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Sherlock Holmes – Murder on the Brighton Line

In the late autumn of 1888 Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are in the seaside resort of Brighton where Holmes is consulting with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Constabulary on the torso murderer who leaves female body parts outside buildings across the city. But Holmes and Watson find themselves at the heart of a different mystery.

Who is the gentleman found dead in a First Class compartment of the London to Brighton express? The victim has a fortune in jewels and a fabulous painting in his luggage. Who killed him? Holmes and Watson tackle the Murder on the Brighton Line case despite the obduracy of the police sergeant in charge of the official investigation.

A novella-length story (30,000 words) told in the traditional style and narrated by Doctor John Watson, MD. Here is an excerpt.

There is a Great Deal of Blood

I joined my friend for a late luncheon in the restaurant overlooking the forecourt of the central station in Brighton. “I trust the dismemberment met your expectations, Holmes.”

He looked up from the menu and smiled. “In every respect, my dear fellow. The murders are an intriguing little series. A new torso was discovered recently, and, if we take the murderer’s modus as our guide, a limb or two will soon be found in the street or on a public building, but we will not find a head. As with the earlier case, the police are at a stand. Let me show you the post-mortem photographs.”

He pulled an envelope from the carpet bag at his side and slid it across the table. A waiter appeared, laid a plate of bread and a dish of butter on the table and stood, pencil poised and eyebrows raised.

I put my hand on Holmes arm. “We might view the photographs later, old man, in the privacy of our carriage.”

“Eh? Oh very well.” He turned to the waiter. “The cod with boiled potatoes and peas.”

“With white sauce?” I suggested.

Holmes grimaced and turned back to the waiter. “No sauce, but you may bring a pot of sharp horseradish and a bottle of the ‘83 Chablis.” He raised his eyebrows. “Watson?”

“I’ll have the same, with the white sauce, but on the side.”

The waiter bowed and left and I examined the sweet trolley. “They have rhubarb crumble, Holmes. It is served with custard or fresh cream.”

Holmes leaned across the table. “I believe our first murder occurred in France, at least that is the first that has come to my attention. A torso with a left arm and hand was found outside Montrouge church in Paris last year sans right arm, legs and head. Our Brighton dismemberer (if it is the same man) also leaves body parts outside churches, public houses and schools. He does not stray far from the sea and he avoids landmarks like the Pavilion and the piers.”

“He does not like crowds,” I suggested.

“In all,” Holmes continued, “the Brighton police have accumulated three torsos and almost enough limbs to assemble a pair of young women.” He tapped his carpet bag. “They were kind enough to lend me a severed hand.”

I shook my head. “What manner of fiend could kill these women in cold blood and then mutilate their remains? It passes all human understanding. The most hardened Chinese bandit or Thuggee strangler would baulk at such a foul deed. The murderer is beyond the pale of human reason; he is a devil.”

Holmes frowned. “No, no, Watson, we must not succumb to airy notions of religiosity or Romanticism. The killer has his reasons; he acts with purpose. His motivations may be alien to us, but they are human, not satanic. Pass the bread.
“The killer’s purposes may be fathomed by another human mind,” Holmes continued as he helped himself to bread from the basket. “But only if that intellect is so constructed that its processes depend on cold reason and logical analysis undiluted by anger, revenge or moral outrage. I was invited to Brighton by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Company to give their police and the county constabulary my considered opinion on the case, not to share their impotent rage.”

Holmes looked across at me and smiled. “I dare say I have put them on the right track. The right track, Watson.”

I blinked back at Holmes and he sighed. “The county constabulary and the railway police have plain clothed and uniformed officers at every likely dumping spot. They have orders to stop men with bags and cases (especially foreigners) and to investigate the contents.” He smiled again. “Our murderer is too fly to be caught in that net, but the increased police presence makes a show and reassures the public. Pass the butter.”

Holmes closely examined the butter dish, muttering under his breath. He flicked aside a sprig of parsley and buttered his bread.

“I had a pleasant day,” I said. “After overcast skies this morning, the sun peeked through the clouds at lunchtime and I left my overcoat at the hotel and ambled along the Promenade enjoying the bracing sea breeze and taking deep draughts of air unpolluted by our London filth. The sea is surprisingly tranquil for the time of year, but I did not bathe.”

