WARNING: This post gives away the solution of the mystery! I wouldn’t start here, unless you really, really want to! This would be a better place to start reading.
Hello, and welcome to my 2023 A to Z Blogging Challenge! For a detailed explanation of what I’m up to this year, see my Theme Reveal. But basically, I’m taking all the suspects I made up for my A to Z last year (with help from several commenters!) and putting them all into an actual murder mystery. See the sidebar for links to last year’s posts; if your device doesn’t display sidebars (if, for example, you are visiting on your phone), the links will be under the comment section, right under my A to Z 2023 participation badge.
Epilogue: Crowner Explains
Most of the gathering had gone home to bed, and the bodies had been taken away. Crowner sat in the morning room of Clutterbuck Court. Ingrid, Eli, and Stella were on a nearby sofa. In the corner lurked Sergeant Mug and Dr. Daniel. Someone had brewed coffee, and the six of them were all drinking it.
“Did you suspect them, Inspector?” Ingrid asked at last.
Crowner smiled. “Well, yes, I did. By the end of the evening, anyway. Before Zoe’s startling revelation, I mean. I’m not sure I’d have been able to make an arrest, but I’d have known where to look for evidence. And that really is the main thing. Once you know who did it, proving it is usually fairly simple.”
Eli blinked. “I don’t see it. I seem to have made a truly terrible amateur sleuth.”
“Actually, sir, you hit on two extremely vital points in your statement,” said Crowner. “First, you asked why Fred and Josephine came to dinner that night. And second, you pointed out that it was odd that Sir Adam wasn’t poisoned at cocktail hour.”
“Those two points are really so important?” asked Eli.
“I think so,” said Crowner. “Not that they’re evidence, in the sense of being admissible in court, but they are something almost as useful to an investigator—they are nonsensical oddities.
“Fred and Josephine’s presence at that dinner stands out like a sore thumb. It was nonsense, Fred’s explanation for accepting the invitation. He said he thought it was an olive branch, and that his wife was bored. But Fred must have known that Sir Adam wasn’t an olive-branch sort of man. Not his style. Also, Fred must have known that Josephine was Sir Adam’s mistress. Everyone else seems to have known it. And Josephine had been receiving a steady supply of expensive presents from the man, which she did not trouble to hide. Do you accept a dinner invitation from a man who has purposely wrecked your financial future from selfish motives, and who has also, at least until lately, been sleeping with your wife? And yet Fred did accept the invitation.
“And if Fred’s reasons for accepting the invitation were nonsense, Josephine’s reasons were even worse. She’d recently been jilted as Sir Adam’s mistress, remember. Even she seems to have known that, though she covered it up by repeating Sir Adam’s excuses about being busy. Do you accept a dinner invitation from a man who has recently jilted you, to dine in the shadow of his wife’s sneers and to bathe in the humiliation of Sir Adam’s courtship of another woman? And yet Josephine did accept the invitation.”
“Are you saying, Inspector, that Fred and Josephine came to dinner that night in order to poison Sir Adam?” asked Ingrid.
“I don’t believe so,” said Crowner. “Because there, we run up against Eli’s second point. For anyone at that dinner who planned to poison Sir Adam, cocktail hour was the obvious moment to do it. In fact, the poisoning of the whiskey decanter was wildly irresponsible, as Stella pointed out in her statement. There was a fire raging, and lots of people in and out of every room in the house on various errands. Anyone might have decided to help themselves to a little whiskey, for medicinal purposes, or just to keep their spirits up. In fact, we know that Dr. Daniel and Ulric did just that, mere minutes before the whiskey was poisoned. The fact that only Sir Adam was killed was dumb luck. So it was a foolish way to poison Sir Adam. And Stella also provided another key, in her analysis of the poisoning of the decanter. She suggested that it might have been done on impulse.” Crowner paused for a moment, trying to pin down his instincts on this matter. “And I think it was an impulse.”
“But poisonings aren’t impulsive crimes, generally speaking,” said Eli. “And how could Josephine have done it on an impulse, anyway? She’d have to have the poison with her. That really suggests that she must have come to the dinner ready to kill Sir Adam.”
“I think she came to that dinner ready to kill someone, but I don’t think it was Sir Adam,” said Crowner solemnly. “I think she made Fred accept the invitation—there is some suggestion that he accepted the invitation under pressure from her, you know; that ‘my poor wife has such a dull time down here in the country’ stuff sounded like he was paraphrasing—because she planned to kill herself.”
“Oh, the silly child!” cried Stella.
