'Invitation to Murder', que hoy comparto con vosotros, es una historia policíaca, que leía en alguna ocasión a mis alumnos en la Universidad, y que ellos disfrutaban escuchándola, animándose incluso a veces a representarla en clase. Recuerdo un grupo que elaboró un corto muy original basado en la misma, que me pareció verdaderamente genial.
Otra actividad consistía en leerles sólo hasta el momento en que el inspector revela quién es el asesino y las razones que le llevaron a esa conclusión (los dos últimos párrafos). Entonces yo les invitaba a proponer su propio culpable y el por qué de su suposición. De esta manera, pasaban un buen rato a la vez que practicaban la expresión oral. Al final, yo les leía el resto de la historia que, la mayoría de las veces, les pillaba totalmente por sorpresa.
En realidad, mi historia es de intención puramente pedagógica, sin pretensiones literarias de ningún tipo, aunque podía entenderse también, en cierto modo, como parodia de Hercule Poirot, el famoso detective belga en muchas novelas de Agatha Christie y del capitán Arthur Hastings, su inseparable amigo. Poirot era presentado por la autora como una figura un tanto ridícula, con su cabeza en forma de huevo y su gran bigote tieso tipo militar, pero estaba dotado de un increíble talento para resolver cualquier misterio y descubrir al asesino o a la asesina por ingeniosos que estos fueran. El Capitán A. Hastings, por su parte, era descrito como un personaje algo torpe, que intentaba ayudar a Poirot a resolver el caso, pero cuyas conclusiones resultaban siempre erróneas. En mi historia, estos dos papeles recaen respectivamente sobre el inspector Caulder y el sargento Turner.
Bueno, aquí os dejo, sin más preámbulos, la historia y algunas preguntas de comprensión sobre la misma:
INVITATION TO MURDER
Murder is always a mistake – one should never do anything one cannot talk about after dinner. (Oscar Wilde)
The police car went round a sharp bend and Thumbleton Manor appeared in the distance. Inspector Caulder of Scotland Yard smiled to himself. The complicated case he had been called upon to solve had all the ingredients of a Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie classic. The setting, the characters, nothing was missing, but he was no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, nor did he have a Watson or a Hastings at hand to help him out.
Invitation to Murder would no doubt be an appropriate title for the corresponding thriller. In fact, Lord Thumbleton, the prestigious judge, must have been mad to invite that group of people to spend the weekend in his country house, for unless one is tired of living and wants to commit suicide – and this wasn’t Lord Thumbleton’s case, as he certainly knew how to enjoy life – it isn’t wise to invite someone who hates one’s guts, and he had asked over Barton, whose father he had sent to the gallows, and Borderlow, the infamous swindler, who was indebted to him for spending a quarter of his life in prison. It had not been a bright idea, either, to invite Helen, his own wife, from whom he had been separated for over two years, especially when she was aware that Miss Prescott, her husband’s secretary and mistress, would be of the party. And to complete the picture, among the guests would be Salford, his lawyer, whom Lord Thumbleton had sufficient reasons to distrust since he had discovered by chance that he had been carrying on for six months with Miss Prescott, of all women. With these antecedents in mind, it was logical to expect that Lord Thumbleton would be murdered, and it only remained to know who was to beat the others in this race to crime.
The car had reached the house and the inspector could see his man, Sergeant Turner, waiting for him outside, and judging from the satisfied grin on his face, he must have already caught the murderer, or at least have a pretty good idea about who the criminal might be. “Good evening, Sir, everything’s in order, and I think that...” “Just a moment, Turner”, the inspector interrupted him, “before you report about your inquiries, I’d like to have a look at the suspects’ statements. I know you’re an orderly man, and I’m sure you’ve kept your notes.” “Yes, of course, everything’s here, Sir”, said the sergeant producing his pad, “but I have good reasons to believe that...” “All right, Sergeant, but give me some time to guess for myself. As is customary in these cases, take me to the library and have somebody bring me a good cup of tea.” “Very well, Sir”. Though somewhat disappointed by the inspector’s reluctance to hear his clever conclusions, the Sergeant led his superior to the library, asked the maid for two cups of tea and waited impatiently to be given the opportunity to explain himself.
The inspector sat down quietly in one of the comfortable armchairs, and as he sipped his tea, he began to get acquainted with the facts. Lord Thumbleton had dropped dead at about two after drinking a cup of coffee. According to the witnesses’ testimony, all the suspects had been present when tea and coffee had been served in the living room: his wife, his mistress, his lawyer, the hanged man’s son and the ex-convict, but there was a small detail, apparently irrelevant, that struck him as curious nonetheless. Lord Thumbleton, who always had tea after lunch, today had had coffee instead. Had he sensed the danger and substituted coffee for tea to throw off his would-be murderer? If so, it had all been to no avail. He went on reading, but the statements did not tell him much, except that it was Miss Prescott who would benefit the most from the late Lord Thumbleton’s will. Apart from a small pension for his widow, he left his secretary and mistress everything (which did not amount to much anyway, after all his gambling debts had been paid off). Well, well, he thought, now we have the motive, and motive is essential in a murder case, but hatred or jealousy can be equally important...
