‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Three

If you’re interested, here are some Hep Cat teenagers in a coffee bar. They are not actually Thugs, though.

Chapter Five – A Brush with the Enemy

Peter and Lawrie go home to breakfast. Lawrie is dispirited by the idea that she’s not dishy, so she gets out her theatrical make-up. Peter is startled by the transformation of his little sister into a coffee-bar Jezebel, but the rest of the family politely ignore her (although Lawrie hopes that she’s shocked innocent, pious Ann). There’s a bit of a family argument over whether they should go to the cinema in Colebridge and we learn that the choice is The Magnificent Ambersons at the Regal, which they’ve all seen, or Cobweb! at the Majestic. Cobweb! “could only be science fiction” and Lawrie is scared by “monster tentacles”, so that’s out. Ann plans to collect nature samples for a Guiding project and Rowan is scranleting at Cold Comfort Farm. (There have always been Marlows at Trennels! Poor Rowan. But Ann’s the only one who’s sympathetic about the way Rowan’s life is turning out.) Lawrie doesn’t really want to get involved in Peter and Patrick’s pigeon plan, so says she’ll just stay at home, but her mother snaps:

“You surely aren’t going to spend the whole week-end moping round the house just because Nicky’s staying with Miranda?”

As Lawrie thinks, it’s NOT FAIR. But she obediently trails after Peter and Patrick as they take the pigeon to the local policeman, Tom Catchpole. (No one thinks to tell Mrs Marlow, the only parent around, about the drug-smuggling pigeon. But I suppose it’d be a very short book if they told her and she called the police and the mystery was solved.) Unfortunately, The Thuggery are trailing the children, so they come up with the plan that they’ll give the pigeon evidence to Lawrie and she’ll ride off on Peter’s bike if they get jumped; meanwhile, Patrick and Peter will talk loudly about going to Colebridge when they’re in the village shop and Patrick will pretend he just wants to ask Tom about a lost watch.

The Thuggery, who travel with a loud transistor radio playing with-it music such as Cliff Richard and The Shadows, chuck a cigarette packet at Lawrie, mimic Patrick’s posh accent and stand about looking menacing in front of Tom’s house. But Tom isn’t there – he’s been lured away by a fire in St Mary’s Church. Oh no! Of course, the children don’t leave a message with Tom’s wife or stash the evidence with her, because that would be sensible. On the way back, the Thuggery taunt them with enigmatic phrases:

“Have a drag, herbert!”
“Belshazzar it, herbert!”

This is not enigmatic to Peter, who (unlike Lawrie) was paying attention in Sunday School. So was I, so I know that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar and his death was foretold by mysterious writing appearing on the wall during a feast. I’m not convinced the Thugs would know that, but I guess there’s going to be a warning on a wall somewhere. As Patrick says,

“But why write on the wall? Wouldn’t paper be easier?”

Peter explains the Thuggery are “hairy characters” and “Natural born Piltdowners”, but “not actually dangerous”. (If they’re not dangerous, this is going to be a fairly boring thriller, so I assume this is Peter being clueless about other people, yet again. Also ‘Piltdown Man’ was revealed to be a fake in 1953, so does Peter mean the Thugs are frauds or that they’re primitive humans?)

Then there’s a discussion about whether Maudie Culver is part of the drug-smuggling. Jukie claimed she was “digging the integrity racket”, but Jukie’s a known liar. Patrick says that when he and Jon visited her pigeon lofts, she complained about not winning pigeon trophies because she refused to cheat, which suggests she is honest. But there was also a local scandal when a pigeon clock was tampered with to help her win a pigeon race, except the cheating was discovered and blamed on the Thuggery. Then Miss Culver ostentatiously banned herself from racing for a year. Patrick says it reminds him of:

“Those super-pious types at Mass who cross themselves each time they genuflect and say their rosaries very very slowly with their eyes half-shut. And bet your life they’ve got an old age pensioner doing the garden and they’re paying him a bob an hour if he’s lucky.”

I think he means Maudie would never break the law and wants everyone to know it, but she’s lacking in human compassion. Except she’s employing underprivileged boys when no one else in the village would give them a second chance (assuming they have criminal histories as minors). However, Peter thinks she might have planned the clock-cheating and then when she got caught, she did the self-penalty to cover up her guilt.

I find it hard to believe Maudie Culver is the brains behind a drug-smuggling racket, but her tirade at Peter certainly shows she’s unpleasant and possibly a bit deranged.

