It rained the next day as well and young Detective Constable Leonard Corell came walking along Adlington Road. When he drew level with Brown’s Lane, he took off his trilby because he felt warm despite the rain, and he thought of his bed, not the miserable bed in his flat but the one waiting at his aunt’s in Knutsford, and as he did so his head sank down to his shoulder, as if he were about to fall asleep.
He did not like his job. He did not like the salary, the walking, the paperwork, or godforsaken Wilmslow where nothing ever happened. It had got to the point where even now he felt nothing but emptiness. And yet the housekeeper who called had mentioned a white froth around the dead man’s mouth and a smell of poison in the house, and in the past a report like this would definitely have sparked some life in Corell. Now he just plodded along the puddles of water and the garden hedges. Behind lay the field and the railway. It was Tuesday, June 8, 1954, and he glanced down, looking for the signs with the house names on them.
When he found the address “Hollymeade,” he turned in to the left and was met by a large willow which looked like a big old broom, and without needing to he stopped and retied his shoelaces. A brick pathway stretched halfway across the yard and then came to an abrupt stop, and he wondered to himself what had happened here, although obviously he realised that, whatever it was, it had nothing to do with the brick footpath. Over by the left-hand entrance stood an elderly woman.
“Are you the housekeeper?” he said, and she nodded. She was a colourless little old lady with sad eyes, and when he was younger Corell would probably have given her a warm gentle smile and put a hand on her shoulder. Now he just looked down grimly and followed her in, up a steep staircase, and there was nothing pleasant about the walk, no excitement, no policeman’s curiosity, hardly even a feeling of unease, only a “Why do I have to keep on with this?”
Already in the hallway he sensed a presence, a closeness in the air, and as he went into the room he closed his eyes and, to be honest, perhaps strange given the circumstances, one or two inappropriate thoughts of a sexual nature went through his mind which there’s no need to elaborate on now, other than to say that they seemed absurd even to him. When he opened his eyes, the associations lingered over the room like a surreal membrane, but they dissolved into something else when he discovered the bed, the narrow bed, and on top of it a man, dead, lying on his back.
The man was dark-haired and perhaps a little over thirty. From the corner of his mouth, white froth had run down his cheek and dried into a white powder. The eyes were half open and were set deep down under a protruding, domed forehead. Although the face did not exactly radiate tranquillity, one could sense a certain resignation in the features, and Corell should have reacted with composure. He was no stranger to death and this was no gruesome end, but he felt sick and had still not realised that it was the smell, the stench of bitter almonds hovering over the room, and he looked out through the window towards the garden and tried to return to the inappropriate thoughts, but was not successful and instead noticed half an apple on the bedside table. Corell thought, which surprised him, that he hated fruit.
He had never had anything against apples. Who does not like apples? From his breast pocket, he took out his notebook.
The man is lying in a nearly normal position, he wrote, and wondered if that formulation was good, it probably wasn’t really, but on the other hand it wasn’t excessively bad either. Apart from the face, the man could just as well have been asleep, and after having scribbled down a few more lines—which he was not happy with either—he examined the body. The dead man was skinny, quite fit, but with an unusually soft, almost female chest, and even though Corell was not being too meticulous he found no signs of violence, no scratches or bruises, only a slight black colouration on the fingertips and then the white froth in the corner of his mouth. He sniffed at it and understood why he felt so sick. The stench of bitter almonds penetrated his consciousness and he turned back to the hall again.
At the far end of the corridor he found something odd. In an opening where a dormer window looked out over the garden, two wires hung from the ceiling and a pan was bubbling on a table, which he approached quite slowly. Could it be dangerous? Surely not! The room was some sort of experimental workshop. There was a transformer in there and clamps for the wires, and then bottles, jam jars and pots. Probably nothing to worry about. But the stench crept in under his skin and it was with reluctance that he leaned over the pan. A revolting soup was bubbling away at the bottom and suddenly, from out of the blue, he remembered a train racing through the night long ago in his childhood and he braced himself against the table, panting. Then he rushed out and opened a window in the next room. The rain was falling. It was insane the way it fell. But for once Corell did not curse at it. He was glad that the stench and the dark memories disappeared with the wind and the water and, reasonably calm again, he looked around the house.
There was a bohemian feel to the home. The furniture was good, but had been arranged without thought or care, and there was obviously no family in residence, certainly no children. Corell picked up a notebook from the windowsill. It contained mathematical equations, and once upon a time he might have understood some of them. Now he understood nothing, no doubt also because the handwriting was hard to read and covered with ink blots, and he became irritated, or possibly envious, and grumpily he searched through a glass-fronted cupboard to the right of the window and found wine glasses, silver cutlery, a small porcelain bird and then a bottle containing something black. It was similar to the jars in the experimental workshop, but unlike them it had a label on it with the words Potassium Cyanide.
“I should have realised,” he muttered and hurried into the bedroom and sniffed at the apple. It smelled the same as the bottle and the pan.
“Excuse me,” he shouted. “Excuse me!”
