Serpents in Eden: A British Library Crime Classic

Serpents in Eden: A British Library Crime Classic

‘The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.... Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, ...

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Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards has published sixteen crime novels and more than 50 short stories. His crime fiction has been short-listed for ...

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The Black Doctor

Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) will forever be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but his literary achievements were many and varied. His work included historical and science fiction, tales about boxing and pirates, and stories of terror and the supernatural. His disenchantment with being typecast as Holmes’ creator led him to kill off the great detective at the Reichenbach Falls, so that he could focus on other areas of writing, but Holmes’ popularity was so great that pressure to revive him ultimately proved irresistible. Holmes does not feature in this relatively unfamiliar tale, which first appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1898, prior to the detective’s return in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Set in a village in the north west of England, it is a mystery story which displays those touches of the macabre and exotic that distinguish Conan Doyle’s better work. It also boasts a murder trial which gives rise to a splendid sensation in court.

 

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Bishop’s Crossing is a small village lying ten miles in a south-westerly direction from Liverpool. Here in the early seventies there settled a doctor named Aloysius Lana. Nothing was known locally either of his antecedents or of the reasons which had prompted him to come to this Lancashire hamlet. Two facts only were certain about him; the one that he had gained his medical qualifica- tion with some distinction at Glasgow; the other that he came undoubtedly of a tropical race, and was so dark that he might almost have had a strain of the Indian in his composition. His predominant features were, however, European, and he possessed a stately courtesy and carriage which suggested a Spanish extraction. A swarthy skin, raven-black hair, and dark, sparkling eyes under a pair of heavily-tufted brows made a strange contrast to the flaxen or chestnut rustics of England, and the newcomer was soon known as ‘The Black Doctor of Bishop’s Crossing.’ At first it was a term of ridicule and reproach; as the years went on it became a title of honour which was familiar to the whole country-side, and extended far beyond the narrow confines of the village.

For the newcomer proved himself to be a capable surgeon and an accomplished physician. The practice of that district had been in the hands of Edward Rowe, the son of Sir William Rowe, the Liverpool consultant, but he had not inherited the talents of his father, and Dr Lana, with his advantages of presence and of manner, soon beat him out of the field. Dr Lana’s social success was as rapid as his professional. A remarkable surgical cure in the case of the Hon. James Lowry, the second son of Lord Belton, was the means of introducing him to county society, where he became a favourite through the charm of his conversation and the elegance of his manners. An absence of antecedents and of relatives is sometimes an aid rather than an impediment to social advancement, and the distinguished individuality of the handsome doctor was its own recommendation.

His patients had one fault—and one fault only—to find with him. He appeared to be a confirmed bachelor. This was the more remarkable since the house which he occupied was a large one, and it was known that his success in practice had enabled him to save considerable sums. At first the local matchmakers were continually coupling his name with one or other of the eligible ladies, but as years passed and Dr Lana remained unmarried, it came to be generally understood that for some reason he must remain a bachelor. Some even went so far as to assert that he was already married, and that it was in order to escape the consequence of an early misalliance that he had buried himself at Bishop’s Crossing. And, then, just as the matchmakers had finally given him up in despair, his engagement was suddenly announced to Miss Frances Morton, of Leigh Hall.

Miss Morton was a young lady who was well known upon the country-side, her father, James Haldane Morton, having been the Squire of Bishop’s Crossing. Both her parents were, however, dead, and she lived with her only brother, Arthur Morton, who had inherited the family estate. In person Miss Morton was tall and stately, and she was famous for her quick, impetuous nature and for her strength of character. She met Dr Lana at a gardenparty, and a friendship, which quickly ripened into love, sprang up between them. Nothing could exceed their devotion to each other. There was some discrepancy in age, he being thirty-seven, and she twenty- four; but, save in that one respect, there was no possible objection to be found with the match. The engagement was in February, and it was arranged that the marriage should take place in August.

Upon the 3rd of June Dr Lana received a letter from abroad. In a small village the postmaster is also in a position to be the gossip-master, and Mr Bankley, of Bishop’s Crossing, had many of the secrets of his neighbours in his possession. Of this particular letter he remarked only that it was in a curious envelope, that it was in a man’s handwriting, that the postscript was Buenos Aires, and the stamp of the Argentine Republic. It was the first letter which he had ever known Dr Lana to have from abroad, and this was the reason why his attention was particularly called to it before he handed it to the local postman. It was delivered by the evening delivery of that date.

