The Vicar’s Version
‘You don’t think, do you,’ I ventured, ‘that you are making
rather too much of this hat business?’
‘Certainly not,’ my sister replied briskly. ‘One doesn’t
take tea with a murderer every day, does one?’
‘What about me?’
‘That’s hardly every day . . . and besides, you don’t count.’
She refilled her cup and scrutinized the two hats perched at
the end of the dining room table.
Suitably chastened, I said nothing and resumed my
struggles with the crossword. Such struggles are small
compared with the larger conundrums of guilt and concealment,
not to mention the problem of ducking the
demands of bishop and Mothers’ Union. Being a clergyman
is an exacting matter at the best of times, but the
difficulties are compounded if one is also an assassin.
I had not always been an assassin, and indeed for most
of my time – as undergraduate, soldier and eventually
vicar – had led a life of blameless ineptitude. But that was
all changed (the blameless part at any rate) by Mrs Elizabeth
Fotherington on that fateful day in the wood – when
in the vain hope of retaining my sanity and a measure of
peace I had dispatched her to kingdom come. Since then,
as you might expect, life has turned complex and precarious
and I have been subject to a variety of discomfiting
entanglements. The most recent of these was what might
be termed the ‘French fracas’, a gruelling time spent in the
Massif Central amidst soaring peaks and base pursuers.
Mercifully the latter came to an abrupt end (none of my
doing, I hasten to say), but the repercussions were arduous,
and involved me in issues which I had confidently
assumed to be resolved once back in England in the safety
of my parish of Molehill. Delusion.
‘On the whole,’ Primrose continued, ‘I think I prefer the
one without the veil. I know you say you like it, but I don’t
wish to give him a false impression.’
‘What sort of false impression?’ I asked.
‘Of being anything other than what I am – i.e. an
Englishwoman of impeccable credentials and honest intention.
The veil has a foreign air, and I wouldn’t like him to
think . . .’ She left the remainder unsaid, and picking up the
grey hat with the assertive green bow placed it firmly on
her head and gazed into the mirror.
I shrugged and lit a cigarette. ‘If you say so. But why
on earth Rupert Turnbull should think you are remotely
foreign when he knows from our encounter in France that
you are as British as he – or me for that matter – I cannot
She sighed impatiently. ‘Really, Francis, you are so literal!
You know perfectly well what I mean. It is imperative
that he sees me as sound and not one to be trifled with.
There’s a great deal at stake in this transaction – we’re not
talking peanuts, you know. And I’m damned if I am going
to let that bludgeoning scoundrel think he can get his
hands on my paintings for less than the market price –
more would be preferable. A tiny hat with a veil looks
either frivolous or dubious, and if things are to go
smoothly it is essential I wield the moral advantage.’
‘By wearing a hat without a veil?’
‘Precisely,’ she snapped.
There was a pause while I pondered this. And then I
asked what she would like me to wear.
‘Well, a suit, of course, but the essential thing is the dog
collar. You didn’t wear it much in France and it is important
that Turnbull be reminded of your status. Just because
he battered Boris Birtle-Figgins to death and got away
with it, he needn’t think he can run circles around the
‘But Primrose,’ I murmured, ‘we still don’t really know
that he did it. It’s not as if he—’
‘If you mean he wasn’t so foolish as to confess to anyone
in the way that you blurted your idiocy to slippery
Nicholas Ingaza, you’re perfectly right. But as we all
agreed at the time, the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming.
Make no mistake – the man is a ruthless,
calculating killer and highly dangerous!’
‘All the more reason,’ I said testily, ‘to stay out of his
way. I cannot think why you arranged to meet him back in
London. We should have severed all connection the
moment the steamer left the quayside at Dieppe. In fact,
until the arrival of your telegram last week, I thought we
had done just that. It really is too bad!’
She stared at me in wonder. ‘But I have already explained,
Francis. Rupert and I have a commercial contract.
I am to supply his new London language school with at
least six of my rustic church and sheep paintings. This is
not something he can be permitted to renege upon, however
tasteless or violent his private life. And if things go
appropriately I could well get a further order for a batch to
the Oxford one as well . . . No, as I said, we must rendezvous
with him at Brown’s Hotel next Tuesday afternoon at
four o’clock sharp – and don’t forget the collar.’
I heaved a sigh and returned to the crossword. Five
across: ‘Dog mad as a hatter.’ Seven letters. I swivelled the
propelling pencil and carefully wrote in ‘Barking’.
