
'He has had a bad fall, but that did not kill him,' he said, and then he opened the clenched hands, and there was the black mark across both palms!
'What do you make of that. Sir Charles?' I asked.
He looked up over his shoulder.
'He was electrocuted, the same as the other man.' he said. 'I thought so when you told me the appearance of the hands, and I am convinced now.'
'Electrocuted!' The theory got me all tangled up.
'My supposition is that this man was either climbing a wall or was feeling his way along a roof, when his hands came into contact with a live cable.' said Sir Charles. 'He must have been killed instantly and fell.'
Now, if there is one thing that Wormwood Scrubs doesn't own it's an overhead cable.
I'd sent for Brett before I left the station, and he turned up about five o'clock in the morning. I told him what the doctor had said.
'Brett.' said I, 'these two poor nuts were burgling, and in the pursuits of their unlawful occupations they struck a house that has a live wire exposed, and they dropped probably into the back-yard. And for some reason the owner of the house didn't want people to know that he had a live wire, and as soon as he found they were dead he moved these fellows to the nearest open space. Go out and find that shy householder and pull him in.'
'Miss Buckland's theory—' he began.
'Put it in your report, but sign your own name to it,' said I, for I didn't want any amateur female to come interfering with the processes of justice.
Brett reported at the end of the next afternoon.
'The power company say there wouldn't be a live wire left exposed on a roof, so that doctor's theory goes west.' he said. 'Now Miss Buckland thinks—'
'That woman's got brains.' said I. 'Tell her I'm coming to call on her tonight. I'd like to get her theories first-hand.'
I don't know what made me say that. It is an idea of mine that the Lord has given me a super-instinct. But I somehow felt I had to go along and see that young lady and catch hold on some of her deductions. It's revolting to me to listen to any kind of woman talk about crime. But there was I. looking forward eagerly to taking a cup of after-dinner coffee with little Miss Sherlock and seeing all the beautiful candles.
Brett wasn't there when I arrived, and I thought her manner was a little bit reserved.
'I've been talking to Ronald,' she said, when we'd got through with speaking our mind about the weather. 'And do you know, Sooper, I've got a notion that these terrible accidents have happened on the railway.'
That notion had never struck me before. There is certainly an electric railway running through Notting Hill, and it's true as anything could be that if these two burglars had made up their minds to loot car rails, they would have got very badly killed.
'That's a good theory of yours, Miss Buckland,' I said. 'These poor fellows went out to pinch the line, and the shock of a live wire flung 'em into the middle of Wormwood Scrubs—which can't be more than a mile away.'
There was a queer expression in her eye when she looked at me.
'Of course, the theory may be stupid,' she said, 'and I really know nothing about electricity. We never have it in the house; as you know, my brother has a passion for candle-light.'
'And music,' I said, very gentle. 'That's what I like. Give me the man who loves music. Are you listening-in to Madame Reiacho this evening, Miss Buckland?'
'I expect my brother is,' she said and, rather hurriedly: 'He's not very well tonight.'
'That's a pity,' I said, 'because I wanted to see him.'
She hesitated and then went out of the room. In about five minutes she came back.
'Frederick will see you, Sooper,' she said, 'but don't stay long with him, will you, because the doctor has given strict orders that he is to be kept quiet.'
I went up the stairs into the big room where Mr Buckland was lying on the sofa, and my first glance round was for the loudspeaker. There it was, standing on its little pedestal. He looked sicker than usual, and his conversation was strictly limited. I got in a couple of good ones about the weather, and then I said:
'I see by the paper that Madame Reiacho is singing this afternoon. I'd like to listen. Would you mind if I switched her on?'
'The set is out of order.' he said shortly.
I looked at the wires trailing from the speaker, then I looked at the wall.
'Where do you connect this, Mr Buckland?' I asked.
'I don't know.' he said shorter still. 'My man looks after it. Would you think I am very uncivil if I asked you to leave me now? I have another spasm coming on.'
'I guess you have,' I said, and went out of the room.
Miss Buckland must have thought that our talk would be a little longer than it was, for she wasn't waiting for me on the landing as she had been the last time. There was another flight of stairs leading to the second floor, and I wandered up and found myself prevented from going much farther, for on the landing was a strong-looking door that hadn't even a handle to turn.
