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May 2021

MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (2)

DORIS HEADER

SO FAR – The murder-suicide of Doris and Walter Reeve in August 1933 has shocked Fenland and made the national newspapers. The Illustrated Police News – which had been publishing lurid accounts of crime since 1864 –  had great delight in producing an imaginative illustration of the double tragedy.

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Back in Wisbech, the inquest continues to investigate the relationship between Doris Reeve and her husband.

On the Tuesday, Doris’s father went to Upwell to confront his son-in-law. Walter Reeve was aggressive when spoken to, and accused Mr Reeve senior of only coming round to provoke an argument. When Walter Reeve was accused of carrying on with another woman, he replied:

“I know I have, and I shall do again.”

Later, Doris revealed, that in addition to physically knocking her about, Walter had shown her a double barreled shotgun and threatened to first blow her head off, and then turn the gun on himself. Eventually, later in June, Doris left Walter for good. Walter paid several visits to the Clarence Road home and was in turn both threatening, and playing the part of the heart-broken husband. On one occasion, Doris’s father said to Walter:

“You have turned out a rotter.”
Walter replied:
“You will not let her come back, and you will regret this.”

The events of that Saturday evening, 26th August became clear as the case progressed. PC Howard, who had been called to the grim scene in the railway carriage told the inquest that he had been on duty in Wisbech early on the Saturday evening. He had seen Walter and Doris Reeve standing in the High Street. Walter Reeve had his hands in his pockets, and Doris did not seem to be upset or distressed in any way.

May Simpson, of Norwich Road Wisbech, had known Doris as a friend since January. The two were meant to meet in Wisbech at 7.00pm that Saturday evening, but Doris did not arrive on time. Miss Simpson began walking up Norfolk Street, and stopped outside a butchers’ shop to talk to another woman friend, when Doris Reeve came rushing up. This was about 7.10pm. Doris seemed to be in good spirits. The three women then went to the Empire Theatre, and came out at about 10.45pm. They stood outside talking for a while, and Doris still seemed cheerful, and said nothing about any matrimonial troubles. Doris and the third woman, Mrs Read, then walked towards the Lynn Road, going via the cannon on Nene Quay, rather than the dark and rather confined Scrimshaw’s Passage. They said goodnight by Ames Garage, and Doris the walked briskly off in the direction of her own home. That was the last time that anyone – with the exception of her husband – saw her alive.

What had Walter Reeve been up to on that fateful evening? The court was told that he had no history of mental health problems, and was a man of “considerable bodily vigour and health”. On the evening of the murder, he met with some friends in The Five Bells on Norfolk Street. They stayed there drinking until about 10.00pm, when they went to Wombwells, a fish and chip shop next to The Electric Theatre. After enjoying a fish supper, they left about 10.40pm in the direction of Blackfriars Bridge over the canal, where they parted company

One of the men with whom Walter Reeve had been drinking was asked by the court if Reeve had been the worse for wear. He replied that he had been rather quiet all evening, when he was normally quite jolly. The witness said that he knew divorce proceedings had been started between Doris and Walter, and that Reeve had been seeing another woman.

Ernest Martin Henson, a garage proprietor of Cannon Street, Wisbech, said that he had heard knocking on his door between 11.30pm and 11.45pm on the Saturday night. He answered the door, and the man, who gave his name as Reeve, said that he wanted to be taken to Upwell. Henson said:

“I suppose you know what the fare will be?”
Reeve answered:
“Four shillings.”
No, “ said Henson, “it will be twelve shillings and sixpence at this time of night.
In a very offhand manner, Reeve said, “Oh, alright then.

Henson took about five minutes to get dressed, and went and fetched the car. When he drove round to the front of the premises, there was no-one there. Henson waited for about forty five minutes, but when no-one came, he went back to bed.

Two men, itinerant fruit pickers who had been ‘dossing’ in the park on the Saturday night had an interesting tale to tell. One of the men, called Nesbitt, saw a figure standing by a gate, but the man was doing nothing to attract attention. Then Nesbitt heard groans, and said to his friend:

Come along – there is somebody there badly using a woman.
His friend replied that it might only be a couple in a domestic dispute, and so they decided to let discretion be the better part of valour. The next day, Nesbitt’s colleague said:
There’s been a woman murdered over there..” and Nesbitt replied that he must have been correct all along the previous night.