Next morning—that is, upon the 4th of June—Dr Lana called upon Miss Morton, and a long interview followed, from which he was observed to return in a state of great agitation. Miss Morton remained in her room all that day, and her maid found her several times in tears. In the course of a week it was an open secret to the whole village that the engagement was at an end, that Dr Lana had behaved shamefully to the young lady, and that Arthur Morton, her brother, was talking of horse-whipping him. In what particular respect the doctor had behaved badly was unknown—some surmised one thing and some another; but it was observed, and taken as the obvious sign of a guilty conscience, that he would go for miles round rather than pass the windows of Leigh Hall, and that he gave up attending morning service upon Sundays where he might have met the young lady. There was an advertisement also in the Lancet as to the sale of a practice which mentioned no names, but which was thought by some to refer to Bishop’s Crossing, and to mean that Dr Lana was thinking of abandoning the scene of his success. Such was the position of affairs when, upon the evening of Monday, June 21st, there came a fresh development which changed what had been a mere village scandal into a tragedy which arrested the attention of the whole nation. Some detail is necessary to cause the facts of that evening to present their full significance.

The sole occupants of the doctor’s house were his housekeeper, an elderly and most respectable woman, named Martha Woods, and a young servant—Mary Pilling. The coachman and the surgery-boy slept out. It was the custom of the doctor to sit at night in his study, which was next to the surgery in the wing of the house which was farthest from the servants’ quarters. This side of the house had a door of its own for the convenience of patients, so that it was possible for the doctor to admit and receive a visitor there without the knowledge of anyone. As a matter of fact, when patients came late it was quite usual for him to let them in and out by the surgery entrance, for the maid and the housekeeper were in the habit of retiring early.

On this particular night Martha Woods went into the doctor’s study at half-past nine, and found him writing at his desk. She bade him good night, sent the maid to bed, and then occupied herself until a quarter to eleven in household matters. It was striking eleven upon the hall clock when she went to her own room. She had been there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes when she heard a cry or call, which appeared to come from within the house. She waited some time, but it was not repeated. Much alarmed, for the sound was loud and urgent, she put on a dressing-gown, and ran at the top of her speed to the doctor’s study.

‘Who’s there?’ cried a voice, as she tapped at the door. ‘I am here, sir—Mrs Woods.’

‘I beg that you will leave me in peace. Go back to your room this instant!’ cried the voice, which was, to the best of her belief, that of her master. The tone was so harsh and so unlike her master’s usual manner, that she was surprised and hurt.

‘I thought I heard you calling, sir,’ she explained, but no answer was given to her. Mrs Woods looked at the clock as she returned to her room, and it was then half-past eleven.

At some period between eleven and twelve (she could not be positive as to the exact hour) a patient called upon the doctor and was unable to get any reply from him. This late visitor was Mrs Madding, the wife of the village grocer, who was dangerously ill of typhoid fever. Dr Lana had asked her to look in the last thing and let him know how her husband was progressing. She observed that the light was burning in the study, but having knocked several times at the surgery door without response, she concluded that the doctor had been called out, and so returned home.

There is a short, winding drive with a lamp at the end of it leading down from the house to the road. As Mrs Madding emerged from the gate a man was coming along the footpath. Thinking that it might be Dr Lana returning from some professional visit, she waited for him, and was surprised to see that it was Mr Arthur Morton, the young squire. In the light of the lamp she observed that his manner was excited, and that he carried in his hand a heavy hunting-crop. He was turning in at the gate when she addressed him.

‘The doctor is not in, sir,’ said she.

‘How do you know that?’ he asked harshly. ‘I have been to the surgery door, sir.’

‘I see a light,’ said the young squire, looking up the drive. ‘That is in his study, is it not?’

‘Yes, sir; but I am sure that he is out.’

‘Well, he must come in again,’ said young Morton, and passed through the gate while Mrs Madding went upon her homeward way.

At three o’clock that morning her husband suffered a sharp relapse, and she was so alarmed by his symptoms that she determined to call the doctor without delay. As she passed through the gate she was surprised to see someone lurking among the laurel bushes. It was certainly a man, and to the best of her belief Mr Arthur Morton. Preoccupied with her own troubles, she gave no particular attention to the incident, but hurried on upon her errand.

When she reached the house she perceived to her surprise that the light was still burning in the study. She therefore tapped at the surgery door. There was no answer. She repeated the knocking several times without effect. It appeared to her to be unlikely that the doctor would either go to bed or go out leaving so brilliant a light behind him, and it struck Mrs Madding that it was possible that he might have dropped asleep in his chair. She tapped at the study window, therefore, but without result. Then, finding that there was an opening between the curtain and the woodwork, she looked through.

