The Casebook of Rupert Swann

It is not widely known that the great Sherlock Holmes had a Leeds-based contemporary in the same business as himself. That man was Rupert Swann, and he was as highly regarded locally as was the famous Londoner in the wider arena. Like Holmes, he acted both as a private consulting detective and an unofficial helper to the police force. Also in common with the renowned occupant of 221B, Baker Street, he was held in great esteem by some members of the constabulary, while others regarded him as a troublesome meddler.

There are no photographs of Swann but we do have a description of him and some details about the way he lived and worked. There were striking similarities and marked differences between him and Holmes. Both were an inch or so above six feet in height, lean in build and possessed of aquiline features. They had the same attitude to the importance of keenly observing superficially inconsequential points and inferring that such apparent trifles might lead to the resolution of mysteries. Both were pipe smokers, and they shared a practical interest in music, Holmes playing the violin, Swann the piano.

With regard to general lifestyle, the two detectives were quite different. Whereas Holmes was socially withdrawn, Swann was something of a man about town, often seen escorting ladies, though he remained single. He was a member of an exclusive gentlemen’s club, frequented the best restaurants and attended as many concerts and opera performances as his time allowed.

Virtually everything we know of Rupert Swann was passed down the family line and all written records are now in the possession of his great-great niece, who has kindly agreed to allow some of them to be made public. She has not yet stated how much information she is willing to relinquish.

The explanation for the accounts of Swann’s adventures appearing in story style is that he narrated them to his younger sister Isabel, his only sibling, who used her typewriter to produce them. He wanted the presentation to be in third person form for two reasons, one being that he considered that method a good way of distancing himself from his work, the other that he was not happy about what he saw as overuse of the personal pronoun.

Swann’s parents were affluent, holding shares in a number of industrial companies. In addition to their substantial home, they owned several dwellings occupied by tenants. Rupert never showed any desire to be a man of property. During the years he was in practice as a private investigator, he rented the upper floor of a spacious two-storey residence in a row of adjoining ones on the eastern side of Park Square, a handsome Georgian development close to Leeds town hall. The house was owned by a medical doctor, a widower, who lived and worked on the ground floor. A woman, in attendance from early morning until mid-evening, looked after both men, cleaning, admitting visitors and cooking whatever meals were required, the last duty usually involving only breakfast, as the two men dined out far more frequently than at home.

It is hoped that the lady holding what might be termed the Swann File may be persuaded to release the whole of it. So far, she has made only one story available. It is given below:

Beyond the Grave

At about seven-thirty on a mid-November evening, Rupert Swann stood by the window of his living room, stuffing a crumbled flake of strong tobacco into one of his fine collection of briar pipes. He was staring out but seeing virtually nothing of Park Square, for the city of Leeds was cloaked in a fog dense enough to rival a London pea-souper. A fine night for the criminal classes, Swann mused. He had been entertaining that thought for barely two minutes when there was a knock at the door.

In response to Swann’s summons to enter, a stoutly built, black-haired, moustachioed man of medium height walked in. He was Inspector Crabtree of the Leeds police force. This was far from the first time he had visited the private detective, with whom he was on friendly terms. That put Crabtree at variance with some of his colleagues, who resented Swann’s alleged interference in general and his numerous successes in particular.

The official custodian of law and order accepted an invitation to doff his topcoat and take a glass of brandy. Within seconds the two men were seated in winged red leather chairs by a cheery fire. “Well, Crabtree,” said Swann, “I hardly expected to see you on such a night. You must have something on your mind to turn out in these conditions.”

“Indeed I have, Mr Swann, and I’d be relieved to share it with you.”

“By all means do so.”

“No doubt you have heard about the murder of Edward Marshall.”

“Yes. The newspapers are having quite a time with it. From your troubled look, I imagine that you have not solved the mystery.”

“No. As you probably know, the body was found last week by the side of North Street, on a patch of land not in use at present and overgrown with weeds. Marshall had been beaten to death with what the doctor thinks was a hammer and possibly some other instrument. The attack was obviously a furious one. No weapon was found and I have not made any progress at all. The man was thirty-two years of age and as far as we are aware had no known enemies. He had been in the army, stationed at York and doing special duties. He left the service some months ago and had not taken up employment, presumably because he was living off savings and a gratuity for as long as he could. Clearly robbery was not the motive, as we found nine pounds, four shillings and few coppers in his pockets.”

Swann nodded. “Nine pounds is quite a sum to be left on the body, so it would seem that you are right in thinking there was some other reason for the assault.”

