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
SOOPER? I'm used to it. Naturally the young policemen won't call me that to my face, they'd be ticked off if they did. I want 'sir' and 'superintendent' from them. Now, over in New York I'd be 'chief' to everybody, but in the metropolitan police area 'chief' means that herring-bellied deputy-commissioner and nobody else.
As a detective I'm a disappointed man: I've got no science in me. Pawson, the banker, was telling me the other day that the only way to discover whether a chap is crook or just plain stockbroker is to examine a gland—I forget the name of it—in the middle of his neck. He read about it in a newspaper. He said that another way is to measure his head. Personally, I've never had the time. When I put the stick to a man's head it isn't to measure it. But I admire that kind of detective. There's a book been written about one. He lived up in the West, had an apartment in Baker Street and played the fiddle. An' when he was short of clues, he took a shot of 'coke' an' naturally he saw more clues in a minute than a flat-footed policeman would see in a year. This feller always had a doctor around so that you might say that he wasn't as big a fool as he looked.
I've seen the scientific method tried—once! There used to be a sub-inspector of the CID at Scotland Yard named Croomb. He was a sergeant of mine when I was in K Division, a young feller who took police work pretty serious, though he never got a real good case till the Hillboro Road murder came along. I must say he put his back into that an' did good work. You remember the case—the woman's body in a sack an' nothing' to identify her except she wore odd stockin's? Croomb worked on the stockin's and got Lebrun, the Hoxton butcher, in the pen, an' eventually on to the trap. It was good work—but, what's the word when a parson starts in to put fancy bits into the marriage service? Unorthodox! That's it! The case got him promotion, which was good, but it got him into the'rist class, which wasn't so good. He started laboratizin': fixed up a sort of workshop at the back of his house in Camden Road, and he an' his girl used to work there for hours. Her name was Eleanor Fenning, a pretty blond, who had been to college an' held degrees in science.
It's a great thing for any man when a woman believes in him, because women work by a kind of wild animal instinct that's neither sense nor reason. Never played the races with a girl, have you? She doesn't look up form or go pikin' round for tips—she just likes the pretty jackets—the mauve an' cream, or maybe the powder blue with silver trimmin's, an' she plays a twenty-to-one shot that all the dockers say couldn't win unless the others dropped dead; and it comes home alone.
Eleanor believed in Croomb. She got an idea that I was jealous of him and kept him out of promotion. When a woman thinks that way you've just got to let her go right on thinkin'—it's like lettin' Niag'ra fall.
She was strong for Eastern stuff. Read Major Laye's Short Study of Native Crime and Bissart's—can't think of the title now, but it's got to do with crimes that are committed by natives for religious purposes.
'There are a lot of undiscovered murders, Sooper.' she used to say to me, 'that are traceable to the rites an' ceremonies of the mysterious East.'
'Maybe there is, Miss Fenning,' says I, 'but there's a whole lot that's traceable to people wantin' the money in the mysterious West.'
Some of the stuff she talked about, I didn't understand. In my young days education wasn't so epidemic as it is now. We hadn't anybody at headquarters who could tell you whether a bloodstain came from a mammal or an animal—are they? Well, whatever they were.
Charlie Croomb kept samples of London mud an' could tell you whether a burglar lived in Kilburn or Kew. My own way is to ask him and tell him he's a liar: say that often enough and he'll spill it. And what does it matter where he lives so long as you've got his fingerprints, an' records can tell you the day of the month he went down for his last conviction? Real crime an' book crime's different. In a book, the feller that's caught leanin' over the body with a gun in his hand is usually the hero of the piece, and the bird who did the shootin' is the old butler who's been in the service of the family for forty-five years. But in real life, when you find somebody with a gun within shootin' distance of the dear departed, you pinch him and he's properly hung, walkin' to the drop with a firm step an' hopin' everybody will take a warnin' from his drinkin' habits.
It's because we're unscientific in London that out of fifty killings a year we catch twenty-eight an' the other twenty-two die by their own hands. I'm old-fashioned. I don't believe in temp'ry insanity or brain-storms or psycho—whatever the word is. No doctor ever gets in the box to swear that a burglar's not responsible for his actions, and you don't produce brain specialists to explain why the head cashier is ten thousand short at the call-over. It's only when somebody is killed, and somebody else stands up in the dock an' puts himself on God and his country (as they say at trials), that the nerve doctor pulls out his diagrams to prove that the cause of all the trouble is a shortage of grey matter in the anterior cavity of the epiginkium. In the Bible, which is a pretty useful tex'-book, there's nothing about brain-storms an' subconscious urges. When Cain opened the register he did his shooting because he wanted more than he was gettin'—an' that's why most murders are committed. But in that good book there's quite a lot about wickedness. It's an old-fashioned word that never arises in court, except in the indictment. Right down behind every bad crime you'll find that word if you look for it. But generally it is called something else.
