The Write Stuff: Jack in the box

Jack in the Box is Hania Allen's first published crime novel. Picture: Grant Paterson
Jack in the Box is Hania Allen's first published crime novel. Picture: Grant Paterson
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In her first published crime novel, Hania Allen follows the trail of the infamous serial killer who leaves a Jack in the Box at the scene of his crimes as a macarbe calling card.

They turned into Farringdon Road and headed north. Steve switched on the radio, and they caught the tail end of the news. The main item for 14 September was the ongoing fuel protest, which had reached such a level that many petrol stations were reported to be empty. The NHS had been placed on red alert and supermarkets were rationing food.

‘Brilliant,’ Von said, tapping the arm rest. ‘If Tony Blair doesn’t pull his finger out, we’ll soon be walking to the scene of the crime.’

‘I hear it’ll all be different tomorrow,’ Steve said smoothly.

‘And the same in a hundred years.’

As they waited at the traffic lights, he said, ‘You thought about the team?’

‘We’ll use the ones you had on your last murder case.’

‘They’re young.’

‘They’ve had the benefit of working with you. You got anything against youth?’

‘No, boss, I’m fighting to get mine back.’

They swung off King’s Cross Road into a long terrace of identical four-storeyed houses.

‘So what do we know about Max Quincey?’ he said.

‘Worked in the theatre, started out as an actor but gave it up to run a rep company, the Quincey Players. They’ve finished touring and now they’re playing in London. The strange thing is that I met him only last Saturday, at some arty farty do at the National Gallery.’

‘Didn’t know art was your scene.’

‘I went with Kenny. He pointed out I’m always dragging him to police functions.’ At the mention of Kenny’s name, she felt rather than saw Steve bristle. Steve and Kenny had never got on. Fortunately, their paths seldom crossed. ‘The Chief Super was introducing his brother to everyone,’ she said.

‘What was he like?’

‘He had a nice way with words.’ And a patronising manner. As they’d talked, his eyes had wandered round the room, as though he were searching for someone more interesting. ‘Clothes-wise, he was exactly my image of an actor. Velvet jacket and silk cravat.’

‘And he lived here?’ Steve was staring at the houses. The upper walls had been left in their original red brick but the ground-floor façades were plastered in white, most of them dirty and chipped with age. ‘Rather down market for a velvet jacket. Looks like Coronation Street but with iron railings and window boxes.’

‘This area’s full of guest houses. Lots of touring actors bunk in this street.’

They stopped outside number fifteen. The sun had risen into a pink sky, shot through with threads of cloud. A nearby road was being resurfaced and acrid smoke, brought in on a light wind, stung Von’s eyes.

She studied the building. The curtains on the top floor were drawn.

A short flight of steps led to the front door. They showed their warrant cards to the policeman, who stepped aside to let them pass.

In the narrow hallway, she consulted her file. ‘There are six rooms. Max Quincey’s is … ’

A door opened suddenly to her right and a rake-thin woman emerged. She was joined by an elderly man, who slipped a protective arm round her shoulders.

‘Who are you?’ the woman said, in a tone so harsh it was almost a shriek. She clutched at the man, her huge eyes darting from Von to Steve.

‘Police officers,’ Von said quickly. ‘We’re with the Metropolitan Police.’

The man frowned. ‘My sister’s had a terrible shock. Must you do this today?’

‘Are you Mrs Deacon?’ Von said, addressing the woman.

She nodded, her wrinkled lips trembling so violently that Von could see the slight gap between her front teeth.

‘We’ll need to speak to you, Mrs Deacon.’ Seeing the look on her face, she added gently, ‘But we don’t need to do it now.’

The man seemed relieved. ‘Come on, Mavis,’ he said, guiding her back into the room. ‘It’s on the top floor,’ he whispered to Von. ‘You can’t miss it. It’s the only room on the landing.’

‘It was the landlady who found the body,’ Von said, after he’d closed the door. ‘She became suspicious when she saw Quincey’s curtains closed all day yesterday.’

Steve frowned. ‘So he’s been dead for a day?’

‘At least.’

‘Gee, I just love it when that happens.’

The narrow staircase was covered in a patterned carpet, threadbare where it curved over the steps. Several stair rods were loose.

‘Three flights, Steve.’ She peered up. ‘Gee, I just love it when that happens.’

At the top of the house, a second policeman stood outside a door that was closed and taped off. He nodded at Von. ‘The room’s as we found it, ma’am. The door was closed.’


‘I’m afraid so, ma’am.’

‘Just our bloody luck,’ she muttered.

It meant that, for at least a day, anyone could have come into the room. It was what detectives dreaded most: a contaminated crime scene. In the hands of an experienced defence pathologist, any evidence painstakingly gathered could be rendered useless in court. Von had had a case like this blown wide open, and she was determined to avoid a repeat.

She ripped the cellophane packaging from the box in the corridor and removed white suits, latex gloves, and overshoes.

‘Shouldn’t we wait for Forensics, boss?’ Steve said, pulling on gloves.

‘We’ll be careful.’ She knew what would happen once Forensics arrived: the place would be like Piccadilly Circus. What she needed was that first impression of the crime scene which could give her a leg up in the investigation. Her old governor used to call it quality time with the corpse.

