Five Roundabouts to Heaven (Classic Crime)

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9780140081190: Five Roundabouts to Heaven (Classic Crime)

FROM THE INTRODUCTION BY JOHN LE CARRÉ

"This novel comprises some of the best work of an extremely gifted and perhaps under-regarded British crime novelist....What gave John Bingham his magic was something we look for in every writer, too often in vain: an absolute command of the internal landscape of his characters, acutely observed by a humane but wonderfully corrosive eye."

Nineteen years is a long time. But when Peter Harding and Philip Bartels meet up again in the French countryside of their youth, the history and the dark secrets it holds are still there, tempered only slightly by time.

The two men share more than a past friendship. Decades earlier, trapped in a disenchanted marriage with his wife, Beatrice, Philip meets and falls in love with the graceful, charming Lorna Dickson. Overcome by the prospect of a humiliating divorce, Philip makes the decision to poison Beatrice. But when he invites his best friend, Peter, to meet his mistress at lunch one day, he unwittingly sets off a shocking chain of events that will forever change the lives of everyone involved.

Now available for the first time in over twenty years, Five Roundabouts to Heaven is one of master writer and storyteller John Bingham's greatest works. With a chilling, expertly calibrated plot and mesmerizing prose, it is the powerful study of how murder can so easily enter the minds of ordinary people.

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About the Author:

John Bingham -- aka Lord Clanmorris, aka Michael Ward -- was a British intelligence officer and novelist. Over the course of thirty years, he served MI5 in various high-ranking capacities, including undercover agent, and pseudonymously published more than fifteen extraordinary novels, including My Name Is Michael Sibley, A Fragment of Fear, and I Love, I Kill. Bingham died in 1988.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I had been looking forward all day to the visit. Indeed, I had been looking forward to it ever since we had planned our trip to the south of France, and I had arranged the route so that we would pass through Orléans. It was a visit that I had wanted to make for a long time, a kind of pilgrimage to a shrine of happiness now suitably veiled in the rosy mists of youth.

Nineteen years is a long time. One cannot remember everything, and the tendency on occasions such as this is to remember only the happiness. The weather seems always to have been warm and sunny, the days filled with love and laughter, the nights throbbing with the notes of the nightingales in the woods, and, in my case, with the blithe croaking of the amorous frogs in the moat around the château.

If I concentrate hard enough, I can, of course, recall that there were minor irritations and frictions, but it is true to say that they never lasted long. We were all too young, too filled with the joy of living; and perhaps the mild and gentle air of the wooded Sologne country was itself an antidote to prolonged bitterness.

Even the pangs of youthful jealousy have a curious sweetness in retrospect, for with the near approach of middle age the emotions, in matters of the heart, tend to be flattened, and the ecstasies and agonies toned down.

One has seen it all before, perhaps many times: this, one says, is where I came in. And if one decides to see the show again, one knows how the reel will run, amiably anticipating the pleasant periods, suitably fortified against the pains and pangs. Such is the penalty and such is the protection which the years bring you.

What makes for happiness depends upon one's age. We, who stayed at the château to learn French, were all young, of varied nationalities, and the road ahead seemed straight and sure, and to lead inevitably to a splendid fulfilment of such vague hopes for the future as we nurtured.

We had no doubts. We worked a little, we played tennis, gardened, and bathed in the lake in front of the ch'teau. In winter we went shooting. We fell in love, I need hardly add, some of us for the first time, and vowed undying faithfulness with all the confidence of extreme youth.

Our love was pure and idealistic, romantic and sweet. Looking back now, with a soul which is tarnished with dishonour and frayed round the edges, I am often amazed at this.

There was no hanky-panky at the château. And if I use a coarse music-hall expression in association with something which was fresh and beautiful, I ask you to be charitable, and to blame the span of the years and half a working lifetime which has been spent in different parts of the world. One is inclined to become crude.

I have said that I am often amazed at the unsullied nature of our feelings, and that is strictly true: often, but not always. For now and again, like the memory of the scent of a rose garden to some poor sufferer in a crowded town hospital, I catch a whiff of the fragrance of those earlier feelings, and I understand how we felt. A tune, such as "My Blue Heaven,"will naturally bring it back to me, or a particular type of perfume favoured by the young: but I may also catch it, suddenly and unexpectedly, walking along a street, or even in a crowded public house. It had always been, hitherto, a thin wraith of the real thing, but I felt that if I went back to the château, saw it standing there, with its light grey walls and blue shutters, at the end of the long drive of poplars, I would be able to recapture for a space not merely the full flavour of those past days, but also a glimpse of Philip Bartels as he then was.

I think I wanted to refresh my memory of the Bartels of those days almost as much as I wished to inflict upon myself the sweet pain of thinking of times now gone forever.

In spite of all that has happened, in spite of what Macdonald of Scotland Yard, and one or two others, have said, I still regard Bartels not only as my friend but as one of the most lovable characters I have ever known. Perhaps I, alone, understood what he felt.

