The Mystery of the Missing Novelist

Thomas White, a man of declining years, but in good health and spirits goes missing. Neighbours are alerted by his dog, Rover, which is confined to its small yard, barking or whining constantly. A novelist by profession, this man often travels, including overseas trips, but he invariably makes arrangements with one neighbour or another to feed and exercise the dog, and each neighbour left the dog for a day, thinking that the other neighbour was helping out this time.
      A police search of the house finds his passport in the desk drawer and his wallet on his bedside table. The wallet contains $80 cash. Further inquiries reveal that he has not drawn large sums of money in the last month. The house is reasonably tidy, bed made, bathroom aired, breakfast dishes are unwashed, clothes are waiting to be washed in the laundry. His regular clothes are hanging in the wardrobe, and his walking boots, gum boots, and rain jacket, bathers and towel are in the porch.
      The house is surrounded by bushland, tracks led to the beach. Police search the area but find no further clues. They are inclined to put the case on hold, but neighbours are adamant that the missing man is behaving out of character, particularly when they find that he has not been to the local meeting of Rotary [nor rung to excuse himself] the night before. He is known as a quiet man, but a good neighbour. His days had been devoted to writing, with regular morning and afternoon walks with his dog. Conversations with him, because of the dog, were short, but worthwhile, on a number of local and worldwide topics. He purchased at least two newspapers daily. He seemed quite at home in the area, and not distressed in any way. The mystery remains, no further clues.
"There you have it, Holmes, that's the report as I was given it. It was on Monday that Mr White's two neighbours, Archer and Johnson, heard Rover barking and whining. On Tuesday morning they met and on finding Mr White absent notified the police. What do you make of the case?"

"Hardly a case, Watson, when all is so obvious but, at least, a fair example of logical thought applied to facts. Mr White, for some good reason, went to the beach Monday evening and walked for several hours to a town many miles from his home and is yet to return."

"Holmes, that is amazing. How did you arrive at that assessment?"

"Elementary, my dear Watson. Consider the evidence: the bed is made, the bathroom aired, clothes hanging in the wardrobe, boots, etc, in the porch. In this tidy house there is a place for everything and everything in its place. We are, therefore, surprised that breakfast dishes remain unwashed and clothes in the laundry also await washing. Surely, if they were there to be done they would have been done. I, therefore, conclude that the present unwashed dishes are not from Monday morning's breakfast. Those dishes would have been washed before the bed was aired and then made. No, those unwashed dishes are from a 'breakfast' eaten Monday evening. The reason for this night‐time breakfast is because Mr White knew he would not be at home for breakfast the following morning."

"But what of the clothes in the laundry?"

"Only a minor detail, yet important, for it seems to question why Mr White did not do his laundry as expected to take advantage of what must obviously have been fine weather. This apparent neglect would seem to indicate that he had gone from his home just after breakfast on Monday. I doubt that to be so, however, as Mr White is a meticulous person and would have done his laundry chores as usual that morning. I conclude, therefore, that the unwashed clothes are those he took off when he changed in the evening before going out. What did he change into? He did not dress for Rotary for his regular clothes are there in the wardrobe. If he had planned to walk into the bush he would have worn boots but as they are there in the porch it suggests he went to the beach. He had no need for his rain-jacket because of the good weather, yet he did not take his bathers and towel, suggesting that it was night when he went walking. Also, he did not take Rover for exercise which also suggests it was night."

"If Mr White had begun his walk in the early hours after midnight we would have expected him to have gone to bed for a few hours sleep and been awoken by his alarm clock. But as the bed is undisturbed he did not use it and began his walk before midnight. Had he planned his walk for the late evening he could still have attended Rotary and begun his walk after the meeting but as he did not dress for Rotary then clearly he knew he could not follow that sequence. We may therefore assume he began his walk earlier, in the mid-evening, and had a good reason for doing so. What would interest him to go to the beach in pitch darkness at a specific time? Because of his many interests it may have been to observe the glory of a clear broad sky above the open sea, and perhaps to witness some unique astronomical event reported in his newspapers. He would surely write about such phenomena to enhance the stories he wrote."

