Miles Kington: Why it's important to view an artist's sketch

'It's always the executives who escape to art or mountaineering - never the other way round'
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The Independent Online

Today's mystery is a little yarn entitled "Still Death Study".

"THE NAME of the dead man is David Varrick, sir," said Sergeant Comfort. "He was a keen amateur painter who had gone out near his house to do a picture of the woods bordering his field. We're going to the field now. He had his head bashed in while he was actually painting. From behind."

"He has the same name as the millionaire," said Braid, thinking of the Varrick Stores which were to be found in every corner of Britain.

"There's a good reason for that, sir. He is the millionaire. But he was also mad about painting. Apparently, he used to like to slip off at least one afternoon a week, sometimes two, to commune with nature and the smell of oil paint, leaving his deputy in charge. Man named Leo Rattle. I've just phoned him to put him in the picture."

"Strange, isn't it?" said Braid. "That it's always that way round, I mean. It's always the executives who escape to art or mountaineering or amateur dramatics. Never the other way round - never a poet who slips away to do a couple of afternoons work as a busy executive."

"Except for Wallace Stevens, of course, sir," said Comfort.

Braid gave him a sideways look.

Who the hell was Wallace Stevens?

Why didn't Comfort obey the old convention that inspectors know all about art, and sergeants are just dull dogs?

"I've had a quick look at the body, sir," said Comfort. "I tried to apply your methods."

"Which particular ones?"

"Instinct, flair and intuition, sir," said Comfort.

Braid felt a bit better about Comfort.

"I thought, for instance, there was something odd in the painting he had been working on when he died."

By now, they were walking across the field to the abandoned easel.

"What was that?"

"Well, along with the field and the woods he has also painted a small red car, parked in the entrance to the field. But the car isn't there now. Not in real life. Only in the picture. In a perfect world, he would have painted in the number of the car, and we could have interviewed the driver. But he didn't."

"Mmmm," said Braid, as they reached the easel and bent over it. "You're right. No, hold on - you're wrong. If you look carefully, you can see that he had painted in the number, but someone has rubbed it out. That smudge over the number plate isn't stylish; it's deliberate."

"You mean . . ?"

"Yes, the murderer. He killed Varrick and was about to go when he noticed the red car in the painting with the incriminating number and smudged it out. So it was obviously his car. He wouldn't have bothered otherwise. But there was something else he didn't notice. This bundle of sketches."

He reached down to the ground and brought up a small roll of pencil drawings. He shuffled through them. He isolated one.

"How about that, Comfort?"

He pointed to a sketch for the unfinished canvas on which the car now clearly bore a car registration number plate.

"Find out who it belongs to, Comfort."

While Comfort got on his mobile, Braid noticed that there was a man coming across the field to them, half running, half walking.

"Car belongs to Leo Rattle, sir," said Comfort.

"Came as quick as I could," said the man, arriving. "When I got the awful news. My name's Leo Rattle. Tell me the worst."

"Will you tell him or shall I?" said Braid to Comfort.

LATER, WHEN Rattle was safely arrested and Braid was safely home again, he looked up Wallace Stevens. Famous American poet. Daytime job: insurance lawyer. Hmmm. Not exactly in the millionaire class. Still, next time he got involved in a pub quiz, it'd be nice to have Comfort on his team.