Where new writing finds its voice

Extract from The Oxford Despoiler

Gary Dexter


We had both nodded off in front of the fire when we were roused by a knock on the door. Soon a familiar form made its appearance: that of Inspector FH Pelham Bias, Henry’s chief contact at Scotland Yard.

Pelham Bias was a curious fellow. I never met a single person in whom he did not inspire at least some degree of repugnance. His body was very fat and fleshy, and he kept his hair extremely short, so that it stood up in three-quarter-inch-long spikes all over his head, extending down to the roll of fat on the back of his neck. On his chin he sported a chinchilla beard carefully barbered to the same length. He habitually dressed entirely in brown – he was, of course, a plain-clothes officer – and his movements were somewhat slow and gelatinous, so that he called nothing to mind so much as a large, bristly, brown slug, of the type found in damp vegetation near watercourses. I have in fact heard several mutual acquaintances describe him as a ‘slug’. Henry, though, seemed to get on with him famously. He was the only person, to my knowledge, who did.

On the credit side of the ledger, his methods were highly innovative. He was prepared to employ any means, however experimental or untried, to bring forth results; and in many cases his investigations had met with spectacular success. His use, for example, of the medium James Anatole to channel messages from the victims of the unknown Winslow Woods murderer, was at first laughed at, but when it was proved that Anatole was in possession of specific details of the killings that had been known only to the police, the case was finally solved when Anatole himself was arrested for the murders, and later hanged.

Henry’s advice had enabled Pelham Bias to ‘bag’ several important cases, and the two often joked that if Henry solved one case too many he might also fall under suspicion.

‘Bias! Take a seat, my dear fellow!’ Henry cried. 

I cleared a chair of its plate and our visitor subsided into it with a mucilaginous expression.

‘I see everything here is much as I left it,’ he observed. 

‘I think the stuffed snow leopard cub is an addition,’ I said, pointing to the object in question.

Pelham Bias turned slowly. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘A recent acquisition?’

‘Yes, quite recent,’ Henry replied. ‘It was a gift from the Maharao of Cutch after that little business of the asphyxiation of the Commissionaire Kitwan.*’

‘Ah yes.’ The other paused. ‘Well, it is in regard to a similarly intractable matter that I come here today. It seems to be in your line, St Liver. I like to think I am schooled in your methods, but I admit I am baffled in this case – as we all are up at the Yard – as to the possible motive of the criminal.’

‘You interest me greatly.’

‘Well, you shall judge for yourself. It concerns some disturbing happenings at Oxford in recent weeks, among the student body there. The local constabulary can make nothing of it, and when it came to London it was farmed out to me. Considering the nature of the affair, my first thought was to seek your opinion.’

‘Go on.’

‘The beginning was trivial enough. It was at Somerville Hall. Somerville is one of the two women’s halls, as I am sure you know – its main entrance is just on the Woodstock Road.’

‘I know it well.’

‘You were up at Oxford, I believe?’

‘At Balliol in ’79. Briefly.’

‘Just so. Well, it was there, at the main entrance to the Hall, that the first incident occurred, in the second week of last month. Ink was thrown over a young lady student’s dress.’


‘This was repeated on two further occasions. On the third occasion, however, the matter took a more serious turn. Instead of ink, a different substance was used – vitriol.’

‘Vitriol. I see.’

‘Vitriol, of course, is highly dangerous. If it falls on skin – a naked arm, perhaps, held out in defence of a dress – it can cause serious disfigurement. It was only by luck that this failed to occur.’

‘Quite,’ said Henry. ‘What were the exact dates of the respective incidents?’

Pelham Bias referred to a notebook. ‘The first was on Monday the 12th of August, when a Miss Bastable had black ink thrown upon her dress. A similar attack occurred the following Monday, the 19th – a Miss Hunt-Furze, also black ink. And it was the Tuesday after that – Tuesday week, the 27th of August – that the vitriol throwing occurred. Miss Mary Massey, a history student, was on her way into Somerville at around nine in the evening, after paying a visit to a friend, when she noticed a small dark form hurrying past her. She did not pay it any attention, as she was in haste to enter the Hall before the curfew, but as she passed the porter’s lodge she became aware of a strange odour. Looking down, she saw that her dress was sending out little clouds of smoke, and had been eaten away in several areas. She batted at it with one hand and immediately felt a stinging on her fingers. She then called for the porter, who rushed out of his lodge; the fellow perceived what had happened, and, knowing that if the acid were allowed to eat right through the dress Miss Massey might be seriously injured, he advised her – while of course averting his eyes – to remove the dress there and then in the lodge. Relief came when a message was dispatched to another friend at the Hall, a Miss Eleanora Moss, to bring a replacement dress. Miss Massey and Miss Moss then retired, much distressed, to
their chambers.’