She opened the door and ducked under the tape.

The curtains were so thin, she had no difficulty distinguishing the objects in the room. Someone had made a bad job of erecting a partition to create an en-suite bathroom. A lacquered wardrobe towered in the corner, the doors hanging wide. Beside it was a matching chest. Its surface was littered with books and papers, the top drawer open, ties trailing from it like multi-coloured tongues. A cluttered table flanked by two armchairs stood against the opposite wall. The bedside cabinet and brass-framed double bed took up what space was left, and behind them hung the only picture in the room: a reproduction of one of the scenes from Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Something pricked her nostrils: the unmistakable stench of death. But overlaid with another odour. ‘Can you smell tobacco, Steve?’

‘Too sweet for cigarettes. Weed, perhaps?’

‘Not a smell you’d forget, is it?’

She skirted the foot of the bed. With a rapid movement, she drew back the curtains.

Morning light streamed in, illuminating the body of Max Quincey.

He was lying on the bed, legs apart, naked except for the school tie. It was pulled tight, the knot half-hidden in the folds of flesh under his chin. His wrists were secured to the bed frame, hands bent forwards, fingers slightly curled. His lips and the tongue protruding from his mouth were pale blue. A trickle of blood from his left nostril had solidified into a black line that stopped at his upper lip. His chest hair was dark and tangled, and so profuse that the tie seemed to float above his body.

Von had worked on enough murder cases not to flinch when she saw a corpse. Nor did she behave like some of her male colleagues, whose insensitivity degenerated sometimes into gallows humour, masking their true feelings. Her initial reaction was, inexplicably, one of shame and she approached a corpse with respect bordering on reverence.

‘He’s been hit, Steve. See here? The swelling above the temple?’ She flattened the hair with a fingertip and examined the cracked discoloured skin. ‘But not hard enough to kill him.’

Steve motioned to the clothes scattered across the room. ‘He undressed in a hurry. Or someone did it for him. Could it have been a sex romp that went wrong?’

‘Erotic asphyxia? If it was, then I can understand what the Chief Super was trying to tell me. The press will have a field day with this.’

‘I thought you said he wore cravats, boss. I’ve counted four ties round his wrists.’

‘Maybe people who wear cravats also wear ties.’ She jerked her head at the door. ‘Any sign of forced entry?’

He examined the lock. ‘Nope. Looks like he invited his killer in.’

‘He doesn’t seem to own much apart from clothes.’

‘He’s been touring, boss. Maybe he has a house somewhere.’

She scanned the room, trying to get an impression of what Max Quincey’s life was like. If she was to crack this case, she’d need to know everything about him. ‘What’s that on the table?’ she said suddenly. ‘On top of the newspaper.’

Steve turned. ‘My God,’ he whispered.

‘Don’t touch it. Just tell me what it is.’

It was several seconds before he spoke. ‘Our Jack in the Box has popped up again.’

‘Our what?’

‘You’ve not heard of the Jack in the Box murders, boss?’

‘Hold on. The year I was with the NYPD. The rent boys?’

‘That’s it. Each time, the killer left behind a Jack in the Box. And its eyes were slashed.’ He bent over the doll. ‘Like this one.’

‘Jesus,’ she murmured. ‘Ring Forensics and find out where the hell they are. Do it now.’ She knelt beside the bed and brought her face close to Quincey’s. His eyes were open, the cheeks streaked as though he’d been crying. There was something odd about the eyes, a squint that wasn’t right. She moved nearer. With a jolt she realised that the eyeballs had collapsed. The streaks weren’t tears – the contents of his eyes had leaked onto his face. ‘And get Danni,’ she shouted, jumping to her feet.

She bent over the table, studying the toy. It was grotesque, a parody of a doll with its coarsely painted face, scratched eyes, and red gash of a mouth. She pushed it back into its box. It sprang out with a ghastly squawk, ‘Jack-jack! Jack-jack!’

Steve wheeled round. ‘Christ, boss, you made me jump.’

She crammed the doll into the box and closed the lid. ‘Tell me everything about the Jack in the Box murders,’ she said softly.

‘There were four of them, poor buggers, all rent boys. Strangled. Eyes slashed. One boy survived.’

‘They didn’t catch the killer, did they?’

‘The senior investigating was DCI Harrower.’ The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched. ‘Not the sharpest pencil in the box.’

‘He had a good track record,’ she said coldly, suddenly defensive of a man she’d never met.

‘I didn’t work with him, but his reputation reached Glasgow.’

She lifted an eyebrow. ‘And that was?’

‘His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity.’ Steve rubbed his neck. ‘Mind you, in this case, the cards were stacked against him. The dolls were the only real clue. Unfortunately, most of London had them. People took them to work, walked down the street carrying them like children.’

‘I remember. They called it Jack in the Box fever.’

‘Aye, you could buy the dolls everywhere, not just at the theatre.’

‘The theatre?’

‘The one showing the play. That was the whole point, boss. During the period of the murders, a play called Jack in the Box was running in London. It was a Brian Rix type of farce. You know the kind, some man always in and out of women’s bedrooms.’

She was only half listening. Her mind was back at the reception at the National Gallery. Max Quincey had told her about his new production of an old play. The play’s name had meant nothing to her then.

But it meant something now – Jack in the Box.