The awkward thing about murders is that you have to solve them backwards. You have a dead body laid out on a hearth rug, flung into a ditch or dumped in an alley and you have to fathom out how it ended up there by reasoning backwards. How did the body end up on the hearth rug ? What was the body doing in the moments leading up to its becoming a body ? And, most crucially of all, how did it become a body at all ? I tell you this to explain what follows. It is not pointless waffle, I assure you. I am prone to waffle, but not on this occasion. Because you see, I am going to start our story in a bit of a backwards fashion. Sam thinks I should just start, tell it plainly and get it all over with, but I made it clear to him that, as a writer, you have to draw your audience in. It is no good building them up to something exciting that happens halfway through your story. If your first page is not captivating you have lost your reader.
“Think of Mr. Dickens,” I say to Sam. “How does he start Bleak House ? By taking us through the mysterious fog to the heart of London. How does he begin Great Expectations ? With Magwitch attacking Pip in the graveyard.” Sam then turns to me, twisting his lips slightly as he bites his inner cheek, and tells me I am “bangin’ on about Dickens again.” I cannot deny it. I am. And with good reason. Sam, alas, cannot read or write and so I think it annoys him a little when I talk about the works of Mr Dickens. But here I am doing the very thing I vowed to myself I would not do - rambling. Back to our story, beginning at the end, with the body.
Eugene Deverill, the man who lived in the downstairs rooms of our large house in St John’s Wood, London, was found clubbed over the head in the corner of his securely locked room. His precious diamonds had been taken. Diamonds he had acquired through years of mining in Kimberley in South Africa. Why, you will be asking, (if he is so fabulously rich) does he live in the rooms below my family’s ? An excellent and intelligent question and one which shows me on which side your bread is buttered! Well, put simply, Eugene Deverill was a miser. He hated to part with money unnecessarily. He hoarded his money and he kept his diamonds in a tightly locked, “crack-proof” (Sam’s word), safe. He was, if you like, very similar to Ebenezer Scrooge - the miser from Mr Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. But I can hear Sam’s voice in my head telling me off for bringing Dickens into it again, so on I go…
Mr Deverill was 62 years old, but looked much older. Greed had withered his face and tightened his skin fast to his bones, giving him the look of a laboratory skeleton who, on a whim had put on some ill-fitting, grubby clothes, a pair of half-moon spectacles and a once-exotic -but now dusty and faded - African hat.
I have quite a good view from my windows, one window looking out over the stretch of the Thames that flows past our house, the other, smaller window looking out over the street that our house stands on. As such, I can see a lot of the comings and goings in the street, something I like to look at when Aunt Cordelia has locked me in my room for disobedience. The only people I’ve ever seen coming in or out of Eugene Deverill’s door are his niece - Hettie Deverill - an actress in the theatre who always wears a long black cloak and hood - and the local police constable - P. C. Edward Burdon (or Ned as he likes to be called). P.C. Burdon visited Mr Deverill on a weekly basis to check the diamonds in the safe were still present and correct and to check on the security of the rooms in which Mr Deverill lives. He had bars on all the windows, lots of locks on the door and rarely left his rooms, so I do not quite understand how the diamonds could have disappeared in the space of a week, but old people are funny, aren’t they ? Mr Deverill certainly was. P.C. Burdon indulged this little fancy of Mr Deverill’s and would visit at the same time every week, popping in for ten minutes or so.
On the few occasions I spoke to Mr Deverill I found him to be a little frightening. He had a peering expression, which made him gaze at me as if I had just uttered the stupidest words ever uttered by humankind when all I had offered up was a jolly “good morning!” He was not a kind man, certainly not to what remained of his family, and he was even less tolerant of strangers or, in my case, nodding acquaintances on the staircase.
So much for the body. You will probably be wondering by now who on Earth I am. No ? Well, even if you are not, I will tell you, as I feel it is relevant to your understanding of how this case unfolded and the decisions I took throughout it.
My name is Esther Morstan-Eyre. I am 12 years old. I was born in 1876 (I’m sure you could have done that fairly elementary sum for yourself but I like to be thorough!) I live with the man I call “Father” - Chief Constable Ulysses Morstan-Eyre - (a man as forbidding and cold as his name suggests) and his devoted sister, my “Aunt” Cordelia.
Aunt Cordelia, despite being a lot older than me, is about my height and, although we are not related by blood, we share certain characteristics that always make strangers point out our similarities as proof of our non-existent “blood-relation”. She is stick-thin. So am I. She has brown hair, so do I. She has hazel eyes, so do I. She wears her hair in a bun, so do I (when I can be bothered to). She wears rather bright, shiny, satin dresses and so, sadly, at her behest, do I. The worst of it is that, although she is old, she is the same height as I am and so we share dresses. Think about one of your Aunts and, however much you love her, ask yourself the next time you see her if you would like to be seen dead wearing her dresses! If your answer is yes, then you are a luckier girl than I, with a more stylish aunt than I possess.