In the Coroner’s summing up, he said that it was clear that Walter Reeve had murdered his wife and then done away with himself. He raised the question of Reeve’ sanity, but said that there was no evidence of mental health issues with either Reeve himself or any members of his immediate family. He did refer, however, to the testimony of Reeve’s mother, who had said that even as a child, Walter had been possessed of a very violent temper. The Coroner reminded the jury that if they were prepared to say that Reeve was out of his mind when he killed himself, they could then hardly say that he was sane a little earlier when he had plunged the knife into his wife. He said that the reverse was also true.

The jury returned the obvious verdict of murder in the case of Doris Reeve, but asked that the archaic verdict of Felo de Se be placed on record. The Latin term literally translates as “felon of himself”, and in earlier times, English common law considered suicide a crime. A person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishment which might include forfeiture of property and being given a shameful burial.

If only in the personal column of the local newspaper, Doris and Walter Reeve were united in death.

Obit

Regarding the burials of the two young people, shameful or otherwise, the Wisbech Advertiser had this to say in its edition of Friday 1st September:

FUNERAL 1

Just six miles away, however, a rather different interment was taking place.There will have been tears shed, but no-one sang hymns, and the police were not required to control the crowds.

Funeral 2

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MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (1)

DORIS HEADER

On the weekend of 13th and 14th September, 2014, something unusual surfaced on social media. On Facebook, someone reported a mysterious homemade memorial which had been placed on the grass at the edge of Wisbech Park. I went to have a look. It was a simple wooden cross, with a laminated printed message pinned to it.

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Strangely, the sign was only there for a couple of days, but research in newspaper archives led me back over eighty years.

It is August, 1933. The hit song of the year was Stormy Weather, sung by Ethel Waters. In the cricket, England beat the West Indian touring side with ease. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, while Winston Churchill’s speeches warning of the dangers of Germany’s re-armament had been largely ignored. In Wisbech, meanwhile, the local papers were full of the latest speculation about the health of the forthcoming harvest, while the Advertiser and the Standard were running weekly updates on what looked like being a bumper year for Bramley apples. At The Electric Theatre in town, cinema audiences were preparing to be terrified by the forthcoming feature – The Mummy – starring Boris Karloff. But those Wisbech folk were to have a horror – of a genuine kind – delivered to their doorsteps very soon.

Body Text

Day broke, and as people gathered around the scene of the murder, none of them was to know that within a couple of hours, an equally macabre and disturbing discovery was to be made. Meanwhile, police had driven to the nearby village of Upwell, where Doris Reeve had been living with her husband Walter, aged 26. Getting no answer to their urgent knocking, the officers forced their way in, but found the house empty.

Another Wisbech Bobby, Police Constable Howard was called, at 10.30 am on that Sunday morning, and told that there was a man who appeared to have hanged himself in a railway carriage near Wisbech LNER station. When he went to investigate, he found that the carriage was the middle one of three, standing in a siding. and he was able to access the carriage without going through the station.he found a man hanging from a luggage rack, with a neck-tie and handkerchief used for the job. The man’s feet were dragging on the floor of the carriage, but his whole weight was on his neck. His right hand was resting on the seat, next to a knife, and his body was stiff and cold. He was wearing a pair of light grey flannel trousers, a vest and a shirt. Round his waist was a belt, with a sheath attached to it. His shirt was flecked with blood-stains and there was a knife wound on the left side of his chest. Cast to one side in the carriage compartment were a jacket, waistcoat and hat. In his possession were a wallet, ten shillings in small change, and a driver’s licence in the name of Walter Reeve, Low Side, Upwell.

The police now had two dead bodies on their hands, and people were able to reach their own conclusions about the circumstances of the deaths. It wasn’t until the inquest, however, that the full truth about the tragic events would be made public. The inquest was held at the North Cambridgeshire Hospital in Wisbech on Monday 28th August. By law, the deaths of Florence and Walter Reeve had to be considered separately. We can look at the evidence given in whichever order we choose. Firstly, the grim physical details of the deaths. Dr Butterworth, when he examined Doris Reeve, had found an incised wound, an inch long, over her third left rib, and another wound – of the same shape and size – more round to the side and between her eighth and ninth ribs. The wound over the third rib had been the fatal one, severing the pulmonary artery. The wounds had clearly been caused by a small – but very sharp – knife. Walter Reeve had died as a result of strangulation, but it also seemed that he had tried to inflict wounds on himself with the knife which was found on the seat beside his body. The doctor and the police were able to confirm that this knife was the one which had killed Doris Reeve.

