Character Assassination by Harry Downey

Peter tells the story of the supernaturally mysterious death of his detective crime writing friend; by Harry Downey.

That was the third call this morning. This time it was from the Sydney Clarion. Apparently they remembered down under just like everyone else seemed to everywhere. The media people won't leave us alone just now − all because it's ten years since Marty died. You know how these folks love their anniversaries. It gives the press and TV the chance to rake over the story again − not that it ever went away. Such a bizarre tale wouldn't anyway. But, just in case you don't watch telly, don't buy a newspaper or you've recently arrived from Alpha Centuri, let me tell you all about it. And this is the real story, from me − Peter, his closest friend since we were kids together − and Audrey, Marty's widow and now my wife.

Marty, of course, was Martin Bowden, author and creator of D.D. − 'Dolly Dalrymple' − the telly detective who is up there with Morse, Frost, Miss Marple, Taggart, Poirot and that bloke John Nettles used to play, living somewhere touristy where it seems as dangerous to live as Chicago was in the twenties. Every time they have polls on these things Dolly is shown right at the top of the fictional detective listings. It made Marty famous, very rich, and the young, barely-known actress chosen to play the lead into one of the biggest names around.

After just one set of episodes Marty could do no wrong with Jupiter Productions, the company that made the shows for ITV. He was in a position to insist on what he wanted and he did just that. Marty was pedantic to the extreme and his passion for correct grammar and what he called 'English / English' drove his producer wild at times, but as he continued to turn out award-winning shows he got his way. The stories and scripts seemed to get better in series after series and the audiences grew year on year. The best things around in the field, they reckoned - near flawless and screened all over the world. As I said, ten years on and he's still big in Sydney.

Then Martin decided he'd had enough. He wasn't 'written out' − that's the phrase he used himself − he'd just had enough of writing detective stories for the telly. As well as his pedantry he was a bit of an intellectual snob and felt that the time had come to write something more serious and worthy. He once confided to me that his aim was always to be awarded a D.Litt by Oxford. He joked about being educated in Oxford, something that was true enough for a man born and bred in the city, but he was a product of the state system who never made it to University. So Marty decided to write a history of Britain since the war − from his viewpoint and gloomy personal perspective. 'Sixty Wasted Years' was the title he chose to sum it all up. This was to be the first of his works that really reflected his quality as a writer. He was counting down the days until he could put Dolly behind him and give his undivided attention to what Marty felt was really important.

His book was already mapped out in his head while he was still working on a series of Dolly before he told Jupiter that there would be no more to follow.

Obviously they were not pleased that their golden goose was stopping laying. But whatever they tried Marty wouldn't change his mind. More money, of course, was the starting point, but that didn't work and they couldn't offer him further control over the shows as Marty already had it. So the TV people had to accept that the last episode was being written, even though they remained hopeful and never gave up trying some gentle persuasion behind the scenes.

Martin and Audrey had bought this lovely Georgian house near Broadway and every morning Marty would go upstairs to his first-floor study for a session at his keyboard. His established procedure was to set himself a daily target of words and stay at his desk until he'd reached his target.

As a writer Marty was a perfectionist. He had his own way of working that involved acting out whatever he was working on and would try out dialogue in different accents and voices, being a woman if that was needed, shouting, whispering, blustering, varying lines until he had them just as he wanted them − doing whatever was needed till he had it right. He knew he had a winning formula so he stuck to it.

There's the background, so let me take you to the day that Marty died. I wasn't here at the time but I know the details well enough to tell the story.

It was late morning. Audrey was downstairs with her friend Cynthia Hapgood and they could hear Marty going through his writing ritual − voices, noises and all. The lot, in fact: the full shebang. Cynth had heard it all before but Aud remembers that even with someone as close as Cynthia was, she still found it embarrassing, so she took him up a snack, thinking to ask him to tone it down a bit. He always had the same tray − four digestive biscuits and very strong, very sweet tea with no milk.

She remembers opening his study door and seeing Martin standing there, red-faced and clearly very angry. She asked what was going on and told him how loud he was from downstairs. Marty's actual words, almost the last she ever heard from him had stuck in her mind since.

'It's that bloody woman Dolly. I've told her there'll be no more episodes of 'D.D.' and she's arguing the toss with me. She says I can't stop now. I CAN'T STOP NOW? After all, I created her. Who does she think she is? She seems to think she's my meal ticket and everything is down to her. And after I had promoted her to a D.I. What an ingrate.'

Then she remembers he quietened down a little.