Aunt Cordelia is not a straightforward woman to describe as far as her personality goes. My “Father’s” personality is much easier to describe - put simply, he does not possess one. He talks little, listens less, pays almost no attention to his surroundings and none whatsoever to me, his adopted daughter. This, by the bye, is not my attempt to gain your pity, or to make you feel I have gone through some sort of Dickensian upbringing - Dickens again ! Sorry Sam! On!
Anyway, the only way to describe Aunt Cordelia would be - brutal. She has been given a free hand to raise me as she sees fit, Father being always at work and uninterested in me when he is at home. Aunt Cordelia’s method of “raising” me has frequently involved the use of a cane or, when that has failed her, locking me in my room and starving me has always been her trusty second choice. I do not go to a school as Father considers it a “waste of money.” If I were his real daughter, I think it would be different, but I’m not, so it isn’t.
Aunt Cordelia is, perversely, a lover of nature and a committed Christian. Every morning, without fail, at dawn, she will walk down the jetty at the side of our house and watch the sunrise or, as she puts it, “The Breaking of God’s Light across the World”. How such a godly woman can be such an ungodly tartar I do not know, no more than you do I dare say.
Luckily for me, the room in which I am frequently locked up has a bookshelf in it and on that bookshelf there are several books. One of them is Mr Johnson’s Dictionary. Another is the Bible. Can you guess what the rest are ? Yes! The works of Mr Charles Dickens. When I have been locked in for long periods the Dictionary, the Bible and Dickens have been my only companions. That is why, Sam says, I’m always using “stupid long words.” I may use some in this write-up of the case. If there is one you don’t understand the best and wisest thing to do is look them up in the dictionary. Then you can use them to impress (or annoy) those around you, like I do.
Although the cane and the isolation have never worked on me, Aunt Cordelia insists on using them both in equal measure to beat my “real parents” out of me. They both died when I was 3 and I remember very little about them, so I have no clue what she means by this. I assume it refers to my defiance (I am defiant, despite it all). She is frequently annoyed that I refuse to give in without a fight. She lays down rules I do not agree with. If I do not obey I get thrashed. So, naturally, I disobey her as much as I can. Especially if it means I can go on adventures with Sam.
Other than Father and Aunt Cordelia the only other person in our household is the servant, Mrs Gritton. I would like to tell you that she is the Peggotty to my David Copperfield. She isn’t. She is always squarely on Aunt Cordelia’s side, even if it is plainly the wrong side. Her husband died quite a long time ago, I suspect, just to get away from her. When Aunt Cordelia goes out for the day, whilst Father is at work, it is Mrs Gritton who has charge of me. Luckily for me, she is extremely stupid and so is easily outwitted.
Now, I really must tell you who Sam is. I keep mentioning him and I realise I have told you nothing about him. Worry not, dear reader, this is all going to “get going” soon. We shall move on to the locked room mystery and the disappearance of the Deverill Diamonds, I promise. I just feel I should get you “up to date” on a few things. You see, Sam and I met while investigating our first case together - The Adventure of the Body in the Alley. Sam Wiggins, it should be said, is… well, now, which words to use ? A street urchin seems a little harsh, a vagabond does him no justice at all.. Suffice to say that Sam is a lot poorer than I am. He lives in a much tougher part of London than I do. He is very street-savvy. And he is a crossing-sweep, just like poor Jo in Bleak House. He is also 12, (although he is a month older than I), he has light blonde hair (which gets very sweaty very easily), wears a small cloth cap (whatever the weather) and a ragged brown waistcoat. Sam and I met by chance one day and it led us to the Body in the Alley mystery and the solution of the murder of Mr Riley Brocklehurst.
’That sounds intriguing,’ I hear you say. ’Why, then, am I not telling you that story?’ you ask! Perhaps, one day, I shall. But I think that you will enjoy the mystery of the Deverill Diamonds just as much. And the Body in the Alley had been a difficult case for Sam, what with one thing and another so I prefer not to talk about it too much.
Suffice to say, Sam is very clever. He hides this cleverness behind a mask, scared that his intelligence will be frowned upon by those around him, but he really is remarkably clever. Most importantly of all, of course, he is clever about the streets. I know very little of the other side of life. Sam knows everything. He knows the faces of almost every criminal in London, can navigate the back streets, and can get information from his underworld contacts. I know “high” society and Sam knows “low”. That, in my opinion, is why we make such a great crime-solving duo. I can get us into a society ball, Sam can get us into a villain’s lair.
Good grief ! I have just re-read what I have written so far and it is, without doubt, rambling. I have not just told the story backwards, but upside-down and topsy-turvy ! I have gone from the past tense to the present with astonishing ease. I really must apologise. The story will, I promise, begin here. No more tangents, no more wandering off, no more tense changes and, hopefully for you, no more Dickens !