And science can get you all wrong. What respect can you have for the scientific mind when you see it heave a paving-brick through the plate-glass window of a jeweller's shop?
Professor Charles Bigglewood was, in a manner of speaking, a friend of mine. He used to call me 'Sooper' for one thing. And I've dined at his house in Clarges Street for another. He wrote books on chemistry an' the human mind. I don't know who read 'em—I suppose there are queer people who buy that sort of junk, but I never met 'em. He gave me a copy of one with his own name written on a blank page, and I tried to read it, but the book was kind of dry. There were no characters in it and no pictures, but the binding was grand. I had it on the shelf of my parlour for years.
I got to know him through savin' the life of his daughter. That sound like a detective story, but all I did was to grab her by the hair just as she was steppin' in front of a motor-car. She was about eight at the time—a nice girl but romantical, even at that age. She said she was glad she wasn't killed, because it would have made the driver feel so bad. Some people are like that. Personally, I'd rather a driver threw any kind of fit than the amb'lance bells should be ringin' for me. That's my nature—egotistical. I took her home. I was a mere inspector in those days an' wore uniform, havin' been fired out of the Special Branch for tellin' my superintendent he was playin' favourites. No, it wasn't a question of promotion, only I raided a night club and pinched a lady friend of his, and he wanted the charge withdrawn.
Well, Professor Bigglewood took a view that I'd done something big in scalping his daughter—wanted to give me money, and asked me to dinner, and the Lord knows what. I liked him. He was a pretty nice old man: married his housekeeper late in life—she'd been dead six years when I met him. A clever old boy in spite of his learnin'. Ever noticed how easy these bright scholars fall for a con' man? He was an inventor, too—got a process for dealin' with spelter workin' in the Midlands, and bringing him in a whole lot of money every month. He liked good wine—talked about port as if it was human. In appearance he was nearly the double of the late Gen'ral Booth—long, white beard, fierce sort of nose, and white hair. I've sat listenin' to him by the hour wonderin' at his horse sense. He was the only man I ever met who didn't think police headquarters ought to be more scientific.
And he had one hobby—the collection of little idols—Buddha an' Shion an' quaint things like that. One night he opened a case and took out a little green dragon—made of jade.
'There's a history to that, Sooper,' he said. 'I bought it from a Chinaman at Tower Hill. Gave him a pound for it. He was found in the river next day with his throat cut!'
'How do you know it was the same Chink?' I asked him, bein' suspicious about coincidences.
'My card was in his pocket. He had told me he had another like it, so I asked him to bring it to me.'
I remembered the dead Chinaman. Up at the Yard we thought there had been a Tong fight.
Croomb got to know Bigglewood, too—I can't remember for certain, but I've an idea I introduced him. Never mind about that; Croomb met him, an' once or twice went to dinner with Miss Fenning. Naturally, idols thrilled Eleanor, who wanted to know whether any of 'em had been stolen from a temple when the priest was full of hootch. She got that out of a book. But I reckon that most of his idols came through the usual junk-shops, and that the only body robbed was the professor. Except in one case—the jade dragon. Croomb had his views about this.
'I've advised the professor to send it to a museum,' he said. 'In my considered opinion that dragon is a dangerous thing to have around.'
From what I heard later it seems that Bigglewood hung on to the dragon.
I hadn't a chance of seeing it, for I sort of lost sight of him for years; every New Year's Day I got a wire or a card from him wishin' me luck in the comin' year, may it be bright an' prosperous, an' the usual stuff. Once or twice he wired from Switzerland, an' I guessed that Amelia—that was his daughter's name—was winter-sportin'. I saw her once or twice bein' driven in the professor's new Rolls sedan—the old man did things in style, had the smartest chauffeur, the fattest butler, and the slickest footman in Clarges Street. I didn't know anything about her bein' married, but Sergeant Cross, who is in charge of Records and reads Births, Deaths and Marriages for his own amusement, brought the cutting to me. She'd married Captain Arthur Helby, DSO, MC, in Derby somewhere. About three months after Records brought me a cutting that made me feel mighty sorry for the girl and her father. It was of a death: 'Helby, Captain Arthur Helby, DSO, MC, on October 24th, in Dublin, after a short illness.'