“There must have been, but goodness knows what it was. Are you by any chance in a position to devote some time to the matter?”

“You know that I am always willing to give what assistance I can to the police, and evidently prompt action is required. I assume you have given me all you know, so I will turn my mind to the affair immediately.”

“That is comforting, Mr Swann. Now, I have other things to deal with, so if you will forgive me, I will take my leave and get on with them.”

“Very well. Perhaps I shall be able to think of some way to lighten the darkness. I will contact you in a day or two to report my progress, if I make any. Good night.”

Swann was not handling any other case at the time, so he immediately began to ponder on the killing of Edward Marshall. Unlike poor Crabtree, who was always harassed by a heavy load of work, Swann was able not only to pick and choose what he did for a living, but also to decide what methods to use. He would turn down any potential undertaking that did not appeal to him, but after accepting a commission, he was as willing as the great Sherlock Holmes to break the law if that course seemed appropriate, according to his ethical code. The idea that Swann might at times attain his ends by illegal means had crossed Inspector Crabtree’s mind more than once, but in view of what he had gained from the private agent’s activities, he kept the notion to himself.

Like his illustrious London counterpart, Rupert Swann had a passion for amassing all the information he considered likely to be of use to him, and it was not long before he embarked on a train of thought that he felt warranted swift action. What he had in mind called for an early start the following day.

Crabtree’s visit had been on a Monday evening, and Swann was in action by shortly after seven on the Tuesday morning. His first calls were at the offices of the local newspapers. He quickly learned what he wanted to know in order to proceed, then took a train to York, where he gathered some information that promised to be vital. Next he caught another train, bound for Leeds, breaking his journey at Cross Gates, about five miles from the city centre. He did what he had to do there, then completed the rail trip, following that with a cab ride to the southern suburbs, where he spent some time covertly observing a man and a house.

By six in the evening, Rupert Swann had collected a good deal of material which gave him some confidence that he was on the right track. However, there was more to do, and it would be best done at night. He took another cab back to his rooms where he washed, changed his clothes and smoked a pipe for half an hour. Then, having eaten nothing since his early breakfast, he dined in style at Powolny’s restaurant.

After returning home, resting for a while, then enjoying another pipe of tobacco, Swann prepared himself for a nocturnal excursion. Equipped with a dark lantern and several tools of which Inspector Crabtree would not have approved, he set out at midnight, hiring a cab which he dismissed half a mile short of his true destination. Covering the remaining distance on foot, he arrived at a small two-storey row house in the Harehills district. He had expected the property to be to be unoccupied and that appeared to be the case. The curtains were open, revealing that the living room was fully furnished. A sign in the sole downstairs window bore the legend ‘To Let’, followed by the name and address of a nearby estate agent.

Two minutes’ work with one of Swann’s tools gave him entry to the house. His expedition was speculative, as he was merely hoping to find some informative personal effects. First he went upstairs to check that there was indeed nobody present, then he closed all the curtains and, using his lantern, searched the drawers and cupboards on both floors. Everything seemed to be as the former resident had left it. After twenty minutes, Swann reached a bedside cabinet, where he found several short letters, the scrutiny of which caused him to mutter in satisfaction. He discovered nothing else of interest, and after jotting down the salient points of what he had read, he left the house.

What Swann had gathered from the letters induced him to make a further surreptitious visit. He walked briskly for a quarter of an hour and halted at a door fronting directly onto a pavement and situated between a newsagent’s shop and a pawnbroker’s establishment. A plaque on the doorframe indicated that a solicitor had his office above one of the street-level businesses. There was nobody in sight, so Swann resorted to his tools again and was soon in the lawyer’s office. The place was extremely untidy, with a jumble of papers strewn across the battered desk, more in a wooden pigeon-hole array on the rear wall and several files on the floor. In one corner there was a small safe. Swann was sure that he could open it if that became necessary. In the event, it did not.

After half an hour of rummaging, Swann found the documents he had hoped to find. Having read them and made a few brief notes, he ensured that every item he had touched was exactly where he had found it, then left the premises, locking the two doors he had opened. He walked until he was able to hail a cab. On returning to his lodgings he relaxed with a stiff brandy and a pipe, and mulled over his activities of the preceding twenty hours or so. Content with what he had achieved, he went to bed at three in the morning.