He got no answer. He called out again and then steps were heard and a pair of fat calves stepped in over the threshold. He directed a challenging stare at the grey face with the thin, almost vanishing, lips.
“What did you say your employer’s name was?”
“Dr. Alan Turing.”
Corell wrote down in his notebook both the fact that the apple had smelled of bitter almonds and also the name which seemed familiar or at least, like so much else in the house, awakened dim recollections in him.
“Did he leave anything behind?”
“What do you mean?”
“A letter or something which could explain.”
“Do you mean that he might . . . ?”
“I don’t mean anything. I was just asking a question,” he said, far too severely, and when the poor woman shook her head in fright he tried to sound a little more friendly.
“Did you know the deceased well?”
“Yes, or rather no. He was always very kind to me.”
“Had he been ill?”
“This spring he did suffer from hay fever.”
“Did you know that he handled poisons?”
“No, no, goodness me. But he was a scientist. Don’t they . . . ?”
“It all depends,” he interrupted.
“My employer was interested in many things.”
“Alan Turing,” he continued, as if he were thinking out loud. “Was he known for anything in particular?”
“He worked at the university.”
“What did he do there?”
“He studied mathematics.”
“What sort of mathematics?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I see,” he muttered, and turned out into the corridor. Alan Turing.
There was something about the name, he could not quite think what, except that the bells which it rang were not good ones. Presumably the man had done something stupid. The odds on that were quite high, if Corell had come across his name at work, and he walked around the house feeling increasingly nervous. Both absent-minded and angry he collected pieces of evidence, if you could call them that, although they were at least material: the bottle of poison from the glass cupboard and then glass jars from the experimental workshop, a couple of notebooks with calculations, and also three books with the handwritten title Dreams
On the ground floor he plucked on the strings of an untuned violin, and read the opening lines of Anna Karenina
, one of the few books in the house that he recognised, apart from some by Forster, Orville, Butler and Trollope, and as so often on other occasions his thoughts fled to landscapes were they had no business to be.
The doorbell rang. It was Alec Block, his colleague. He knew Alec remarkably little considering how closely they worked together and, had he been asked to describe him, he would not have been able to come up with much more than that he was shy and timid and that he was treated badly by most people at the station, but above all that he had freckles and red hair, incredibly red hair.
“The man appears to have cooked up poison in the pan over there and dipped an apple in the mess at the bottom of the pan and taken a couple of bites,” Corell explained.
“Looks like it. This bloody stench is making me feel sick. Can you see if you can find a suicide note?”
When his colleague disappeared, Corell again thought about the train racing through the night and it did not make him feel any easier. When he ran into the housekeeper on the ground floor he said:
“I’ll need to talk to you in more detail soon. But in the meantime I’d like you to wait outside. We’re going to seal off the house,” and in a rush of kindness he grabbed an umbrella in the hall and when she protested and said that it was Dr. Turing’s he snorted discreetly, that was surely showing a little too much respect. Why shouldn’t she be able to borrow an umbrella? Once she accepted and disappeared out into the garden, he wandered around the house again. Up by the dead man he found a copy of the Observer
of June 7, which showed that he had been alive yesterday, and he noted down that and some other things. As he glanced through a new booklet of mathematical calculations, he was gripped by a strange desire to add some numbers which would supplement or complete the man’s equations, and as so often before, he became a not particularly focused policeman. The same could not of course be said of Block.
He reappeared looking as if he had found something extremely interesting. He had not, or at any rate he had not found a suicide note, but he had found something which seemed to point in a different direction: a couple of theatre tickets for the coming week and an invitation to the Royal Society’s meeting on June 24 for which the man had written an acceptance which he had never posted, and even though Block probably realised that it was not much of a discovery, he clearly hoped that he had opened up a new lead. They were not exactly spoiled with murders in Wilmslow, but Corell immediately put the thought out of his mind.
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Because we’re all complicated buggers,” Corell said.
“What do you mean?”
“Even someone who wants to die can plan for a future. We’re all torn this way and that. In any case, this idea could have occurred to him at the last moment.”
“He appears to have been a very learned man.”
“I’ve never seen so many books.”
“I have. But there’s something else about him too,” Corell said.
“I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just know that something isn’t quite right. Did you turn off the hotplate up there?”
Block nodded. It looked as if he wanted to add a few words but was not sure if he dared to.
“Isn’t there rather a lot of poison in the house?” he said.
“Yes, there is,” Corell said.
There was enough to kill an entire army company, and they discussed that for a while, without getting anywhere.
“Feels a bit like he was trying to play the alchemist. Or at least the goldsmith,” Block said.
“Why do you say that?”
Block told him that he had found a gilt spoon in the experimental workshop.
“It’s quite a good piece of work. Although you can still tell that he did the gilding himself. You can see it upstairs.”
“Really,” Corell said, trying to sound enthusiastic, but he had almost stopped listening.
He was once again lost in thought.
Copyright © 2016 by David Lagercrantz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.