Top gun

A crime-writer uses his knowledge of police methods and forensics to end his rivalry with a co-author. But events don't quite go to plan.

There is no original way to commit a murder; not that Manfred sought to be original; his plan involved professionalism, artistry and flair. It would be skilful; it would be ingenious; it would be an accident. His plan was so meticulous that no detective would be able to unravel the plot.

Gino was a problem. For almost seven years they had been rivals, turning out formulaic crime fiction, which each of them believed was literature. They strove to excel and to be great writers, though all that concerned the publisher was that the books sold in large numbers. Lord Hawtrey knew his market and was expert at targeting his customers. Since inheriting his father's title and business he set increasing standards of market success and diminishing standards of quality. He selected authors who could generate rapid-fire, easy-to-read publications that would walk off the bookstalls - and he encouraged rivalry among his writers, knowing that competition provokes productivity. Manfred and Gino were parts in a machine that produced predictable paperbacks for bored commuters.

For the past year, Gino had been winning the numbers game and his books were moving faster through the booksellers' inventories. Manfred convinced himself that his rival was getting a bigger share of the publicity budget and he suspected that Gino was being fed the better plot lines. He didn't deserve the attention; of that Manfred was sure, knowing his own superiority. He, Manfred, was the greater author; he was better at handling a plot and had a more thorough knowledge of about police methods and forensics. Dammit, he didn't just know the theory; he could pull it off in reality. Gino would be removed from the game so that Manfred's artistry could shine unchallenged. Gino's exit would be dramatic; it would be undetectable; it would happen next Saturday.

Gino's vanity was exceeded only by his romanticism and the envelope on his breakfast table appealed to both. The letter conveyed a sophisticated air of romance that was matched by the crisp, rose writing paper. It was an invitation; not a formal summons to a collective occasion, but a solicitation to private conference - with a Lady. Gino knew the venue from both public and private visits. The estate was locally famous for horsey events; it was also Lord Hawtrey's country residence. As a key personality among Lord Hawtrey's authors he was obliged to show his face at publicity occasions. He knew the house and the formal garden that surrounded it, but the back gate mentioned in these instructions was an unfamiliar point of entry. Never mind; the directions seemed clear - and Lady Hawtrey must know the way around her own grounds. He memorised the route and disposed of the letter, as directed. He hadn't seen through Manfred's plans.

Manfred knew he could rely on Gino's conceit to lure him into the trap. Fastidious in dress and manners, he was confident of his appeal to women; but he was vulnerable to a flattering woman. Gino felt smug about the apparent source of the invitation. He expected to number the publisher's wife among his admiring readers; but a private invitation to a secluded rendezvous was recognition beyond his vain imaginations.

Preparations for the shooting party were well underway as Gino slipped through the narrow arched gateway piercing a high wall at the back of the estate. His prescribed route traversed winding woodland pathways to a summer house, well hidden among rhododendrons. He knew about the estate's sporting plans for the day, but he had little interest in them, and had not been invited. His love of animals and hatred of blood sports was well reported. His fictional crimes could be vicious and violent - and his stories were full of technical detail about weapons - but his persona was gentle and peaceful. Shooting was Manfred's kind of amusement, but it was not for Gino - nor, evidently, for the publisher's wife. He picked his way carefully among the trees, following the narrow pathway described in the Lady's instructions. It was a long path, winding up a slope, over a ridge and down towards the back of the lake. As he approached the water's edge, a dog barked from among the reeds on the other side of the lake and a flock of ducks lurched into the air - just before the guns sounded.

The body was a sorry sight. The once handsome face had been blown half away and the tailored jacket, immaculate when he left home, was shredded at the shoulder and drenched in blood and brains. "Such a terrible accident. How ghastly that it should happen on our estate". On the following Friday, the coroner confirmed Lady Hawtrey's judgement - "A terrible accident." The murderous plan was undetected. The police failed to notice fine adjustments that had been made to Manfred's gun. Nor did they deviate from their first impression that they were attending the scene of an accident. The plot had been laid with such skill that no detective could unravel it. On the other hand, Gino never discovered Manfred's plan, which might have made his body the focus of the Coroner's enquiries.

Gino was prominent among the mourners. He had, after all, worked with Manfred for the past seven years and they shared the honour of being the publishing house's most prolific writers. Manfred's works would sell faster for a while, boosted by news of his dramatic death. But Gino would soon enjoy the place of honour by himself.

Manfred's murder was not original, but Gino's thorough knowledge of police methods and forensics ensured that the crime was pretty near perfect.

© Derrick Phillips - 2002