Authors: Alanna Knight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Historical Fiction, #Crime Fiction
An Inspector Faro Mystery
has written more than fifty novels, (including fifteen in the successful Inspector Faro series), four works of non-fiction, numerous short stories and two plays since the publication of her first book in 1969. Born and educated in Tyneside, she now lives in Edinburgh. She is a founding member of the Scottish Association of Writers and Honorary President of the Edinburgh Writers’Club.
The sultry heat of Edinburgh in 1871 emphasises Inspector Faro's frustration at his failure to capture Britain's most wanted thief, nicknamed Noblesse Oblige after his predilection for relieving file upper classes of their valuables. So when he has the chance to get away and join his family on the Orkney island of Balfray, it seems senseless not to go.
His stepson, Dr Vincent Beaumarcher, is there due to a plea from the laird, whose wife is dying of some unidentifiable disease. And as Faro's mother is housekeeper to the Balfray family it is a golden opportunity for the Faro clan to spend some time together.
But as the Inspector's boat nears the sea-bitten outline of the island he sees the tiny black shapes of a trail of mourners in the crumbling ancient kirkyard at the edge of the steep cliffs. Vince has been unsuccessful, Mrs Balfray is dead. Not from any disease but from arsenic poisoning. Faro's professional acumen is immediately called upon and, due to the remoteness and insularity of the island, he is faced by a communal wall of silence and by the appalling possibility that one of his own family could be involved in the murder.
In a subtle and devious plot, Alanna Knight once again presents a totally satisfying mystery set against the authentic background of Victorian Scotland.
There was nothing in the least sinister about the day that began it all. In the gardens beyond the windows of 9 Sheridan Place, late roses bloomed.
A morning haze of sunshine shimmering on Arthur's Seat promised another day unusually warm for that early autumn of 1871 and criminals were singularly inactive in the annals of the Edinburgh City Police.
What had happened to crime? Was he witnessing the dawn of a new age? Such were Detective Inspector Jeremy Faro's musings, indulging in his second cup of Earl Grey tea, as the housekeeper Mrs Brook set down the morning mail.
Across the table, Dr Vincent Beaumarcher Laurie tore open his solitary letter. 'By all that's wonderful. Amazing!'
Such sentiments brought the merest twitch of an eyebrow from his stepfather's direction. Used to Vince's extravagant reactions to quite trivial domestic situations, Faro dismissed such exuberance as a necessary outlet to the more sombre expectations of a young man about to set up as a general practitioner in medicine.
'This is quite astonishing, Stepfather,' and Vince waved the letter before him.
As Faro's own mail was at once recognisable as a dreary selection of tradesmen's bills and an ill-written abusive epistle full of rude words from one of the criminal fraternity anxious to remain anonymous, he vastly preferred to be astonished by whatever his stepson was about to reveal.
Especially as his remaining letter also bore an Orkney postmark. From his mother. He had left it unopened until he had been rightly fortified with a third cup of tea. Its contents, he did not doubt, would contain the usual gentle reproaches about his neglect of his two motherless children.
'This is from Francis Balfray, Stepfather,' said Vince. 'I don't suppose you remember Francis?'
Faro bristled slightly. If there was one thing on which he prided himself it was his excellent memory. 'I do indeed. The golden lad. Three years ahead of you. Claimed acquaintance through some remote Orcadian link. And you never liked him in the least as I recall. Priggish, wasn't that how you dismissed him?'
As he spoke, Faro's mind presented a vivid picture of a slightly built handsome youth, reputedly a brilliant student, the joy of his tutors.
'That's amazingly perceptive of you, Stepfather, considering you only met him for a few minutes.'
'I further recall that he was, despite his somewhat effeminate appearance, which might have brought grave doubts, engaged to be married.'
As Vince ran a hand through bright curls that not even his worst enemies could have considered suspect after his performance on the rugby field and within my lady's chamber, Faro wondered if Balfray's conscientious devotion to his studies was perhaps the main reason why Vince and his boon companions, Rob and Walter, found Balfray's company somewhat tedious.
'I recall that his betrothed was an Orkney cousin, a childhood sweetheart Am I right?'
'You are indeed, Stepfather. And marry her he did.' Vince picked up the letter again. 'That's what this is all about. Poor Thora has been taken mysteriously ill over the last few months. Sounds as if she has fallen foul of the local speywife.' He looked across at Faro. 'Been ill-wished, or something.'
At his stepfather's ill-concealed grunt of disbelief, Vince continued hastily. 'That's what he says. Listen to this: "I know it's all superstitious rubbish, but you have no idea what the island is like or the kind of people I'm dealing with. For the life of me, I can't discover what ails my dear wife. I've tried every kind of diagnosis and, without a second opinion, I'm in a devil of a fix. If I can't get help I feel something dreadful is about to happen - and soon. But my wife refuses to let me call in another doctor from the mainland. I'm desperate, Vince old chap, otherwise I wouldn't dream of burdening you with my problems. However, I have been prevailed upon to approach you by your dear grandmother, Mrs Faro— " '
Vince was momentarily interrupted by a stifled groan from his stepfather. He continued: ' "Mrs Faro is our dear good friend and urges me to write to you without further delay. She has been wonderful to poor Thora during her illness and has the highest regard for your capabilities. I'd look upon it as the greatest possible favour, old chap, if you could spare the time ... " '
Vince looked across the table. 'Well, what do you think of that?'
Faro was already tearing open his mother's letter. '"Dearest Jeremy, As you'll notice from the address above, I have taken on the post of housekeeper at Balfray Castle. It was advertised a few weeks ago. There were few replies, no one suitable—" '
'I'm not surprised, Stepfather. From what Francis told me, Balfray is both small and remote. Can't understand why he was so wild about it. As for Grandma marooning herself there ...'