"Why did he not phone Rotary to excuse himself?"

"He misses many meetings because he travels a lot and is frequently overseas. Telephoning to say he cannot attend a meeting would be somewhat pointless or even seem ludicrous and hardly to be expected by his fellow members.

As Mr White was most careful about his dog's welfare he would have fed Rover his Tuesday meal and left additional food for another day or two before departing on his night jaunt. Rather than impose on his neighbours, and if the need should suddenly arise, he had friends, at Rotary, for example, who would gladly pop in to feed Rover any time he phoned to ask the favour."

"You say he walked to a town many miles away but how can you know that?"

"Is it not obvious? If he were only a short distance from his home he would have returned to it. He must, therefore, have walked a considerable distance. He is an experienced traveller and would carry a rain‐jacket on extended walks unless he knew shelter to be available at his destination. As his rain‐jacket still hangs in the porch we may assume he has walked to a neighbouring town knowing full well he would find accommodation. Likely, he is at present in a hotel catching up on lost sleep. It is now Tuesday evening. I don't expect Mr White to return until tomorrow night at the earliest."

"Holmes, your explanation has covered every point. Mr White's two neighbours, both fraught with worry, will surely laugh at their concern when they hear your explanation."

"And what of the dog? Are the kind neighbours tending to its needs?"

"Oh, yes. They fed Rover and shared taking him for his exercise, though I imagine that also enabled them to discuss Mr White's disappearance. Mr Johnson is minding the dog at his home."

"By the way, is Rover a bloodhound? Perhaps we may be permitted to exercise him."

"Ah, Holmes, I get your drift. No doubt it will be allowed and the neighbours will be pleased you are on the scent, so to speak, unlike the police who have the case on hold."

The next morning I went to both neighbours and told them of Holmes's analysis. They seemed immensely relieved. The police had already phoned Mr Johnson and he had Rover ready for me.

"Mr Holmes thinks Rover may pick up Mr White's scent on the beach."

"He is a good dog and if anyone can find his master I am sure he will."

Holmes was waiting for me in Mr White's yard, but with a surprise for he, too, had a dog, a dog that looked like Rover.

"You have the real Rover, Watson. This is Nipper. With the aid of some photographs of Rover, Nipper has been painted with similar markings."

"But why, Holmes?" I asked, quite befuddled.

"Rover is to be left alone in his yard, Watson, so let's take Nipper for a walk."

"Why, Holmes, why? What is going on?"

"All in good time, my friend."

I spent the day being dragged up and down the beach by Nipper on a leash. He found no scent and I dare say that the flood tide had swept every vestige of odour out to sea. Meanwhile, Holmes sat idly by with eyes closed, puffing his briar. He seemed not to care where I took or was taken by Nipper.

"What a wasted day!" I exclaimed, exhausted after hours of fruitless rambling.

"On the contrary, Watson, it has been a wonderful day, and what is more I intend staying here all night. There is still food and a bottle of fine wine in the hamper. Enough for two, in fact."

"I don't know why you wish to remain here but as there are ample provisions I will join you in your strange vigil."

"Excellent, Watson. In the morning we will be joined by Inspector Lestrade."

The night was mild and the starlit sky a delight to behold. As the sun rose out of the sea I stretched and yawned myself awake.

"Did you sleep well, Holmes?"

"I am pleased to say that I did not sleep a wink," replied Holmes, in a tone that was emphatically wide-awake. "Ah, here comes Lestrade."

The inspector seemed annoyed at making an early start, "It is no fun coming here at an ungodly hour, so I hope you have something to offer, Mr Holmes."

"Listen! Listen!" said Holmes with such pointed emphasis that the inspector was instantly silent as, indeed, I was.

A quarter of a minute passed.

Lestrade spoke first, "Not a sound." and added sarcastically, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in his yard."

"The dog in his yard? The dog in his yard did nothing."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

I had no idea what the curious incident could be, nor apparently had the inspector for he asked, "What in the wide world are you talking about?"