In order to establish the state of the relationship between Doris and Walter Reeve, Doris’s father was called to the witness stand. He said that Doris had married Walter in January 1932, but the marriage was not one made in heaven. By June 1933 Doris had left their married home in Upwell, and moved back in with her parents at 21 Clarence Road, Wisbech. Doris’s father said that he had been largely unaware of events in his daughter’s life, because she was not n the habit of confiding in him. His first intimation that things were wrong was when he awoke from a nap one day to find Doris kneeling on the floor, with her head in her mother’s lap. Doris, however, would not tell him what had happened, but Mrs Reeve senior told him that Walter had knocked Doris down and taken money from her purse. He had only given her £1 for housekeeping that week rather than the usual thirty shillings. Doris returned briefly to Upwell, but she would come home each night to Wisbech, having been given the bus fare by her mother.

The double death in Wisbech made the national newspapers, and the Daily Mirror published this photograph of the murder site, but mistakenly sited Walter Reeve’s death to Upwell.

Murder site

IN PART TWO
Two funerals, and the inquest concludes

BLOWING MY OWN TRUMPET . . .

If I don’t do it, no-one else will! A little video – with sound – promoting my site. Click on the logo to play the video.

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THE WAITER . . . Between the covers

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Kamil Rahman is a Bengali Muslim, but in name only. He enjoys a beer, and his job as a detective with the Kolkata Police Force gives him little time for religious observance. His father was a distinguished cop before him, and he tries hard to live up to that reputation. When a famous Bollywood film star is found dead in a plush hotel, Kamil is astonished to be given the job of finding the killer of Asif Khan.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The killing of Asif Khan was in July, but the book opens in the October of the same year, and we find Kamil not heading up a crack team of investigators in the capital city of West Bengal, but waiting tables in a curry house in London’s Brick Lane.

Waiter cover007The restaurant is run by his relatives Saibal and Maya, with help from their daughter Anjali. At this point is worth  reminding people that families are the big thing in the sub-continent, and most of the characters in the book are related in one way or another. The story starts on the evening that the restaurant has been booked to provide the food for the lavish 60th birthday party of rich entrepreneur Rakesh Sharma. He and his new wife Neha – half his age – are installed in a lavish mansion on Billionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Sharma’s first wife (and son by that union) are still very much on the scene.

As the party gets into its stride, Sharma shocks his audience when he announces that he is going to sell all his holdings and divert the rest of his life to charitable works, dedicated to his young wife. As Kamil and the other functionaries are driving home in the small hours, they receive a chilling ‘phone call. Sharma has been found dead – apparently battered about the head with a heavy object. They return to the mansion, slightly ahead of the police.

The big question with which Ajay Chowdhury teases us is, of course, why has Kamil ended up in a walk-on part in one of London’s innumerable Indian restaurants, rather than being an important detective in Kolkata. Chowdhury uses a ‘then-and-now’ narrative. It’s not my favourite literary device, but at least we have only two time slots to keep track of. We are deep into the book before we discover why Kamil is bowing and scraping in London, rather than advancing his career – and his marriage prospects to his smart and beautiful lawyer fiancée Maliha – back in West Bengal. The answer comes in the form of a terrible betrayal.

This is just a crime novel, albeit a very good one, but it does raise questions about probity in public life. People of my age have had a lifetime of reading about the depth of corruption in India and Pakistan, and Chowdhury paints an unflattering picture of the wheels-within-wheels in the Kolkata Police Force. Are we any better here? Is the corruption just more subtle, and more in people’s peripheral vision rather than in full view? I write this review at a time when news bulletins remind us of the awful, unbridgeable gulf between the haves and have-nots in present day Covid-blighted India.

Eventually, Kamil’s Kalkota downfall is explained, and we also learn who killed Rakesh Sharma. There is much entertainment on the way to the finale. The Met Police copper’s last words suggest that we haven’t heard the last of Kamil Rahman.

We are always looking for skilled detectives from diverse backgrounds.”

This is a confident and sure-footed debut, with a likeable and warmly credible hero. Chowdhury deftly captures the contrasting – yet uncannily similar – mileus of Kolkata and Brick Lane. The Waiter is published by Harvill Secker, and will be out on 27th May.

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GLADYS MITCHELL . . .A writer revisited

Guest writer Stuart Radmore explores one of the lesser-known female authors of the Golden Age, and he feels that the revival of interest in her books by modern readers is justified.

