At an old manor house somewhere in northern Gloucestershire, a workshop event thingummy is being held. You know the sort of thing, "Reading Classics", "Living in the now", "Painting from life", "Healthy cooking" and of course "Advanced Particle Physics" (courtesy of the retired Prof. Hopscotch-Moriarty who owns the place). Detective Sergeant Ralph Fenshaw (pronounced Rafe Feather-ston-haugh) is sent down there by the annoying Chief Inspector Ipswich because he (Ralph, not Ipswich) is suffering from stress.
What is supposed to be a destressing holiday filled with "Yoga for beginners" and "Artistic Photograhpy" quickly turns into a nightmare when several corpses are found. Several in this case means eight. The murderer(s) apparently has (have?) a sense of humour, because each person is found dead in an appropriate workshop location - a retired piano teacher is found stuck inside a tuba, an English teacher has been hit on the head with the collected works of Shakespeare, a florist has been poisoned with weed killer... But the victims have nothing to do with each other, or so it would appear.
It's up to DS Fenshaw to solve the mystery. Well, he has some help: Detective Chief Inspector Kibblesworth (formerly of the Yard) and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Blunt (three cheers!).
And the butler did it.
The question is:
Who is the butler?
(Ralph Fenshaw has just arrived at Hopscotch Manor, where the workshops are being organised)
‘I’ll go get unpacked, then,’ said Ralph. He pushed his suitcase towards the door, opened it and stumbled in.
‘Wait!’ said a sharp voice.
Ralph jumped. ‘What-’
‘No, don’t say anything!’ A tall, gawky man stood in the tiny bedroom. Well, man. More like a boy. Eighteen or nineteen, perhaps. His black hair was unkempt and stuck up at the back. He had screwed up his face and seemed to be concentrating really hard. Ralph waited awkwardly. Behind him, the white-haired lady’s knitting needles clicked sharply.
‘You are originally from Devon, but for the last few years you’ve lived in London. You work at a library, your favourite ice cream flavour is pistachio, you own a tabby cat and you’ve recently been on holiday to France. Am I right?’
Ralph shook his head. ‘No, not really. I’ve never been in Devon in my life. I much prefer chocolate ice cream to pistachio and I live in Canterbury. Also, it’s been three years since I was last in France.’
‘What about the cat? And the library?’
‘I don’t even own a library card. I used to have a cat, but it ran away six years ago.’
‘Was it a tabby, then?’
‘No. It was greyish.’
There was a tut from the vulture-like old lady.
‘Look,’ said Ralph, closing the door. ‘What’s this about?’
‘Nothing,’ the boy said, shrugging. ‘I’m here to learn I suppose.’
‘The skill of observation,’ said the boy with a dreamy faraway look in his eyes. ‘To not only see, but to observe the world around and draw logical conclusions based on those observations.’
‘Ah.’ Ralph remembered there was an Observation workshop.
‘Like Sherlock Holmes,’ said the boy. ‘Though I guess I need more practice.’
‘Yes, keep practicing.’ Ralph shoved his suitcase around the wall. This room was even smaller than the little living room they had. There was a bunk bed and a tiny desk with a single chair. The desk was already covered with heavy books and odd socks.
‘Hope you don’t mind, but I took the bunk below,’ said the boy. ‘I sometimes fall out of bed. I much prefer to just fall a foot.’
‘Fine with me.’ Ralph climbed the little ladder. The mattress was decent enough, and the pillow less lumpy than he had feared. The boy shifted a tottering pile of clothes off the chair and sat down, leaving Ralph with no other choice than to stay in the bunk bed or go back into the little living room to join the two old ladies. He decided to stay put.
The boy was looking around the room with the happy innocence of those who had not seen anything of the world.
‘Isn’t this exciting?’ he said happily. ‘I’m Bill Knowles by the way. I’m a physics student.’
‘Ralph Fenshaw,’ Ralph said, staring up at the ceiling. ‘You’re here for the Advanced Particle Physics, then?’
‘Yes. You too?’
‘Nah. Not my cup of tea.’
‘What is your cup of tea then?’
‘Earl Grey. No milk or sugar.’
Ralph continued staring up at the ceiling, counting. It took fifty eight seconds for Bill Knowles to break the silence.
‘Er, I meant, what sort of workshops are you doing? What are your interests? That sort of thing.’
Ralph turned around. Bill was so tall that he could look Ralph straight in the eye when he stood up.
‘Look, I’m not here out of my own free will, all right?’ Ralph snapped. ‘My boss thinks it’s good for me blablabla, teambuilding and interactive potential focus and all that. I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me. Got it?’
‘Yes, sorry,’ said Bill Knowles. He was silent for about a minute. ‘So what workshops are you doing?’