Mrs Kidgerbury was the oldest inhabitant of Kentish Town, I believe, who went out charing, but was too feeble to execute her conceptions of that art
(Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)
With a sort of expectorant 'phoo', followed by a cushioned 'phlop', Chief Superintendent Strange sat his large self down opposite Chief Inspector Harold Johnson. It was certainly not that he enjoyed walking up the stairs, for he had no pronounced adaptability for such exertions; it was just that he had promised his very slim and very solicitous wife that he would try to get in a bit of exercise at office wherever possible. The trouble lay in the fact that he usually too feeble in both body and spirit to translate such resolve into execution. But not on the morning of Tuesday, 30 June 1992, four days before Morse had booked into the Bay Hotel…
THE Chief Constable had returned from a fortnight's furlough the previous day, and his first job had been to look through the correspondence which his very competent secretary had been unable, or unauthorized, to answer. The letter containing the ‘Swedish Maiden' verses had been in the in-tray (or so she thought) about a week. It had come (she thought she remembered) in a cheap brown envelope addressed (she did almost remember this) to 'Chief Constable Smith (?)'; but the cover had been thrown away – sorry! – and the stanzas themselves had lingered there, wasting as it were their sweetness on the desert air – until Monday the 29th.
The Chief Constable himself had felt unwilling to apportion blame: five stanzas by a minor poet named Austin were not exactly the pretext for declaring a state of national emergency, were they? yet the 'Swedish' of the first line combined with the 'maiden' of penultimate line had inevitably rung the bell, and so he had in turn rung Strange, who in turn had reminded the CC that it was DCI Johnson who had been – was – in charge of the earlier investigations.
A photocopy of the poem was waiting on his desk that day when] Johnson returned from lunch.
It had been the following morning, however, when things had really started to happen. This time, certainly, it was a cheap brown envelope, addressed to 'Chief Constable Smith (?), Kidlington Police, Kidlington' (nothing else on the cover), with a Woodstock! postmark, and a smudged date that could have been '27 June' that was received in the post room at HQ, and duly placed with the CC's other mail. The letter was extremely brief:
Why are you doing nothing about my letter?
The note-paper clearly came from the same wad as that used for the first letter: 'Recycled Paper – OXFAM • Oxford • Britain’ printed along the bottom. There was every sign too that the note was written on the same typewriter, since the four middle characters of 'letter' betrayed the same imperfections as those observable in the Swedish Maiden verses.
This time the CC summoned Strange immediately to his office
'Prints?' suggested Strange, looking up from the envelope and note-paper which lay on the table before him.
'Waste o' bloody time! The envelope? The postman who collected it – the sorter – the postman who delivered it – the post room people here – the girl who brought it round – my secretary…’
'And me, yes.'
'What about the letter itself?'
'You can try if you like.'
'I'll get Johnson on to it -'
'I don't want Johnson. He's no bloody good with this sort of case. I want Morse on it.'
'He's on holiday.'
'First I've heard of it!'
'You've been on holiday, sir.'
'It'll have to be Johnson then. But for Christ's sake tell him to get off his arse and actually do something!'
For a while Strange sat thinking silently. Then he said, 'I've got a bit of an idea. Do you remember that correspondence they had in The Times a year or so back?'
'The Irish business – yes.'
'I was just thinking – thinking aloud, sir – that if you were to ring The Times-'
"Me? What's wrong with you ringing 'em?'
Strange said nothing.
'Look! I don't care what we do so long as we do something quick!'
Strange struggled out of his seat.
‘How does Morse get on with Johnson?' asked the CC.
‘Where is Morse going, by the way?'
‘Lyme Regis – you know, where some of the scenes in Persuasion set.'
‘Ah.' The CC looked suitably blank as the Chief Superintendent lumbered towards the door.
‘There we are then,' said Strange. 'That's what I reckon we ought to do. What do you say? Cause a bit of a stir, wouldn't it? Cause a bit of interest?'
Johnson nodded. 'I like it. Will you ring The Times, sir?'
‘What's wrong with you ringing 'em?'
‘Do you happen to know-?'
‘You – can – obtain – Directory – Enquiries,' intoned Strange stically, 'by dialling one-nine-two.' Johnson kept his lips tightly together as Strange continued: 'And while I'm here you might as well
remind me about the case. All right’
So Johnson reminded him of the case, drawing together the threads of the story with considerably more skill than Strange had thought him capable of.