'Dolly's very uptight at the moment, Aud, and I need to calm her down. Be an angel and bring her a coffee and biscuits, please. Very milky coffee and some Jaffa cakes. You know what she likes.' Audrey remembers him grimacing at this point. 'Still I'm the one who gave her a liking for both of them so she's not really responsible for what she eats and drinks, I suppose.'

And then it became 'surreal'. That's the actual word Aud herself uses to describe it.

'Will that be alright for you Dolly?' As he said it, Audrey remembers he looked across to the window where the sunlight was still pouring in and she instinctively looked the same way before she realised what she was doing. She recalls feeling so stupid doing that when there were just the two of them in the room.

Then she went down to make up another tray. Everybody who knew Marty knew of his aversion to anything milky and he'd never asked for Jaffa cakes before. Audrey was completely thrown, and rather concerned and increasingly worried by what was going on.

From downstairs the two women could here Marty shouting and what sounded like a woman's voice shouting back. Then Aud took the tray upstairs, getting exactly the reaction from Marty she expected when he saw the cup's contents. He always said that he wasn't responsible for what his face did − it was something in his makeup that made him dislike milk and he couldn't control it. She asked Martin once more to call it a day and to come downstairs for a break.

Downstairs again, for a few minutes it went quiet, then what sounded like the same two voices quarrelling very loudly. Then from upstairs there was a loud noise. A thud as if something, perhaps a chair, had been knocked over.

Aud dashed upstairs and found Martin. He was on the floor between his desk and the fireplace, lying on his back with a paperknife embedded in his chest. She screamed and Cynth dashed upstairs and took over. Audrey admits she'd lost it by then and was virtually incoherent. Cynthia called me and I got there just after the police did.

When I arrived the police team was taking a statement from Cynth who had been a tower of strength in helping as she did. I know how grateful Audrey has been to her ever since.

The system took over and inevitably there was a post-mortem followed by an inquest. Everyone found it baffling. The forensic people said that, in their opinion, due to the angle of the knife in the heart it was extremely unlikely that Martin had killed himself, particularly as he was left-handed. Almost certainly he had been murdered. The fingerprints on the knife could not be identified when both Marty's and Aud's prints had been eliminated. The same fingerprints were found on the coffee-cup. There was no other access than through the one door. Entry or exit though the tiny, high-up skylight would have been impossible.

The Coroner's conclusion was 'Murder by person or persons unknown.' I couldn't quarrel with the verdict though, even now, ten years on, I'm still puzzled.

I know all about Martin's aversion to anything milky, coffee in particular, and I never knew him eat a Jaffa cake in his entire life. The coffee that Audrey took upstairs was drunk though, and the biscuits eaten. Not by Marty, though, as the examination of his stomach contents showed.

Time moved on. Audrey became my wife and we're very happy, even though it was a tragic event that had brought us closer together.

The death is still the biggest puzzle I have come across and better minds than mine can't solve it.

OK, so what often crops up is that quote from Sherlock Holmes something like 'after eliminating the impossible, what's left must be the truth.' That's an easy one for lazy journalists to trot out and it saves them coming up with something original.

So what do I believe happened? I just don't know. What I do know is that the weirdos are out in force over this one. I regularly hear from people who claim all sorts of things. There's one chap who rings up once a month and he says he can walk through walls, so with a ladder outside he could have killed Marty and easily got away. Then there are regular offers to come and do all sorts of psychic tests with magic boxes and devices. One man in particular says he has a link with TV and would make a major documentary out of it and says that 'he'd see Audrey and me all right in the deal.' Exorcism - that's another thing. Lots of offers to do the room or the whole house for us - at special rates of course. We even had a call from the Archbishop of Canterbury offering to carry out the ceremony - in person. Well, that's who he said he was.

Dolly herself rang us, you know. Admitted she did it and then told me how she got away. Apparently if you know how it's simple enough. She willed herself into Marty's body when he was dead, put herself into some sort of state of limbo or trance; then when the body was away from the house and left alone, she woke and became herself again. She made sure she was well away from the corpse before they started the post-mortem. And, on top of that, she invited me to call at her shop in Skegness anytime and have a cod and chips on the house. It must be the chip-shop she shares with Elvis.

So, there you are. There's no reward on offer but I would like to know how it was done. If you want to tell me how you did it and got away - I'm in the phonebook.


  1. what a very interesting story and an unexpected end, in that there wasn´t one! sounds like a story for Jonathan Creek.
    either way, well written, draws the reader effortlessly into the story.
    well done
    Mike McC

  2. A lovely shudder-fest! Especially effective since you left it open ended. Very skillful writing, thank you,

  3. Agents are always telling we writers - 'we want your characters to leap off the page!' Well, Dolly certainly does in this skillfully elegant piece of metafiction. Well done!