An hour later, with Primrose and hat boxes safely en route
to her home in Lewes, and with the phone off the hook, I
made further inroads into the crossword, accompanied by
a small packet of peppermints and a large gin. It had been
a strenuous day – sorting the drifts of diocesan edicts
heaped up during my leave, parrying the inanities of
Mavis Briggs, being lambasted by a mother whose child
had failed to be chosen for the Sunday School prize, and
last but certainly not least, being faced with the unexpected
arrival of my sister.
It was not so much Primrose’s presence per se that had
been unsettling (siblings, after all, grow thick skins – and
in fact we enjoy a wary closeness), but her resolution that
we should renew acquaintance with Rupert Turnbull.
Pleasant and personable, Turnbull had become a source
of considerable disquiet during the latter part of our stay
in the Auvergne, when it emerged that in all likelihood he
was a blackmailer and double murderer, and (unlike
myself) confident, adroit and smoothly efficient. As I have
remarked before, it is bad enough having to confront one’s
own fall from grace, but to be dragged willy-nilly into
another’s murky slipstream is distinctly disagreeable . . .
especially when in all probability the party in question
would not hesitate to take a hammer to one’s skull if he
Really, I thought, if only Primrose were less mercenary,
sleeping dogs could safely lie and a modicum of peace be
achieved. As it was . . .
I poured another drop of gin and stared gloomily at my
own sleeping dog, and wondered not for the first time
what on earth the creature dreamed about. Rabbits? Bones?
Chasing the cat? Certainly not strolling up Albemarle
Street to Brown’s Hotel, sprucely dressed in clerical grey
and rehearsing pleasantries to exchange with a fellow
homicide . . . Lucky little beggar, innocent as the day he
The Dog’s Diary
Well, like I told Maurice, I wasn’t really asleep – just thinking
with my eyes closed. And listening and sniffing. It’s
amazing what you can pick up that way – just lying doggo
and letting them think you’re dead to the world, when all
the time you are alive as a CAT ON HOT BRICKS!
Maurice didn’t like me saying that and started to go into
one of his sulks, but he soon snapped out of it when I
began to tell him what I had heard F.O. and the Prim talking
about earlier that afternoon. ‘Oh dear,’ the vicar had
said, ‘I don’t think I can face any more of that sort of thing,
we had quite enough of that fellow in France. Can’t you
meet him on your own if you have to?’ The Prim pulled a
face and said her brother wasn’t exactly about to get a
medal for chivalry, was he? Don’t know what she meant
by that, but I suppose F.O. did because he went red in the
face and mumbled that he would go along if she thought
he could really be of help.
When I mentioned that bit to Maurice he started to
laugh – in that weedy way of his, like a mouse gargling
with nettle juice – and said something about there being a
thin line between help and hindrance which he didn’t think
the vicar had ever quite grasped. Matter of fact I couldn’t
quite grasp what the cat was saying either, but then I often
don’t. Gets a bit carried away with himself sometimes.
Anyway, the more we chewed things over and reckoned
that F.O. (our master the vicar) was about to put his foot in
things again, the more gloomy we got . . . No, that’s not
quite right: the cat got gloomy and I got all sneezy and
bristly (the old sixth sense playing up, telling me there’s
fireworks ahead). Most times I don’t get gloomy, except
when O’Shaughnessy the Irish Setter beats me in the peeing
game or F.O. snatches one of my bones and puts it on
the mantelpiece where I can’t reach.
But Maurice is often out of sorts. It’s his own fault. He’s
what you might call a disapproving cat, and so all manner
of things get up his nose and on his tail and he goes ratty.
Which is why he is jolly lucky to have me as his chum. I
sort of help him along and make him look on the bright
side of things. For instance, I told him once that every catlitter
tray has its silver lining – which struck me as quite a
useful thing to say. But he didn’t seem to get the message
and muttered something about being tired of stupid dogs
spouting fatuous platitudes (whatever they are!), and that
in any case nobody could ever say the same for my basket
. . . Oh well, just goes to show, Muncho before mogs!
Mind you, he has his moments – lots of them in fact. Like
that time in France when he attacked one of the goons who
was after F.O. and sent him flying over the cliff edge, or
when he scared the living daylights out of Mavis Briggs
and she nearly fell into the open grave at one of those
corpse-burying things our master is always having in the
churchyard. (It’s nice the way the vicar and me share the
same interest in bones – though I’ve never actually seen
him gnaw any. Offered him a chew of mine a couple of
times, but he didn’t seem too keen. Prefers his fags I
Anyway, the point is that Maurice and me know that the
business in France with whatshisname – Turnip, I think –
is going to catch up with F.O. and make big trouble. But
what the cat doesn’t know and I do – because my bones tell
me – is that it won’t be long before Ingaza the Brighton
Type shows up again. And oh my arse, then there’ll be a
buggers’ shindig, MAKE NO MISTAKE!
