Uncharitable Murder

The body lay face down surrounded by blood spattered paperbacks; the crown of the head staved in by the highest shelf of the toppled bookcase.

‘That’s how I found him,’ said the woman sitting down unsteadily behind the desk. ‘I haven’t touched anything.’

‘Are you all right?’ asked the nervous young constable.

‘Oh yes,’ said the woman. ‘I saw worse every day in Bosnia. You don’t expect that here though.’
‘Who was he?’ asked the detective.

‘Prout,’ said the woman. ‘Dr Prout. He’d only recently retired, poor fellow. Such a nice man.’

‘It was obviously an accident.’ said the constable, putting his notebook away.

‘Obviously an accident?’ said the detective. ‘Don’t be daft.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked the constable.

‘He’s face down.’ said the detective. ‘He was running away then.’

‘But the bookcase is on top of him,’ said the constable. ‘He must have pulled it over.’

‘If he’d pulled it over he’d have been facing it,’ said the detective. ‘And he’d have landed on his backside. Let’s have another look.’

The detective walked slowly round the body and turned back to the woman.

‘Can you tell me anything about the books?’ she asked her.

‘They’re all light reading,’ said the women. ‘Romances. Crime. That sort of thing. They’re really popular.’

‘Do you notice anything unusual about them?’ asked the detective.

‘Well,’ said the woman. ‘Those cases are usually full. People are always bringing more in. But it doesn’t look like there’s enough on the floor to fill more than half the shelves.’

The detective crouched down and looked closely at the books.

‘I think they’re all from the end of the alphabet,’ she said, standing up again. ‘They’d have been on the lower shelves then.’

‘Oh yes,’ said the woman. ‘But anyone who handles books wouldn’t empty a case from the bottom. That’d make it top heavy.’

‘And Dr Prout?’ asked the detective.

‘Dr Prout knew all about books,’ said the woman firmly. ‘He was a real gentleman.’

‘Why would he be emptying the shelves?’ asked the constable.

‘I’ve no idea,’ said the woman. ‘Shelving’s not my job.’

The constable walked across to the back of the shop.

‘What’s through here?’ he called, opening the door in the rear wall.

‘That’s the store room,’ said the woman, getting up and slowly joining him. ‘Have a look if you like.’

The constable went through the door and quickly returned.

‘Do you always leave the window open?’ he asked.

‘Oh yes,’ said the woman. ‘It gets so stuffy.’

‘Do you have CCTV?’ asked the constable.

‘Of course not!’ said the woman. ‘This is a charity shop! How can we afford CCTV? Anyway, there’s nothing here to steal. We never leave any money in the till after we close up.’

‘What else is through there?’ asked the detective, peering into the store room.

‘More books,’ said the woman. ‘Waiting to be priced and shelved.’

‘Have you had much new recently?’ asked the constable.

‘Of course we have!’ said the woman. ‘Books come in all the time.’

‘Were you here yesterday?’ asked the detective. ‘Do you remember the last delivery?’

‘Oh yes,’ said the woman. ‘It was one of our regulars. Mrs McIvor. Every month she brings in the donations from the local support groups.’

‘How do they come in?’ asked the detective.

‘In our standard boxes,’ said the woman. ‘They’re all recycled cardboard.’

‘So what are all the poly bags?’ asked the detective.

‘Poly bags?’ asked the woman, joining him. ‘They weren’t there when I left last night!’

‘We’d better check them out,’ said the detective.

She pulled on a pair of fawn calf-skin gloves and began to unpack the nearest bag.

‘These look much older,’ said the detective, showing the woman a thick, dark blue, volume.

‘That’s Stevenson,’ said the woman. ‘Vailima Edition. Nice binding. Whose were they?’

‘How might we know?’ asked the detective.

‘There’ll most likely be a book plate.’ said the woman.

The detective opened the book at the front cover.

‘Marchmont Library,’ he read. ‘Withdrawn. So how would they wind up here?

‘Well,’ said the woman. ‘There’s an annual library sale in MacDonald Road. Sometimes we get what’s left.’

‘So what’s this one worth?’ asked the constable.

‘Depends how old it is,’ said the woman. ‘Is there a date?’

‘Just one,’ said the detective. ‘Roman numerals. 1922.’

‘That’s a first printing,’ said the woman. ‘It might still fetch a bob or two even if no one wants to borrow it anymore. I wonder how it wound up here.’

‘There’s two prices in pencil,’ said the detective, showing the woman the frontispiece. ‘Different hands. Is that usual?’

‘Whoever bought it must have sold it on,’ said the woman. ‘Maybe they were dealers themselves. Are there any more of that edition?’

‘Lots,’ said the detective.

She unpacked the bags and leaned the books against the door frame, spines up.

‘Is there any way to find out who donated them?’ asked the constable.

‘I just told you,’ said the woman. ‘They weren’t here yesterday evening. But sometimes people do leave books on the front door step. Maybe poor old Dr Prout found them and brought them in.’

‘Could we find out who bought them from the library sale,’ asked the constable.

‘You could ask the library staff,’ said the woman. ‘But that’s a real long shot. The last sale was ages ago. Anyway, they’re unlikely to keep any records of sales.’

‘Isn’t that illegal?’ said the constable. ‘What about VAT returns?’

