Hardcastle's Frustration Online - Graham Ison

ONE

The detectives’ office in Cannon Row police station, in a turning off Whitehall in London, was thick with tobacco smoke on that Monday morning at the beginning of March 1918. The police station and New Scotland Yard opposite had been erected 28 years previously to the plans of Norman Shaw and constructed, fittingly, from Dartmoor granite hewn by convicts from the nearby prison.

All the windows in the office were firmly closed and the only heating came from a solitary and inadequate smoky fire. However, the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District was obliged to be parsimonious in his capacity as controller of the Force’s finances, and spent no more on the comfort of junior police officers than met the minimum requirements. The thinking of the hierarchy was that such officers should be out on the street, not languishing in their offices.

In this stark and essentially functional room, four or five detectives were seated around a long wooden table, each working on reports, applications for warrants and all the other paperwork that was a necessary part of a CID officer’s lot. There was, however, only one typewriter in the office, and fewer chairs than there were detectives, a state of affairs that was regarded by the senior officers as an incentive for their juniors to arrive early.

Close to the door of the office, Detective Sergeant (First Class) Charles Marriott, being the senior officer in the room, was privileged to have his own desk. This morning he was drafting a complicated report that would eventually find its way to the office of the Solicitor to the Metropolitan Police and thence to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But it was not proving easy, and several times, he had begun it again. In common with other detectives, Marriott had often thought that it was easier to solve a crime than to commit the details to paper afterwards.

‘Excuse me, Sergeant.’ The young uniformed constable on station duty hovered in the doorway.

‘Yes, what is it now?’ asked Marriott, throwing down his pen in exasperation and heaving a sigh. ‘And don’t tell me you’re applying to become a detective. Take it from me, it’s not worth the trouble.’

‘No, Sergeant, it’s this message that’s just come in from Thames Division.’ The PC crossed to Marriott’s desk and handed over a form.

Marriott quickly scanned the brief missive. ‘All right, leave it with me,’ he said, standing up and dismissing the constable with a wave of his hand. He buttoned his waistcoat and donned his jacket. Crossing the narrow corridor, he tapped on the divisional detective inspector’s door and entered.

‘What is it, Marriott?’ DDI Ernest Hardcastle, head of the CID for the A or Whitehall Division, looked up with an expression of annoyance at having been interrupted. He too was engaged in writing a difficult report about ex-Inspector John Syme that would eventually find its way to the Commissioner. Since 1910, Syme had held a continuing, and often violent, grudge against the Metropolitan Police for his reduction in rank and subsequent dismissal for a variety of disciplinary offences. At nine o’clock last Saturday evening, he had been arrested, yet again, outside Buckingham Palace with a brick in his hand. Syme, who would throw a brick through any government window he could find, including 10 Downing Street, had been charged with intent to commit malicious damage and would appear later that morning at Bow Street police court. It was unfortunate for Hardcastle that most of Syme’s protests were conducted on A Division, and that it fell to him to be the one writing the reports.

‘A Thames Division crew from Waterloo Pier has reported dredging up a male body, sir.’

‘Waterloo Pier’s on E Division, Bow Street’s patch. What the hell’s that got to do with us?’ demanded Hardcastle, placing his pipe in the ashtray.

‘It was found floating near one of the uprights of Westminster Bridge on our side of the river, sir.’

‘Well, if he committed suicide it’s not a crime, Marriott,’ said Hardcastle. ‘You should know that you can’t prosecute a dead man. Only attempted suicide’s a crime,’ he added archly. ‘A successful suicide’s not a matter for the CID.’

‘I don’t think it’s a suicide, sir, unless his name’s Harry Houdini,’ said Marriott, again referring to the message form and permitting himself a brief grin. ‘The body was tied up in a sack.’

‘You could’ve said that to start with, Marriott,’ growled Hardcastle irritably. ‘We’d better go and take a look, I suppose.’ Relieved that he had an excuse for not completing his report