The Cat’s Memoir
It was too bad! I had been fondly hoping that Primrose’s
intention to resume connection with that smooth villain
was a passing whim. Apparently not, and I should have
known better. The more I see of the vicar’s sister the more
I realize that unlike her brother, she is possessed of a rare
and steely obstinacy . . .
You see, Bouncer had informed me that during her
recent visit to the vicarage he had heard her instructing
F.O. to prepare for a trip up to London for the purpose of
taking tea with the Turnip man in some Mayfair hostelry.
As it happened, I had already learnt something of this
notion soon after we returned from the deprivations of
France but had foolishly assumed that for once the vicar
might allow common sense to prevail. As I frequently have
to remind the dog, I am a cat of sharp and sage perception
– and it was galling to have been caught in the snare of
wishful thinking. However, as the humans glibly put it, no
use mewing over spilt milk. The immediate necessity was
to confront the current development and cope as best one
could with human frailty – i.e. the vicar’s gaffes.
These gaffes were much in evidence in France – an
experience from which I had barely recovered – where,
accompanied by his sister and the manipulative Brighton
Type, F.O. fell foul of all manner of alarming idiocies
and dangerous ruffians. (I do not include the bishop and
his female entourage in this latter category, though their
presence there hardly contributed to peaceful harmony.
Neither, I suppose, should one count the Curé of
Taupinière – a specimen even more suspect than the
Fortunately, two of those ruffians were eventually disposed
of – with, I might say, no small help from myself.
But the principal one, Turnip, remained at large and was
clearly destined to be a thorn in our master’s flesh – or
more to the point, in the flesh of Bouncer and myself. Being
a canine, the dog lacks the sensibilities of us cats and is
given to spluttering that he finds our master’s entanglements
‘GOOD SPORT!’ Even so, he is not so foolish as to
forget that F.O. is a source of food, comfort and relative
protection, and that it would be unfortunate were those
things to be withdrawn on account of laxity and oversight.
There have indeed been some near misses, and naturally
the whole issue of the original Fotherington murder continues
to pose a niggling threat to our welfare. However,
on the whole I have learned to live with the vexations; and
while I would not agree with Bouncer about the ‘good
sport’, it has to be said that balancing on the high wire with
the vicar does have its moments of sprightly amusement.
Not that there was anything sprightly or amusing about
the dog’s inane attempts at French conversation that afternoon.
Just because we spent time in the Auvergne he now
imagines he is a native speaker and goes around shouting
absurd gobbledegook accompanied by much shoulder
movement and paw waving. It is a tiresome and raucous
display and I cannot think why the poodle, Pierre the
Ponce, seems so impressed. My own grasp of the language,
selective and academic as it is, does not lend itself to such
exhibitionism . . . But then, of course, one has to make
allowances for the braggadocio of dogs.
And talking of dogs, I also gathered from Bouncer that
we could expect another visitation from the toping Gunga
Din – yes, if you please, that corpulent hound attached to
the lady crime novelist who had descended on F.O. when
he was once being forced to house Ingaza’s ill-gotten
swag. It had been bad enough our master having to cope
with the Brighton Type and his oily manoeuvres, but to be
encumbered with Mrs Tubbly Pole as well, not to mention
the dreadful bulldog drooling at her heels, was really the
last straw. And now Bouncer told me they were coming
My instinct of course was to ignore the dog’s prognostications
– based as they were on that questionable ‘sixth
sense’ of his – but the recent news of the proposed London
meeting with Turnip made me suspicious, and I feared the
Thus, as a corrective to drooping spirits and a means of
stiffening the fur in readiness for the coming ordeal, I
decided that a gentle session with the Special Eye would
be helpful; and repairing to the quiet of the pantry, I proceeded
to caper with my favourite toy. This, I must explain,
had been presented to me by Bouncer in one of his more
rational moments. Indeed, in view of the pleasure it has
since given, one might almost say it was an offering of
inspired thoughtfulness. I say almost for it doesn’t do to
lavish too much praise on the dog as it creates mayhem.
But at the appropriate times I am careful to express my
The item in question is the blue glass eye which Bouncer
encountered under the neck of the corpse battered by
Turnip. Details of the discovery appear in an earlier volume
of my memoir and so need no further reference here.
Suufice to say that the little trinket affords much gaiety,
and for the time being permitted me to ignore the looming
Excerpted from A Bedlam of Bones by Suzette A. Hill. Copyright © 2011 by Suzette A. Hill. Excerpted by permission of Soho Constable, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.