‘There’s no tax on reading,’ said the woman. ‘Yet.’

‘That’s strange,’ said the detective, who had been staring quietly at the books. ‘I think there’s one missing.’

‘How’s that?’ asked the woman.

‘Well,’ said the detective. ‘I don’t see number nineteen anywhere.’

The shop’s door bell rang.

‘That’ll be the scene of crime team,’ said the detective. ‘They took their time…’


‘That wasn’t very satisfactory,’ said the constable, as he and the detective left the shop.

‘In what way’? asked the detective.

‘Well,’ said the constable. ‘It looks like an accident but you reckon its murder.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ said the detective.

‘And then there’s disappearing cheap books and appearing expensive books,’ said the constable.

‘Indeed,’ said the detective.

‘It’s not like this in the novels,’ said the constable.

‘In what way?’ asked the detective.

‘Clues!’ said the constable. ‘There should be clues!’

‘What sort of clues?’ asked the detective.

‘How about the missing book,’ said the constable.

‘Like this one?’ said the detective, reaching into the waste bin by the bus stop and pulling out a blue volume.

‘Exactly!’ said the constable. ‘And inside there should be a piece of paper with a name or a traceable number on it.’

‘Like this one?’ said the detective, extracting the bus ticket that was protruding from the top of the book.

‘Exactly!’ said the constable. ‘Shame that’s just an old local directory, isn’t it.’

‘Funny thing though,’ said the detective, reaching in her pocket and producing a credit card receipt. ‘I found this at the bottom of one of the bags.’

‘You shouldn’t have taken that,’ said the constable. ‘That might be evidence.’

‘Of course it’s evidence,’ said the detective. ‘But is it a clue?’


‘Are you up for a walk?’ asked the detective, sticking her head round the back door.

‘I’ll be right with you,’ said the constable, hurriedly stubbing out a half-smoked cigarette.

‘You should get rid of that butt,’ said the detective, caustically. ‘It’ll have your DNA on it.’

‘Where are we off to?’ asked the constable, following the detective back through the police station.

‘Just up the road,’ said the detective.

‘Was it the credit card receipt?’ asked the constable.

‘Certainly was,’ said the detective.

‘Whose was it?’ asked the constable.

‘You’ll see,’ said the detective. ‘Isn’t this exciting.’

The pair crossed the main road and took a side street. At the far end, the detective stopped outside an antiquarian book shop.

‘Is this it?’ asked the constable.

‘Use your eyes,’ said the detective. ‘What do you see?’

‘Books of course!’ said the constable.

‘Have a closer look,’ said the detective, patiently.

The constable closely scrutinised the window display and then turned his attention to the cardboard boxes on the pavement.

‘Should these be here?’ asked the constable. ‘Aren’t they blocking the road?’

‘Probably,’ said the detective. ‘Keep looking.’

The constable squatted down and rifled through the nearest box.

‘Aha!’ he said triumphantly, proffering a familiar blue bound book to the detective. ‘Number nineteen! That was a good call!’

‘Did you notice anything else?’ asked the detective.

‘This seems like enough evidence!’ said the constable, standing up. ‘What else do we need?’

‘Have a look in the doorway,’ said the detective.

Puzzled, the constable turned round.

‘There’s just another book case,’ he said.

The detective said nothing.

‘OK, you want me to look at it,’ said the constable, walking up to the case.

‘Well?’ said the detective.

‘Help ma boab!’ said the constable, astonished. ‘They’re all paperback fiction. Romances and crime. In alphabetical order. Starting at ‘A’. How did you know they’d be there?’

‘Woman’s intuition,’ said the detective, amiably. ‘In we go.’


‘I think you must have dropped this,’ said the detective putting the book on the counter, as the bookseller hastily rose to greet them.

‘What do you mean?’ said the bookseller. ‘If it’s damaged that’s probably why it’s in the box.’

‘Maybe it fell out of the bag,’ said the detective.

‘What bag,’ said the bookseller, flustered.

‘The bag with its companions,’ said the detective. ‘In the back of the shop.’

‘Bloody hell!’ said the bookseller. ‘I never thought you’d find me this quickly!’

‘You admit it then?’ said the constable. ‘But why?’

‘It’s those bloody charity book shops!’ said the bookseller. ‘Internet sales are bad enough but they’re the last straw! Free books. Free labour. It’s impossible to make an honest living anymore.’

‘Killing voluntary workers certainly isn’t honest,’ said the detective.

‘He’s not dead, is he? said the bookseller, appalled. ‘My God. I never meant to hurt anybody! When I heard him come in I tried to get out past him but I knocked the shelf over. Poor bloke! It was an accident! I should have stopped to check he was all right!’

‘But you didn’t, did you,’ said the constable. ‘He might still be alive if you had. What ever did you think you were doing?’

‘Don’t tell him!’ said the detective. ‘Let him work it out for himself!’

‘You were trying to swap the books!’ said the constable. ‘The hardbacks for the novels. But why swap expensive books for cheap ones?’

‘The woman in the shop told us,’ said the detective, looking round the shelves of crusty classics. ‘No one reads these anymore. But they still like paperbacks, don’t they.’

She pulled a pair of handcuffs out of her coat pocket and handed them to the constable.

‘Would you like to do the honours?’ said the detective.

© Greg Michaelson 2009


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