FeaturedHistorical Mysteries

A Cold Wind Down the Grey

By Wendy M. Wilson

Loved it! 😍

A competent and thoughtful retelling of one man's role in New Zealand history.

Synopsis

He's the police inspector who failed to stop the first mass murder
in the history of New Zealand and he can't forget it.
In 1888, forced into retirement by government cuts, Inspector William Henry James walks home beside the Whanganui River remembering his association with a horrendous mass murder: back in 1866 he had forced the Burgess gang out of Greymouth. The gang took a steamer up to Nelson and within days killed five men on the Maungatapu Track. Soon after, Inspector James discovered the body of a young surveyor, George Dobson, murdered by Burgess and his crew. The gang was gone, but one guilty man remained, and James was determined to bring him to trial. The events that transpired haunted him for the rest of his life.

Historians should find much to appreciate in Wendy Wilson's well-researched narrative of the events surrounding New Zealand's first mass murder.


The story, told from the perspective of Inspector William Henry James, gives readers a background into what life was like in the still-new colony of New Zealand after the New Zealand Wars. The text jumps between 1888, when James is recalling the events of the murder and his subsequent investigation, and 1866, when he is experiencing them.


Readers expecting a suspenseful tale or a mysterious whodunnit may be disappointed by a story that is more reflective than active; readers interested in historical details and an attempt to illustrate what life was like for a police inspector trying to do his job to the best of his ability — a man who, like many of us, is proud of some of his choices and regrets others — may enjoy this novel.


The writing is both competent and detailed; the scenes where James interacts with his wife and his family are beautifully crafted.

Reviewed by

Writer, editor, and teacher. I review one book a week at NicoleDieker.com as part of my daily posts on the art and the finances of a creative career. Am interested in books on writing and publishing, literary fiction, and SF&F.

Synopsis

He's the police inspector who failed to stop the first mass murder
in the history of New Zealand and he can't forget it.
In 1888, forced into retirement by government cuts, Inspector William Henry James walks home beside the Whanganui River remembering his association with a horrendous mass murder: back in 1866 he had forced the Burgess gang out of Greymouth. The gang took a steamer up to Nelson and within days killed five men on the Maungatapu Track. Soon after, Inspector James discovered the body of a young surveyor, George Dobson, murdered by Burgess and his crew. The gang was gone, but one guilty man remained, and James was determined to bring him to trial. The events that transpired haunted him for the rest of his life.

Wanganui: A Testimonial for Inspector James

APRIL, 1888

He knew as soon as he walked through the door of the station that something was up. Constable Crozier, seated nearest the door, said a quick, “Morning Mr. Inspector James,” then refused to meet his eyes, shoving something under his desk. The rest of his men stopped talking suddenly and watched him, grinning. He sighed. He’d come by arrangement to pick up his personal effects and his men were waiting to pounce on him and force another one of those bloody framed testimonials on him. That imbecile from The Herald was there as well, perched on his usual wooden stool. The reporter caught his eye and winked, pleased to have been proven right. 

He’d run into the reporter in court recently while testifying against a young lad who’d been terrorizing his neighbourhood. The boy on trial, Joshua Bason, was a bad seed—two brothers already at the industrial school up in Burnham, and his father in court that same day, charged with going about carrying a loaded gun and using insulting language when not in a sober state. The reporter had come up to him afterwards to discuss the case. They’d spoken briefly, but as he moved away the reporter had asked, “What will you do, Inspector James, now that you’re retiring?

 “Retiring? I’m not…where did you hear that?”

The reporter’s expression had changed – he’d smelled blood.  “We heard Pardy from New Plymouth was taking over this district in addition to his own.”  

“I’ve received no intimation of such a change,” James had said, worried. Surely it could not be true—but what if it was? Was the bloody government trying to save money again? Why did the force always take the first cuts? And why him? 