The inspector finished his reading and turning to the sergeant snapped: “Well, Turner, out with it, who’s our murderer?” “Don’t worry, Sir, everything’s under control, I have one of my men watching him. Kinderley can’t escape.” “Kinderley?”, the inspector was puzzled, “who on earth is this Kinderley?” “The butler, Sir. I found the jewels and the silver cutlery in his suitcase. The bird was about to fly – “Kinderley, a murderer?”, the inspector couldn’t help bursting out laughing, but seeing that the sergeant was not amused, he hastened to add: “you did well, Turner, to arrest the petty thief, but it’s evident that we can’t charge him with murder. If you question him again, you’ll find that our man knew Thumbleton Manor was going to be closed down and his services would no longer be necessary, so he thought he was entitled to a little extra silver handshake; the chap’s guilty of stealing, but murdering Lord Thumbleton is another story; no, I’m afraid we’ll have to go on looking.” His momentary disappointment over, the sergeant ventured to say: “Well, if you allow me, Sir, I think it’s obvious that Miss Prescott did it, I’ll arrest her...” “Wait a minute, Turner, you can’t charge Miss Prescott with anything, except perhaps attempted murder. If you go over the statements again, you’ll find that someone said, I think it was Borderlow, that Miss Prescott offered her employer a cup of tea, saying: “Here’s your tea, Lord Thumbleton, as you like it, with two lumps of sugar and a slice of lemon.” She was clearly upset when he had preferred coffee, and quickly took the cup back to the kitchen. If we’re lucky and nobody has washed up yet, we’ll find a trace of poison in the cup that will allow us to charge Miss Prescott and her new lover, the lawyer, with attempted murder, but we’re still left with the actual murder of Lord Thumbleton on our hands, unsolved...” “Then, it must be the wife”, said a more and more baffled sergeant. “No”, the inspector said calmly, “if we are to believe Hobson, the stable lad, Lady Thumbleton had chosen a different method to do her husband in, which obviously failed too when, on some pretext or other, he begged off his customary morning ride on his favourite horse which, curiously enough, for no apparent reason, reared up and bolted that very morning...Nor can we accuse young Barton, or Borderlow, unless murderous wishes can be counted as the real thing.
No, Turner, if there’s a culprit in this case it’s Lord Thumbleton himself.” “You mean he took his own life?” “No, I mean he was too clever by half when he planned his cunning invitation to murder.” “I don’t understand, Sir, Lord Thumbleton’s dead...” “On the contrary, he’s alive and kicking, and if you hurry you’ll be able to arrest him at Heathrow as he gets off the plane from Paris in about two hours’ time, and charge him with the murder of Richard Thumbleton, his twin brother.” The sergeant was astonished. “But, but...”, he stammered, “he could hardly kill his brother if he was in Paris...” “With a bit of luck, we’ll find Lord Thumbleton’s fingerprints on the box of tablets his brother had every day after lunch, tablets that were cunningly replaced by others with a deadly dose of cyanide.”
And his clever deductions made, Inspector Caulder, as in any good novel of the genre, lit his pipe and began to explain everything to his bewildered subordinate: “The idea had occurred to Lord Thumbleton when visiting his twin brother in Paris. Harassed by his debtors, he thought a good way to outwit his enemies and collect the substantial life insurance he had taken out naming his brother as beneficiary was to stage this macabre invitation to murder in his Manor House. For a small sum of money, he must have persuaded his needy bohemian brother to impersonate him, assuring him it was all part of a harmless practical joke on his friends and lover. And the joke had proved fatal to poor Richard.
Reading comprehension questions
a.-Why is Invitation to Murder an appropriate title for this story according to the narrator?
b.-Why was Sgt Turner grinning as he waited for the inspector?
c.- What had Kinderley done and why?
d.- What were the terms of Lord Thumbleton’s will?
e.- Why do you think Lord Thumbleton’s horse had reared up and bolted?
f.- Make up a conversation between Inspector Caulder and Sgt Turner
g.- Before you read the last two paragraphs of the story, make a list of the suspects and say who the murderer is in your opinion and why?
h.- What had really happened?
i.- How do you think the story ends?
j.- Do you like reading detective novels? What kind of books do you prefer? Who is your favourite writer and why?
KEY (suggested answers)
a.- Because it seemed as if Lord Thumbleton wanted to be murdered, having invited people who all had sufficient reasons to wish him dead.
b.- Because he thought he had caught the murderer.
c.- He had stolen some jewels and the silver cutlery, which he saw as a compensation for his imminent dismissal when Thumbleton Manor was closed down.
d.- He was leaving everything he had, except a small pension for his widow, to Miss Prescott, his secretary and mistress.
e.- Because his wife, Lady Thumbleton, had probably given the horse something to make it rear up and bolt.
f.- Students’ own answers.
g.- Miss Prescott and her new lover, because she knew she was the main beneficiary of her employer’s will.
Barton, to avenge his father.
Borderlow, to take vengeance on Lord Thumbleton, who had sent him to prison.
Helen, because her husband had cheated on her.
h.- Lord Thumbleton had persuaded his twin brother to impersonate him, and then killed him by putting poison in the tablets he knew his brother always had after lunch, with the intention of collecting afterwards the substantial life insurance which he had taken out naming his brother as beneficiary.
i.- Students’ own answers. Suggestions: 1.- Lord Thumbleton is arrested at the airport. 2.- He manages to escape. 3.- His plane crashes on landing.j.- Students’ own answers