The small room was brilliantly lighted from a large lamp on the central table, which was littered with the doctor’s books and instruments. No one was visible, nor did she see anything unusual, except that in the farther shadow thrown by the table a dingy white glove was lying upon the carpet. And then suddenly, as her eyes became more accustomed to the light, a boot emerged from the other end of the shadow, and she realized, with a thrill of horror, that what she had taken to be a glove was the hand of a man, who was prostrate upon the floor. Understanding that something terrible had occurred, she rang at the front door, roused Mrs Woods, the housekeeper, and the two women made their way into the study, having first dispatched the maidservant to the police-station.

At the side of the table, away from the window, Dr Lana was discovered stretched upon his back and quite dead. It was evident that he had been subjected to violence, for one of his eyes was blackened and there were marks of  bruises about his face and neck. A slight thickening and swelling of his features appeared to suggest that the cause of his death had been strangulation. He was dressed in his usual professional clothes, but wore cloth slippers, the soles of which were perfectly clean. The carpet was marked all over, especially on the side of the door, with traces of dirty boots, which were presumably left by the murderer. It was evident that someone had entered by the surgery door, had killed the doctor, and had then made his escape unseen. That the assailant was a man was certain, from the size of the foot- prints and from the nature of the injuries. But beyond that point the police found it very difficult to go.

There were no signs of robbery, and the doctor’s gold watch was safe in his pocket. He kept a heavy cash-box in the room, and this was discovered to be locked but empty. Mrs Woods had an impression that a large sum was usu- ally kept there, but the doctor had paid a heavy corn bill in cash only that very day, and it was conjectured that it was to this and not to a robber that the emptiness of the box was due. One thing in the room was missing—but that one thing was suggestive. The portrait of Miss Morton, which had always stood upon the side-table, had been taken from its frame, and carried off. Mrs Woods had observed it there when she waited upon her employer that evening, and now it was gone. On the other hand, there was picked up from the floor a green eye-patch, which the housekeeper could not remember to have seen before. Such a patch might, however, be in the possession of a doctor, and there was nothing to indicate that it was in any way connected with the crime.

Suspicion could only turn in one direction, and Arthur Morton, the young squire, was immediately arrested. The evidence against him was circumstantial, but damning. He was devoted to his sister, and it was shown that since the rupture between her and Dr Lana he had been heard again and again to express himself in the most vindictive terms towards her former lover. He had, as stated, been seen somewhere about eleven o’clock entering the doctor’s drive with a hunting-crop in his hand. He had then, according to the theory of the police, broken in upon the doctor, whose exclamation of fear or of anger had been loud enough to attract the attention of Mrs Woods. When Mrs Woods descended, Dr Lana had made up his mind to talk it over with his visitor, and had, therefore, sent his housekeeper back to her room. This conversation had lasted a long time, had become more and more fiery, and had ended by a personal struggle, in which the doctor lost his life. The fact, revealed by a post-mortem, that his heart was much diseased—an ailment quite unsuspected during his life—would make it possible that death might in his case ensue from injuries which would not be fatal to a healthy man. Arthur Morton had then removed his sister’s photograph, and had made his way homeward, stepping aside into the laurel bushes  to avoid Mrs Madding at the gate. This was the theory of the prosecution, and the case which they presented was a formidable one.

On the other hand, there were some strong points for the defence. Morton was high-spirited and impetuous, like his sister, but he was respected and liked by everyone, and his frank and honest nature seemed to be incapable of such a crime. His own explanation was that he was anxious to have a conversation with Dr Lana about some urgent family matters (from first to last he refused even to mention the name of his sister). He did not attempt to deny that this conversation would probably have been of an unpleasant nature. He had heard from a patient that the doctor was out, and he therefore waited until about three in the morning for his return, but as he had seen nothing of him up to that hour, he had given it up and had returned home. As to his death, he knew no more about it than the constable who arrested him. He had formerly been an intimate friend of the deceased man; but circumstances, which he would prefer not to mention, had brought about a change in his sentiments. There were several facts which supported his innocence.

It was certain that Dr Lana was alive and in his study at half-past eleven o’clock. Mrs Woods was prepared to swear that it was at that hour that she had heard his voice. The friends of the prisoner contended that it was probable that at that time Dr Lana was not alone. The sound which had originally attracted the attention of the housekeeper, and her master’s unusual impatience that she should leave him in peace, seemed to point to that. If this were so then it appeared to be probable that he had met his end between the moment when the housekeeper heard his voice and the time when Mrs Madding made her first call and found it impossible to attract his attention. But if this were the time of his death, then it was certain that Mr Arthur Morton could not be guilty, as it was after this that she had met the young squire at the gate.