The next day the rumour, accompanied by his denial, had appeared in the paper, and a week later he’d received the official letter telling him he was to be retired with six month’s salary. He’d felt like a fool. Six month’s pay, they’d offered, in lieu of the pension he’d been promised when he left Victoria to come to New Zealand. He had some savings, but how would they manage, the two of them? And what would happen to the new house?

Constable Crozier made a sudden move, rising to his feet, almost knocking over his chair. Clutched in his large awkward hands was a letter encased in a massive gilt frame. A testimonial, as he had surmised. Others were rising as well, and the young recruit appeared like Aladdin from the kitchen wheeling a tea trolley loaded with a battered silver tea pot, tin mugs, and a plate of buttered pikelets from Woolley’s.

James stood there, a smile frozen in place, as they sang an enthusiastic round of “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” wondering what to say in response. Perhaps he should let out his house and move to something cheaper, up north, leave behind his wonderful new home here… But Elizabeth would be distraught. She’d finally started to enjoy life here, to fit in…

“…and so say all of us…”

The voices faded, and Detective Benjamin stepped forward rubbing his hands together in that annoying way of his. Benjamin was being transferred as well, to Wellington, the Gazette said. Last night, Benjamin’s friends had presented him with a gold watch chain. Very nice. Better than the testimonial James’ men were about to foist on him, he was sure. But Benjamin was not a chain-of-command type; he treated everyone as equals, regardless of stature. He’d never be given his own command with that attitude.

“Inspector James,” said Benjamin. “I’ve been commissioned by the police of Wanganui, and the surrounding district, to hand you this letter, expressive of the regard with which we all hold you, and to express the regrets of those who are unable to attend.”

Benjamin gestured towards Constable Crozier, who cleared his throat and thrust the framed testimonial forward. “Inspector James, when you took over Wanganui District in 1880, I was stationed in Hawera,” he said. “I was serving under an officer second to none in the force as a policeman, but his conduct towards the men was different to that of yours, and when you came we all felt as if we had…as if we had been let out of prison.”

James attempted to look appreciative. They tolerated him because he was decent to them, impartial, severe only when necessary—certainly much less severe now than he’d been as a younger man. But he didn’t believe they admired or respected him.

“I’ve been in the service twenty-three years,” Crozier continued. “and served under many different officers, but none as considerate as you, sir.”

He held the framed testimonial forward and James took it, making a show of turning it around and reading it carefully. The frame was excellent, anyway. It would look good with one of his Indian ink sketches - replace those oils he was going to have to sell. Maybe he would frame the sketch he’d done the day of young Dobson’s funeral, of the diggers on the beach silhouetted against the waves. Always been a favourite of his, that one. He’d discovered it in the side drawer of his Davenport when he was clearing it out for the move to the new house, tied up with a couple of newspapers from back then he’d forgotten about.

“I have to return you my sincere thanks for the kindly expressions embodied herein.” He looked around the room, briefly holding the eyes of each man. They had all signed the testimonial, even those who weren’t present. “Until this moment, I never knew I was held in such esteem, but I take your kindness as evidence of your appreciation of my conduct during the time I have been in command of you and the feeling that I have gained your respect is something…is something to be thankful for.” 

They clapped politely and he saw his sergeant glance over at the clock.

“I’ve been in service for thirty-seven years…”

Constable Crozier grimaced. The old bugger’s going to tell us about his whole entire life, his face telegraphed. Well, dammit, he wanted to tell them. He deserved that at least. Pushed out of the force after that length of time, with nothing but a handwritten testimonial in a, well, in a good frame, although probably picked up cheap at Jackson’s Auction House. 

