I knew that this was going to be a difficult interview from the start. I had received some brief and slightly contradictory instructions on how to find a particular bar, hidden somewhere in the heart of the seaside town of Westerby on Sea; consequently I spent nearly an hour walking in circles and was late for the appointment. Only when I found the place did I realise that I had walked past the front door twice already, not realising it was my destination.
Even inside I wasn’t sure if it was the right place. Walking in from the bright sunshine felt rather like walking into a cave, and it was all I could do to stop myself tumbling down the steep stairs into the basement bar itself. I bought myself a drink, briefly marvelled at how cheap everything was in 1962, and told the barman I was looking for a man named Springer. He said nothing, but pointed at a table in the corner. My eyes were still having trouble adjusting to the light (or rather, the lack of it), so at first I thought the table was unoccupied, until a youngish, slightly nervous looking man rose to greet me. ‘I’m Springer,’ he said. He was wearing a brown raincoat (even though we were indoors) and a Fedora style hat lay on the seat beside him, almost as though he was reserving the place for a late arrival. There was nothing particularly outstanding about his appearance – he was the sort of person who could merge invisibly into a crowd and not receive a second glance from anyone. On the table in front of him stood a mug of beer, less than a quarter full. I got the impression that he had been eking out that one drink for as long as he could, waiting for me to arrive.
I sat opposite him, and we shook hands.
‘So, Mr Springer. What should I call you?’
‘Just Springer will do,’ he replied. I sensed a slight reticence, as though he didn’t like the idea of revealing too much about himself – not even, so it seemed, his first name. I thought it prudent, therefore, to start with some simple questions and see where that took us.
‘I understand that you’re not a native of Westerby, Mr Springer. So where did you come from, originally?’
‘The Midlands. Near Birmingham. That’s where I was born and brought up.’
‘And what brought you to Westerby?’
‘My father originally moved here for his health. Not that it did him much good. I came a little later, to look after him in his final days.’
Not a good start, then, to remind my subject of a recent bereavement. Perhaps a different tack was needed.
‘I am sure that most people wouldn’t realise that a quaint little seaside town like Westerby has a private detective.’
I noticed him cringe slightly, and wondered what I’d said wrong this time.
‘Well, I am in the yellow pages now. Anyone who wants to look me up—’
‘No, I mean, most people would think that there isn’t much call for a private detective in a sleepy little town like Westerby.’
‘Oh, well; wherever there are people gathered together in sufficient numbers, there is bound to be someone doing something illegal. Or at least immoral.’ He gave me a small smile. ‘Sometimes very immoral. A private detective can often come in very useful in those cases, gathering evidence, checking that people are in the place they’re supposed to be, that sort of thing. Did you really say “sleepy”?’
I confirmed that I had; he found something amusing about that, though he didn’t share what that was.
‘Are you able to tell me about any of your cases?’
‘No,’ he replied, curtly. ‘They’re confidential.’
‘Can’t you give me a brief summary? Without mentioning any names, of course. Just give me a flavour.’
‘Well, there are no murders, if that’s what you’re thinking. I leave all that serious stuff to the police.’ Then he took a deep breath and I sensed that he was already reconsidering that last statement. ‘Well, actually, there have been murders. Not that I’ve gone out of my way to look for them, of course. Recently, I’ve gone through a spell where trouble seems to find me. I suppose that’s the sort of thing that happens to private detectives.’
‘Really? Can you talk about it?’
‘I’d rather not be reminded, if you must know.’ He took a swig from his pint of beer.
‘Intrigue in the Bridge Club, that sort of thing?’
He frowned. My attempt at humour had clearly misfired. ‘No,’ he replied firmly. ‘If you must know, I’ve had to deal with some desperate criminals. Men – and women – who will stop at nothing to get their way. I’ve been that far—’ He held up his finger and thumb, a fraction of an inch apart. ‘That far away from being shot. If you think that I inhabit some cosy Agatha Christie type world, with cyanide in the Wincarnis, then—’
‘No, no, no,’ I said, eager to clear up the misunderstanding. ‘I didn’t realise that sort of thing would happen in a place like Westerby on Sea.’
‘As I said: wherever there are people in sufficient numbers, then someone is doing something illegal.’
‘In that case, do you work closely with the police?’
He scratched his head. ‘My relationship with the police is, erm… complicated.’
‘Can you expand on that?’
‘Let’s just say that when our paths have crossed, it’s not necessarily been to our mutual benefit. I try to keep out of their way and I think they appreciate that.’
‘Would you say you are a systematic or seat of the pants kind of detective?’
He took a few seconds to think about this. ‘A bit of both, I suppose. I try to be systematic. But… well, things tend to happen. Unexpected things. Then I have to sort of make it up as I go along.’
‘You solve the mystery in the end, though, don’t you, Mr Springer?’
He gave me a hard look. ‘I’m still alive, if that’s what you mean.’
‘So what made you want to become a private detective in the first place?’
‘Books, stories. Reading Raymond Chandler, mostly. And movies. I like detective films. I suppose you could say that I’m a bit of a film buff.’
‘In those films there’s usually a femme fatale. You know the sort: a sultry blonde with a mysterious past. I just wondered if – well, you know?’
He bit his lip. ‘No comment,’ he replied.
‘My readers would be very interested to hear. No need to give details, of course…’
‘Well, I do meet all sorts. And I admit that some of the women are… interesting. They have their own ways of getting what they want.’
Another swig of his beer, this one more of a gulp than a sip.
‘I suspect that reality of being a detective is not as glamorous as the films, though, is it?’
‘No; but I knew that before I started. The job has its ups and downs, like any other job. It’s not much fun when someone points a gun at you or decides to lock you in a cellar – but there is some satisfaction to be had when some bad guy is being led away in handcuffs.’
He drained his pint mug. ‘Can I get you another drink?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘I’ve got a case to investigate. It’s one that’s threatening to get complicated, and if I don’t get results, I won’t get paid.’
‘I won’t keep you any longer, then, Mr Springer. Thank you for the interview.’
Before he left, he took his wallet out of his pocket and extracted a business card. ‘If you’re ever in the area again and need a private detective,’ he said, putting the card into my hand. ‘I charge twelve and sixpence an hour, plus expenses. Though if I suspect there’s something fishy about you, it’s fifteen shillings.’
Springer’s first adventure, Five and a Half Tons, is to be published by Grey Cells Press (an imprint of Holland House Books) in August, 2013.