You've probably never heard of Sandford Parva, a small village in Dorset on a quiet road five miles away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Its tree lined avenue, verdant village green complete with pond and wildlife creates the perfect picture postcard of an idyllic village in the west country. Naturally, the inhabitants of Sandford Magna, a couple of miles to the north, dispute such a claim, based mainly on the fact that their spreading chestnut tree is much bigger and fifty years older. However, Parvians quickly point to their ancient beech wood with its babbling brooks winding their merry way to that fishermen's delight, the River Stour. The main street in Sandford Parva has no name simply because it's the only street. The stone built cottages with their meticulously manicured gardens are interrupted by the village hall on one side of the road with a post office and "Ye Olde Corner Shoppe" on the other.
The custodian of the corner shop, Helen Morsten, the sole survivor of a family who'd run the shop for more years than anyone could remember, was one of the most popular inhabitants of the village, not only because of her vibrant personality but also because at the age of forty, Helen was still single and much in demand in the romantic stakes by legitimate suitors and others with diverse intentions. Well educated, well travelled and worldly wise, she knew how to keep the wolves at bay while maintaining necessary friendships without compromising her own secrets. Safe to say that Helen was liked, admired and respected. Yet, on a cold December morning, she was found stabbed to death behind the counter.
Previous to that dark day, Emma Robinson, Bmus (Southampton University) returned to her family home in the village after landing a lecturing role in a prestigious London college. With months to spare before taking up her new post, Emma decided to make use of her talents and first love by forming a village choir. Very soon she found over thirty names pencilled under her notice pinned in the village hall. The choristers were divided into vocal range groupings and to younger members delight, the few songs they were expected to master were not the usual weary old gospel or world war songs but rather an eclectic mix with only one hymn. It was during a rendering of "Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer" that a revelation occurred. Andy Grover decided to try his luck with a staggered high tone intonation of the chorus line, "Feed me till I want no more," then a couple of baritones added a delayed "want no more" echo. The effect was electrifying and a true choir was born. The sessions were quite lively, and several spontaneous friendships were formed despite the reserve the English are guilty of.
It was after the eighth session that Emma sprang a surprise by announcing she'd entered the choir into a competition against similar amateur choirs to be held in Blandford. The question uppermost among the choir was, "What about Sophie?" Sophie Swann, the self appointed soprano soloist was the complete opposite of Andy Grover. Whereas Andy's singing lifted spirits, Sophie's delivery caused grimaces as her out of tune shrilling meant everyone including Emma had to try to adapt. Normally the choir would have a good laugh about it as Sophie wondered why everyone except her was singing so badly but now there was a competition to consider.
Colonel Potter summed up the situation in military terms. 'We may as well sound the retreat now,' he expounded. 'As soon as the judges hear Sophie, we're doomed – something has to be done.'
Emma refused to be drawn into the debate other than to suggest that Helen Morsten would be a better choice as soloist if it were at all possible to effect a change while stressing that "amateur" was the operative word.
'I may have a solution for Sophie,' Colonel Potter announced to a group of fellow choristers at the penultimate practise session.
The number was "Climb Every Mountain" and Sophie puffed out her not inconsiderable chest to break into her solo, as usual an octave out. Immediately, everyone capable of doing so, raised their voices to falsetto in a crude effort to follow Sophie's lead.
The effect was awful or awesome depending upon one's point of view. Emma called a halt. 'That was dreadful, what on earth is going on?' she demanded, realising that something was afoot.
'We decided we weren't being fair to Sophie so we tried to follow her lead,' Andy explained. 'We realised we had to do something if we were to have any chance in the competition.'
Sophie stormed out of the village hall red faced muttering about 'a set of wankers.'
'Helen, can you take over and we'll go through the number again?' Emma suggested. The effect of the change was tremendous and no one was more pleased than Andy Grover who felt he had a musical affinity with Helen and hoped to make a different kind of music with her even though she had declined his advances thus far.
When Colonel Potter called into the corner shop to discuss the arrangements for the competition, Helen informed him, 'Sophie's angry with me. She came in here shouting about me sleeping with almost everyone in the choir just to grab the soloist spot. It's a pity because we were good friends before.'
'What nonsense,' he replied. 'You weren't even in on the plan. Never mind, who wants a friend like that anyway? Sleeping around eh . . . it's not true is it? I hope I haven't missed out,' he jibed, with a twinkle in his eye and a quick twirl of his handlebar moustache.
'Better ask around.' Helen winked.
The day of the competition arrived and the choir were all in good spirits as they gathered at the village hall to await the hire coach. They climbed aboard with no sign of Helen. 'There's plenty of time.' said the driver. 'We can wait for another twenty minutes if need be.' There was a simultaneous gasp when a familiar figure emerged around the corner at the bottom of the street.