“No damsels in distress? No mermaids enticing you into the briny depths?”

I helped myself to bread and butter. “Few people were out and about; the town centre and promenade were deserted. The torso murders have not been extensively covered by the national newspapers (who focus on the Whitechapel fiend), but the Sussex papers have spread enough lurid rumours of dark deeds to stay people at home.”

The waiter arrived with a tray. “Here is our fish,” said Holmes. “I would have ordered a turbot, noblest of pisces, but like gutter journalists he is a bottom feeder. And as Inspector Lestrade pointed out, there have been a number of shipwrecks along the coast recently with considerable loss of life.” He tapped the envelope of post-mortem photographs. “And our friend is possibly disposing of body parts in the sea, so I thought it unwise to — what?”

The waiter backed away wide-eyed.

“Nothing, Holmes,” I said. “Enjoy your meal.”

Another waiter brought our wine in a cooler and filled our glasses.

“How did the police react to your theories,” I asked.

Holmes sipped his wine and considered. “Intense interest, bewilderment or hostility, depending on intellect and age: no, on intellect, age and imagination. An overly-moustached sergeant was particularly stolid.”

“You shared your speculations on —”

“I stated my deductions,” Holmes said stiffly. “I do not speculate.”

I bowed. “Let me see what I can recall of what you told me. You conclude that the torso murderer has a safe haven to which he entices his victims and where he slays them in perfect security. He divides the bodies into convenient portions, but does not attempt to conceal the body parts when he disposes of them. In fact, he has a morbid urge to display his handiwork in public and perhaps to create an atmosphere of fear that will feed his sense of power. That is why the police have been reticent with the newspapers. They do not want sensational headlines that might provoke a mass panic.”

Holmes sniffed. “In Madrid, Paris, or Rome perhaps, but a mass panic in Brighton? I hardly think so. You traduce the phlegmatic character of the inhabitants of the County of Sussex. The police are reserved because we are coming to the summer season and news of dismemberments would dismay potential visitors.”

I thought Holmes’ remarks cynical, but I did not take the bait. Holmes had been fractious, out-of-sorts and thin-skinned of late and I welcomed his invitation to Brighton to consult on the torso murders as a chance to escape the unhealthy atmosphere of London and enjoy a relaxing change of scenery, if only for a day.

“Let me see, what else, Holmes? The torso killer takes care to leave no trace of his or his victims’ identities. You suggest that he attempts to keep his victims anonymous by destroying their heads or disposing of them in some different way to the other body parts, perhaps at sea. You therefore suggest a connection between the murderer and the victims that the fiend is at pains to hide; you submit that identification of the victims is the key to his apprehension.”

Holmes sniffed again. “Pass the white sauce.”

I peered into the empty jug, shrugged and continued my meal.

“Our man is circumspect,” Holmes said as he finished his luncheon and sat back. “The bodies are sectioned but they display no wounds. He kills his victims with a blow to the head or he slashes their throats.” He mimed a vicious cut across his throat with his fish knife. “He masks the wound by the removal of the head at the neck.”

The waiter took our empty plates with quivering hands. I indicated the sweet trolley. “I’ll have the rhubarb crumble and custard, if you please. And you may serve coffee.”

Holmes waved him away. “Our man does not exhibit any interest in the sexual organs of his victims —”

I held up my hand. “Tut-tut, Holmes. Remember the fuss last week? People who pop into an elegant patisserie in Piccadilly for an apfelstrudel with crème fraîche, or those who come to the station restaurant in Brighton for a seafood luncheon, do not wish to be regaled with —” I lowered my voice as the waiter laid my pudding in front of me and filled our coffee cups, “with intimate details of female reproductive anatomy.”

“Then they should not listen to other people’s conversations.” Holmes said primly. He held up his coffee spoon. “Let me try your custard, Watson, it looks rather good.”

After our excellent luncheon, Holmes picked up his carpet bag, I collected my case and umbrella and we crossed the station concourse towards the newspaper kiosk arm-in-arm. The sun was low, shadows long and the lamplighters were already at work. There was a chill in the air and I turned up the collar of my frockcoat. I thought of unpacking my overcoat, but as we would soon be in the shelter of our railway compartment, I could not find in my postprandial self the energy to bother.