If this hypothesis were correct, and someone was with Dr Lana before Mrs Madding met Mr Arthur Morton, then who was this someone, and what motives had he for wishing evil to the doctor? It was universally admitted that if the friends of the accused could throw light upon this, they would have gone a long way towards establishing his innocence. But in the meanwhile it was open to the public to say—as they did say—that there was no proof that anyone had been there at all except the young squire; while, on the other hand, there was ample proof that his motives in going were of a sinister kind. When Mrs Madding called, the doctor might have retired to his room, or he might, as she thought at the time, have gone out and returned afterwards to find Mr Arthur Morton waiting for him. Some of the supporters of the accused laid stress upon the fact that the photograph of his sister Frances, which had been removed from the doctor’s room, had not been found in her brother’s possession. This argument, however, did not count for much, as he had ample time before his arrest to burn it or to destroy it. As to the only positive evidence in the case—the muddy footmarks upon the floor—they were so blurred by the softness of the carpet that it was impossible to make any trustworthy deduction from them. The most that could be said was that their appearance was not inconsistent with the theory that they were made by the accused, and it was further shown that his boots were very muddy upon that night. There had been a heavy shower in the afternoon, and all boots were probably in the same condition.

Such is a bald statement of the singular and romantic series of events which centred public attention upon this Lancashire tragedy. The unknown origin of the doctor, his curious and distinguished personality, the position of the man who was accused of the murder, and the love affair which had preceded the crimes all combined to make the affair one of those dramas which absorb the whole interest of a nation. Throughout the three kingdoms men discussed the case of the Black Doctor of Bishop’s Crossing, and many were the theories put forward to explain the facts; but it may safely be said that among them all there was not one which prepared the minds of the public for the extraordinary sequel, which caused so much excitement upon the first day of the trial, and came to a climax upon the second. The long files of the Lancaster Weekly with their report of the case lie before me as I write, but I must content myself with a synopsis of the case up to the point when, upon the evening of the first day, the evidence of Miss Frances Morton threw a singular light upon the case.

Reviews of

Serpents in Eden: A British Library Crime Classic

“Thirteen short stories, mostly written between the two world wars, reveal the dark side of life in the English countryside. The earliest entries revolve around the fair of face and strong of limb, each with a signature detective who effortlessly unravels a not very knotty puzzle. In M. McDonnell Bodkin’s “Murder by Proxy,” “young, handsome, debonair” Eric Neville advises his equally attractive cousin John to wire Mr. Beck in London to help discover who shot their uncle, Squire Neville, at his Dorset estate. In G.K. Chesterton’s “The Fad of the Fisherman,” Horne Fisher solves the murder of Sir Isaac Hook at his West Country manor house. In E.C. Bentley’s “The Genuine Tabard,” Philip Trent helps George D. Langley, “the finest-looking man in the room,” expose a dodgy deal. Perhaps the best of the early puzzles is Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Black Doctor,” in which Mr. Humphrey comes to the aid of a landowner accused of murdering his neighbor. The fun doesn’t really start, though, until Margery Allingham unmasks the shady side of the Garden Field competition at the village flower show in “A Proper Mystery.” Gladys Mitchell adds her take on the perils of Morris dancing in “Our Pageant.” The indomitable Sgt. Beef solves the murder of an elderly spinster in Leo Bruce’s “Clue in the Mustard.” And Ethel Lina White offers a chilling tale of a damsel in distress in “The Scarecrow.” But far and away the funniest take on country manners is Leonora Wodehouse’s mordant “Inquest,” which turns murder into suicide into murder. A volume that may not persuade readers that there’s menace in every meadow but certainly shows that English crime isn’t confined to the Smoke.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This genial anthology contains 13 stories with rural English settings written over half a century or so, many during that golden age of crime fiction between the world wars. The solution of “The Black Doctor,” a non-Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle, depends on what today’s readers would consider a cheap trick, but which was probably quite novel when it appeared in 1898. The lush style of M. McDonnell Bodkin’s “Murder by Proxy” nicely conveys an earlier era. Thus a character is “radiant in white flannel, with a broad-brimmed Panama hat perched lightly on his glossy black curls.” And when was the last time you heard a cornered murderer exclaim, “Curse you, curse you, you’ve caught me”? A couple of selections hinge on information that is likely to be of significance only to natives of England, and others require a classical education heavy on Greek and Latin. Still, this volume is bound to please fans of traditional mysteries. (Mar.)”

Publishers Weekly

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