Gladys Mitchell (1901 – 1983), of Scottish descent, was born in Cowley, near Oxford.  She spent much of her childhood in Brentford, Middlesex.  After taking a degree at the University of London, she taught (English, History and Games) altogether for some thirty-seven years at a variety of schools in what is now West London.

Away from her teaching life Miss Mitchell created the first notable, and still the best known, example of a psychiatrist-detective in the formidable person of Mrs (late Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office.

She is sometimes extremely orthodox in her methods.  While some of her deductions allude to Freudian theory (one of the author’s many enthusiasms) she appears to obtain her results by intuition – or something more.   Elements of the occult – witchcraft, the supernatural, folk superstitions or practices – sometimes play too large a part in many of the books, to the detriment of their quality as detective stories; though this at least makes it clear that Mrs Bradley is as much a witch as a psychiatrist. 

In fact, Gladys Mitchell well understood that her books had about them the basic unreality of an all-ends-well comedy.  “I regard my books as fairy tales” she said, “I never take the crime itself seriously”. 

It’s been noted by others that Miss Mitchell was obviously a woman of some inquisitiveness, and that what she finds out, she shares.   Throughout her many books while it’s inevitable that there is a wide variation in subject, this sometimes also results in a variation in quality.

Everyone has his favourites, but it’s generally thought that her best books were those written up to the early 1950s – ‘St Peter’s Finger’ (1938) The Saltmarsh Murders’ (1941) and ‘The Devil’s Elbow’ (1951) are particularly praised – with only a handful thereafter reaching this earlier high standard.   Of these later novels ‘Dance to your Daddy’ (1969) should be singled out.  It’s light on the supernatural, while maintaining an air of unreality throughout.   The author herself has said:

… apart from ‘Laurels are Poison’ (1942) I like most ‘The Rising of the Moon’ (1945) which recalls much of my Brentford childhood. (I am Simon in the story and my beloved brother Reginald is Keith) and the same two children appear as Margaret and  Kenneth in the 50th book, Late, Late in the Evening’, which is about the two of us in Cowley, before the motor works got there “. 

Let the final words come from the poet Philip Larkin, who was a great admirer of the novels. In 1982 he wrote:

Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime club confreres in total originality – even when, as today, there are almost none left to stand apart from. The originality consists in blending eccentricity of subject matter with authoritative common sense of style”.   

THE BULLET TRAIN . . . Between the covers

Kōtarō Isaka (and his translator Sam Malissa) have created an story that is totally improbable, manic – but quite wonderful. Five killers board the Shikansen (Bullet Train to us) which goes from Tokyo to Morioka. I use the word ‘manic’ because the journey only takes just over two and a half hours, and this is a book of over four hundred pages, so you immediately know we are pretty much operating in real time. The five passengers are:

  • Kimura. He is a drunk, a former gangster, and his six year old son lies in a coma after being pushed from the roof of a department store by –
  • Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji, a teenage psychopath.
  • Lemon and Tangerine, two villains who are working for Mr Minegishi, a crime boss. They have rescued his kidnapped son and have retained the intended ransom money, which is packed in a suitcase. Incidentally, Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and its different characters.
  • Nanao, a hapless minor gangster, and a walking example of Murphy’s Law, but still a killer. His job is to relieve Lemon and Tangerine of the suitcase full of cash.

By page fifty, it’s all happening, and it is all about the suitcase full of cash. Satoshi is expecting Kimura, stuns him with a home made taser, and has him trussed up with tape in the seat next to him. Nanao has stolen the suitcase, but is prevented from leaving at the first stop, Ueno, by the arrival of another gangster called Wolf who has a score to settle with Nanao. Wolf barges him back into the train before he can leave, but Nanao kills him in a struggle. Lemon and Tangerine have discovered that the cash is missing, but return to their seats to find Minegishi Junior has, inexplicably, expired.

Two simple graphics add to the fun. The first (left) is a schematic of the stations on the journey itself. Though simple, this is a very clever device, because it allows the author to have the characters – albeit briefly – engage with the world outside the confines of the ten coach train. The second is of the coaches in the train (below) and is used as chapter headings as events play out.
BTSatoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji is the darkest character of the five. He is utterly without compassion. Other human beings – school teachers, teenage friends, other adults – only have value to him in the sense that they can be used for his entertainment. He is highly intelligent, but one of the more malevolent fictional villains I have encountered in recent times. Everything is thought through and planned in the minutest detail, such as his grip on Kamura. The grizzled gangster could, physically, chew up Satoshi and spit out the bones, but the teenager convinces Kamura that he has an insider in the hospital where the man’s son is lying in a coma, and should Satoshi fail to answer periodic calls to his mobile ‘phone, then this insider will find a way to disconnect the little boy’s life support system.