Following his exertions, Swann slept late, and at shortly before eleven took his usual breakfast of two soft-boiled eggs, three slices of home-baked brown bread and butter, honey and a pint of tea strong enough to raise the dead. At midday he walked to the police station from which Inspector Crabtree usually operated. He was informed that the inspector had gone out and was expected back within an hour. Swann left a message in a sealed envelope, asking that it be handed to Crabtree immediately on his return, as it related to an urgent matter. Knowing that the desk sergeant with whom he spoke was not one of his admirers, he said as little to the man as was consistent with politeness, then went back to his lodgings.

At half-past one, Swann was enjoying a pipe when Crabtree arrived. Within seconds, the two men were seated facing one another by the fire. Crabtree had accepted a glass of sherry and a fill of Swann’s tobacco for his old, blackened briar. He confessed that he had made no headway in the investigation of Edward Marshall’s murder and expressed the hope that his host had been more successful.

Swann settled back in his chair and composed himself to give an edited version of what he had done. “Unless I am much mistaken,” he said, “I can point you in the right direction. As you probably suspect, I cannot give you all the details of my time throughout yesterday and part of the night. However, anything I omit will not impede you.”

Crabtree sighed with relief. “I shall be most grateful if you can throw light onto this matter, and you may rest assured that I shall not press you to divulge anything you see fit to keep from me. I must get my hands on the party or parties who killed Edward Marshall. The press and my superiors are hounding me.”

“You have my sympathy. Let me begin by saying that I have noticed many times that people conducting inquiries of whatever kind have a tendency to approach their tasks in a very direct manner, straight up and down, or vice versa. I cannot emphasise too strongly the value of reasoning horizontally as well as vertically. I call this lateral thinking and it would not surprise me if a book were to be written about it one day. In this case I was alerted by your comment that Edward Marshall had been an army man, stationed at York and carrying out special duties.

“Now here is what I mean by horizontal analysis. I make a habit of reading the death notices in our newspapers. Marshall’s details have not yet appeared, but I remembered that only a short time ago another fellow had died prematurely and that he also had been in the army until quite recently, serving at York and performing special duties. That two young men should have such similar backgrounds and that both should die within a short time of ending their army careers struck me as a little too much of a coincidence. A further search revealed that the man who expired last month was James Ellwood, who died three weeks before Marshall was killed. He was twenty-nine and had been in a precarious state of health since leaving the army. The item stated that he had survived his father by only four months.

“With my curiosity sparked, I sought the father’s obituary. His name was Henry Ellwood and he had a colourful spell in his life. With the acquiescence of his wife, he left her and their infant son in 1869, in order to seek a better existence for the three of them in Canada. There he took part in the Omineka Gold Rush and made a quite a fortune, though he did so at great cost to his health, owing to the arduous toil and the harsh weather. He returned to Leeds in 1874, a rich man and an invalid. He remained unemployed for the rest of his life, but his funds were sufficient for the family’s needs. His wife died three years ago and when he passed on, his son was the sole heir to his estate.

Crabtree had been listening intently. “You certainly unearthed a good deal of information,” he said. “What conclusions did you draw?”

“At that stage only vague, provisional ones. I could not rid myself of the notion that there must have been something connecting the untimely demises of the two servicemen. I felt that I had established enough to warrant a call on the army, so I took the next train to York and a cab to the camp, where I was received by the adjutant, Captain Glover. He could not tell me much but did refer me to another captain, and here is where I must be circumspect. My modest reputation had preceded me and the officer seemed almost overawed to be dealing with ‘the famous’ Rupert Swann. He was more forthcoming than I had expected. However, he was firm in demanding that I should preserve his anonymity, saying that if I were to make public what he told me, he would deny that our talk had taken place.

“I promised not to violate the trust this officer placed in me, so I shall not pass on his identity. He explained that the expression ‘special duties’ has a specific meaning. The men so engaged are deployed in groups of four, each comprising a junior officer, a corporal and two privates. For reasons of mobility, most of these people are bachelors. What they do is clandestine in nature, so my interlocutor was not willing to be too explicit, but he said that one group comprised Lieutenant Edward Marshall, Corporal Thomas Wainwright, Private William Dobbs and Private James Ellwood. Marshall was married, the other three unattached.

“The four men were working together when there was an accident involving an explosion and the release of a poisonous gas. Ellwood was seriously injured. His lungs were affected by inhalation of the toxin and this left him with a severe breathing problem. To make matters even worse for him, a piece of shrapnel was driven into his head. He was told that an operation to remove it was impracticable, and that there was a high probability that the object would at some point move and kill him. Any unusual exertion, even a brief one, could be fatal.