‘And that was the most recent assault, on Tuesday the 27th of last month?’ Henry asked. ‘That is over three weeks ago.’

‘No, I am afraid not. I have said that there were three throwing or spraying incidents; but there were later two further assaults of an entirely different nature, at exactly the same spot.’

‘I see.’

‘On Monday the 9th of this month, at around 8pm, a Miss Lettice Angel was entering the Hall when she became aware of a dark form rearing up behind her. By now the Hall students and staff were coming to expect these attacks. Miss Angel screamed and tried to gather up her skirts in the hope of saving them from ruin, but the attacker had another object in mind. Bringing out a shining implement, he swiftly lopped off a large hank of Miss Angel’s hair.’

‘Was the girl just inside the gate, next to the porter’s lodge, or was she at some remove from the gate?’ asked my friend.

‘From what I can gather she was some ten feet short of the gate on the street side.’

‘Very good. Pray continue.’

‘Her hair was cut with an instrument that may have been a pair of large scissors or shears, though Miss Angel could not specify. She simply saw the blade flash. It is possible it may have been a sharp knife of some description, which of course lends the affair a more sinister dimension. The attacker then fled immediately, at high speed, clutching the hair, and disappeared around the corner of Little Clarendon Street. Now, at 8pm, in that location, there should have been plenty of witnesses – there are several public houses there – but the fact is that we could not find one solitary person who could corroborate Miss Angel’s account. However, there is no doubt that her locks were very gravely mutilated. Her hair is now cut short in a bob, and very miserable she is.  And then, yesterday, the 13th, the most recent attack occurred. This was perpetrated upon a Miss Belinda Buss-French, a young woman of good family, of Lincolnshire gentry stock, and a student of philosophy.’

‘And was that attack also at dusk, and some distance from the gate?’ asked Henry.

‘It was,’ said Pelham Bias. ‘It was at around 8.30 pm – and at around the same spot as the attack on Miss Angel. Miss Buss-French was also favoured – until recently – with a magnificent head of long, curling, dark hair. A two-foot section of it was brutally hacked off by the attacker. Miss Buss-French then ran
into the Hall screaming wildly.’

‘Did the porter come to her aid?’

‘As soon as her screams were heard the porter ran out of the Hall and into the street, brandishing a life-preserver, but of the attacker there was no sign.’

‘Thank you.’

‘And so to the miscreant.’ Pelham Bias paused and studied his notebook afresh. ‘The girls are agreed that he was dressed from head to foot in dark clothing and appeared to run doubled up, almost as if loping on all fours, at very high speed. He seems also to have worn a mask. In all five cases, no sooner had the attack been committed than the assailant had made himself almost invisible.
This is one of the very remarkable features of the investigation.’


‘All five attacks took place at or near dusk, in low light. This, combined with the speed of the attacker and his dark clothing and mask, have rendered identification difficult. A final singular detail is that the attacker was heard to utter a cry as he escaped: something like “Boojoo!”’

‘Might it have been “Loo! Loo!”?’, I put in. ‘That is a hunting cry.’

‘Yes, that occurred to us,’ said Pelham Bias, swivelling torpidly in my direction. ‘It has led the local police to look into the hunting fraternities around Oxford, and to make enquiries in the various students’ clubs. The “Beaters” in the Cowley Road have come under suspicion.’

‘Yes, I know the “Beaters”’, said Henry. ‘From what I know of their main preoccupation, I think you are wasting your time.’

‘Yes, they do seem to have proven a dead end.’

‘No other suspects?’

‘Just one – and it is in my opinion a long shot. At Somerville there is a junior lecturer in fine art by the name of Mr Edgar Rampoe. He is a young man of very eccentric habits – what Oxfordians call an “exquisite”. He habitually dresses entirely in velvet, and he affects a baboon. He walks out with it on
a leash.’

‘A baboon, you say?’

‘Yes. It is a female baboon, and very tame. It climbs anything – lamp-posts, walls, the chandeliers in restaurants – and is very popular with the students.’

‘And what is it that has excited suspicion against Mr Rampoe?’ Henry asked.

‘Nothing, as far as I can see,’ said Pelham Bias, ‘apart from prejudice.’

‘Then I think we may eliminate him,’ said Henry. ‘There are other forces at work here.’

‘Indeed?’ asked Pelham Bias. 

‘I am sure of it,’ Henry said, ‘though it would be a mistake to theorise further at this stage.’

‘You will look into it, then?’

‘It promises to be a most interesting problem.’


‘Yes – most interesting. The fusion of hair and ink.’ Henry turned to me, his moustache a little buoyed. ‘And ink is your medium, my dear Miss Salter. If you will accompany me, then, I think we will catch the Oxford train early tomorrow.’


* An intriguing case: it was solved by reference to the lunar timetable, and to the fact that the commissionaire’s pockets contained a suicide note countersigned by his wife.