“Thirty-seven years,” he repeated. “Although nine of those years were in Victoria. I joined the force in Victoria in ’54, right off the boat from London. That was the year to join. Any of you could have joined, even…” He caught Crozier’s eye and stopped himself. “They took anyone over five foot seven who could ride, and was of good character. That was after the defeat of the miners at the Eureka Stockade. Broham was there, and Hickson, Shearman, of course…”

His mind started to wander back to those times. Shearman had brought him to New Zealand. Commissioner Shearman of the Province of Canterbury he was back then. A good man, who’d had James’ back during the incident in Timaru. Said he had the “toughness of character” to be a strong leader, and for that reason had later given him the gold escort to lead. Their careers had stayed in tandem for years, Shearman always a step or two above him, until James had been given command in Wellington. But when the cuts came at the end of his first year, Shearman had pushed him out and taken the job for himself, the job he’d worked so hard to get. The government had fobbed him off with a new position up here in Wanganui, still a first-class inspector, but with lowered stature. Shearman’s betrayal had stung; Elizabeth swore never to speak to Helen Shearman again.

He shook himself, and pulled himself back to the task at hand. “I started out in Timaru, as Sergeant of Watch.” He saw Constable Crozier’s shoulders slump in dismay. “In ‘64. Then in ‘65 I was promoted to inspector in charge of the gold escort. We rode from Christchurch across the mountains to Hokitika, myself and some troopers—and Shearman, the Commissioner of Police. A hell of a ride, it was. No roads then, of course, they were still being built, but Cobb’s Coaches started running later the same year. Shearman was in the first coach to cross, and so was Edward Dobson, the provincial engineer, George Dobson’s father…”

He realized he was starting to ramble, and stopped. The reporter was tapping his pencil on his knee, an irritated expression on his face, no longer taking notes.

He felt foolish.

Detective Benjamin helped him out. “Did that for a while, did you, sir?”

“What? Oh, the gold escort? No. Just one trip. The bloody … the miners started sending their gold by sea around the Bluff to Melbourne after the government refused to insure the stuff.” Lucky really. The route through the mountains was treacherous…easy for bushrangers to hide in the dense bush and assault them, even with the fortifications added to the gold coach. The “perambulating, impregnable, gold-escort redoubt,” the papers laughingly called it…

His men were all frowning now, wanting to get at the food. Better finish this thing then.

“I worked my way up through the ranks,” he said, looking at Constable Crozier, still a constable after twenty-three years on the force, “principally by sobriety, truthfulness and perseverance, and I trust you will advance the same way, if you apply yourself.” Crozier blushed and looked at his feet. Benjamin was frowning disapprovingly. 

James felt a brief pang of guilt about what he’d said, and changed the subject. “Let’s all get at that tea, shall we?”

He poured himself a mug, folded over a couple of pikelets in his left hand, and went into the small room beside the kitchen he used as an office, holding the framed testimonial under his right arm. He leaned the frame against the wall and lit himself a Scotch Cap, staring at the testimonial as he drank his tea, thinking back on his career. Left-handed. Who was that, and why was it important? Something twigged in his mind and then disappeared. Left hand, right foot. Connected with something he had…. 

It was a damned shame that he’d just closed on the Halswell Street property. They had both been so happy with the new house, pleased to be moving from the cramped quarters of Sydney Place, Elizabeth ready to entertain more, to hold soirées. She’d already made an appointment with Mr. Harding to have a photograph taken for her carte de visite. He would let out the Sydney Place house—the lease still had some time before it expired. But what work could he do? All he knew was policing.

They would move to Halswell Street, he decided, and not go north. He would pick up some work as a justice of the peace, sell his sketches, do something. He could take up writing - write a book about his experiences. They deserved Halswell Street after all they’d been through. He’d spent the last twenty years collecting furniture and fittings, and they were finally going to have a place worthy of them: his beautiful Schwechten piano, the velvet drawing suite, the Brussels carpets, the dinner service Elizabeth loved, the Davenports, and his art pieces: the over mantel oil paintings and the alabaster ornaments.

He drained his tea, lit himself another cigarette and leaned back, still staring at the testimonial. An odd feeling brushed over him momentarily, a feeling that he had been here before, seated at his desk staring at something on a wall. 

It all came back to him in a rush. He had been thinking about it all day, without realizing he had. The murder of George Dobson in ’66. He’d been sitting at his Davenport in his house on Arney Street in Greymouth looking at the reward notice he’d pinned to the wall, just as he now sat and looked at the testimonial. That must have been after he found the body. 