It wasn't Helen!
Sophie Swann bounded up to the bus to announce that Helen would not be coming but 'not to worry' as she would 'step up to the plate.' A state of gloom descended.
The wonderful acoustics of the concert hall accentuated Sophie's shortcomings more than they enriched Andy Glover's stentorian voice. Sandford Parva finished last.
No one spoke to Sophie on the subdued homeward journey until Colonel Potter couldn't hold back any longer. 'Thanks for losing us the contest Sophie. Just how much of a hint did you need. We'd have been better off playing kazoos.'
Molly Potter was the first customer to arrive at the corner shop the morning after the Blandford debacle. The colonel had asked for oat porridge for breakfast and the jar was empty. She was surprised to see the door sign still set to "Closed" at nine-thirty, knowing that Helen always opened at nine sharp. Looking up at the flat above the shop, she saw that Helen's curtains were closed. She must be ill, thought Molly, trying to peer through cupped hands against the shop window. She was ringing the upstairs bell and pounding on the door when Emma Robinson arrived.
'What's up?' said Emma. 'I came to see why Helen didn't turn up last night.'
'Yes I heard about that. I hope she's not lying ill in bed and can't answer the door. Should we go around the back and try?'
They had no luck at the rear of the house until Emma looked under a plant pot and finding a key opened the door leading into the kitchen. There was no answer to their joint cries of 'Helen – are you here?' It was Molly who opened the door leading into the shop and let out a piercing shriek. Helen Morsten lay on her back behind the shop counter in a pool of blood with a large knife protruding from her chest. Emma collapsed in a heap and began sobbing pitifully as Molly picked up the phone and dialled 999.
The village hall became the murder room with Inspector Judd in charge. It was quickly established that Helen had been in her night attire when she was accosted and stabbed with a carving knife from her own kitchen. The pathologist on the case was able to say that the deed had been done the evening before the choir competition. Judd was also made aware that there was no sign of a break in, suggesting that Helen may have known the assailant. Uniformed officers had hardly began door to door enquiries when Angus Reed came rushing into the hall followed by his panting Labrador. 'Sophie Swann is floating in the lake in Lower Beech Wood,' he announced dramatically.
It didn't take the police long to piece together the choir story after finding Sophie's suicide note on her kitchen table. Addressed to "THE CHOIR," it read : "YOU ARE ALL VERY MEAN AND CRUEL. WE STARTED OFF AS AMATEURS HAVING A BIT OF FUN – WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?"
'Looks like we can all go home chief,' said Sergeant Carter.
'Hmm – open and shut case you think eh Carter?'
'Went round there to have it out with her before the concert – petty quarrel turned to jealous rage – things went too far– knew her goose was cooked and decided the best course was to end it all.'
'I suppose you're right but that knife troubles me.'
'If she was in such a rage would she have the presence of mind to make sure there were no fingerprints left on it?'
Private investigator Barton Gower switched off the engine and sat in the car for a few minutes before entering the supermarket. He soon located his quarry, a tall elderly man with receding hair wearing a full length brown overcoat, collar turned up against the winter chill. Brown overcoat carried his half full basket to the self-pay checkouts and started to scan the items. Barton walked up behind him then suddenly stumbled quite violently into the man’s back upsetting several items from the shopping basket and even worse, causing Brown Overcoat's false teeth to fly out. "Unexpected item in the bagging area," the auto till complained as Barton quickly slipped away from the scene. Back in the car, Barton rifled through Brown Overcoat aka Ted Grimsby’s phone contacts looking for any suspicious communications. Ted’s wife, Councillor May Grimsby, convinced that Ted was having an affair, had hired Barton to prove or allay her suspicions. The contact list proved as innocuous as Barton's previous surveillance.
‘Oh well that's the end of an easy earner,' he said to Gladys, his assistant, back at the office.
‘It never rains but it pours,’ said Gladys. ‘Frank Judd is looking for you – something about a case in Dorset. Most you'll get will be £50 and a pat on the back.’
'You're right but I owe him one so I can't refuse. I'd better give him a call.'
Two days later found Barton and Gladys ensconced in lodgings in Sandford Magna reading through Inspector Judd's report on the murder of Helen Morsten. A case where Judd had not been entirely satisfied with the end result.
'Let's start with the local vicar,' said Barton. 'He should know some if not all of the choir members.'
'You seem convinced the choir should be the starting point. Maybe that was Judd's mistake?' said Gladys.
'I'm not entirely convinced but we have to get to know who's who.'