All day, then, I had looked forward to this visit with a rising emotion, a physical disturbance of the stomach nerves, which amounted to veritable tension.

Two of the other three in our party knew nothing of the excitement within me; they thought of the excursion as only a casual visit to a familiar haunt. To them I must have seemed silent and broody that day. I was even asked, when I made a mere pretence of eating lunch, whether I felt quite fit.

Later that day I left them to stroll round Orléans, and took the car and drove through the little village of Verlin and out again to where the road was bordered by fields of corn, crisply brown and sprinkled with poppies and cornflowers.

The sun was at distant tree-top level when I pulled the car in to the side of the road, a few yards from the end of the poplar drive, and switched off the engine.

The evening was silent except for the creak of a cart on some distant farm and the faraway barking of a dog. The sky was cloudless. I climbed out of the car, and closed the door, and looked up and down the road. There was nobody in sight, and as I made my way towards the end of the avenue leading to the château, the sound of my shoes upon the hard road seemed uncannily loud.

For a second I experienced one of those curious sensations in the course of which you wonder whether you are really alive, and then the feeling was past. I walked slowly, now that the fulfilment of my ambition was at hand, wishing to savour every minute, every second.

It was at first my plan to walk down the avenue, but at the last moment I decided against it. The family no longer lived there, and I had heard from one of the brothers that it was now the home of two families of American Air Force officers who were stationed in Orléans. They had set up a kind of communal cocktail bar in the entrance hall. If they were now sitting drinking on the terrace, they would be in a position to watch me walking down the long avenue and to speculate upon what I wanted.

I had no doubt that I would be hospitably received if I explained the nature of my visit, even though I was a stranger, but I did not wish to spend my precious time talking to other people, be they American, English, or French. My rendezvous was with the happy ghosts of the early 1930s, not with the worried flesh and blood of postwar years.

I turned aside, therefore, into the woods which pressed close upon the poplar-lined drive, following a path which I knew well of old, which twisted and turned, but which eventually passed by the tennis courts, and by the side of the house, and led to the rising ground on the other side of the château.

It was a path which Bartels and I had often taken together, in the old days, when we wished to cross the Orléans-Blois highway to try for partridges on the land across the road. We preferred it to the avenue, for there was always the chance of a shot at a rabbit or a pigeon.

I trod it now, stepping as quietly as the leaves and twigs would permit, for the closer I came to the house the less I wished to be disturbed. Thus, stealthily, dreading equally the querying word or friendly shout, I returned like a poacher to the scene of my happiness.

I passed the great rabbit burrow, where we had once lost a ferret, and caught a glimpse, as I neared the house, of the cottage where grizzled old Georges Durois, the garde de chasse, used to live with his wife, Marie. Both are long since dead. (How he would grumble when I missed the rabbits which his ferret put out for my inexpert marksmanship!)

Then, close by the house, to the left of the path, I saw a weatherbeaten wooden hut and paused, for I did not recall it, though to judge by its appearance it had been there many years. It stood among some young trees, surrounded by brambles and other bushes, and appeared to serve no useful purpose.

I left the path to examine it more closely, but it was empty, rotting, a reminder of death and decomposition, and I turned away; but as I did so I caught a glimpse among the saplings of a sagging post with a metal handle, and looking more closely I saw near at hand some rusting wire netting and another post, and knew that I looked upon all that remained of the tennis courts.

Of all the laughter and youthful energy which this patch of ground had known, nothing now remained; it was just trees and brambles and a hut rotted by the weather.

The back of my throat ached, and I struck a match and lit my pipe. It was something to do, some physical action which might relieve the tension.

Behind me, in the wood, a pair of jays began to call harshly to each other; and above me, in a tall oak, I heard the vigorous rustling of a squirrel shaking the leaves. A descendant, I supposed, of the squirrels I had known and sometimes shot, though always with reluctance, and only to please old Georges Durois; for of all the creatures which look ugly and pathetic dead, and pretty alive, squirrels head the list. I know they do harm, but the harm always seems to me negligible compared with the joy of seeing them about.

Then the jays ceased calling, and the squirrel moved to another tree, and except for the occasional whine of a mosquito the world was still.

I moved back to the path from the remains of the tennis courts, and stood for a moment watching the bend in the path ahead. Surely Ingrid, my loved Ingrid, would come round the corner, in her pleated white tennis skirt, radiating all the glory of her eighteen-year-old vitality; and behind her, plodding heavy-footed but purposeful, dear old slow-witted Danish Hans; and behind him, in a group, Mary, the vivacious little dark-eyed American girl; and Bob, the son of a Bradford wool merchant; and perhaps Freddie Harris, the ambitious cockney who worked in a bank and spent his annual holidays at the château to learn French and improve his prospects. And loping along to catch them up, always late, always gentle and good-tempered, would come any moment now old Rolf, the giant Norwegian with the build of an ancient Viking....

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