I looked through the keyhole but could see nothing, as there was no light within, and then I went downstairs again just as Miss Buckland came up, shading a candle with her hand. She saw me coming down and went white.
'We never use the upper part of the house,' she said without being asked a question.
Behind her on the stairs I saw two of the footmen, and I had the impression that they were listening.
'I was looking for your wireless connexion,' I said. 'I thought I'd hear Madame Reiacho. But it doesn't matter—we've got a set at the station. That brother of yours looks pretty bad, Miss Buckland.'
'He isn't at all well,' she said, her eyes not leaving my face.
I went down with her to the drawing-room and I saw the footmen scurry down ahead and disappear. There was a wall 'phone in the hall.
'Do you mind if I call up the station?' I asked.
She shook her head and stood by whilst I got the number.
That instinct of mine told me lots of things. It told me that the footmen had their ears stretched somewhere in the servants' passage.
It was tough luck that the man who answered my call was Brett.
'Is that you, Brett?' I said. 'I wish you'd tell the inspector to send my letters up to my house for signature. And will you ask him to ring up Mr Colwards and tell him I shan't be able to see him tonight!'
I heard Brett gasp.
'Mr Colwards' is the code word which means 'Send reserves to me at once.'
'Where are you speaking from?' he asked, and his voice was very hoarse.
'I'm speaking from Mr Buckland's house,' I said, and hung up.
When I looked round she was smiling slightly.
'Now come along and have your coffee, Sooper,' she said, and I walked into the dining-room behind her just the same as any poor mental deficient might have done.
It was not a big room, but there was one peculiar thing about it that I'd noticed before: the windows were barred. I sat down and she took up the coffee- pot and then put it down again.
'These wretched servants have forgotten to fill the milk-jug,' she said.
It was so natural for her to walk out with the little jug in her hand that I suspected nothing. It was when the door closed with a bang, and I heard the lock snap, that I knew just where I was going to get off. Outside in the hall I heard her speaking quickly, and caught the words 'police reserves'. That man Brett certainly took her into his confidence.
There was a rustle of feet on the stairs, and five minutes later the front door slammed.
I threw up the window of the dining-room; it looked out on to the back garden and to the embankment of the Metropolitan Railway. The bars were steel and thick. I tried the door, and then, with a chair, I made an attempt to hammer out a panel. But the door was oaken, and there wasn't a bit of furniture in the room that was strong enough to dent a panel, let alone break it. Half an hour afterwards the reserves had surrounded the house, and I saw one of my men in the back garden and gave him a few instructions.
They released me at last and, forcing the door on the landing above, we found just what nobody expected to find, except me I hate saying nice things about myself, but justice must be done. A complete photographic and printing plant, four or five hundred French bank-notes. I don't know how many thousand English treasury notes—in fact, just the outfit you'd look to find in a swell forger's workshop.
Poor Brett was terribly upset.
'Brett,' I said, 'you've lost nothing because you never had it. And anyway, you've talked too much, and you're lucky that I'm not bringing you before the Commissioner for giving away the key word.'
I went out into the garden and made a survey of the 'wireless aerial'. And now I could see how poor Looey and the Yellow Man got theirs. The second pole of the aerial was near the side of the house. Any self-respecting burglar could climb it, and, once on the top, could reach a window through which the wire ran, if they didn't happen to touch the wire. For the aerial was a very simple affair. It tapped the juice that runs on the live rail of the Metropolitan, and gave the Stricklands all the light and power they needed. And as for the candles:
'That kept suspicion away from them. You'd not dream of looking in a candle house for a plant run by power.'
Poor Brett was almost in tears.
'I don t know why Strickland faked being an invalid,' he said.
But that was easy. He had to go out of doors to get rid of the stuff, and there was no more convincing way of leaving the house than to be carried.
'Nobody would stop him and search the pillow behind his head. I said. 'Don't you know that everybody's kind to a sick man?'
'Then they ought to be kind to me.' said Sergeant Brett very bitterly, 'for I'm the sickest thing you've seen in years!'