Monday, June 6, 2016

"You'd Be All Right With a Decent Alibi"

"The Alibi."
By J. C. Squire (1884-1958).
First appearance: ?.
Reprinted in The Second Omnibus of Crime (1932) (TOC HERE).
Short story (17 pages).
Online HERE.
(Parental caution: Strong language.)
A story that you might need to read twice.
A duck hunting expedition ends in the death of one of the hunters, but clearly it's no accident; two characters discuss the tragedy:

   "Mr. Henry Henderson, M.P., an unpleasant man of doubtful antecedents, with an ill-treated wife . . ."
   "Who said she was ill-treated?"
   "I did. But never mind. She at least would never be suspected by anyone. At all events this malodorous, though virile and energetic man, was staying, in his capacity as chosen of the electorate, with Sir Richard Moorhouse at Titford Manor. Is that all right?"
   "Oh of course it is."
   "On a certain evening of November 1928, Mr. Henderson was found dead by Sir Richard Moorhouse's duck-pond. Two dead ducks accounted for the discharge of his gun barrels and he had obviously been killed by a pistol shot fired by another hand."
   "That's all right so far as it goes," said French, looking vacantly, glass in hand, into the great fire of logs.
   "Obviously, and perhaps I can skip the rest of the obvious. The question is, who did it?"
   "Of course, who did it?"

Dramatis personae:
~ Sir Richard Moorehouse:
   The tabloids variously describe him as "a great reader, with a particular penchant for criminology," "a keen student of nature," "a fine shot," "a noted pedestrian," "at one time much sought after as an amateur actor," and a "world-traveller."
~ Henry Henderson:
   "Everybody knew the man was a swine, with his red face and beastly curling moustache, his crooked eyes and crooked companions."
~ Gladys Henderson:
   ". . . nobody told her about her precious husband's seraglio. Just the sort to go mad out of jealousy: but she doted. Perhaps she was more cunning than she looked . . ."
~ Mrs. Rose:
   ". . . she has got the stony face of a Medusa."
~ Harbutt:
   ". . . the butler, plump, cheerful and courteous . . ."
~ Major Ted French, Chief Constable of the County:
   ". . . slightly froglike with his round face and plump waistcoat and hips."


Some adroit scene painting:
There was a punt below his feet, but it was full of water and useless. He left his tree and almost fell into the water-filled barrel which long ago had been a hiding-place for duck-shooters. His gun dropped and he picked it up again. He took his torch out and switched it on to guide himself along the neck of bog which led to the mainland: its arc-illuminated tufted rushes, little pits of mud, stones, peaty pools, moths and pointed silver beads of rain. Then some impulse of caution, almost like a voice crying in his ear, made him switch it off again, and he scrambled rapidly along the familiar bank in the rain, with now and then a plunge to the knees in mud and now and then a trip over a curling treeroot. At the western angle of the mere, he stopped, stared into the semi-darkness and listened again. The rain pattered heavily.
An interior monologue:
Relieved to be able to stand aloof he watched them depart from the steps, wondering at the predicaments in which human beings find themselves, at the secrets they carry about in their breasts, musing on the passions of the wronged, the desperate unscrupulousness of the frightened, the general inability of men and women to see their affairs in a due proportion, having regard to time and space, the awful tale of forgotten years, the movements of land and sea, the uncountable wars and plagues of the past, the vast and remote processions of the stars and nebulae. Yet, he reflected, as the closed car rolled off and he turned again to his room, he could hardly be expected to be immune from the general human frailty, and his own preservation and comfort, however momentary in the light of the eternities, were of some importance to him. It occurred to him then—for he was honest with himself—that he was, on the whole, a chivalrous man, though his generally ironic, even cynical, manner effectively disguised it from all except the penetrating: and that this indefensible habit of secrecy might well be useful to him.
Typo: "I was not let uninformed"
- J. C. Squire, our author, was extensively preoccupied with poetry (see Wikipedia HERE), so this O'Henry-esque crime story with a twist in its tale is something of a departure; his chief contribution to SF/Fantasy was dabbling in alternate history, editing If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses into Imaginary History (see the SFE HERE, the ISFDb HERE and HERE, and Wikipedia HERE).

The bottom line: "The perils of duck hunting are great—especially for the duck."
Walter Cronkite

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