Where mystery begins, justice ends.— Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society
‘Mr Devlin, I would like to talk to you about a murder.’
Harry Devlin stopped in his tracks on his way out of the law courts. For a fantastic moment he thought the man who had hurried to catch him up and lay a hand on his shoulder was an arresting officer.
Twisting his neck to see his assailant, Harry found himself staring not at one of Liverpool’s finest but at a scrawny old man in a soup-stained bow tie and a shiny blue suit. Although he was wheezing with the exertion, his bony grip was surprisingly fierce, as if he feared Harry was about to take flight. The thick lenses of his spectacles magnified the shape and size of his eyes and made them seem not quite human.
Harry guessed the fellow was one of the city’s courthouse cranks who sat in the public galleries each morning and afternoon, watching scenes from other people’s lives distorted by the fairground mirrors of litigation. Most lawyers disdained the spectators as voyeurs, brushing by them in the corridors and on the stairs, but sometimes Harry would pause in passing to exchange a casual word. He could not resist feeling sympathy for anyone whose life was so barren that this place became a second home.
‘Want to make a confession?’ he asked and gestured towards a man in an overcoat striding past them towards the exit. ‘The detective sergeant there specialises in them. Don’t worry, he doesn’t need much. Just give him your name and he’ll invent the rest.’
The man released his hold and bared crooked teeth in a conspiratorial smile. His shoulders were stooped, his wrinkled skin the colour of parchment. In one claw-like hand he was carrying a battered black document case and his breath seemed to Harry to have the whiff of mildewed books.
‘It is your help I need, Mr Devlin. No-one else will do.’
He enunciated each syllable with pedantic care, as if English was not his native tongue. But it was the urgency of his tone that quickened Harry’s interest.
‘Are you in some kind of trouble?’
‘No, no. You misunderstand. The murder I am speaking of occurred almost thirty years ago. Nonetheless, I believe you are able — if you will pardon the phrase — to assist me with my enquiries.’
‘Thirty years ago?’ Harry shook his head. ‘I sometimes screamed blue murder as a babe in arms, but I never committed it. Sorry I can’t help, Mr…’
‘Miller, my name is Ernest Miller. Let me explain. I am looking into one of this city’s most notorious crimes. You will have heard of the case, I’m sure. The newspapers, in their melodramatic way, dubbed it the Sefton Park Strangling.’
‘It rings a bell.’ Harry sifted through old memories. ‘Wasn’t it a young girl who was killed, the daughter of a well-known man?’
‘Yes, the case attracted a great deal of publicity in its day. Carole Jeffries, the victim, was only sixteen years old. More importantly, to secure her lasting fame in death, she was a pretty girl with a good figure and a taste for short skirts.’
‘And I seem to remember the murderer was a neighbour of hers?’
‘A young man named Edwin Smith who lived nearby was arrested, it is true. Before long he confessed to having strangled Carole, but twenty-four hours before his trial was due to open, he tried to anticipate his fate by hanging himself. In that, as in so much else during his short life, he failed. A warder arrived in time to cut him down and save him for the gallows. Even so, the day of reckoning was postponed. Although the court proceedings were expected to be a formality, the authorities were reluctant to hang a man with an injured neck.’
‘The executioner preferred more of a challenge?’
‘I see you indulge in black humour, Mr Devlin. The best kind, I quite agree. But I think you miss the point. In those days — we are talking of 1964, you will recall — the campaign to abolish capital punishment was intensifying. The establishment dreaded a newsworthy incident.’
Miller’s tongue appeared between his teeth. ‘They feared that a mistake might be made. If undue pressure were applied on the scaffold, there was a risk that the neck might snap and Smith would lose his head. Imagine, Mr Devlin, how the media would have feasted on that.’
Miller’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, causing Harry to feel as cold as if he had stepped naked into the wintry streets outside, but something made him ask, ‘So what happened?’
‘The trial took place at the end of November and Smith was duly sentenced to death. However, as you will know, the law required three Sundays to pass before such a verdict could be carried out — and in the meantime the House of Commons voted to abolish capital punishment. As it happened, no hangings took place after the August of that year. Smith could certainly have expected a reprieve.’
‘A lucky man.’
