The Crime Readers' Association



It was just ten days before Christmas when the unthinkable happened. George Layforth had an experience which he could not turn into light-hearted copy for his column. For that to occur it had to be something catastrophic – and it was.

George’s readers adored his sparkling but intimate style, his occasional, well-timed outspokenness but, most of all, his self-deprecating humour. Many imagined him as the perfect dinner guest, witty, charming, yet always modest. Those who bothered to write told him so in their letters. It was never likely to happen because George made a point of keeping his readers at a distance. “That way I retain my mystery,” he would chuckle.

Then, a year before that fateful Christmas, George began receiving letters from one Henry Gibson-Felloes. Oddly, this correspondent never mentioned the wit, concentrating instead on the unsung wisdom in George’s daily diary. It couldn’t have been just empty flattery because particular points were picked out and discussed as to why they were so perceptive. George was flattered. Wise was exactly how he saw himself. Henry also made a few tentative suggestions for elaborations on certain subjects. Some of these were usable in the column, which made George’s life a little easier.

Then, the inevitable happened. Henry asked for a meeting but George, as always, declined. He did it tactfully, saying he was tempted but could not break his golden rule. Henry left it for a while, then, when George was getting some flak for a rather rash joke in his diary, asked again, claiming he had some ideas on how to quench the flames of criticism. George weakened – then acquiesced.

“You know me,” he explained to Sadie, his secretary, “I’m just insatiably curious about my fellow man.”

Sadie did indeed know George – and that the only fellow he was in the least interested in was the one he saw in the bathroom mirror each morning. She thought him about as self-deprecating as Glad the Impaler but knew that he was clever. If self deprecation was what his readers wanted, self-deprecation was what he gave them.

They could have gone to a pub but George felt he must show off to his erudite new friend with the double-barrelled name so decided to take him to his favourite Italian restaurant, which served delicious Tuscan peasant fare at bloated capitalist prices.

“You’ll be sorry,” was Sadie’s comment and she fervently hoped he would be. “What if he’s a nerd? You’ll be stuck with him for the whole evening.”

She was wrong, thought George as they sat down. The man looked civilised. Dressed a little prissily perhaps but otherwise reasonable enough: tall, solidly built, with dark crinkly hair and heavy black spectacles. Granted, his skin was very pale, pasty in fact. But the voice, while it might be a bit booming, was educated and of good timbre.

To start George ordered the bruschetta, making a little joke that his mum would have called it tomatoes on toast and collapsed at the price. Henry riposted that he liked value for money and ordered one of the soups “for which at least they had to chop a few vegetables!” George hoped it was a humorous riposte but when Henry added, without a trace of a smile, that he would have thought someone as wise as George would have saved his money, he began to fear it was not.

Things looked up when Henry launched into a hymn of praise about George’s writing. To George’s relief he didn’t seem to expect him to be witty and self-deprecating in response. In fact, it soon became apparent that the wit in George’s prose went right over Henry’s head and what he most appreciated was the impeccable grammar.

“Unlike some journalists I could name!” Henry boomed, banging his fist on the table and cutting his hand on his knife.

George handed him his spare handkerchief to wrap around the cut as, with sinking heart, he recognised that bore of bores – the punctuation fanatic. Never mind what you say as long as you punctuate it correctly. However, as well as ridding the world of the dangling participle, with the assistance of the death penalty if necessary, it seemed that what Henry really wanted to do was to persuade George to write more seriously.

“It was awful,” he told Sadie the next day, “a disaster.”

“You’ll never get rid of him now,” was her comforting reply.

“At least he doesn’t know my real name or where I live.”

“Hmm,” said Sadie doubtfully.

“He did seem to know an amazing amount about me though,” George admitted, “things even I had forgotten.”

But if Henry knew George’s real name or where he lived he never made use of that knowledge. He did keep writing, however, his manner becoming irritatingly proprietorial as he offered more and more advice. With Sadie’s help, George worked out a strategy whereby he would answer. Initially, in a mildly friendly manner – then gradually cool it until they were back on the original footing. But Henry kept asking when they were to meet again “to expand on our fruitful friendship”. George was tempted to throw the letters in the wastepaper-basket but Sadie, who knew more about getting rid of odd, unwanted, male admirers, suggested he make an excuse.

“Tell him you are writing a book. You know, ‘I have taken your be-more-serious comments to heart – so I know you will bear with me while . . .’ ”

It worked – as far as the demands to meet were concerned – but the flow of imperious advice increased tenfold. George decided enough was enough and ceased answering. The letters continued but were at first hurt, then, increasingly angry in tone.