Chapter Six: Communications Cut

When the three children arrive at Patrick’s house, they find The Thuggery have trashed the stables and scrawled “HAVA DRAG” all over the walls. Patrick doesn’t reveal the true culprits to Sellars, the Merricks’ groom, because Sellars is “much too ancient to risk involving him”. Antonia Forest does some foreshadowing here by saying Sellars, a “wiry hard-as-nails sixty-year-old” is outraged by this when he hears about it a week later. And however old he is, a rural working man has to be tougher than Patrick and Peter.

Peter realises that HAVA DRAG means “smoke a cigarette” and Lawrie fishes the Thug’s cigarette packet out of the bin. In it, a Thug has written a violent threat to Patrick’s “daddy-o” in London. This all seems a very round-about way of threatening someone and even if the London drug gang are hardened professional criminals, there’s a big difference between them slashing one another with razors and actually murdering a Tory MP.

And while I’m on the subject, I don’t think transporting drugs by pigeon is a very clever idea. Firstly, a single pigeon can only carry a very small amount. Secondly, carrier pigeons often get lost or attacked by birds of prey or shot by boys like Peter or found by the wrong person. This is starting to sound even more ridiculous than the post-war Nazi spies in The Marlows and the Traitor.

Peter now reveals himself to be a pigeon expert, because his friend Selby’s Belgian grandfather keeps prize pigeons and by an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Peter happens to know that the dead pigeon is a Scandaroon, which is good at flying over water. So the criminals are bringing the drugs from the Continent by boat and using the Culver Scandaroons to avoid Customs officials. Except Patrick has been to the Culver lofts and swears he never saw any Scandaroons there.

At this point, Patrick decides to phone his father (FINALLY), but the phone isn’t working. In fact, all the phones in the district have been cut off, which they find out when Rowan arrives to ask to use the phone because some louts have mutilated the poor Marlow cows. She drives off to get the vet. They should have told Rowan about The Thuggery and the pigeon! She’s a responsible adult (or near-adult).

And then the children discover they’ve lost the drug capsule. Peter put it in Lawrie’s pocket without telling her and now it’s gone. So they have no evidence of wrong-doing to show the police – EXCEPT FOR THE TRASHED STABLES AND THE WRITTEN CIGARETTE PACKET THREAT AND THEIR THREE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE CAPSULE BEING ATTACHED TO THE HARNESS AND OF JUKIE THREATENING REGINA. But apparently, the only way they can tell the police is if they find a capsule-carrying Scandaroon at the Culver place.

At this point, Patrick remembers his great-aunt Eulalia has written a detailed description of the Culver dovecote, a huge weird building separate to the pigeon loft. By an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Eulalia published it privately and sent it only to her family members and there’s a copy in the room where they’re sitting. It’s a very long description. (An illustration would have been nice here, original publishers of this book.) Also by AMAZING COINCIDENCE, there’s a secret tunnel that leads from the secret priest’s room to the Culver place, so Patrick can sneak off and find a Scandaroon in the dovecote without any Thugs seeing him. Meanwhile, Lawrie will take the pigeon and harness to Colebridge police station and Peter will distract The Thuggery by looking for the lost capsule and leading them in a merry but futile chase.

Hmm. A plan that depends on Lawrie being sensible and brave does not seem like a very good plan to me.

Next: The Costume for the Part

7 thoughts on “‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Three”

      1. Yes, it’s lovely; I visited a few years ago. It’s up for sale at the moment so it may not go on being open to the public, but it’s a nice place to visit. It was apparently used for a TV version of Chimneys of Greene Knowe once, and I’ve read somewhere that it was the inspiration for AF for the Merrick’s house.

    1. Thank you, that story is amazing! Poor pigeons. I can sort of see why prisoners would try it, given they’d be smuggling in small, undetectable quantities.

      Thinking about the Thuggery’s pigeons, they have to get the pigeons from the Culver dovecote to the ship in the Channel (or to wherever the drugs are being packed up on the Continent). So wouldn’t it be a lot easier to smuggle a medium-sized bag of drugs into England than to smuggle a crate of pigeons out of England? Unless they’re pretending the pigeons are legitimate racing pigeons? But the drug pigeons don’t have leg rings, so aren’t registered? Perhaps it will all become clearer later in the book…

      1. But you don’t have to smuggle the pigeons out. They’re not contraband. You can just take them out in the ordinary way (whatever the hell that is).

        1. Were there quarantine rules or something then? Although I suppose wild birds could fly over the Channel any time they felt like it. I still think an inert bag of drugs would be easier to transport than a bunch of pigeons.

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