A Clerical detective story by PDJ Aymes

The famous sports Bugatti turned out of Waterloo Place and into Pall Mall. Commander Eve Melhuish had invited the thirty-eight Primates of the Anglican Communion to meet her at her club for what was to be a triumphant conclusion to a difficult case.

The Reform was at its opulent, almost somnolent best. The prelates were disposed on red leather chairs and banquettes in a book-lined drawing room overlooking the garden. Eve liked the Reform – less elegant than the Athaeneum, less raffish than the Travellers, less glitzy than the RAC, more exclusive than the Oxford and Cambridge. But the Primates were, if truth be told, a motley bunch.

Melhuilish had seen them before only in their native habitat or in their ritual splendour. Dressed by Messrs Watts and Co in black and scarlet they were impressive enough. But in ill-fitting jackets over unsuitable cardigans, and in shirts of various shades of washed-out purple, they were less than glamorous. She had warned the porter.

Whelan, in a charcoal grey lounge suit and too-tight shirt collar, was overheated before the performance began. He was in charge of the assembled literary authorities, which were laid out on a ponderously classical mahogany table. Eve cleared her throat impressively and began.

‘Most Reverend Fathers,’ (she was not a Dean’s daughter for nothing), ‘this has been a fascinating, exhausting and, I think I may say, exhaustive case. You are the key-holders to the case of the missing Quadrilateral; and so it is to you that I make my report. It will be a strange tale; and so I beg your closest attention. This was no ordinary theft, abstraction or disappearance. Indeed it was not a theft at all, except in a sense which I hope you will allow me to call “theological”.’

Whelan handed his boss a leather-bound volume which he had earlier taken from the shelves in an adjoining room.

‘Whelan and I’, the Commander went on, ‘have crossed oceans and journeyed through jungles in search of a resolution to this mystery. Instead, had we but known it, the answer lay all the time here, in the Reform Club in Pall Mall, and in every library in England.’

There was a murmur of surprise from the assembled clerics. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church affected something between astonishment and disbelief. The Primus of Scotland and Archbishop of Canterbury designate looked seraphically unconcerned. It was the natural expression of his face when in repose.

‘I refer Your Graces to the fictional death of a certain Mr Krook, and to the entirely non-fictional investigations of the famous French surgeon M. Le Cat in 1725 and of a Prebendary of Verona, Guiseppe Bianchini, in 1731. I refer, of course, to spontaneous combustion.’

The assembled Primates twittered like sparrows on a telegraph wire. As the noise was dying down, the primate of Nigeria spoke.

‘If I hear you correctly, Commander Melhuilish, you are suggesting to us that the Quadrilateral, for no externally identifiable cause – of its own volition, if I may stretch a point – simply went up in smoke.’

‘Precisely’, replied the Commander combatively. ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself.’

‘But that is preposterous’, the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA angrily intervened. ‘We were expecting police-work, not mere superstitious speculation. You can’t seriously expect a group of educated men of the world like ourselves to swallow a tall story like that.’

‘Between an empty showcase and an empty tomb, I see little difference myself,’ said Eve, whose view of the Most Revd Martin F Dauzenberg was not high. ‘Your entire religion, I have always supposed, is posited on the one. And I have compelling forensic evidence that leads me to quiet confidence about the other. Do you have a problem with that?’

‘Two factors convince me that the Quadrilateral, as the Archbishop has said, “just went up in smoke”. The first is the total absence of any evidence, from the site itself, of interference. No fingerprints; no broken locks; no forced entries; no DNA. We have been over the place thoroughly. No one, I can assure you all, entered that room or opened that glass case. And no one left it. The security cameras are conclusive.

‘Nor, as a matter of fact, had anyone here a motive to steal it. Everyone of you – key-holders all – has learned to ignore the contents of that glass case. The Lambeth Quadrilateral, as I understand it, was once a minimum requirement for unity agreements between Anglicans and other Christians. But no-one here has an interest in the unity of the Church. Every one of you, in his different way, as Whelan and I have discovered, has acquiesced in a diminution of the unity you already shared. You have allowed your own local interests and your idiosyncratic views of the truth to destroy the most fundamental bonds of Communion. To put it frankly, none of you had the slightest motive to steal the thing or to destroy it, because none of you cares a fig about it or about what it stood for.

‘But the final evidence is that of the ash miniscule traces of late nineteenth century rag paper and even smaller traces of Waterman’s indelible black ink, retrieved from the blue velvet lining of the case. I cannot but recall some words of the Archbishop of Canterbury designate only a few days ago. “Truths are not stolen”, he said, “Like human persons, they die a natural death.” How right he was! And like human persons truths pine away from lack of affirmation and lack of interest.

‘My text for this evening, gentlemen, is accordingly taken from Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter XXXII: “Call the death by any name, Your Highness will; attribute it to whom you will; or say it might have been prevented how you will; it is the same death eternally – inborn, inbred, engendered in the vicious humours of the corrupted body itself, and that only – Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.”

‘And the rest of my sermon is taken from another of the master’s novels: for you, gentlemen, as you have showed in my interviews with you, are truly a Circumlocution Office, and this crime (for a crime it most certainly was and is) – as the working title of that novel went to show – is ‘Nobody’s Fault’. If you put your Articles of Faith in a glass case and suppose you have quarantined them from quotidian experience, Spontaneous Combustion is all you can expect.’

The twittering of Primates did not recommence for some moments, during which Melhuilish and Whelan swept from the room and disappeared, in their separate motor cars up St James’ Street. Along Piccadilly they went and round the Quadriga arch. They were making for Victoria, Eve’s flat, and a stiff gin.