'May I continue?' asked Faro. ' "The post is only for the summer months to help out until poor Thora recovers her strength. After all, we are distantly related on your poor dear father's side of the family and Rose and Emily so enjoy the special thrill of living in a castle. The Balfrays adore them, especially as their marriage has been sadly childless."'
Faro paused to fortify himself with another sip of tea. 'Where was I? Oh yes. This is where you come in: "Dear Vince will have heard from Dr Francis. I assure you he is almost out of his mind with anxiety, suffering as much as poor Thora, who seems to be fading away before our eyes. I have no doubt that Vince will rally to the call and be eager to help his old friend in any way he can..."'
Faro threw down the letter. Without any claim to psychic powers, he could guess how bad things must be. His mother's use of the prefix 'poor' was ominous in the extreme. It usually indicated those deceased or very shortly to be so.
He gave a sigh of exasperation. Although most of the time he loved his mother dearly, since no one could deny the heart of gold and the good intentions, the fact remained that she could be a sore trial, a well-meaning busybody, always ready and eager to tell everyone - her son included, first and foremost - how to run their lives.
'"Of course, if you could see your way to coming on a short visit at the same time ... " '
Reading his expression, Vince smiled. 'Trust Grandma never to miss a trick. Very convenient to kill two birds with one stone, eh?' He folded Francis Balfray's letter carefully and, frowning, tapped his fingers on the table. 'I do think I should go, Stepfather. I've no excuse not to, really, since I'm between locums just now. And why don't you come with me? Grandma's idea isn't a bad one at that. Besides, you're always talking about going to Orkney, seeing Rose and Emily.'
Talking, yes. Talking was easy, thought Faro guiltily. There wasn't a lot of effort needed in talking without serious intent of carrying out a family visit. And yet he was tempted. Through the window, down a tree-lined road, lay the foothills of the Pentland Hills. Beyond their gentle undulating slopes, a vast open countryside beckoned, where larks still sang into a cloudless sky above a harvest newly gathered in and hedgerows bloomed, fragrant with meadowsweet.
Suddenly an escape from the sordid petty crime and grime of Edinburgh's High Street was vastly appealing.
Suspecting, by his stepfather's wistful expression, that he was weakening, Vince continued sternly, 'You deserve a holiday, Stepfather. You've had rather too many colds and stomach upsets lately. What you need is some good fresh Orkney air and Grandma's cooking.'
And, wryly saluting his absent mother's triumph, Faro smiled. Why not accompany Vince, just to appease his wretched conscience which attacked him unmercifully on his shortcomings as a father to Rose and Emily? 'Very well. We'll leave directly. Just give me time to make arrangements at the Central Office.'
But here, alas, fate stepped in. For the past year, the bane of Faro's life had been a crook, allegedly scion of an aristocratic family, whose clever frauds bore the signature
, roughly translated as 'privilege entails responsibility'.
But responsibility for what, demanded Inspector Faro? Nicknamed Lord Nob by Edinburgh City policemen exasperated by his cunning, he worked with an accomplice, a clever woman or a young man who could assume, with considerable ease, the role of either sex. Indeed, the pair were so adept at disguises Faro strongly suspected that Lord Nob had been an actor at some stage in his career.
Earlier that summer came the break that all policemen long for. An informer in the criminal fraternity, who preferred to be anonymous, had come forward with reliable information that Noblesse Oblige was to be found frequently in Aberdeen.
The local police had made little progress and Superintendent McIntosh called Faro into his office.
'I'm certain that our informer is a woman. In all probability a prostitute. One he's forgotten to pay or otherwise betrayed. How about it? This is your chance to corner Noblesse Oblige.'
It seemed too great a challenge to miss, but Faro shook his head. 'I'd go gladly, sir, but as you know, it's out of my territory. Besides, I'm about to go to Orkney for a few days' holiday.'
'You can do both - Aberdeen's your right direction.' The Superintendent flourished a letter. 'Your fame's well spread, and they've made a direct appeal to me to release you.'
Faro needed no second bidding and a disappointed Vince took ship for Orkney alone.
A week later, however, a very angry and disgruntled Inspector Faro paced the quayside at Aberdeen harbour where, once again, the hunt for his quarry had ended. The trail blazed so hopefully was lost Once again Noblesse Oblige had outwitted his pursuers.
Faro knew when he was defeated and further pursuit a waste of time and effort. His quarry could have taken ship for a dozen different ports from Aberdeen. Heading in the direction of the shipping office for a berth back to Edinburgh's port of Leith, he noticed the Orkney boat moored at the quayside. For a moment he regarded it, frowning. Then, taking a coin from his pocket, he flipped it.
An hour later he was sailing north, bound for Kirkwall, where the rough breeze and accompanying spray cleared his head but did nothing for his digestion. A few sea miles further out found him glad to retreat into the cabin below, where the onset of night and gale force winds had him cursing his own folly.
He thought longingly of Edinburgh and his own comfortable bed as, retiring to his bunk, he lay sleepless while creaking timbers and heaving seas suggested that he had been rash indeed to anticipate a pleasant holiday in the land of his birth.
The night and his distress seemed endless but at last daylight broke upon a leaden sea and found him gloomily contemplating worse in store than bad weather. From long experience, he knew that he had but to set foot on Orkney to be irritated by his well-meaning mother with her eternal fussing. And irritation once begun tended to increase with the knowledge that the islanders were being dragged kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century.