The Crime Readers' Association

The Best Detective in Town, by Mick Finlay



It was too hot for London. The streets were quiet and unhappy, the air filled with the stink of rotting food. The pumps had gone dry, the street children begging cups of water then robbing anyone kind enough to help. Everywhere, old horses were lying down, still attached to carts piled high with dung and hay and bricks, their forlorn eyes begging you to call the slaughterers.

Oh, it was a bad summer, all right. We hadn’t had a case in weeks and money was running short. But today Arrowood was convinced our luck was going to change: we’d been called to a big house in Brixton by Colonel Tattersfield, whose son had been kidnapped. The Tattersfields were a sugar family, and one of the wealthiest in London. The story had been in the papers all week.

Having no money for a tram, we’d walked. It was a long way, and Arrowood’s frayed black suit was quickly soaked with sweat, his lumpy face pimpled with heat rash.

‘Damn this sun,’ he wheezed as we went. His belly groaned. ‘I need to eat, Barnett.’

‘We can eat after we know if we’re going to get paid, sir.’

‘I might pass out.’

‘Think of the money, sir.’

At last we arrived. It was a red-brick villa set back from the road, four storeys high and with its own drive for carriages. A maid answered the door and told us to wait. A few minutes later Colonel Tattersfield appeared. His face was pale, his eyes baggy: it looked like he hadn’t slept for days.

‘I’m afraid I don’t need you any more, Mr Arrowood,’ he said, his voice dull and lifeless.

‘But we’ve come all the way from Waterloo,’ said the guvnor.

‘I saw your notice in the paper and sent you a message without thinking,’ said the Colonel. ‘I’m sorry. My son’s life is at risk. I was at my wit’s end, and my wife’s abed with brain fever. It was a mistake.’

‘We can help you, Colonel.’ The guvnor was talking louder now. ‘Let’s discuss it, at least. There are things we can do the police cannot.’

‘No, sir. I’ve been told you don’t have the experience for a job like this. But thank you for coming.’ He fiddled in his pocket and pulled out a tuppence, which he held out to the guvnor.

‘I’ve solved many cases as complicated as this,’ said Arrowood, ignoring the coin.

‘Mr Arrowood’s the best private detective in London, sir,’ I said.

‘Of course he isn’t,’ said the Colonel, stiffening. He dropped the coin back into his pocket. ‘Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes is the best in London.’

‘I’m quite as good as he, Colonel. You must have read of the Catford murders?’

‘No,’ said the Colonel, shaking his head. ‘I don’t think I have.’

‘The Fenian rifle plot?’

‘That was Mr Holmes.’

‘It was me! Holmes only came in at the end.’

‘Listen, Mr Arrowood.’ Tattersfield’s face was colouring. ‘I don’t need you. Mr Holmes read about my case in the papers this morning and called to offer his help. Only a fool would turn down the world’s best detective.’

‘With respect, sir, he isn’t the world’s best detective. Oh, he says he is. Repeatedly. But he’s constantly making mistakes. It was his blunder that led to the death of Mr Hilton Cubitt, if you remember.’

‘I don’t know who that is.’

‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men?’

‘I don’t remember. But I do know he tracked down Lord Mount-James’ nephew. He also found the Duke of Holdernesse’s son when he’d been kidnapped. Found him in a single day.’

‘A lucky guess, Colonel. Everyone knows he read those bicycle tracks wrongly, yet somehow he found himself in the right place. And, frankly, I cannot believe the workers at the inn were watching the road all through the night for the doctor. A doctor called out in emergency would knock at the door.’

‘What are you talking about, man?’

‘The Duke of Holdernesse case, sir.’

‘Why d’you know so much about his cases?’ asked the Colonel, wiping the sweat from his brow with a silk handkerchief. Behind him, the butler lingered in the hall, listening in.

‘I’m a student of crime. But I don’t like to put Holmes down. He has many abilities. Certainly he can identify the type of cigarette smoked from the ash alone.’

‘I hear he’s an expert singlestick player,’ said I.

