Geoffrey Household’s 1960 novel Watcher in the Shadows was a return to form — two decades after his Buchanesque hunted-man novel Rogue Male (1939), and a decade after his brace of 1951 thrillers A Rough Shoot and A Time to Kill — for one of the greatest adventure writers ever. Zoologist Charles Dennim is sent a mail bomb. Why? During the war, he was a double agent working for the Allies as a Gestapo officer… and now the husband of one of the Gestapo’s victims wants revenge. HiLoBooks is delighted to introduce this terrific yarn to today’s adventure readers.
I look back on my course of action as lunacy; and yet at the time it seemed the only way out. Pride, probably. One can never quite escape from one’s ancestors. Old Cunobel understood that. But there was a perverted common sense in it, too. The police admitted afterwards that if I had continued to live my normal life — and since I had to work to eat, what else could I do? — they would not have been able to protect me.
Ian Parrow saw the position as that of a hunter who is trying to protect some terrified native village from a man-eater. It is no use to cordon the place and post a rifle up every tree. The man-eater simply observes the whole preparation — tempering its disappointment with contempt — and goes away until everyone is sick of the whole business. Then it returns.
In my case there was no one to protect except myself, terrified enough, God knows, for an entire village. But the principle was the same. I had to hunt the poor brute down alone, on foot and on horse, and give him every chance to show himself.
Since the late nineteen-forties I have earned an obscure but very satisfying living as a zoologist, specializing in the life cycles of the smaller European mammals. Experience from youth onwards has fitted me for patient work out of doors in all weather, and I have even learned to enjoy the long hours at my desk, comparing and compiling statistics. English is not my native tongue, but I speak it without accent. As for writing it, the international jargon of scientists generally eases my task. That will not help me here. But I take it I cannot go far wrong if I write as I talk.
On the morning of May 20, 1955, I was working on some weak but fascinating evidence of delayed implantation of the blastocyst in the red squirrel — already proved for the roe deer and the badger — when I heard the double knock of the postman at my front door. It was before eleven and I was alone — thank God! — in the house.
The French windows of my study were wide open. Before leaving the room I closed them to prevent the fresh west wind blowing all the papers off my desk. Then there was a delay of another half minute while the catch of the window gave trouble. Meanwhile the postman, I imagine, was waiting impatiently to deliver his small parcel. When at last I walked up the passage from my study to the front door, its panels disintegrated in front of me.
That was my first impression — through the eyes. Though I was only some fifteen feet away from the door, I observed it separating into its original planks before I was conscious of noise and vapor.
The lock had jammed, and there was enough door left, except around the letter box, to obstruct the way out. I ran into the dining room and out through its now glassless window. On the path lay the upper and lower halves of the postman, joined together — if one could call it joined — by the local effects of the explosion.
The red post office van stood at the gate. My very suburban street was filling with people, mostly women. I remember wondering where they all came from. I have a habit of distracting my mind from whatever shocks it by a moment of unrelated speculation. Did those morning houses always hold such an intolerable crowd of untidy human beings behind their closed doors?
The more sensitive stood at my garden gate only for seconds. The rest stayed to stare, gradually infiltrating the garden. None of them approached the postman. I do not think the reason was the public’s callous lack of initiative. It was so obvious that the postman needed no help.
I tore down one of the dining room curtains with a nervous jerk and covered the body. All the intruders were firing questions at me. I could only reply that I hadn’t seen, didn’t know, couldn’t explain. I vaguely expected some sort of hostile demonstration. Of course there was none. That horrified little crowd assumed that the postman’s death was as meaningless as a road accident.
At last a policeman arrived; then, with very creditable speed, a patrol car and a van of police from the borough station. Like a team of well-trained, fatherly sheep dogs, they handled the gaping women, the body and the search for every scrap of paper from the presumed parcel.
I disliked both them and their uniforms. At that time — I think I am over it now — police, even the kindly English police, made me as unreasonably impatient as some ardent pacifist bristling at the approach of a battalion behind its band. I knew of course that it was absurd to resent the obedience of a sheep on an occasion when one could be nothing else, and I tried to avoid too aristocratic a coldness in answering their quick, courteous questions. I doubt if I succeeded, but they put my manner down to the effect of shock upon a retiring scientist.
The ambulance came and departed. A policeman was posted at my front gate. I was offered a lift to the station which I accepted, smiling at what seemed to me hypocritical politeness. The detective was hurt. He explained that it really was an offer and that many people were shy at being taken away immediately in a police car when they had witnessed a crime or accident; they preferred to make their way to the station independently in order to avoid gossip among the neighbors.
Once in the superintendent’s office I was more at ease. The face above the uniform was that of a hard-worked accountant or civil servant. He was a sensible and kindly man of about my own age, and he made it plain at once that he thought me the intended victim of the explosion and in no way responsible for it.
“You know of no motive, Mr. Dennim?” he asked. “No enemies at all?”
I did not. It never occurred to me that anyone could think me worth murdering. But I had been half prepared for some nightmare accusation of blowing up red squirrels and bagging a postman instead.
“Any domestic cause which could help us?”
“You mean a jealous husband or something of that sort?”
“Just any irregularity,” he said quietly in the tone of a father confessor.
“Not on my part. And I am certain you can rule out my aunt.”
“She is unmarried?”
I saw the way his mind was working and suggested that he had better get his own impression of Aunt Georgi.
“She is a widow,” I warned him, “and of very sane, determined and individual character.”
“Have you any theory of what actually happened, Mr. Dennim?”
I had and I gave it him. When I did not answer the postman’s knock, he tried to force the parcel through my letter box instead of leaving it with the next-door neighbors or taking it back for a later delivery. My letter box had a bigger opening than usual; a good-sized book, for example, would fit in. The explosive was probably meant to go off when the string was undone or an interior lid was lifted. But what happened was that the parcel jammed in the box — which might have broken the acid container or released the spring of the trigger device.
I was so absorbed in explanation that I did not see I had given him a clue, harmless enough but inviting questions, to my past life.
“Never blown anyone up yourself, I suppose?” he asked with too forced a heartiness.
“Just an army course on how to do it.”
“You have never had any connection with — well, any of these violent nationalist groups?”
“No. The parcel could not have been meant for me or my aunt at all.”
“But you said your letter box set it off.”
I told him that it must have been delivered in error, that either the sender got the house number wrong or the postman made a mistake. The street was correct. I had picked up and handed over to the police a bit of blood-sodden brown paper which showed the last half of the street name in printed capitals.
“What do you know of your next-door neighbors?”
“We say good morning and comment on the tulips.”
“In your profession as a zoologist you have not come across anything which could provide a motive for putting you out of the way?”
“I fear my results are not sufficiently spectacular, Superintendent. I am only a decided nuisance to one microbiologist, and even so, he moderates his language when I buy him a drink.”
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
REDISCOVERED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | John Buchan’s Huntingtower
ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics.