Amphetamines and Pearls

BOOK: Amphetamines and Pearls
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Amphetamines and Pearls

A Scott Mitchell Mystery

John Harvey


This book is for Leanne and Tom with all my love.

The Scott Mitchell Mysteries

An Introduction

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn't even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake.

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like
Smart Girls Don't Talk
Sweetheart, Here's
Your Grave
, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys' grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like
Dames Don't Care
Dangerous Curves
—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed
American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal.

I can't remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with
The Big Sleep
—we'd seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren't kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we'd do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is ‘He was thirty-five and needed a shave.'

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

I'd been a full-time writer for all of eighteen months. Spurred on, to some extent, by tales of Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—another formative influence—and others, writing for the pulps at the rate of so many cents a word, I had given up my day job as an English and drama teacher to try my hand as a hack for hire. Biker books, war books, westerns: 128-page paperbacks at the rate of roughly one a month. One of the editors I got to know was Angus Wells, with whom I would later write several series of westerns, and it was he who gave my proposal for a new crime series the green light.

Scott Mitchell: the toughest private eye—and the best.

American pulp in a clearly English setting—that was the premise. A hero who was a more down-at-the-heels version of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. A style that owed a great deal to Chandler and a little, in places, to Mickey Spillane. Forty years earlier, I could have been Peter Cheyney selling his publisher the idea for Lemmy Caution.

Amphetamines and Pearls
—the title borrowed from Bob Dylan—was duly published by Sphere Books in 1976. John Knight's gloriously pulpy cover design showing a seminaked stripper reflected in the curved blade of a large and dangerous-looking knife. 144 pages, 50,000 words, £500 advance against royalties. You do the math.

But, I hear you asking, is it any good?

Well, yes and no. Reading
Amphetamines and Pearls
and the other three books again after many years, there were sequences that left me pleasantly surprised and others that set my teeth on edge like chalk being dragged across a blackboard.

Chandler is a dangerous model: so tempting, so difficult to pull off. Once in a while, I managed a simile that works—“phrases peeled from his lips like dead skin” isn't too bad—but, otherwise, they tend to fall flat. What I hope will come across to readers, though, is how much I enjoyed riffing on the familiar tropes of the private-eye novel—much as I have done more recently in my Jack Kiley stories—and how much fun it was to pay homage to the books and movies with which I'd grown up and which had been a clear inspiration. Inspiration I would do nothing to disguise—quite the opposite, really.

As an example, quite early on, there's this:

What I needed now was a little honest routine. I remember reading in one of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels that he began the day by making coffee in a set and practiced way, each morning the same. It also said somewhere that Marlowe liked to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but as far as I can recall it didn't say how he did that.

What I did was this. I broke two eggs into a small saucepan, added a good-size chunk of butter, poured in a little off the top of a bottle of milk and finally ground in some sea salt and black pepper. Then I just stirred all of this over a medium heat, while I grilled some bacon to go with it.

They say that a sense of achievement is good for a man.

And later, this:

I didn't know whether she was playing at being Mary Astor on purpose, or whether she'd seen
The Maltese Falcon
so many times she said the words unconsciously.

But I had seen it too.

Intertextuality. Isn't that what they call that kind of thing? Metafiction, even?

Much of the success of the book depends on how the reader responds to its hero. In many respects, Scott Mitchell fits the formula: men are always pointing guns at him or sapping him from behind; women either want to slap his face or take him to bed or both. When it comes to handing out the rough stuff, he's no slouch. Anything but. He's the toughest and the best, after all. But, personally, I find him a little too down on himself and the world in general, too prone to self-pity. On the plus side, he does immediately recognize Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington, he knows the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt, and he has a fondness for Bessie Smith.

The scenes in the novel that work best, for me at least, are those in which the attempts to sound and seem American are pulled back, letting the Englishness show through. That only makes sense: it's what I know, rather than what I only learned secondhand. And what I know, of course, London aside, is the city of Nottingham, destined to be the home of the twelve novels featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick.