Crowner nodded. “Yes. Exactly. A silly, spoiled child, denied first one bright toy—the return to London and parties—and then another—the affair with Sir Adam, which at least had provided her with a stream of expensive presents and a diversion from the dreariness of her life here. She must have felt trapped, and especially resentful against Sir Adam, who didn’t want to keep her and wouldn’t let her go. She would show him. She would take poison at the dinner, and die, and then he’d be sorry.” Crowner shrugged. “I think that is why she had the poison with her. Whether she would really have taken it, I rather doubt. But I think that must be why she wanted to go to that dinner. Of course, she didn’t tell Fred what she planned to do. She probably just talked about how bored she was, down here, and how few people she saw. And he, feeling guilty for taking her away from the bright lights, agreed to go to the dinner. And whatever plans she had were interrupted by the alarm of fire.
“Now, Josephine, though a silly creature in many ways, knew Sir Adam well. She knew that he would go in for his usual whiskey at 11 o’clock. He loved punctuality, made a fetish of it, Gregory said. As his former mistress, that trait would be known to her. She’d be expected to meet him at exact times, possibly even rigidly adhering to an adultery schedule. I could probably get Lady Annabelle to corroborate that, but there’s trouble enough in life.
“I think Josephine slipped away from the fire to await Sir Adam in the study. Did she want to quarrel with him, plead with him, or take poison in front of him? I don’t know. But she found herself alone with the whiskey decanter and poison in her pocket, and the thought occurred to her that it would be better, on the whole, to poison Sir Adam than herself. And she put the poison in the decanter and she went away again.”
“This is all guesswork,” Stella pointed out. “If I were writing this, I’d put in some solid clues. Still, I think you’re right, so far. And your explanation accounts for several things that needed explaining: why Fred and Josephine went to the dinner, why Sir Adam wasn’t poisoned during cocktail hour, and why the actual poisoning was done in a dangerous and impulsive-seeming manner, when poisoning is almost never done impulsively.”
“Yes, it is all guesswork, or that part is,” said Crowner. “In fact, I think Josephine would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for Miss Polly’s murder.
“The first thing I’d like you all to notice about Josephine and Fred’s alibi for Miss Polly’s murder is how very contrived it seems. Ingrid and Eli heard Fred—or thought they did—but didn’t see him. They arrived in a hurry in response to an urgent message from Josephine, saying that she had important information about the murder—the perfect bait to attract two amateur investigators, especially two investigators who were also so deeply personally involved in the case as Eli and Ingrid. Their visit happened to coincide exactly with the time for which an alibi would be needed. Right away, my professional instincts were aroused. No-one else in the case had such an elaborate and complicated and seemingly unimpeachable alibi. And, of course, an elaborate alibi is exactly what you expect people to have when they are, in fact, committing a murder. And this murder, unlike Sir Adam’s, was planned.
“Josephine must have received one of Miss Polly’s poison pens, accusing her of the murder. She must have been thrown into an absolute panic, not knowing, of course, that Miss Polly had sent out her accusations to several people, probably based on knowledge Sir Adam gave her in their mysterious meeting. How Josephine knew who had written the anonymous letter I don’t know, but…”
“I do, Inspector,” said Stella. “Or anyway, I know how anyone who knew Miss Polly would realize that that note was Miss Polly’s work. Those documents you read us from Miss Polly’s cottage, and what Dr. Daniel said Miss Polly said when she stood over Sir Adam’s body, reveal how any one of us locals, who had received that particular letter, might have figured out who was responsible. But I expect that she couldn’t explain why she knew, she just read the letter and thought ‘Miss Polly.’”
“Tell us what you mean, please,” said Crowner.
“In the anonymous letter, and in the diary entry, and in her remark to Dr. Daniel, Miss Polly used the word ‘wicked,’” said Stella. “In fact, I myself know that Miss Polly was always using that word. She applied it to everything even slightly questionable, as well as much that was, in my view, entirely innocent. If I’d received that particular anonymous letter, I think I should have known who had written it. I expect in most of her letters, she was more careful.”
“Good. Good!” Crowner said. “That moves us forward. Josephine read the anonymous letter, realized who it was from, and then, and in a panic, confessed all to her husband. And he, in a twisted act of chivalry, agreed to save her by murdering the woman who knew her horrible secret. And it was then that two people, neither of whom was especially remarkable for brains, had rather a brilliant idea.”
“Brilliant… in a way,” said Ingrid. “But also completely stupid. It shouldn’t have worked, it really shouldn’t have.”
