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Authors: Michael Pearce

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A Dead Man in Malta

BOOK: A Dead Man in Malta
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Constable & Robinson Ltd

3 The Lanchesters

162 Fulham Palace Road

London W6 9ER

First published in the UK by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2010

First US edition published by SohoConstable, an imprint of Soho Press, 2010

Soho Press, Inc.

853 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Copyright © Michael Pearce, 2010

The right of Michael Pearce to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication
Data is available from the British Library

UK ISBN: 978-1-84901-298-0

US ISBN: 978-1-56947-878-3

US Library of Congress number: 2010019577

Printed and bound in the EU

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Chapter One



‘Yes. Dozens of them. The hot-air sort. The sky was full of them.’

‘And one of them came down?’

‘Yes. Into the water.’

‘But no one was hurt, I gather?’

‘Not then, no.’

‘That’s the odd bit.’


It was later that the German had died. When he had come down into the Grand Harbour, the basket had floated for a while, long enough for one of the water-taxis, with which the harbour abounded, to get to him. He had been standing up in the basket and waving happily. There had seemed nothing wrong with him. However, the
, as a precaution, had taken him to the nearby Royal Naval Hospital at Bighi. The doctors had checked him all over and found that everything was in order but had kept him in, protesting, in case there were any delayed effects. And early that evening he had died.

Like the others.

Three people now, the letter to
The Times
said accusingly, had died in the hospital at Bighi in quick succession. All of them mysteriously.


All three, when admitted, had been apparently in the best of health.

If they were so healthy, said someone sarcastically, what were they doing in the hospital?

Well, said the original correspondent, a Mrs Wynne-Gurr, one of them had injured his knee playing football, another had suffered facial abrasions in a dispute on the waterfront and was having his jaw wired, and the third was the unfortunate German. In none of these cases, said Mrs Wynne-Gurr tartly, could the condition of the patient be described as likely to lead to respiratory failure. Which was what, according to the doctors, all three had died from. The doctors fought back.

What, exactly, was Mrs Wynne-Gurr alleging?

Mrs Wynne-Gurr was alleging nothing. She was merely pointing out that three apparently healthy men … etc., etc. And she thought that questions should be asked.

What about, precisely?

Mrs Wynne-Gurr hesitated but did not retreat.

‘Nursing practices,’ she said.

Nursing practices? The doctors reeled back.

Yes. She herself was not without experience of nursing practice and she felt that questions needed to be asked about current practices in the hospital. Were the patients left lying on their backs or on their tummies, for example? ‘What?’ said the stunned doctors.

‘I was just struck,’ explained Mrs Wynne-Gurr, ‘by the similarity between these deaths and those suffered by babies in cot deaths.’

‘British sailors do not suffer from cot deaths,’ said the Admiral in charge of things at Malta, stiffly.

‘But if they had been drinking heavily …’ said Mrs Wynne-Gurr.

‘British sailors do not …’ began the Admiral, but then thought again.

At this point there came a foreign intervention. A German doctor wrote in saying that the German aviator had been a patient of his, that he had been a clean-living Lutheran and did not drink, that the doctor had examined him thoroughly before he had embarked on his ballooning and found him in the best of health. Before he entered the hospital.

This directed attention back to the hospital and to the question of nursing practices. Many of the nurses in the hospital were Maltese and the island took umbrage. Its umbrage was joined to the Navy’s umbrage and fanned by the Maltese press. Most of it was aimed, conveniently from the hospital’s point of view, at Mrs Wynne-Gurr, and in the furore the three deaths might have been lost sight of had it not been for a new development.

The mother of one of the dead sailors wrote to a newspaper (not
The Times
but a popular tabloid) saying that her son’s mess mates had written to tell her they thought there was ‘something fishy’ about his death. When a local newshound followed this up, it transpired that the sailor had something specific in mind. They had been visiting their mate on the day he had died—and found him in excellent health and spirits—and then gone on to chat to (up) a nurse they knew. On their way back they had glanced in at their mate as they passed and seen someone bending over him with a pillow. They had thought nothing of it, that it was just a nurse making him comfortable, but then the next day when they heard that he had suddenly died, and what he was alleged to have died of, they began to wonder. Such deaths were not unknown aboard ships, they said.

‘Seen it done,’ one of them volunteered. And in a hospital, too. He had been sick once, out on the Singapore station, and had spent some time in hospital. One of the patients on his ward had snored heavily, night after night, and in the end the other patients had been driven to desperate measures.

‘It’s easy done. You just put a pillow over his head.’

Upon further questioning, the informant had backtracked rapidly; but the Maltese newspapers the next day had been full of headlines about ‘Murderous British matelots’. These were soon followed by indignant denials from the Navy, the hospital and the authorities in general; so everyone believed there must be something in it.

The matter clearly cried out for investigation. But who by? The Maltese police? But the hospital, in Navy terms, was a ship and therefore not under Maltese jurisdiction. It would conduct its own investigation. The Maltese weren’t having that. They called on the Governor to intervene.

The Governor, because Malta at that time was still a Crown Colony, governed by a British-appointed Governor subject to the Colonial Department in London.

The Governor appealed to the Department for guidance. The Department deliberated.

‘You need someone from outside,’ they said. ‘Why don’t we send out someone from Scotland Yard?’

‘How about that chap Seymour?’ said the Navy, recalling past services. ‘And, perhaps,’ they added hopefully, ‘he could bring his assistant with him.’

‘Assistant?’ said Scotland Yard, mystified. ‘We don’t remember him having an assistant with him in Gibraltar.’

‘A mistake,’ said Seymour hurriedly.

Which, possibly, it had been. But not the Navy’s: Seymour’s. While staying in Gibraltar, he had brought his girlfriend over from Tangier to join him. Forced once to explain her away, he had claimed that she was a Special Assistant sent out from London and had never been able to shake off the identification. The Navy had embraced Chantale with enthusiasm; not entirely to Seymour’s satisfaction.

‘Well, you can’t have an assistant this time,’ said Scotland Yard.

‘Wouldn’t dream of asking for one,’ said Seymour.

Which was a mistake, as he discovered when he got home and told Chantale about it. Chantale quite fancied a return to the Mediterranean.

‘No way!’ said Seymour.

Chantale nursed her wrath and bided her time.

‘This letter that started it all,’ said Seymour: ‘from a …?’

‘Mrs Wynne-Gurr,’ said the man from the Colonial Department.


‘British. She is the Chair of the West Surrey branch of the St John Ambulance Association.’

‘You say that as if it were significant?’

‘Well, it explains what she was doing out there.’

‘And what was she doing out there?’

‘Arranging a visit. She’d taken it into her head, you see, to bring a party of her members out to Malta to see the origins of the Association.’

He looked kindly at Seymour. ‘You may not be aware of the origins of the St John Ambulance.’

‘Well, no. No. Not really.’

‘You have heard, of course, of the Knights Hospitaller of Malta?’

‘Of course!’

Honesty crept in. ‘Vaguely.’

‘They began as a community of monks set up to nurse pilgrims who fell sick on their way to the Holy Land. When it became evident that the chief threat to their health was a military one, they added knights to their number and earned an awesome reputation as defenders of the faithful. In time they became known as the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem.’

‘Not Malta?’

‘Not to start with. Actually they were thrown out of Jerusalem and had to regroup on Rhodes. When they were thrown out of there, too, they moved to Malta. They defended Malta against the Turks, most notably at the time of the Great Siege, but then they rather went downhill. Eventually they were thrown out of Malta, too, and now, I believe, the remnants of the Order are based in Rome. A British connection lives on, however, in the form of the St John Ambulance.’

‘Knights?’ said Seymour doubtfully.

‘Nursing. The Association was set up some thirty years ago to promote the cause of first aid.’

‘The people you see at football matches?’

‘And public events of all kinds. They perform an invaluable service.’

‘And Mrs Wynne-Gurr …?’

‘Is active in the Association. Overactive, in the opinion of some people.’

‘I see. And she had come out to Malta to arrange a visit …’

‘Of her troops. Sorry, of her branch. And happened to be present on the day of the great ballooning event. Observing the balloons, however, less closely than the practices of the local St John Ambulance, who were, naturally, in attendance. On the whole, she was satisfied with them. Less so, though with the practices of the hospital.’

‘How does the hospital come into it?’