I looked forward to our journey home. We had a private first-class compartment in which Holmes could read the afternoon papers and peruse his reports in peace. I intended to delve into a promising-looking book on abnormal states of mind that I had purchased from a second-hand stall at the market. A chapter on the work being done in France looked most interesting. Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot was doing ground-breaking work on neuro-pathology at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, earning the sobriquet, ‘the Napoleon of neurology’. He had developed metallo-mesmeric treatments for monomania and that most enigmatic of all nervous diseases, hysteria. I knew of Charcot from his masterly description of the lesions on the bones and joints which characterised tabes dorsalis patients. I therefore hoped that —

I started as a running urchin lurched into me and then bumped into a gentleman walking ahead of me. The boy raced across the concourse and slipped into a crowd of people clustered at the end of a platform. I groped for my wallet and breathed a sigh of relief when found it safe in an inside pocket.

The crowd into which the boy had disappeared gaped at the newly arrived train from London and at a small knot of policemen standing by the first carriage in a pool of lamplight. A young constable with a thin moustache guarded the ticket barrier.

Holmes raised his eyebrows and steered us across the concourse and I accosted the police officer over the hats of the crowd. “What’s the to-do, constable?”

“Nothing to worry about, gentlemen.” He waved us back. “Move along now please, everyone please move along.”

“I am Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective —”

The young policeman ignored Holmes and looked away. I reached my umbrella across the heads of the gentlemen in front of me and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned back with a face like thunder. “I told you, gentlemen —”

He stopped, gave Holmes an appraising look, pushed through the crowd to us and addressed him. “May I see what’s in your bag, sir?”

“Certainly, officer.” Holmes opened his carpet bag and displayed the contents. “An envelope containing post-mortem photographs of the latest dismembered corpse, two mismatched femurs, one jar containing a human hand preserved in spirits of wine (probably from a young female, as you might infer from the manicured nails and soft finger tips) and a banana for the journey.”

The policeman stared wide-eyed at Holmes for a second, then he blanched, stepped back and reached for his truncheon.

“Alright, Blake,” said a voice of authority. A tall, spade-bearded police sergeant appeared at the constable’s side. The young man stiffened to attention and glared fiercely at Holmes. “Pursuant to orders, Sergeant, I asked this gentleman to open his bag, and, and —”

The sergeant ignored him and held out his hand to Holmes, and then to me. “Sergeant Reeve,” he said. “London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Constabulary. Pleased to see you again, Mr Holmes. I was at your lecture at the Town Hall police station this morning. My holiday, and I got caught for extra duty here in case chummy decides to plant some body parts on the forecourt, but worth it, sir. A fine lecture, if I may say so, though it gave me the collywobbles.”

Holmes smiled as he absorbed the compliment. “This is my friend and colleague, Doctor Watson.”

“What’s the to-do?” I asked again.

Sergeant Reeve jerked his thumb towards the stationary train. “The Pullman express from London just came in with a body in a private compartment; there’s blood all over. The gentleman is dead as a doornail, sirs, but since you’re here, Doctor —”

“Of course,” I answered, a little reluctantly. I showed him the complimentary train tickets we had been given by the LB&SCR. “We are on the Pullman Limited to Victoria Station in, let me see, thirty-three minutes.” I turned to confer with Holmes, but he was already on the move along the platform with the young constable in tow.

Sergeant Reeve looked down at me over his huge beard, his eyes twinkling. “Might be a bit of a delay, Doctor Watson. Come and see.”

End of Extract
This is the lead story in the upcoming Murder on the Brighton Line & Other Stories Collection on Kindle and in paperback in 2015.

“An excellent new story from an author whose humour and command of vintage dialogue we have come to appreciate. The scene is set in Brighton Station when the London to Brighton express arrives with a dead man in a first class carriage. Who is he and who killed him are the questions Holmes needs to answer. He interrogates a gallery of interesting characters – railway porters, a young policeman and his retired railway crossing guard uncle, a boy thief, an exotic Contessa, a sinister Italian and, of course, the butler.
A close-plotted story with fun characters and the trademark sparky dialogue and humour. Well worth reading.”
– Amazon

Book categories: Novels, Novels and Story Collections, and Sherlock Holmes Story Collection