It had been so long since I last read
Amphetamines and Pearls
that I'd forgotten that's where quite a lot of the book is set. And in the chapter where Mitchell visits the city's new central police station, there's a description of urban police work that points the way pretty clearly towards the world Resnick would step into a dozen or so years later.

Men in uniform and out of it moved quietly around the building. Policemen doing their job with as much seeming efficiency as men who are worked too hard and paid too little can muster. From room to room they went, sifting the steadily gathering detritus of the city night: a group of drunken youths with colored scarves tied to their wrists and plastic-flowered pennants on their coats; the first few of the many prostitutes whose soiled bodies would spend the remainder of their working hours in custody; a couple of lads—not older than fifteen—who had been caught breaking into a tobacconist's shop and beating up the owner when he discovered them; a sad queen who had announced his desires a little too loudly and obviously in the public lavatories of the city center; and the car thieves, the junkies, the down-and-outs.

You couldn't work in the midst of all this without it getting to you. It didn't matter how clean the building was, how new. The corruption of man was old, old, old.

And down these mean streets … well, you know the rest.


—John Harvey

London, December 2015


The streets wound their way listlessly, as though they had made the journey too many times. They were cracked, uneven; the product of a private estate which could no longer afford their keep. The houses were large and dark. Once they had testified to the wealth that was to be made from hosiery and from coal—now they were divided into flats. Expensive flats, true, but still flats.

It was an early winter evening. The weather report had promised a fine, mild night, but no one had bothered to tell the sharp November wind which sniped round the blackened corners.

I pulled my overcoat collar up higher and hunched my head down inside it, searching for warmth. I thought about Candi.

When first I had known her she was just plain Ann. The more exotic name had come later, when she was wrapped and packaged and sold like so much confectionery. She had been Ann and she had been sitting on the stage in front of the band, shaking a tambourine and smiling nervously. She was wearing a white dress punctured at intervals with small holes; her eyes were surrounded by the blackest of black make-up; she was very young and very nervous.

Yet later, when she stood up to sing, with gawping faces seeking as much of her young flesh through her dress as they could steal, she was something different. The first song I ever saw her do was ‘Lovers' Concerto', a piece of ripped-off Bach with lyrics about rain falling gently into meadows. But it wasn't the song. It wasn't even her—it was the voice. There was a strength in it, an intensity which transformed what she was singing into something personal. From where I watched it was difficult to associate that voice with the slender girl, forlorn in the revolving lights.

She had clung on to the microphone with her left hand and during each chorus she made a circular waving gesture with her right. It was as though someone had told her to project and this was her attempt: it was mechanical, unnatural, awful. From the rear of the hall, behind that sea of faces bobbing up at her, I wasn't sure if she was waving or drowning.

Ann. Candi. Whoever she was, I had got to know her after that evening. Had thought I got to know her. For a time I had even thought that what I felt for her was more than sexual attraction and sympathy: when I had been sure I had gone beyond feeling that much ever again. There had been a pale brightness in her flesh that had sung when I touched it; a glow of truth around her eyes. But they had changed more than her name.

And with every taste of success she had needed me less and less. There were others with more to offer than an ex-cop trying to make a half-way honest living as a private eye. Maybe she really did prefer the faster cars, the quicker cash, the glittering flotsam of the lush life: maybe she just got fed up with the sad stink of second-rate hotel bedrooms which clung to me like a second skin.

Whatever it was, she had no longer wanted to know. Whenever I had phoned her she had been out; if she ever phoned me, which I doubted, I had not been in. Apart from the odd occasions when I switched on the radio and by some accident heard her unmistakable voice, what relationship we had had was finished.

Ann. Candi. Whoever she was.

Or so I had thought.

Last night she had phoned me once more. I was in. At home, late, sitting in the room with the lights out and a bottle of Southern Comfort losing its fight for survival. I was miserable. I was lonely. I had just spent seven hours tailing some rich sexpot who was supposed to be providing me with evidence so that her even richer old man could divorce her without losing too much in the settlement. Sexpot! The way she passed her time would have brought the Archbishop of Canterbury out in dimples. Maybe she was on a losing streak. Her and me both.