‘And Holmes has written a monograph on secret codes,’ said the Colonel. ‘Have you?’

The guvnor’s belly groaned. He clutched it. ‘Have I what?’

‘Written a monograph on secret codes?’

The guvnor seemed struck dumb, which wasn’t like him at all.

‘Or anything?’ demanded the Colonel, scratching his beard hard like he was trying to shave it off with his fingernails.

‘I’m interested in the psychology of the mind, Colonel. That’s how I solve crimes, not by secret codes. I agree he has some useful knowledge, but he has no feeling for people.’

‘People can go to blazes!’ answered Tattersfield in a burst temper, and for the first time he revealed how close he was to despair. ‘It’s results I’m interested in, and he’s a results man! He retrieved the secret naval treaty for the country. Stopped an international crisis there. He brought back President Murillo’s papers, and that Dutch steamship. My son’s been taken, for pity’s sake! What do I care for feelings?’

‘But understanding people is what solves most cases, Colonel. Most cases—‘

But the colonel had already shut the door in our faces.

Arrowood lowered himself to the step and sat there in the shade, his head in his hands. ‘Is Sherlock Holmes trying to ruin me, Barnett? The first case we get offered in weeks, the chance of a good payment at last, and in he jumps without even being invited.’

‘It’s nothing to do with you, sir. Holmes hardly knows you exist.’

‘Of course he knows I exist. And why didn’t you take that coin?’

I said nothing, not wanting to vex him further. For five minutes he sat there, staring at the grand new villas along the other side of the street, until the footman came out and told us to leave. I helped the guv’nor to his feet and we trudged back towards the river. It was full tide and the gulls were at war, screaming and swooping over the brown water. They must have been the only things so lively in the heat that day.

To make himself feel better, Arrowood searched out his last few coins and bought a sheep’s trotter from an old woman. He’d just taken his first bite when a huge white gull swooped at him, its wings beating wildly. Arrowood cried out in terror as the shrieking creature assaulted him, its talons ripping his arms, its monstrous beak jabbing his face. And almost as soon as it arrived it was gone, rising into the air, with the sheep’s trotter gripped in its feet.

‘Damn it!’ he screamed. He looked around in a fury, then bent to pull off his boot, which he hurled into the air. The ragged bit of leather flew up a few yards in the direction of the departing gull, then dropped into the full brown river and was swept away.

‘It’s taken my shoe!’ Arrowood exploded. ‘Get in after it, Barnett!’

‘I can’t swim, sir.’

He blinked, staring at the thick, greasy water, a look of such sorrow on his face. ‘My trotter,’ he whispered.

His belly groaned again. He looked down at his feet: one booted, the other bare. He wasn’t even wearing stockings.

‘Lend me a shoe, will you, my friend?’ he asked. His cheeks were scratched and bloody, the sleeves of his coat spattered with bird shit. ‘There’s dung everywhere.’

I turned and walked on. When twenty minutes later we reached his rooms in Coin Street, we found the lawyer Scrapes waiting for us with a sweaty woman dressed all in black.

‘Ah, Mr Arrowood,’ said Scrapes, frowning as he saw the state of the guvnor. ‘This is Mrs McDonald. Her husband has disappeared.’

Mrs McDonald’s lip, graced by a black wart, curled.

‘Have you done this type of work before, Mr Arrowood?’ she asked suspiciously.

‘Many times, madam,’ said the guvnor with a bow. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed.’

I watched her look him up and down, at his scratched and bloody face, at his torn shirt and the gull shit spattered over his jacket. Confused, her eyes flicked back and forth between his bare, filthy foot and his boot.

‘Mr Arrowood’s the best detective in town, ma’am,’ said I at last.

The guvnor pulled over a chair. ‘I can see I’ve fooled you with my disguise, Mrs McDonald. I’ve been working undercover. Just come from Colonel Tattersfield, in fact. So why don’t you sit down and tell me what happened?’



Mick Finlay writes the Arrowood series. The third book, Arrowood and the Thames Corpses, was published 2 April 2020.

Find out more about the author here.

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