There is a thread of darker-than-dark comedy running through the chapters. Nanao’s attempts to rearrange Wolf’s corpse to make it look as if he was just taking a nap put me in mind of Basil Fawlty in The Kipper and the Corpse, while Lemon’s obsessive knowledge of Percy, Gordon, and James the Red Engine is like something that Flann O’Brien might have dreamt up given that, with Tangerine, Lemon has just left a crime scene where, between them, they have shot dead at least fifteen men. Add to the mix a couple of random cross-dressers, a stolen wig – and an escaped snake – and you have two and a half hours of mayhem. As passengers become corpses, one by one, the unlikely intervention of a pair of grandparents brings matters to a bloody conclusion.

I don’t doubt that other reviewers have used this analogy, but it is still worth saying that Bullet Train is something of a cross between a Tarantino movie and a Manga comic. There is the same implausible detachment from reality found in both, but also the same joyful sense of anarchy. The train itself, hurtling onwards at 200 mph, echoes the sense of high speed forward movement and drive in the narrative. The internet tells me that Hollywood have snapped up the book, and a film is being produced starring Brad Pitt. As whom? – I have genuinely no idea, but this brilliant and daring novel is published in Britain by Harvill Secker, and is available now.

WEDDING STATION . . . Between the covers

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Coming late to a well-established series can pose problems for a reviewer but, happily, this book is a prequel to the six published previously. The series is known as the Station Series, written by David Downing, and featuring the investigative crime reporter John Russell. The titles all take their names from railway stations around Berlin. They are Zoo Station (2007), Silesian Station (2008), Stettin Station (2009), Potsdam Station (2010), Lehrter Station (2012), and Masaryk Station (2013).

Fans of the books will have to excuse me while I paint a quick background picture. It is early 1933, and Hitler has been Chancellor for just a few weeks. We begin just hours after the Reichstag fire, and the SA – Sturmabteilung – are going about their grisly business with renewed vigour. Russell is English, a veteran of WW1 – and a former communist – but due to his marriage (now failed) to a German woman, he can happily say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.

WS coverWhile reporting on the death and mutilation of a young rent boy, Russell is asked by a friend to take on another case, this time on behalf of a senior army officer whose daughter is missing. It is a delicate business, because there is a strong suspicion that Lili Zollitsch has run off with a boyfriend who is an active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

Russell seems to collect mysterious deaths and disappearances like some men collect stamps. Hard on the heels of the Colonel’s missing daughter, he hears that a prominent genealogist has been killed in what seems to be a case of hit-and-run. One of Herr Mommsen’s most popular services had been producing evidence of racial purity – as in no trace of Jewish blood – for his clients. Had he made a rather unfortunate discovery and signed his own death warrant? If this weren’t enough, a well-known astrologer has gone missing – believed permanently – and when Russell investigates via one of Harri Haum’s customers he is astonished when she tells him that in a crystal ball-reading session a few days before the event, the seer had predicting the burning of the Reichstag.

But there is yet more for Russell to deal with. One of the friends of the murdered rent boy contacts the journalist and hands him the dead lad’s diary, in which he has faithfully recorded the names of his clients, as well as intimate physical descriptions. As Russell turns the pages, he finds the names of prominent members of the SA. Now while homosexuality is – along with communism, and being Jewish – a big no-no in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) it is a different matter in the rival organisation, the SA. The SA’s head, Ernst Röhm along with a good number fellow brownshirts are, as coy newspaper obituaries used to say, “confirmed bachelors.”

The final straw for Russelland one that very nearly breaks the back of the proverbial desert beast of burden – is when a knock on the door of his apartment reveals a young woman called Evchen who, years earlier, was a communist comrade. Not only is she still a party member, she has just shot dead one SA trooper and seriously injured another. And now she seeks shelter. How Russell gets himself out of these various pickles is gripping stuff. Some of the tension is obviously diminished by the fact that we know that the journalist survives to feature in six further books, but it is still a very good read.

We are clearly in Bernie Gunther territory here, and comparisons are inevitable, but in no way negative. This is a compelling read and a chill reminder – if any were necessary – of the gathering storm facing Germany and the wider world in the 1930s. Wedding Station is published by Old Street Publishing. The hardback is available now, and the paperback version will be out on 4th May.

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