There wasn't even a late-night movie on TV. Nothing to do but drink myself to sleep. Then the phone had rung. There was no doubting her voice at the other end of the line. But changed again, frightened, nervous, more like the little girl who was trying so hard to steady herself in the spotlight. I saw her once more on stage as she spoke to me, her right arm circling in that same despairing gesture.

She wanted me to go and see her. As soon as possible. It was important but she couldn't say why over the phone. She wasn't in London any more: she was in Nottingham. She gave me the address. I said I would catch the evening train the next day. Today. Before putting the phone down she said she was really grateful. From her tone she might even have meant it. I poured myself another drink.

The house corresponded to the number I had written in my notebook. All those years of police procedure had left me a methodical man. Her name was typed in red on white card and had been slipped into the greening brass holder: Candi Carter. Obviously, she had an agent with an alliterative ear. There was a large bell-push alongside the card which looked as though it wouldn't work. It didn't. The ornamented wooden door appeared to be unlocked. It was.

The light inside the hallway came on, to my surprise, and I saw the name cards were repeated on one wall. This time the bell-pushes looked more functional. The only thing was, no one answered. I kept ringing and looked at the cards; there were four of them and Candi's was the third from the bottom. I figured out that her flat would be on the third floor. It was decisions like that which kept me working—just. I stopped pressing the bell and climbed the carpeted stairs.

I didn't need the light on the landing to show me that her flat door was painted white, but it did show me another of those cards on the wall beside it. Cheaper by the dozen. I rapped the paint gently with my knuckles: the door gave slightly.

Immediately I felt a coldness creep across the tops of my thighs and into my stomach. Doors. You never knew what was behind them: or who.

I had a sudden vision of a man entering a room. A detective, in a movie, Frank Sinatra or someone like that. As though a projector inside my head was flashing out the clip for me. Anyway, he walked through the door into this room.

It was richly furnished:
objets d'art
were everywhere. Along one wall there was an expensive-looking Japanese screen; in a central position the statue of a naked boy in black marble rose up out of the carpet. The carpet—deeply piled, warm to the bare foot, but no longer warm to what now lay upon it. A body, outstretched, mutilated; someone had attacked him with a blade, had ploughed drunkenly across him as though were would be no tomorrow. Deep ruts crossed and recrossed the flesh and along the edges the blood that had been thrown up had started to coagulate.

I shook my head clear, but the door was still there in front of me. Still slightly ajar. I didn't like stepping through doors, especially when something gave me an uneasy feeling about what was going to be on the other side. Sure, in my job I had been through a lot of doors even though I hadn't taken too kindly to the idea beforehand. But I still didn't like being sapped from behind; I still didn't like being shot at; I still didn't like finding dead bodies—especially when some maniac had carved them up with all the finesse of a crazed Jackson Pollock.

I could always turn around and get right away, walk back down the stairs and along the streets to the station. I walked back along the landing, put out the light and came back to the door. No sense in making an easy target. I stood on one side of the door frame and edged the door open with my foot. Nothing happened. Stepping lightly into the doorway, I pushed the door right back as far as it would go. There was nobody standing behind it. Quickly I went into the room, shut the door and felt for the light switch.

I found myself staring at the carpet. There was nothing there—except carpet. Everything in the room was white, except for a long settee and an armchair, both of which were in black leather. The room was big, big enough to take a baby grand piano. Above the fireplace there was a blown-up, framed photograph of Candi, which I recognised as one of her publicity shots.

Candi herself was sitting in the leather armchair. Like the room, she was in white. Her dress was simple and beautiful, revealing the curve of her breasts before taking them into a swath of satin. Her arms along the sides of the chair were quite still. Her hair was very precisely pulled back off her face and held in a plain black velvet band. She was very pale. Only the thinnest trickle of blood disturbed the whiteness of her face as it traced a slightly meandering path from the corner of her mouth down on to her chin. From there it snaked along her neck and over the top of her right breast until it disappeared beneath her dress.

Very still; very pale; very dead. And very beautiful.