That was all. I wrote to the professor, but got no answer, and when I rung up his house in Clarges Street the caretaker told me that the professor had gone abroad with his daughter. The caretaker said that the captain died a natural death, though there was a lot of shooting in Dublin round about that time.
The next I heard was that she'd married again—a middle-aged general, and had left for India on her honeymoon trip. This bit of news was in the early editions of the evening papers the very day I saw the professor. I sat down an' wrote a letter to the old man. As a matter of fact, after I posted it I wished I had torn it up, because I didn't want him to feel that I was chasin' him. And that night I met him. I was up west lookin' for the taxi burglar—a man who used to drive a taxi up to the house he was going to 'bust'. It was a good scheme, because there's nothing suspicious about a taxi loafin' round a residential square. This bird I was looking for had done three good jobs in a month and got away with 'em.
In the ordinary course of duty I called in at Vine Street, an' was talkin' to the inspector, when I heard somebody comin' into the charge-room, an' lookin' up I nearly dropped—for the man in the patrol's hands was Professor Bigglewood! He was in evenin' dress, his top hat was on his head, and he was, to my eyes, dazed but sober. He saw me an' nodded very solemn. I didn't say a word, but just listened to the young officer who had brought him in.
'I was on duty in Regent Street at one-five this morning he said (we teach young policemen to give evidence to the point), 'an' I saw this man take a wooden pavin' block from a pile that was standin' by the roadside. Before I could reach him he had thrown the brick through the plate-glass window of the Ten Per Cent Jewellery Store.'
I couldn't believe my ears.
'Are you sure it was this gentleman?' I asked, though it was no business of mine, and I apologized afterwards to the inspector in charge for buttin' in.'
'Certain,—sir,' says the officer.
'He was the only man in sight.'
The inspector started in to ask the professor his name and address, and Mr Bigglewood answered without any hesitation. He said that he had been to his club, the Learned Societies, in St James's Street. There had been a dinner given by some of his friends in honour of his daughter's wedding. According to the professor's story, all the men at the dinner were the kind who have to be in bed at ten by doctor's orders, and round about eleven he had a whisky-an'- soda in the readin'-room and went to sleep. When he woke up the club was in darkness an' he had to unlock the front door and let himself out. He was kind of bothered, but he wasn't drunk. He was certain of this—half-asleep was the way he put it. He was half-way down Regent Street when he heard somebody walkin' behind him, an' had a horrible feelin' of fear. It was so bad that he grabbed the first thing he could lay hands on—which was a road block. He said he could no more help doin' it than he could help standin' on his feet. He just lammed out with the block, and bing went the window!
The divisional surgeon came in at that minute, which was lucky, for the doctor knew Professor Bigglewood, and naturally he wouldn't certify him as drunk—not that he would have done that in any case. As to the man who was following, the policeman swore there was nobody near.
'I think Mr Bigglewood's theory that he was walking, to all intents and purposes, in his sleep is a sound one,' said the doctor and laughed. 'You'll have to settle the cost of the shop window with the jewellers, professor,' he said.
I could sec the old man was upset—who wouldn't be? Suppose you were a high-class professor an' woke up and found yourself in the dock on a charge of smashing a jeweller's window at one o'clock in the morning! The long and the short of it was that he was released, and the inspector said he'd send a man down to the shop first thing in the morning and explain how the accident happened.
The professor asked me to walk back home with him; he wouldn't take a taxi—he thought the walk would kind of wake him up. Most of the conversation was on my side; he seemed too rattled to talk. From Vine Street to Regent Street isn't far, but we walked pretty slowly because he was an elderly gentleman. As we turned out of Piccadilly I saw a taxicab drawn up in front of Bigglewood's house, and there was an inspector and a policeman there, an' the inspector was Croomb. He was knocking at the door as we came up.
'Is that Professor Bigglewood?' he said. 'Good evening, professor. Is this cab waiting for anybody in your house?'
Bigglewood shook his head; he was still a bit dull. He began feelin' in his pocket for the key, an' after a bit Croomb and I walked round and had a look at the taxicab. It was a new machine, and the engines were stone cold. It had been standing there, according to the policeman, for the best part of two hours.
'Is it—in the way?' asked Professor Bigglewood, who suddenly seemed to wake up from his trance.
'No, sir,' said Croomb. 'Will you open the door, professor—maybe somebody is inside.'
What Croomb thought, and what I thought too, was that maybe the house was being burgled. And, of course, when we wanted to get into the house the professor had lost his key
'Is there anybody in the house?' I asked.
He shook his head and began to search his pockets.
