Simon Brett

A Nice Class of Corpse

Mrs Pargeter #1

1986, EN

The Devereux is a nice residential hotel which caters for a nice class of guest. But the arrival of Mrs Pargeter, an attractive widow, seems to act as a catalyst of disaster for everyone connected with the hotel. On the morning after her arrival, the corpse of one of the frailer residents is found at the foot of the main staircase, and shortly after that another death shakes the gentility of the hotel. Deciding to investigate herself, Mrs Pargeter discovers that more than one person in the Devereux has a motive for murder.

? A Nice Class of Corpse ?


MONDAY, 4 MARCH – 7.15 a.m.

I have decided today that the only way to get out of my current difficulties is by murder. It is really rather a surprise that I had not come to this conclusion earlier, since it will so simply and immediately resolve the problems that have been aggravating me for some time.

Having reached the age I now have, I know myself well enough to recognise that the crime will give me no moral qualms. And as for the other great traditional deterrent to murder, the fear of being caught, that again does not operate with me. Indeed, arrest and trial might add a welcome excitement to the few years, or possibly only months, that I have left.

? A Nice Class of Corpse ?


The diarist lived in the Devereux Hotel, Littlehampton, whose sea-front position was, according to the brochure, ‘unrivalled’. However, few brochures were ever sent out; the clientele of the Devereux tended to arrive by personal recommendation.

There were only eight guest rooms; each was occupied by a long-term resident. And when, as was inevitable given the average age of those residents, a room became vacant, the hotel’s proprietress, Miss Naismith, an unnervingly refined lady in her early fifties, had no difficulty in finding a new occupant.

In the early days, she had advertised in The Lady, but word of mouth from the established residents and their friends soon made such expenditure unnecessary. Miss Naismith always had a waiting list of elderly people eager to replace those who had moved into nursing homes (or taken a more permanent form of departure from the hotel), and she enjoyed assessing the suitability of these candidates. She felt confident in her ability to ensure that every resident of the Devereux remained ‘a nice class of person’.

But when Mrs Pargeter arrived at the Devereux in the middle of the afternoon of the 4th of March, Miss Naismith wondered momentarily whether her judgement might for once have been at fault.

She should perhaps have insisted on an interview, rather than conducting the arrangements by letter. It had been unfortunate that the proprietress had not been present on the day when Mrs Pargeter had inspected the premises. The new resident had, of course, impeccable references, but no reference can pin down that indefinable quality of class, and Mrs Pargeter made no pretence of being the genuine article.

For a start, there was the time and manner of her arrival. Miss Naismith had firmly suggested in her letter that two-thirty p.m. was the ideal moment for Mrs Pargeter to appear, so that she would have time to settle her belongings into her room before the ritual of meeting the other residents at the Devereux’s four o’clock tea, served in the Seaview Lounge.

Mrs Pargeter, however, had chosen to appear at a quarter to four, making no secret of the fact that she had, ‘on the spur of the moment’, decided to stop for ‘a self-indulgent lunch’ on the way. Miss Naismith, whose orderly mind was shocked by the concept of doing anything ‘on the spur of the moment’, also rather beadily received the impression that Mrs Pargeter’s self-indulgence had extended to the wine list as well as the menu. There was no question that the new resident was drunk; but she was certainly more relaxed and cheerful than might be thought appropriate to someone entering the portals of the Devereux for the first time.

Then there was the manner of Mrs Pargeter’s arrival. Miss Naismith had no objections to wealth – indeed, it was an essential qualification for her guests – but she did have an in-built resistance to displays of wealth. And to her mind, the hiring of a chauffeur-driven limousine was such a display. So was the amount of patently genuine jewellery that Mrs Pargeter wore over her silk print dress.

So, particularly, was the liberality with which Mrs Pargeter tipped her chauffeur and – worse – the Devereux’s porter-cum-barman-cum-handyman, Newth, who appeared on cue to remove the profusion of suitcases from the limousine’s boot.

Oh dear. Miss Naismith was beginning seriously to wonder whether Mrs Pargeter really did belong to the elite who could be described as ‘a nice class of person’.

The subject of her anxiety, however, either did not notice it or was unworried by it. Mrs Pargeter was a widow of sixty-seven, imperceptibly on the move from voluptuousness to stoutness. The golden hair, which, in an earlier existence unknown to Miss Naismith, had turned many heads, was now uniformly white, but the clear skin, which had also been the subject of much compliment, still glowed with health. The backs of Mrs Pargeter’s hands bore the tea-stain freckles of age, but her rounded legs, beneath their grey silk stockings, remained unmarked by veins. Mrs Pargeter, it could not be denied, was a very well preserved lady.

As she concluded her lavish tipping of the chauffeur and waved the limousine away, Mrs Pargeter looked towards the steel-grey line of the English Channel and took in a lungful of seaweed smell. She nodded approvingly. “Good. The air’s wonderful here.”

“Oh, certainly, Mrs Pargeter,” Miss Naismith agreed in a voice of daunting gentility. “One of my residents, a Brigadier Fulton, once said that every breath of this air added five minutes to his life.”

“Very nicely put. I’ll look forward to meeting Brigadier Fulton.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” Miss Naismith coloured. “The Brigadier wasn’t, er, with us very long.”

“Oh?” Mrs Pargeter cocked a quizzical eyebrow.

“He passed on,” Miss Naismith explained hurriedly, vexed at having to spell it out. “Ah.”

Miss Naismith changed the subject determinedly. “I do hope you’ll be very comfortable with us, Mrs Pargeter. I am happy to say that here at the Devereux I have very few complaints. Many of my residents do stay for a very long time.”

“Except for Brigadier Fulton.”

Miss Naismith did not like the smile of mischief with which Mrs Pargeter spoke; it did not augur well for their relationship. “I can assure you, Mrs Pargeter, that the Brigadier’s death was not caused by anything he contracted at the Devereux. Without informing me, he actually arrived here with a serious heart condition,” she added, in a tone of righteous betrayal.

And indeed she had felt betrayed. One of the other qualifications for her residents, clearly spelt out in the rarely despatched brochure, was that they should be ‘active’; in other words, in good health. Though Miss Naismith offered service and care to her elderly residents, she was very insistent that what she ran was a Private Hotel. There were Homes for people who needed Homes; but within the confines of the Devereux, serious ill health could only be considered an unpardonable lapse of taste. And death was a social misdemeanour without parallel.

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