‘Not so lucky as you may think,’ said Ernest Miller. ‘Having escaped the noose, Smith finally managed to kill himself in jail. Once again the authorities were careless — as they so often seem to be. He slashed his own throat on a jag of glass one night and severed the jugular vein.’
Harry bit his lip. His imagination was vivid — he had never quite decided whether that was an asset in a solicitor, or a fatal flaw — and Miller’s words made his skin prickle. He could not help seeing in his mind’s eye the sickening scene: the blood-soaked remains of a human being stretched across the concrete floor of a silent and unforgiving prison cell.
Gritting his teeth, he said, ‘So where do I come in?’
‘Smith’s solicitor was Cyril Tweats.’
No wonder he was found guilty, Harry said to himself, the thought easing his tension. But all he said aloud was, ‘I see.’
‘You begin to appreciate my interest? I gather Mr Tweats retired recently and your firm took over his practice. Which is why I wanted to take a little of your time to talk about Carole’s killing.’
‘I don’t quite…’
‘I wonder,’ said Miller. ‘Your case has been adjourned until tomorrow morning. Perhaps you might allow me to buy you a drink and give you an idea of the information I am seeking. And if, at the end of half an hour, you decide I am wasting your time, well, no hard feelings. What do you say?’
Harry hesitated. He knew how much work in the office awaited his return; if he missed the last post, the following morning the sight of a mound of unsigned correspondence would reproach him like the grubby face of a neglected child. Besides, he had been repelled by the impression of pleasure Miller had given in lingering over the phrase He slashed his own throat on a jag of glass one night and severed the jugular vein. It was easy to visualise him salivating as he waited for a judge to don the black cap.
He glanced back over his shoulder towards the ground-floor lobby. The judicial roulette wheel had stopped spinning for the day, leaving losers to sulk in their cells whilst winners walked free to celebrate in style. His clients, Kevin and Jeannie Walter, had already disappeared, whisked off to the city’s priciest restaurant by minders from the newspaper which had spent so much money to buy their story. He had last seen their barrister, Patrick Vaulkhard, in the robing room, taunting his opposite number about cover-ups and corruption. One of the bent coppers in the case was hanging around at the bottom of the open-tread staircase, waiting for his colleagues. With his hands in his pockets and his eyes fixed on the floor, he seemed deep in thought. If he had any sense, he was making plans for an early retirement.
Harry found himself recoiling from the prospect of ending the day back behind his desk. He was not by nature indolent, but a long afternoon in court had left him in a Philip Larkin mood: why should he let the toad of work squat on his life? The letters could wait: a drink would do him good. In any case, surely no harm could come from a brief conversation, however unappealing his companion?
He began to move towards the revolving door. ‘Why not?’
‘Splendid. I am most grateful for your co-operation.’
Outside a raw wind nipped at Harry’s cheeks and knuckles. On the far side of Derby Square, harsh lights from the office blocks burned in the dirty darkness. Queuing commuters stamped their feet and tried to keep warm as they waited at bus stops for the procession of maroon double-deckers with bronchitic engines moving in sombre ritual along James Street. The snow of early morning had turned to slush, treacherous underfoot. Harry’s shoes slid as he crossed the road at speed, trying to dodge the spray thrown up by a passing juggernaut.
At the corner of North John Street he waited for his companion to catch up. When at last he made it through the traffic to the safety of the pavement, Miller bent his head. ‘Not — not as young as I was,’ he panted.
‘None of us are.’
Miller’s breath was coming in shallow gasps and he seemed unsteady on his feet. The legacy, Harry guessed, of too many days, weeks and months spent in cramped surroundings, poring over faded type and living life at second hand.
He gave him a minute to recover before asking, ‘So what is your interest in the Sefton Park murder?’
‘I live on my own, Mr Devlin. My wife died ten years ago; I have no family and few outside interests. Since finishing work, I find I have a lot of time on my hands, and I need to occupy myself somehow. Crime has always fascinated me. Now I like to indulge my curiosity. The Sefton case is a superb example of its kind. It has all the classic ingredients.’
Miller lowered his voice, as if afraid that homeward bound shoppers might overhear, and ticked the items off on his fingers. ‘A good-looking girl, forward for her years. A famous father and a pop musician boyfriend. A sudden brutal slaying — and a mystery. Police investigations carried out under the remorseless spotlight of the press and television. A suspect hounded without pity and brusquely condemned. And, above all, a grave injustice.’