One day George said, “That’s it! No more! Ready? – “Dear Sir . . . ” and went on to dictate an extraordinarily vituperative letter to his number one admirer.

“Are you sure you want to send this?” asked Sadie when he sat back, all bile expended. “He could turn nasty.”

“What can he do? Send it recorded delivery – no – registered post.”

The reply George received was certainly angry but, oddly, that anger was directed only at George’s last column. In this, he had not only made a light-hearted reference to rape – a mistake, his postbag had already revealed – but also split an infinitive.

A week or two went by, two weeks, three. No more letters. They couldn’t believe it. It was strange to sort through the mail and not catch sight of that parchment envelope with the address inscribed in perfectly penned italic script – initially immaculate but which had become rather wild of late.

“In a way I miss him,” said George, ten days before Christmas, when enough time had elapsed for them to presume that the letters had ceased forever.

“Well, I find the silence a bit eerie,” said Sadie. “He’s given up too easily.”

“You read too many thrillers. There isn’t bound to be an ‘outcome’, you know. Most things just tail off.”

“Hmm,” said Sadie.

It was then that the phone rang. Sadie answered, then looked at George speculatively. “You been speeding again?”


“Well, there’s a big copper in reception who wants to see you – a matter of some emergency. . .”


What the Detective Inspector wanted to know was when George had last seen his good friend, Henry Gibson-Felloes.

“He’s not my good friend,” said George, tetchily.

“That’s not the impression we got,” replied the policeman, then added an abrupt, “sir.”

“From whom?”

“From his diaries.”

George was puzzled.

“Mr Gibson-Felloes is missing.”


“You didn’t know?”

“Why should I?”

The DI contemplated George’s petulant face. “You seem very agitated about this, sir. I think you’d better tell me where you were on the evening of Friday, seventh of December.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about this, sir. The walls of his flat were splashed with blood and there were signs of an affray. Angry exchanges were heard on that evening and he has not been seen since. We are merely covering all possibilities by contacting his closest friends – and there aren’t many of those.” He stroked his chin. “In fact, just you really.”

“I’m not his close friend! I only met him once.”

  “His diary disagrees.”

“The man was unbalanced!”

“We have no evidence of that, sir.”

“Just you read his last letter.” He scrambled through Sadie’s immaculate filing system.  “Look – he’s deranged!”

The policeman looked. “He certainly seems to be angry about what you wrote. What was that, sir?”

George told him. “Seems like an honest reaction to me, sir,” said the DI, managing, without a flicker, to convey contempt. He hesitated. Then said, “I should tell you that we have a letter of yours to him – which appears a great deal more heated to me. A falling out, it seems.”

George could think of no suitable answer. How to explain . . . Sadie would help.

“Is this your handkerchief, sir?” The DI held out a sealed plastic bag containing a white handkerchief bearing George’s real initials – RGF.

“Yes. Yes, it is. I lent it to him when he cut his finger – ages ago. But the cut wouldn’t make all those stains.”

“No. No they are recent,” the DI admitted. “From the scene.” He paused, then said, “You still haven’t answered my question. Where were you on the evening Mr Gibson-Felloes went missing?”

“I would be on my way to my country cottage. I always am.”

The policeman tapped his breast pocket. “That’s very strange, sir. According to his diaries that was the time you two always met. You have witnesses for this occasion?”

“No, of course not!” George yelled. “I never stop anywhere. I just go!”

The policeman looked grave. I must inform you that when an acquaintance rang Mr Gibson-Felloes that evening he said he had a visitor with him.”


“He said it was you – as usual.”

“It’s a fit-up! He’s done this to spite me!”

The Inspector gazed at him wonderingly. “That’s an extraordinary suggestion, sir. Why would he want to do that?”

The phone rang. It was for the DI. As he listened his eyes widened significantly. “I have just learned the terms of the will of Mr Gibson-Felloes,” the Detective Inspector said gravely as he put the receiver down.


“He has left the bulk of his estate, seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds, to his friend and companion, George Layforth,” the Detective Inspector paused. “Can you explain that, sir?”

George tried, and tried.


This story was first published in the CWA anthology Perfectly Criminal 2 (1997) and subsequently in CWA’s Crime Scenes (2008). Read more about Joan Lock here – an author also known these days for her fascinating non-fiction.

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