“Some of us,” said Dr. Daniel, “still don’t understand how Fred managed to kill Miss Polly. I thought that Ingrid and Eli were Fred’s alibi. During the time that Miss Polly must have been killed—between six and seven—I thought Fred was, first, quarrelling with his wife, then stomping out of the house, then running into Eli and Ingrid again outside. And the quarrel was ongoing at around six, and the conversation with Josephine surely couldn’t have been longer than an hour, at the outside. Fred didn’t have time to get out of the house, get to Miss Polly’s house, strangle her, and get back in time to run into Eli and Ingrid coming out. No-one would really have time to do that, in under an hour, and Fred’s legs were very bad. It would have taken him longer.”
“I agree, he wouldn’t have time to do all that, even though he did secretly have Nightmare to take him there,” said Crowner. “Remember, the horse wasn’t really wandering the hills that evening. She was tucked up in a nearby shed. Very nearby. We have Timothy’s testimony to tell us that the shed was so close to Fred’s house that Timothy deemed it unsuitable for sleeping in, even if it hadn’t been, as he thought, haunted. Of course, the noises that Timothy heard in the shed were those of a restless horse.”
“No,” Crowner continued, “Fred wasn’t actually there, for his argument with Josephine. She was yelling at the dog. As we have all seen, that particular dog makes disturbingly human-sounding noises. And Ingrid never said that she heard Fred say any words. In fact, she described him as making ‘wordless cries.’ So really, the dog was sitting on Josephine’s lap, as she argued, and whenever she wanted a response, she would give the dog a squeeze.
“So that means that Fred had plenty of time, that day, to get on Nightmare, ride through the woods to Miss Polly’s house—I have consulted a map of the area, and he could have made almost the entire journey amongst the cover of the trees—tie up Nightmare somewhere nearby in the forest, strangle Miss Polly, mount the horse again, and ride home. Ingrid and Eli saw him, not on a brief walk to recover his temper, but after he’d returned Nightmare to the shed. Right after he’d strangled Miss Polly, in fact.
“Fred had a window of time during which he knew Miss Polly’d be alone in her cottage—the hour before the committee meeting, when she was known to be on her own, setting things up. He had to arrive and strangle her during that hour—that was his only time constraint. That, and riding home in time to meet Eli and Ingrid as they were leaving. So, he didn’t have to do both legs of the journey in an hour, he only had to do one. All he had to do was strangle her, get on his horse, and ride home. By six, he was probably already waiting, hidden, inside Miss Polly’s cottage.”
“And when we saw him—he’d just committed a murder?” asked Ingrid. “No wonder he looked so grim. I thought it was just the quarrel with Josephine that made him look like that.”
“Yes. I expect murder was quite a shock to him,” said Crowner.
“But you say that you think you’d have gotten onto them, Inspector, without Zoe’s statement? How?” asked Eli.
“As I’ve said, Fred’s alibi was suspicious and contrived. And that shed was already developing quite a horsy smell, for me,” said Crowner. “Timothy’s testimony that the shed was haunted meant that there was something in there. Any person lurking in that shed at that hour of the night would be there because he was hiding. But horses don’t know they are hidden. And when they sense that a person is coming snooping around them in the dead of night, they might well kick up a fuss. Nightmare was probably already upset, being housed in a different place from her usual stable. No, on the whole, it was much more likely to have been the horse in the shed, and not either a person or a ghost.
“And of course, Nightmare would have come right home when she bolted—or anyway, she’d have come home as soon as she got hungry or tired. Horses do, you know. She must have come home just as Fred and Josephine were in a panic, trying to work out a way of saving Josephine from the gallows. They must have realized that if they could keep Nightmare’s return a secret, Fred would have a way of getting to and from Miss Polly’s house more quickly than anyone would think possible, with his bad leg. And they also realized that they had, in the shed in the quarantined orchard, the perfect place to hide her. It was close enough to the house that Fred could get there in decent time, but it was also in an area that the farmhands were not allowed to go, because of the quarantine.
“It is funny about these cases. When you investigate a lot of them, you start to have instincts. I knew, after Ulric had finished giving his statement, that I’d heard something very important. At the time, I assumed I’d been told something vital, but that wasn’t it. It was something I’d literally heard. I’d heard the dog, you see. Making one of his un-dog-like noises.” Crowner shrugged. “We’d have gotten them. Once you start faking alibis, you are generally doomed. Much better to do the thing simply and leave it to chance.”
“A lesson for us all,” said Stella solemnly.