"The time has come for explanations, yet I am surprised for the solution of the case was apparent to me when Watson first presented it. Consider these points: The neighbours say the dog barked and whined continually and they instantly associated that with Mr White's absence. Is that not strange? Does Rover always bark when Mr White leaves the house? Mr White often travels, including overseas trips. Are we to believe that the dog barks for weeks during his absence? Surely not! Rover would be used to it by now and would no longer bark and whine."

"And when Mr Smith knows he will be absent for only a few hours, for instance, attending Rotary, would he ask a neighbour to mind his dog or would he simply leave it in the yard as people normally do? And would Rover bark and whine during this short absence? I think not!"

"But when Archer hears the dog barking it triggers these thoughts: Mr Smith has gone away on a journey; he did not ask me to mind his dog; that means Johnson is looking after it. Is this not a remarkable chain of assumptions? Rover's non-stop barking ought to suggest that Johnson is not looking after him or is being exceedingly negligent in that duty. Despite hearing Rover's obvious distress, did good neighbour Archer go next door to seek the reason why? No, he did nothing!"

"Is it not laughable that Archer's assumptions were initiated by nothing more than the barking of a dog? Now compare Johnson's point of view. Amazingly, it is identical in every detail with that of Archer!"

"I simply had to find out whether Rover barked and whined when he was alone in his yard and that is why he was put there. Nipper was his stand-in in case Archer and Johnson were curious to observe the activities on the beach. Nipper, with Watson in tow, performed magnificently. For all of those twenty-four hours spent on the beach, I stayed awake and alert, and listened intently in case Rover barked or whined. He did neither! Obviously, something is not right."

Holmes paused, giving Lestrade and myself a few moments to contemplate what might be wrong. Holmes's next remark was a bombshell!

"Gentlemen, Mr White has been the victim of foul play and the perpetrators are his two neighbours! They have conspired and murdered poor Mr White."

"Holmes!" was all I could utter, too stunned to add another word.

"Ye gods!" exclaimed the inspector.

"You are shocked and, no doubt, puzzled."

"I am certainly puzzled, Holmes, as you now appear to be arguing quite contrary to your interpretation of yesterday. Why the difference?"

"Yesterday's version was a fiction designed to disarm and mislead the neighbours until Rover had a chance to play his part. Before I come to their motive here is a point to ponder. Did the neighbours look after Rover in the past as they claim? I seriously doubt it. Mr White was not a poor man and I think would have boarded Rover in a dogs home where shelter and care, food and exercise, and veterinary attention are provided by qualified professionals. His neighbours could guarantee none of these essentials toward Rover's welfare."

"So we see, the neighbours have lied to us, but why? How could they benefit from Mr White? There is no evidence that he kept much cash or valuables in the house. As a professional novelist, however, he owned the copyrights of his novels and lived on the royalties of their sales. Such royalties are due to be paid for fifty years and therefore long after Mr White will have died. The neighbours saw a criminal way to acquire these royalties and copyrights. Jointly, they created a will in Mr White's name with themselves as the sole beneficiaries. Mr White's signature was forged on the document and both signed as witnesses. Having prepared the document, it now only needed Mr White to die for them to collect. That opportunity came on Monday evening. Mr White, they tell us, discussed local and international issues he read in his daily newspapers. Mr White said something to indicate he was not going to Rotary but, instead, intended walking on the beach. They waylaid Mr White and killed him. The will would have then been given a date of a few days earlier and then deposited where it would be easily found amongst his manuscripts. It is essential for their foul plan that Mr White not become a missing person or the settlement of his estate would be delayed for several years, hence their urging the police to continue searching. I am sure Mr White's body will soon be found, possibly at the foot of the cliffs at the north end of the beach."

"Well, there you have it, Inspector. Another account for your casebook, I imagine, Watson."

"Indeed, Holmes, it certainly will be. In solving the mystery of the missing novelist you have cleverly and, I might say, appropriately used the novelty of your own fiction to trap the villains. Only you, and you alone, could solve it.

"Not entirely alone, Watson. Rover played a part. The murderers claimed he barked but his golden silence proved their guilt," punned Sherlock Holmes.

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