Just at that minute I heard a church clock strike two. We were standing there, all of us looking, or feeling, pretty foolish. I didn't know what to do with the professor, though I had an idea that if I searched him thoroughly I'd have found the key, though naturally it was a delicate matter for a superintendent of police to suggest that he search anybody.
I don't know why I particularly remember that moment: the dark street with the street lights, and the late traffic passing along Piccadilly at the end; the clear sky overhead, with a few stars showing, and a faint scent of flowers coming from the Lord knows where. I remember Croomb saying:
'You will remember, professor, that I told you the other day about the danger of taxicab burglaries?'
And that's about all I remember. Suddenly me and the taxicab came into collision. My elbow went through the window, and the next second I found myself lying across the steering-wheel with all the breath knocked out of me. I didn't hear any explosion, didn't see any flash. When I tell you that the hood of the car was cut to ribbons by flying glass, and that one of the railings in front of the house was flung fifty feet, you'll have an idea that it was some explosion.
I got to my feet, and the first thing I saw was the professor lying in a heap on the ground. The next thing was the policeman lifting Croomb from the gutter I don't know how the policeman had escaped, because he stood in the path of the explosion, but except that he lost his helmet and had his chin cut by the glass he was none the worse, and Croomb escaped altogether, except that he was knocked out.
I sent the policeman running for the fire alarm, and ordered him to send back the people who were turning into the street to see what it was all about. The front of the professor's house was blown out completely, and so was one of the walls, but fortunately there was a party wall of a house that was untenanted. There was no more fire than a smouldering carpet, and we had that out before the fire brigade came on the spot.
Police reserves were rushed to Clarges Street to keep off the crowd, but long before they had arrived Croomb and I discovered the taxi man. He had been flung against the wall, and he was lying half on a settee and half on the floor, and he was dead. A tall, good-looking fellow he had been—Croomb and I pulled him out into the street, and before the doctor came it was pretty easy to see that nothing could be done for him.
Before he went into the house we had made the professor as comfortable as we could. He was quite unconscious, but as far as I could see there was no bad injury. I thought he was knocked out, as Croomb had been, but when the doctor came he took a very serious view, and they rushed him off to the hospital in the ambulance.
Before the police stretcher got to Clarges Street we made a search of the dead man's clothes, and the first thing I found was a small jemmy in his right-hand coat pocket. It was the newest jemmy I have ever found on a burglar.
'We've got the taxi thief,' said Croomb. 'I suspected this from the moment I saw the machine outside the door!'
He'd hardly said the words before he made his real discovery. Suddenly I heard him say:
'Good God! Look at this!'
In the light of the lantern I saw in his hand the little green dragon of jade!
'Where was it?' I asked.
'In his overcoat pocket.' said Croomb, and when we had finished the search we went into the house, to the back room where the professor kept his collection. Only one case was opened, and that was the one, according to Croomb, where Bigglewood always kept the dragon. Nothing else was touched. There were two or three items of solid gold, and one or two things in the room that were worth real money, but the cases had not been so much as opened. Of course, the glasses were shattered by the explosion, and some of them were on the floor.
'It's easy to see what he came for,' said Croomb. 'The dragon!'
He was quivering with excitement.
'I told the professor the last time I saw him to send that thing to a museum. The thing is as clear as daylight. He came here to pinch the dragon, and took some time in finding it. The door leading to the collection room has been wrecked, so we can't tell yet how it was opened, but I'll bet money that it was "busted" by a jemmy.'
'How did the explosion happen, inspector?' I asked him. I always believe in asking questions: you sometimes get an idea from the answer. Quite a lot of people get their education either that way or by contradicting what other people say.
'There was a gas-stove in Mr Bigglewood's study. It may have been leaking, or it may have been left on by accident. The man must have come into the room and heard me and the constable talking on the street. We'd been here a quarter of an hour. Either he lit his match to light a cigarette or to find his way out—there's no sign of an electric torch here—and the room blew up.'
I sort of scratched my head at that.
'Maybe he couldn't smell the gas?' I suggested.
'He might smell the gas and never dream there was any danger,' said Croomb a bit sharply, and I didn't argue with him.
The professor died without regaining consciousness about four o'clock in the morning, and as I was busy all the forenoon I didn't get any chance of seeing Croomb. I don't think it would have been much use my talking, even if I had.
I have never been quite sure whether Croomb or Eleanor was the official press agent, and it was not my business to inquire; but certainly the late editions of the evening papers smelt like Eleanor.
'Green Dragon Clue in Taxicab Mystery,' was one headline, and 'The Vengeance of the Chinese Dragon God' was another. On the whole I guess it was Eleanor the public had to thank, for she was strong for the mysterious East.