The church of St Oswald with its adjacent vicarage lay half way between the two Sandfords. Vicar Don Peters welcomed the private detectives into his study. He admitted to only knowing a few of the choir members and took the opportunity to remark with some asperity that his church was without choristers. Nevertheless, he provided what Barton called "valuable insight" into several characters from Sandford Parva.
There were a few curious glances at Barton's old Jaguar as they drove through the village and parked at the entrance to Lower Beech Wood. The pair began searching the edges of the lake meticulously. It was Gladys who found the strands of hair tangled low down in a dog rose bush a few feet from the water's edge. 'Could be animal hairs but we'd better have them checked even though they don't match the colour of Sophie's hair in the mortuary picture,' she informed Barton. Their search of Helen Morsten's shop and living quarters yielded nothing of interest to Barton. 'I suspect that half the village knew about the key being under the plant pot, probably common practice,' he remarked.
'So the killer could have been invited in or just simply walked in,' Gladys agreed, while they headed towards Colonel Potter's home.
'Detectives eh – I thought we were done with you lot,' said the red faced colonel, moustache bristling.
'Just here to tie up a few loose ends,' Barton explained.
'What loose ends? That fat spiteful sow with her silly wig and false eyelashes killed Helen, realised she'd be caught and at least did the decent thing – end of story.'
Gladys came to the boil. 'I would put it that a single, overweight, unattractive, unloved and lonely lady was hounded to death by opinionated morons.'
'Arrant nonsense,' the colonel fumed, slamming the door shut in the faces of the two detectives.
Andy Grover was planting daffodil bulbs as the Jaguar drew up. 'More police?' he asked, not paying too much attention to Barton's card. Barton didn't correct him as he asked for his view of events.
'As I told the other officers, we all have to shoulder the blame for what happened. It was mean and spiteful what we did to Sophie and a beautiful spirit suffered the consequences of our actions.'
'Perhaps two beautiful spirits,' Gladys murmured before continuing, 'According to our reports you were home alone practising for the concert the night that Helen died?'
'Confirmed by your neighbour who heard you singing at the top of your voice,
'I'm afraid so,' laughed Andy.
'Seems like all of the villagers had alibis according to these reports,' said Gladys later.
'Oh, I'm not at all sure about that,' said Barton mysteriously. Gladys knew that her boss had spotted something but decided not to push for now.
Their final port of call was the choir mistress, Emma Robinson who made tea for them. She spoke of her regrets of starting the choir adding that she had no intention of carrying on with the enterprise knowing what kind of people she was dealing with. She also spoke fondly of Helen Morsten as being one of the few genuinely nice persons in the group. Gladys gave her boss a secret sign, telling him to leave first and she'd catch him up later. Once alone, she looked directly into Emma's eyes and said, 'You were lovers weren't you?'
'How – I mean – '
'Oh come on, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm not ashamed.'
'You mean – I thought you and he were . . . .'
Gladys laughed, 'We're close but not that close. Now tell me all about yourself and don't miss out anything.'
Barton waited patiently for over half an hour but when Gladys told him what she'd learned he knew he had to phone Inspector Judd immediately.
The choir meeting convened by Emma took place in the village hall but it was Barton Gower who strode onto the stage to address the audience. He introduced himself as a consultant to the official police and went on to highlight certain new findings in the deaths of Sophie Swann and Helen Morsten. Emma sat quietly beside Gladys as Barton proceeded with his shock announcement.
'Sophie did not commit suicide. She was murdered by being rendered unconscious in her home then dragged to the lake where she was drowned in an attempt to make her death together with the fake note, look like suicide. The reason for her murder was quite simple. She was to be the obvious scapegoat for the killing of Helen Morsten.'
'What grounds do you have for such a wild assumption?' shouted Colonel Potter.
'The person who dragged Sophie through the bushes failed to see that some strands of her pink wig were left on a thorn bush. The rest of the wig was burned I'm sure.'
Silence fell as Barton went on. 'Helen Morsten was indeed murdered for reasons of jealousy but those reasons had nothing to do with singing. The person who killed Helen was a snubbed suitor. I can only hypothesise that his thoughts ran along the lines of "if I can't have her no one can." His plan was cold and calculated to the extent of setting up an alibi for the night in question and then informing Sophie that she should replace Helen.'
'Sounds like pure conjecture to me,' stormed the colonel.
'Our clever murderer played a taped recording of himself singing "O Solo Mio" so loudly that a neighbour was sufficiently convinced to provide the police with a statement saying he was at home at the time of Helen's murder.'
Andy Grover broke from the audience and headed towards the exit.
'Somebody, stop him!' shouted the colonel.
'No worries on that account,' declared Inspector Judd as two burly constables brought Andy Grover back into the hall.
Sandford Parva soon returned to its former idyllic existence with the addition of two tourist stops for those interested in macabre.