His eyes gleamed and Harry again felt a chill of distaste. But he could not resist putting the question for which, he had no doubt, Miller was waiting.
‘Who suffered the injustice?’
Miller studied Harry’s expression before nodding, as if satisfied by what he found there.
‘I spent much of today listening to your case from the back of the court. You must be happy with the progress your counsel made. The judge made it plain he is unsympathetic to the police, and no wonder. Your client, Mr Walter, was convicted of a crime he did not commit. He must be hoping for massive compensation.’
‘We’ll have to wait and see.’
‘From all I have heard, you care about justice, Mr Devlin.’
If there was a hint of irony in the words, Harry was content to ignore it. Life as a lawyer in Liverpool had taught him to grow a thick skin. ‘It’s a rare commodity,’ he agreed. ‘Worth seeking out.’
‘Forgive me for saying so, but I suspect most lawyers care more about their fees. However, let that pass. I would value your co-operation, since you have access to the files of Edwin Smith’s solicitor. It is too late for Smith, but you may yet help me to prove he suffered a grievous wrong.’
‘Did he protest his innocence at the trial?’
‘On the contrary, he pleaded guilty.’
‘Yet you’re suggesting the confession was false?’
Miller cleared his throat. The strange shining eyes belied his deliberate manner. He was like a small boy, Harry thought, brimming with private knowledge and unable to restrain his excitement at making a disclosure.
‘I am. And that is, for me, the fascination of the murder of Carole Jeffries. I do not pretend to have embarked on any moral crusade. I cannot even claim to share your devotion to seeing justice done. But I find murder irresistible — and perfect murder most of all.’
‘No-one ever described the Sefton Park Strangling as a perfect murder.’
‘You miss the point, Mr Devlin. If you accept that Smith was innocent, the conclusion is unavoidable.’
Miller showed his crooked teeth again.
‘The true culprit escaped scot-free.’
‘Shall we drink to crime?’ asked Miller as he returned to the table they had found in a pub called the Wallace. He handed Harry a pint in a dripping glass and, breathing heavily, squeezed past him into a corner seat designed for an agile midget.
Harry lifted his glass. ‘The perfect toast for this place. The architect should have been blacklisted by the Health and Safety Executive.’
The Wallace’s design and decor combined elements of the Liverpool Bridewell and an ersatz Gothic crypt. Half a dozen tables were crammed into a space no bigger than a police cell and the tiny stained-glass fanlights and dark carved wood panelling were enough to give a church mouse claustrophobia. The pub was squashed between a bank and a building society and the furniture had not been screwed to the floor — a sure sign that the landlord’s sights were set on the white-collar trade. Harry was back to back with a balding executive who puffed at a fat cigar while pouring rum and blacks down his secretary’s throat. There was less risk of death through passive smoking than of suffocating from an excess of duty-free aftershave and discount store perfume.
‘Is this not one of your regular haunts, Mr Devlin? Well, I cannot blame you, although the beer, as you are about to discover, is excellent. But since we are speaking of miscarriages of justice, I thought it a suitable setting for our discussion.’
Harry gestured towards the mahogany-framed sheets of yellow newsprint which hung from the picture moulding. ‘Because it takes its name from the Wallace case?’
‘Do you know the story?’ The question seemed to be rhetorical, for Miller continued without waiting for a reply. ‘In 1931, an insurance agent called James Wallace was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of his wife with a poker. The judged summed up in Wallace’s favour, as you will note from the trial report above your head, but the jury took a harsher view. Although the conviction was quashed on appeal, Wallace only lived for another couple of years. For once the cliche was correct — he died a broken man.’
Harry stretched in his chair. The beer was as good as Miller had predicted and he was starting to relax. ‘One evening,’ he said, ‘Wallace was playing chess in a cafeteria not fifty yards from where we’re sitting. A man who gave the name Qualtrough telephoned and asked him to call the next day at a fictitious address in Mossley Hill. When Wallace gave up the wild-goose chase and made his way home, he found his wife’s battered corpse lying in the parlour.’
Miller beamed. ‘It is good to talk to a knowledgeable man. So often people seem unaware of Liverpool’s remarkable murderous heritage.’