Poor Elizabeth had been pregnant the whole time he’d been investigating young Dobson’s murder – tired, uncomfortable, nauseous. And Thomas’ birth was early, partly because of the shock of…. but Thomas had amazed them both from the start; he’d had nothing but success his entire life. Training as an architect now, by god, at Atkins and Clere, the best architects in Wanganui. What a pity Elizabeth couldn’t warm to Thomas the way she had the others…he’d never understood it. 

He did not want to think about his children, any of them, even now, and focused instead on the murder, and the day he’d found the body. The smell, the gut-wrenching smell, he could almost think it was still in his nose now, so strong had it been. From a body that had lain there for six weeks…with that ugly thing sticking up from the ground, taunting him with its presence…

He took a last draw at the cigarette, enjoying the cleansing burn of it in his lungs, and stubbed it out in the dregs of his tea. He could carry everything home easily, if only he didn’t have to cart along the damn testimonial. He would leave it behind and ask Crozier to deliver it to him tomorrow. He’d invite Crozier in for a drink—sit on the verandah with a beer, that was the ticket. He wasn’t a police officer now. He could be polite to the man.

As he walked through the station carrying his possessions - an Indian ink drawing of the wharf he’d done when he first arrived in Wanganui, a spare uniform shirt, a bag of pens and papers - he responded to the murmured goodbyes from his men, and opened the door to his new life. The day was sunny and cold, somewhat frosty, and on any other day would be full of potential. How he would miss being a police inspector. The idea weighed on his spirits as he headed down Bell Street towards the courthouse and Taupo Quay. 

 

The past rose from the depths of his memory to meet him. He had spent so much time in courthouses, here and down south in Greymouth. He’d met Edward Dobson for the first time in a courthouse, after Dobson had crossed the mountains from Christchurch by Cobb’s Coach to instigate a search for his son, just days after everyone had realized that young George was missing. Someone must have sent a telegram; the electric telegraph was being built across the country around that time. Charles Todhunter, George Dobson’s brother-in-law, had arrived soon after to assist in the search. He’d liked Todhunter. A decent man.

James had known that George Dobson belonged to an influential family, connected by blood and marriage, a mob of road builders, surveyors, engineers, men who were building Canterbury and the west coast. In fact, back then very little got built on the west coast of the South Island unless a Dobson or a Dobson relation had his finger on the plan. The family were stunned to learn of the deadly gang of killers who had slaughtered their son and so many other men, to understand that even they had not been immune from such a disaster. If a young man like George Dobson, well-liked and well-connected, could suffer that fate, who was safe? 

 

The cawing of seagulls and the smell of the docks assailed his nose, reminding him once more of that smell, and that thing sticking up from the ground, when he found the body…

“Mr. Inspector James, sir…”

He turned. Constable Crozier was hurrying down Bell Street, holding the testimonial under his arm. Blast. He’d forgotten to ask Crozier to bring it to his house tomorrow, and now everyone would assume he didn’t want it. 

“You forgot your testimonial, and…”

“So I did.” He raised his loaded arms and forced a smile. “But I had no room. I intended to…well. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to accompany me home with it?”

“I’d be happy to, sir,” said Crozier. “As I said at the presentation earlier on, when you arrived to take charge, I felt as if…”

“Yes, yes.” He glanced at Crozier. Might as well make it up to him. “Now, let’s walk along the riverbank. It isn’t the fastest way to my house, but it’s the prettiest, and today I feel like looking at something pleasant…with a good companion, of course.”

They set off along the river, James thinking once more about all the deaths from that time, and the body he had found in his own district when he saw something sticking up from the muddy ground.


About the author

A retired English Professor, Wendy M. Wilson writes historical mysteries set in 19th century New Zealand. Born in New Zealand, she never completely returned from her OE (overseas experience), and now lives in Canada. Since retirement she has twice been short listed in the U of T Fiction contest. view profile

Published on February 04, 2019

80000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Historical Mysteries

Reviewed by

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