I don't know how long I stood there, in the centre of that room, looking at her. But when I could look no longer I went to the chair and slipped my hand down between her back and the leather upholstery. There was yet a trace of warmth in her body which gave a lie to the iciness of her skin. When I drew back my hand the fingers were sticky with blood. Whoever had shot her had been careful and close; if he—or she—had used a larger weapon half of her back would have been blown away.

I went into the bathroom. In the mirror I caught a glimpse of a grey face and a pair of empty eyes that I might have claimed for mine. If I had to. I washed my hands slowly, easing the blood from the corners of my nails into the flow of warm water. Then I looked around the flat.

Either she had kept little that was personal there, or whoever had been before me had cleared the place out thoroughly. Apart from the photograph, the cards outside—and her body—there was nothing to show that the flat was hers. Although there were two things which might have been Candi's.

The first was a single record on the stereo turntable. It had no label and I guessed that it was a test pressing. I had never heard the song before, but I knew the voice. Her voice. I sat on the settee across the room from her and listened to her disembodied voice as it filled the room. As I did so the crazed line of blood darkened on her face, so that it looked like a crack in a piece of fine china. I stared at it and listened to the sound of someone who had passed beyond whatever help she had thought I could give her.

‘Baby, I reach for you in dreams,

The more I reach for you it seems

As though these hands of mine just pass right through you.

I try in vain to kiss your lips,

But find your dear face only slips

Past my reach and I just can't get close to you.

Oh, tell me lover, why must it be so?

When I want to come to you,

Why must you tell me to go?

The ghost of your love haunts me now,

And I will always remember how

You breathed a new kind of life into me.'

It was some time before I got up and lifted the stylus from the tracking groove in which it had stuck. I didn't want to take the record with me; I didn't think I would ever want to listen to it again. I would not be able to hear it without seeing that delicate line of blood disfiguring her face. And I didn't want that: I had memories enough already.

But I did take the second thing I found—or, rather, things. They were in a shoe-box at the bottom of the wardrobe. A number of small, cylindrical pills in a bottle; a quantity of what smelled to be good grass; an envelope with a few round pills, dark red in colour; and, on a piece of paper folded and re-folded into the smallest size possible, what appeared to be a telephone number.

All these I put into my jacket pockets. Then I put out the lights and stepped out into the hallway.

After taking so much care about getting into the room through that door, you might have thought I would have given some attention to the manner in which I went back out of it. You would have been wrong.

As soon as I had set foot outside the flat and into the darkness of the landing whoever was there waiting swung at me. I don't know what with exactly. But I do know that it was hard and cold and it was aimed at my head with a lot of force. I must have sensed something just ahead of the swishing sound behind me for I had begun to leap to one side when the blow landed. Instead of taking away a sizeable section of my scalp, it merely bludgeoned into the side of my head just above the ear and cannoned into my left shoulder with sufficient force to numb it

As I fell to my right I tried to see who it was who was hitting me so lovingly but it was too dark. Too dark to distinguish anything other than the kicking shape which now drove me hard against the wall. I grabbed at the foot, too late, and rolled across the floor, dimly aware that he was above me. This time his boot was more accurate and it caught me under the ribs and sent the breath spinning out of me. I reached up again and succeeded in catching hold of an arm.

The wrong arm.

The right one came crashing down on top of me and whatever it was wielding found its target properly. The top of my head felt as though it was being slit in two like a brittle coconut. I had a last thought about hanging on to the arm at all costs and then I became one with the darkness.

When I came round my head still felt brittle. I must have let go of his arm, though, for there was no one else on the landing. Hesitantly, I levered myself to my feet and leant against the wall.

I really didn't need to feel in my pockets, but I did anyway. It was wasted effort all right. The things I had taken from the shoe-box had gone. If it wouldn't have hurt my head too much I would have shaken it. Instead I tried to keep it very steady as I walked down the stairs and out into the street. Maybe I would find the right size dustbin, and then I could just throw it away with all the other old trash.

I had only walked some fifty yards down the street when I saw the car parked against the kerb, waiting.

BOOK: Amphetamines and Pearls
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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