‘The balloonist who came down was taken there. Closely followed by Mrs Wynne-Gurr, still intent on observing procedures. Actually, she was quite satisfied with the Accident and Emergency procedures she saw and went home appeased to write a report on the day’s events which she intended to give to the local St John Ambulance. It was only the next day, after she had heard about the German’s death, that she decided to go back to the hospital in search of an explanation. And this time she was not at all satisfied with what she saw.’

‘And so she wrote to
The Times

‘As you do. If you’re someone like Mrs Wynne-Gurr. And opened up the whole can of worms. Or, alternatively, depending upon your point of view, stirred up a quite unnecessary hornets’ nest. Some of which stung the Governor and, consequently, us. One sting leads to another, Seymour, and at the end it led to you. Go out to Malta and find out who dunnit.

‘Oh, and, Seymour, there’s one other thing. A lot of people are interested in this. Including other countries. Germany, especially, is asking questions. So—please—carry out your investigation with a light touch. As the bankers plead when the rest of us are trying to stop them from doing anything too awful.’

So there was Seymour, not quite a week later, standing in the Upper Barraca Gardens, looking out over the Grand Harbour. Below and to his left was the breakwater at the entrance to the harbour. Over to his right, across the water, was Fort Ricasoli and another building which looked like another fort but must be the hospital. Directly ahead was the town of Senglea and a great mass of building spreading along the end of the harbour and blending with dockyards. There were creeks giving off the harbour, huge inlets lined with cranes and wharves and busy with tugs and little cargo boats of all kinds.

But dwarfing everything was the vast bay itself, blindingly blue in the sun and filled, for this was 1913, with warships. Little boats were nestling alongside them unloading provisions, squat tugs were bustling to and fro, and tiny water-buses, stuffed with people, and with eyes painted on their hulls, were criss-crossing the harbour in all directions, like water-beetles.

‘Imagine it swarming with balloons,’ said the Inspector enthusiastically. ‘Dozens of them. Hundreds of them! That’s how it was that day. It was a mercy they didn’t collide. But there’s more space up there than you think and they know what they’re doing. I don’t mind telling you, though, that we were really worried beforehand from a traffic control point of view. It was all right on the day, though.’

‘Except for the German,’ said Seymour.

As they were standing there looking out over the harbour they heard English voices behind them.

‘Felix!’ scolded a woman’s voice. ‘Where
you been? We have been looking for you everywhere!’

‘I was with Dad. At the Grand Master’s Palace. I wanted to see the Armouries but they were closed. And Dad was spending ages looking at some tapestries so I wandered off.’

‘Well, you shouldn’t have done. Not when you knew we have an appointment at the hospital.’

‘Mum, need I go this time? We’ve been three times already and it’s not very interesting.’

‘There are
things of interest to see in a hospital,’ said the mother firmly.

‘I’ll take you along to Ophthalmology,’ said a man’s voice conciliatorily.

‘But, Dad, you took me there last time! And the time before.’

‘You can learn a lot from an Ophthalmology Department,’ said the mother. ‘Especially if you’re going to become a doctor.’

‘But I’m
going to become–’ said the boy, in exasperated tones.

‘Don’t set your mind too firmly against it. Not at this stage.’

‘Anyway,’ said the boy sulkily, ‘I
looking at a hospital.’


‘The Sacra Infermeria. I met a doctor and he took me there.’

‘Are you sure, Felix?’ said the man, in a puzzled voice. ‘I don’t know a hospital of that name.’

‘It’s a very old one. Over three hundred years old.’

‘Ah, well—’

‘They’ve got lots of old instruments and things.’

‘Well, I’m sure that’s very interesting, Felix, but–’ began his mother.

‘And the Long Hall. You should see it, Dad. It was the longest ward in Europe when it was built and it probably still is. It’s huge!’

‘I’m not sure I’m in favour of large wards,’ said his mother. ‘Handy for the nurses, but bad from the point of view of spreading infection.’

‘Dr Malia says it could come into its own again.’

‘Dr Malia?’ said the Inspector.

The boy turned to him.

‘Yes, that’s right. Do you know him? He’s the doctor I met. And he took me over to the Sacra Infermeria and showed me—’

‘Dr Malia?’ said the Inspector again, in a slightly worried voice.

‘Anything wrong with him?’ said the father.

‘No, no. Not exactly,’ said the Inspector. ‘He’s a perfectly respectable doctor. Or was.’

BOOK: A Dead Man in Malta
5.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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