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 tried to turn the conversation into the world of science where murder is rare. Presumably rare. After all we have so many ways of making it appear death from natural causes. But the superintendent refused to be sidetracked.
“I gather you were in some branch of intelligence,” he said. “Are you sure there is no motive dating from that?”
“I cannot imagine one.”
“Would you care to tell me more?”
I took refuge in the Official Secrets Act and referred him to the War Office. Whatever they chose to tell him — it would certainly be one of those statements of bare facts which look revealing and are not —I knew he would keep to himself. But I was by no means sure that the police did not gossip about any curious stories which they discovered on their own. I did not want my past and former nationality to be known all over the district just because a postman had been killed at my front door. I think I was unjust, but there again my prejudice against police, any police, was at work.
The superintendent got his own back when I left him. I was thoroughly disconcerted by the sight of half a dozen newspapermen in and around the entrance to the station.
“What on earth am I to say to these fellows?” I appealed.
“There is not much I can teach you about keeping back information,” he said drily. “I can only advise you not to make a mystery of yourself.”
In fact it was easy. I played the dull specialist in a dull profession who knew nothing, had noticed nothing and was outraged that there should have been anything out of the ordinary to notice. The representatives of the evening papers were completely taken in. What I said was not quotable either for its inanity or for any intelligent conjecture. Charles Dennim, a zoologist living quietly with his aunt, simply was not news.
Only one of the papers thought me worth a photograph. Aunt Georgi declared it to be unrecognizable. I looked, she said, like a hangman who had taken to religion. With my face at rest, perhaps it was not very surprising that I should.
Georgina and I shared the house and our small incomes, saving each other from the cheap hotel which might otherwise have ruined our privacy and digestions. It was a natural partnership. We were both survivors from another age — a couple of dinosaurs, let us say — one of an older generation than the other, but both equally successful at persuading a society of little mammals that we were perfectly adjusted to it. As for ourselves, we endured each other in an unbroken state of deep affection and armed neutrality.
Georgina had the genial, positive manners of a trim little cavalry general retired on a pension. When she wore a bowler hat and riding breeches she could almost pass as one. At the riding school where she was assistant mistress, she had been, I understand, occasionally addressed by a new pupil as “Sir.” But never twice.
I met her on her way back from the school to prepare her for the shock of finding no downstairs windows and a policeman at the front gate. She took the news extremely well. It was to her one of those inexplicable happenings in an unreasonably excitable society at which a woman of character shrugs her shoulders. Only the actual absence of windows prevented her saying that the whole affair had been much exaggerated by the press.
I was therefore surprised when, after dinner, she continued to show a too persistent curiosity. It was not fear. She was quite incapable of nervousness.
After I had made some of the polite but uninterested noises by which one assures a female companion, wife or aunt, that one is listening, she said:
“Charles, you are not to be deliberately stupid! Suppose that package had been meant to kill one of us?”
I laid down the evening paper and remarked that we did not know it was meant to kill anybody.
“Of course we do!”
“We do not. It might have been a packet of detonators which some damned fool sent through the post. One of our neighbors down the street or next door probably knows what caused the accident and isn’t saying.”
“Which next door?”
“I cannot guess.”
“And what was it?”
“Dear Aunt Georgi, how the devil do I know? You have, like all women, a tendency to argue when there is no evidence to argue from.”
“And you, Charles,” she retorted, “because the evidence was removed in an ambulance, try to believe that it was never there at all.”
That shot went home. I was so busy suppressing my own horrified disgust that I had also suppressed an uncomfortable whisper at the back of my mind. It had to be recaptured and thought out like the uneasiness which can spoil a morning until one traces it to a dream.
For the next two days nothing happened. Passers-by stared curiously at the house and at the builders who were repairing front door and windows, and continually discovering frames, gutters and plaster which had to be replaced. The superintendent telephoned once for no obvious reason. I continued to question the love life of the red squirrel. Georgina, jodhpured and tweed-coated, strode off every morning to the riding school, her straight back disapproving the vulgarity of crime and its publicity.
Only once did she approach the subject — obliquely, for she would never allow herself to be snubbed twice.
“It may interest you to know, Charles,” she said, “that there is a new municipal sweeper on this road whose face I do not remember.”
I complimented her on being so observant and added that there was another plain-clothes cop frequently engaged in changing all four wheels of an old car on the waste ground at the corner of Acacia Avenue.
“They seem to think someone is in need of protection.”
“My own theory, Aunt Georgi, is that they suspect you of posting parcels to me.”
“Pah! Fact is — they don’t know any more than we do!”
For the time being she did, I believe, give up any further idea that the parcel was meant for me. So did the superintendent. There were other claimants to the honor of being assassinated. My suburban street was long; still, I should never have guessed that in some three hundred respectable little houses there could be two people who thought themselves important enough to be murdered.
One was a television singer, momentarily resting. She gave the papers an incoherent story of a desperate lover. He really existed. Whenever the psychiatrists pronounced him harmless and returned him to his family, an enterprising publicity agent paid him a small salary. He could be trusted to create a diversion on the doorstep of any female entertainer. But his speciality was threatening suicide. He did not send bombs.
The other was a Cypriot, who had a genuinely strong case — though local police were not sure whether they were Greeks or Turks who thought the world better without him. It was the superintendent who told me all this. He must have had, as I expected, a resounding but reticent report on me from the War Office. He asked me to keep my supposedly experienced eyes open and accepted my assurance that the parcel could not possibly have been addressed to me. Why shouldn’t he? It stood to reason that if I was not confident I would be yammering for protection.
Now that both police and Aunt Georgi had ceased to bother me, my own doubts perversely began to grow. The time of that bomb’s delivery pointed straight at me. An assassin who is not normally a criminal must surely take infinite care not to get the wrong man. The Cypriot might have opened his parcel while talking to a friend, or his landlady. But if the sender wanted me and only me and if he knew the routine of the house he could be sure that I should be alone in it when the parcel postman called.
This suggested that I had been under close observation and might still be. If I were, some face which was familiar to me on my own street or station ought to turn up again on the underground or on my usual routes to the London Library, to the museum, to lunch. When in London I had become very much a creature of habit.
But I could not see a sign that I was followed. That was not surprising if my regular routine had already been checked. For example, it is not necessary for me to disturb an animal by following it about. After a period of patient observation I know what it is likely to be doing and where it is likely to be found at any given time.
I did not change my habits. It was not worth either the trouble or the reproving of myself for undue nervousness. I was still only admitting that it was possible, just faintly possible, that I had been the intended victim of that parcel.
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.