“The incident caused extreme ill feeling in the group, Ellwood insisting that the officer’s carelessness had been responsible. The other two men, Wainwright and Dobbs, seemed to agree with him. There was an inquiry but no charges were ever made against Lieutenant Marshall. The group was disbanded and all four members were given honourable discharges and returned to civilian life. The officer would not give me any further information, but did supply me with the last addresses he had for the men. It did not surprise me that all four lived in the Leeds area. A city of this size is obviously a prime place for recruiting men into the army, especially if they are to be based in Yorkshire.”

Crabtree was absorbed. “You intrigue me greatly,” he said. “I assume that after your conversation with this officer, you began to form a theory of some kind.”

“Yes. It was insubstantial but I was persuaded that it was worth pursuing. I took the next Leeds train and interrupted my journey at Cross Gates, which as you know is about five miles from here. That is where the former corporal Wainwright lives. His house is a small one, only five minutes’ walk from the railway station. He lives alone and was at home. I found him a sorry spectacle. It was mid-afternoon but he reeked of strong drink and was dishevelled.

“I posed as a reporter, seeking material for a series of articles about army life. The man appeared to be somewhat intimidated by my presence and for a minute or two I thought he was inclined to send me on my way, but he finally invited me in. I asked a number of innocent, meaningless questions, interspersed with a few pointed ones. Despite his partial inebriation, Wainwright was far from relaxed. He fidgeted constantly and rose from his chair several times to pace back and forth in front of the fire. At one point he excused himself to go upstairs, where I assume he attempted to compose himself. While he was there, I took the liberty of opening a tall cabinet in the living room, and saw six full bottles of the finest whisky. I had already noticed a half-empty one of the same brand on a corner table.

“When I had gathered all I could from Wainwright, I thanked him for his time and departed. There was another train due in from York in just under half an hour, so I called at a public house almost opposite the property I had just left, ordered a pint of beer and sat by the window, looking out. Fifteen minutes passed, then Wainwright emerged from his house, locked his door and rushed off in the direction of the station. I followed him. We both took the train into town and when we alighted he hurried away, almost at a trot. I hired a cab and stayed on his trail, making sure that the horse clopped along at a discreet distance behind him. He went along the Dewsbury Road to Beeston. After twenty minutes of brisk progress, he turned into one of the terraces on the right of the main highway.

“It was obvious where my man was going. About a hundred yards up the street he entered the house of William Dobbs. He was there for nearly an hour. When he came out, he walked quickly back to the station and took the next York train. I saw no reason to track him further. As you can imagine, my suspicion was intensified by the day’s experiences.”

Here Swann paused to refill the glasses and offer Crabtree more tobacco. The inspector’s orderly mind had filed away all that his host had told him. “You certainly had an active day,” he said.

“Oh, I was far from finished,” replied Swann. “I now come to the second part, and I am not willing to disclose all the details of it. You will have to take my word for what I am about to say.”

Crabtree nodded and smiled. “Ah, Mr Swann, I realise that you have your own way of doing things, but that has sometimes helped me to unravel the most baffling cases. I shall try to avoid asking any questions which I think might embarrass you.”

“Good. I will impart to you what I have discovered. The night was as eventful as the day had been. The outcome of my foray was in my view quite decisive. I can advise you that the late James Ellwood and his father, also recently deceased as you will recall, had a family solicitor, Reginald Browne. Ellwood Senior clearly had much of his fortune intact when he died. He left eleven thousand pounds to his son, who lost no time in making his own will. Presumably he feared that his demise might occur suddenly as a result of the injuries he received in the army, particularly the shrapnel fragment in his head.” Apart from the reasonable inference about the younger Elwood’s motives for making his will, Swann had gathered all this from the letters he had found during his first night-time break-in.

“Now, Inspector, we are nearing the end of my little tale. I have had sight of James Ellwood’s will, and a very strange document it is. It states that upon his death, his solicitor was to expedite processing of the testament, which is easily done, then wait a maximum of one calendar month, keeping watch on the notices of other deaths in Leeds. If, within the specified period, he learned of the demise of Edward Marshall, he was to ask Thomas Wainwright and William Dobbs to call on him and, immediately and without asking questions, pay each of them four thousand pounds. The rest of the estate was to go to Browne himself, as payment for his extraordinary service. As young Ellwood had made no inroads into the eleven thousand pounds he had inherited, the solicitor stood to gain three thousand pounds.” This was what Swann had learned from his visit to the lawyer’s office.

Crabtree gasped. “Why, that is astounding. The solicitor’s normal charge for such a job would be a small sum. This fellow Browne was to pocket a fortune for doing very little. He must have suspected that something untoward was afoot.”

“No doubt he did, but if you get as far as questioning him, he will probably say that he was merely complying with the wishes of an eccentric client. The will also states that in the event of Marshall’s not dying within the month, the lawyer was to take his usual fee for drawing up a simple testament and hand over the bulk of the money to a charity for benefit of disabled ex-servicemen. You will recall that three weeks elapsed between the two deaths.

“So there you have it, Crabtree. You must be as familiar as I am with the expression cherchez la femme in connection with certain crimes, especially those of passion. I would say that in many other cases, cherchez l’argent should be regarded as equally good guidance. If one follows the money, one does not usually go far wrong. Now, I will give you the addresses of Wainwright and Dobbs, and I suggest you interview them.”

“Indeed I shall. Please allow me to recapitulate what you have told me, so that I have the matter straight in my own mind. Young Ellwood was bitter about his injuries, which he blamed on Edward Marshall. There was bad blood in the four-man group, Wainwright and Dobbs sympathising with Ellwood. When he came into a large inheritance, Ellwood, knowing that he might die suddenly, owing to the shrapnel in his head, probably persuaded Wainwright and Dobbs to wreak vengeance on his behalf if he did indeed depart this life in the way he feared. He did so, and the prospect of a massive windfall induced Wainwright and Dobbs to do away with Marshall.”

Swann nodded. “You encapsulate it perfectly. My reading of the affair is that Ellwood planned to have his revenge by proxy and from beyond the grave. One might even surmise that his mind was disturbed by the head injury and that he may even have overstrained himself intentionally, to put an end to his precarious existence. Anyway, it was as devilish a scheme as I have ever encountered.”

Crabtree drained his glass and stood. “That is good enough for me, Mr Swann, and I must say that your speed of operation is breathtaking. These two beauties will be in custody within an hour, and if they did the deed, I shall get them to own up to it, or my name is not Jonas Crabtree. As soon as there is anything to report, I will call on you again.”

At twenty minutes past ten the morning after his long talk with Crabtree, Rupert Swann, still in his dressing gown, was smoking his post-breakfast pipe when the Inspector called again. On being invited in he entered, wearing a broad smile. “Congratulations, Mr Swann,” he beamed. “I have seen you do some remarkable things, but this must your best effort yet.”

“You look like a man with success to report,” Swann replied.

In answer to a waved invitation, the inspector seated himself in the armchair facing Swann, who pushed his tobacco jar across the low table between them. Crabtree began to fill his pipe. “It was easier than I had thought,” he said. “We were questioning those two fellows less than an hour after you had pointed the way. I put them in separate rooms and kept Dobbs waiting while I tackled Wainwright. At first he was obdurate, so I left him for a while and tried Dobbs. He turned out to be a weakling and collapsed without much resistance. I got a written confession from him and confronted Wainwright with it. That knocked the fight out of him and I very soon had his signed admission of guilt too. The two of them did the job together, Wainwright holding Marshall while Dobbs struck him.”

Swann nodded. “Well done, Inspector. Presumably it was as I had supposed.”

“Yes, exactly as you laid it out. Both men were engaged by young Ellwood. They were already angry because, as they saw it, Edward Marshall had escaped without penalty for what they felt was his inexcusable negligence. The temptation offered by an amount of money they could otherwise only have dreamed of was enough to drive them to murder. They will soon feel the hangman’s noose.”

“And what about the solicitor, Browne?”

“I spoke with him half an hour an hour ago, with the result that you predicted. He claims that he was simply doing what he had been told to do by a strange client. I will consider pursuing that aspect in due course, but I doubt that we shall get very far. We can hardly accuse him of being complicit in the killing.”

“No, I imagine he may be slippery enough to emerge unscathed. Now, I am sure you can get by without bringing my name into the matter. That would only introduce complications.”

“You are right, Mr Swann. After all, I have the culprits’ statements, obtained by perfectly fair means and without any great pressure. That will suffice, I think. And now I have much to do today, so I must be on my way. Once again, my profound thanks to you. It’s a pity that I cannot find a way to offer you an appropriate reward.”

“Don’t worry about that, Inspector. As you know, there are times when I play the game for its own sake. I feel sure we shall meet again soon. Goodbye.”

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