There was a double inquest; one on the taxi-man, whose name was Rolls and who lived at Notting Hill; another on the professor. Rolls wasn't well known; he had only been living in his present lodgings for a month. There were no papers to identify him, and beyond a few things that I had collected and locked up in my room in Scotland Yard, no kind of clue whatever. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death in both cases, and the green dragon was handed round to the jury and the Press-box, and pretty nearly everybody in court, and for the next week all the papers published articles on the Mysterious East, and how bad it was to go monkeying with Chinese religion.
The long and the short of it was that Croomb got a step in promotion. When I saw the deputy commissioner the day after the inquest he told me that he thought it wasn't much credit to me that a junior officer should have taken the case from right under my nose and made a success of it.
'In fact, Sooper,' he said, 'I can't help feeling, after reading the minutes of this case, that our department must be brought up to date. We need more science, a larger and wider perception—'
And all that sort of stuff.
Croomb and his young lady got married on the strength of his promotion. I went to the wedding and to the party they gave after. What I missed was the little green dragon. I thought it ought to have been put on the invitation cards, and maybe done in sugar on top of the cake.
The deputy was sore with me—and naturally. I didn't tell him all I might have told him. He said it was my business to come to him as soon as I found the strip of sponge-platinum and the bottle of cyanide. Perhaps he was right, though I'd told the Chief Commissioner and the Home Office pathologist, who's got more science in the fingers of his left hand than most people I know. We knew Rolls had been poisoned, because we found the poison in Bigglewood's pocket, and the old pathologist, he found the rest by careful investigation. And we knew that the taxi-driver's name wasn't Rolls at all, because I took his fingerprints and turned them up at the Yard, and found his name was Williams, alias Helby—well, here's the story:
Helby was a crook, a man of good education, who used to take jobs as chauffeur in a family where there was a chance of pickings—he did two terms of light imprisonment for theft and larceny. And then he came into Bigglewood's service and got acquainted with the girl. The first thing the old professor knew about the affair was when he got a wire that Helby had married the girl at a Midland registrar's office. He had been married before, but a little thing like that didn't worry Mr Helby.
The old man, to save his face, published the notice of the wedding to 'Captain Helby.' I've got an idea that this young scoundrel had held some sort of commission in the war.
Anyway, Bigglewood had to pay out to keep his new son-in-law, though he couldn't hope to give Helby all the money he wanted. And then, after a few years, the first Mrs Helby turned up, about the same time as Arthur was arrested for burglary in Dublin.
With the fear of a charge of bigamy hanging over him. Helby sent a message to London, having milked the professor as dry as possible, to say that he was dead. The fake was worked from Ireland, and the young widow, who couldn't have been very sorry after the life she had lived, went back to her father, and eventually married General Carslake. I discovered that the 'dead man' had been doing three years for burglary, and that he came out of prison two months or so before the death of the professor.
He managed to hire a new taxi, and got a licence under the name of Rolls. He may or may not have been burgling in London. All that I know is that the jemmy we found in his pocket was bought by an old gentleman with a white beard the day of the explosion.
Helby would have Iain low, only he heard about the forthcoming marriage. This put an idea into his head that he might blackmail the old man, and the night before the wedding Helby turned up in Clarges Street (I could have produced the professor's servant to prove this, but I didn't) and in all probability asked a big sum as the price of his silence.
The old man was as keen a student of human nature as I've ever met—the fact that he put the dragon and the jemmy in Helby's pocket proves that—and he planned the murder of the blackmailer with the care of a scientist—I'll never again say anything against science. It's perfectly true that he did hide in the club till it was shut, that he let himself out and made his way down to Clarges Street, where Helby was waiting for him. He doped him with cyanide of potassium in a glass of port. As soon as Helby was dead, he laid a strip of sponge platinum on the table, turned on the gas fire and went out. Sponge platinum is not a new one on me—I use it every morning to light my gas-ring. The moment coal gas gets at this mineral it turns it white hot, and that's what happened when the room was full of gas and how the explosion occurred. That piece of sponge platinum was almost the first thing I found when I got in the room.
When the murder was done. Bigglewood went out of the house, got to Regent Street by a back way, and, as soon as he saw a policeman, put a brick through a window, expecting to be locked up for the night. He was alibi-hunting, and it was bad luck that I happened to be in the station when they pulled in.
No, sir, we didn't want any scandal. The Home Secretary didn't want it, and the Chief Commissioner didn't want it. Sooner than have scandal, they gave Croomb his promotion. Drop in one night on him and his wife and hear the tale of the little green dragon of jade. And don't laugh, or you'll be giving me away.