Excerpt from The Innocent Spy by Laura Wilson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Innocent Spy

A Mystery

by Laura Wilson

The Innocent Spy
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  • Published:
    Jul 2009, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Print Excerpt

As he passed the sandbags at the hospital entrance, Stratton thought of the rumours he’d heard about the local authorities stockpiling thousands of papier-mâché coffins, and thought: soon. Middlesex Hospital, emptied the previous September of most of its patients to make room for as yet non-existent air-raid casualties, was still quiet. Stratton’s footsteps echoed on the stone stairs as he descended to Dr Byrne’s underworld - the mortuary, lavatory-tiled, harshly lit and smelling of decay and chemicals. The pathologist was seated at his desk, writing notes. ‘Is this an official visit?’

Stratton shook his head. ‘Curiosity.’

‘Won’t take long, will it?’

‘Just a few minutes.’ Stratton neither expected nor received the offer of a seat. He’d met Dr Byrne a couple of times, and the man’s manner was as chilly as the corpses he filleted. He even looked dead - not cadaverous, but there was something cold and doughy about his pale skin that suggested a freshly washed corpse.

‘It’s about Miss Morgan.’

‘The suicide? Body’s at the police mortuary.’ Dr Byrne paused to knock out his pipe before shuffling through a stack of papers. ‘What do you want to know?’ he asked aggressively.

‘Isn’t it unusual, a woman throwing herself out of a window?’

‘No. Women do it. Didn’t she leave a note?’

‘No, nothing.’

‘Worried about the invasion. I’ve had a couple of them in the past month. Neurotic types.’

‘I was wondering about where the body fell. It was the fourth floor, and the area’s not that wide . . . I was surprised she didn’t land further out, in the road.’

Byrne shrugged. ‘Depends how she jumped.’

‘What about her underclothes?’

‘What about them?’ Byrne looked at him with distaste.

‘Were they clean?’

‘I’ve no idea. She hadn’t soiled herself, if that’s what you mean.’

‘Would you say she took care of herself?’

‘She was reasonably clean.’ Byrne glanced at his notes. ‘Lot of scarring on the face . . . Burns. She’d had a skin graft. Not a very good job, by the look of it.’ He looked up. ‘Lot of paint. Prostitute, was she?’

Stratton tried not to sound as annoyed as he felt. ‘I imagine she hoped that heavy cosmetics might hide the scars. As a matter of fact, she’d been in films.’

‘There you are, then. Artistic type. Highly strung. As I said, the injuries were quite consistent with the manner of death. Now, if there’s nothing else . . .’

Stratton marched back upstairs, irritated at the man’s way of reducing everyone to a type. Just as well he didn’t have to deal with living patients. Stratton wondered if Dr Byrne was married, and then, firmly suppressing an image of him in fumbling coitus atop an equally corpse-like wife, went out into the street.

As he strolled back along Savile Row - even after years out of uniform, his internal pacemaker was still set at the regulation 2½mph - Stratton thought about his first suicide, a young man who’d put the muzzle of a gun under his chin and blown most of his head into the walls of his outdoor lav. He remembered the drops of blood falling from the wooden ceiling onto his back and neck as he’d bent over to look, and a larger one on his hand that turned out to be a piece of brain. There’d been chips of skull embedded in the boards all round the toilet, pink and white, like almonds on an iced cake. Stratton had been twenty-five then, the same age as the poor bastard who’d killed himself. They’d found a note saying he was suffering from an incurable disease. Turned out he was homosexual - he’d gone for treatment, but it hadn’t worked. Stratton remembered what one of the older coppers had said about it being unusual for a nancy to use a gun. ‘They normally do it like women: gas or pills, and clean underwear.’ The same officer had told him that the most violent way women did it was with carbolic - ‘bloody painful, burns your insides out’. Everything Stratton had seen since had confirmed these rules, until yesterday. Clearly, female jumpers weren’t as uncommon as he’d thought, and the underwear was inconclusive . . . Nevertheless, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right continued to nag at him. Not that there was much he could do, it wasn’t his case. It wasn’t anybody’s. As far as his superiors were concerned, the thing was over and done with.

Excerpted from The Innocent Spy by Laura Wilson Copyright © 2009 by Laura Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books, a division of Macmillan, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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