Captain Combover and the case of the bestselling murder mystery

There are a lot of very inept Sherlock Holmes imitations out there. This is what I wrote when I got tired of them.

Captain Combover and the case of the bestselling murder mystery

“My God, Combover, even a famous detective of your brilliance will be unable to solve this baffling murder mystery!” Rip Roundtrip said, even though everyone knew he was wrong practically all the time.

“Not at all, Roundtrip. If you follow the clues as I’ve done, you’ll agree that my conclusion is inescapable.” Captain C. Grover Combover, head of the New Arkwhump detective squad, stood before the fireplace in the drawing room of Forehead Manor, making sure that he had the group’s attention.

This costume can make you as convincing as an Anthony Horowitz novel
As convincing as an Anthony Horowitz novel.

Captain Combover was always surrounded by people saying things like “Great Scott, Combover, what a brilliant detective you are!” and “Good heavens, Combover, your genius leaves me speechless!” He had become famous by recovering some stolen government documents the previous year, because he had deduced that an undersecretary was selling secrets to the Germans. He knew this because he discovered that the undersecretary’s cellar had an odor kind of like rubber cement, which proved that he could not have left work early the night the documents were stolen, and also that he was allergic to raspberries. That’s how much of an expert Combover was in basement odors.

The following month, he had made headlines again by proving that the King of England had a lost bastard child living in Lower Gagphut. He had noticed that the King’s hat did not fit properly, which under the circumstances (which included some gypsies and an albino goat) could only have meant that he was a philanderer with a very specific set of secrets, and it totally made sense to Combover’s legions of loyal readers.

“As we all know, the year is 1908, which is important to establish early. Also, I’m quite good-looking, not exactly in a rugged way, but more in a way that’s typical of a gentleman of England, which is where we are. And we know as well that someone murdered Lieutenant Fred Forehead after dinner, and that the killer is in this room. But you’ve all been mistaken about the murder weapon. It’s true that he was shot; but he was already dead at the time.”

“But how?” Combover’s faithful assistant, Rip Roundtrip, had examined the body carefully. Fred Forehead lay facedown on the floor, shot through the heart.

“The question to begin with is why. Why would someone kill Lieutenant Forehead?”

Combover’s audience shifted nervously like the transmission in a Volvo, but not like the nice 240 series with the updated safety features. They shifted more like one of the old 140 models that worked pretty well, but made that unpleasant noise if you put it in third too early.

Combover’s suspects included Ted Forehead, recently returned from his travels in the Australian outback. The newspaper had recently printed a photo of him with his pet wallaby, Knuckles. Ted Forehead was the victim’s identical twin brother. Everyone liked Ted, but they wished he wouldn’t keep talking about kangaroos so much.

Next to Ted Forehead sat a chair, and before the chair sat an ottoman, and on the ottoman sat Doug Dirtplug, Forehead’s dissipated nephew, who I guess didn’t like sitting in chairs. Doug Dirtplug had a packet of M&Ms, but he had refused to share any. Nobody liked Doug Dirtplug very much.

Finally, there was Luke Lungfluke, who stood by the window, smoking a cigarette. They all looked accusingly at Lungfluke, heir to the Lungfluke peat moss fortune. Everyone had heard Lungfluke threaten Fred Forehead’s life the day before, because he had eaten the last turnip at dinner.

“Mr. Lungfluke. Do you remember when I asked you the time this afternoon?”

“Yes, why? So what? I told you what time it was. I didn’t do anything wrong. You can’t prove anything.”

“It wasn’t the time that interested me, Mr. Lungfluke. I wanted to see how you would tell the time. And your actions told me something very interesting. Even though there is a working Swiss clock on the wall, you checked your pocketwatch. This told me that you hate the Swiss.”

“That seems pretty farfetched,” said Roundtrip.

But the shock on Lungfluke’s face showed that Roundtrip was wrong again. “You outfoxed me there, I’ll give you that,” Lungfluke answered, his face red with embarrassment. “They go around acting like they know everything about yodeling, and I just hate them so much! But what does that prove? I didn’t do anything. Fred Forehead isn’t even Swiss.”

“True, he isn’t. But there was something else odd about you today, Lungfluke. I would expect a lunatic Helvetiophobe like you to keep a spare handkerchief on your person, as my exhaustive study of central European bigotry proves. But you didn’t have one to spare when Mr. Dirtplug asked you for one.”

“By jove, you’re right, Combover! Someone stole my spare handkerchief! But how do you manage to see such things?”

“Why Mr. Lungfluke, it’s all perfectly . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Something to do with elements. Periodic, it’s all quite periodic. And maybe a little bit tabular as well. One must pick up the details at all times. When you last glanced at Ted Forehead, did you even bother to notice how many eyelets are on his shoes?”

“No, but can you truly expect—”

“Ah ha, but it’s a trick question, Mr. Lungfluke! You needn’t have looked at all. You should already know that Mr. Forehead is a widower, so we can expect his shoes to have exactly eight eyelets each. I assume you’ve read my exhaustive treatise on the footwear psychology of the bereaved.”

“By God! Captain Combover, you truly have a brilliant mind!” Forehead held up his leg to the others, verifying that his shoes did indeed have eight eyelets each.

“Periodic, as I said.”

“But who stole the handkerchief? And what does it have to do with the murder?”

“Gentlemen, please turn out your pockets. I believe the results will be instructive.”

They all turned out their pockets. The handkerchief did not appear. It was Combover himself who produced it with a flourish, then noisily blew his nose in it and handed it to Roundtrip.

“I stole it myself. I did it so that I could make you turn out your pockets. Mr. Forehead, as I anticipated, your pocket contained a pin bearing the emblem of the Trans-Australian Railroad, given to you in honor of your fifteenth year working for that railroad.”

“That’s true, but how the devil did you anticipate that?”

“I noticed a smudge on your hat in exactly the size and shape and position that one would expect on the hat of one who has worked for that particular railroad for fifteen years or more. I’ve made an exhaustive study of hat smudges, Mr. Forehead.”

“Amazing, Combover!” said Forehead. “I bet someday a really great author will write stories about you, and his readers will say, ‘My God, what an incredibly good story! I am going to buy everything this author writes from now on!’”

“They’re cretins if they don’t!” Luke Lungfluke added cheerfully. “But what’s the significance of the railroad?”

“We’ll come to that in a moment,” said Combover. “First, let’s finish establishing motive. Ted Forehead, you have been looking at the victim occasionally. What do you observe about him?”

“I was just noticing how similar we look, because we are identical twins,” said Forehead.

“Precisely. I believe this murder was a case of mistaken identity. I believe you were the intended victim, Mr. Forehead.”

“My God, Combover—did you truly mean to say—”

“I said Fred Forehead is dead in your stead, Ted.”

“But why?”

“Please don’t put on airs, Forehead. You aren’t surprised at all. Mr. Roundtrip, you said that the victim died of a bullet through the heart. But I’d like you to look a little closer.”

Roundtrip examined the body closely, but found nothing.

“Try turning the body over, Mr. Roundtrip.”

Mr. Roundtrip tried, but couldn’t. “I can’t, Combover. He won’t move!”

“Look at his head, Mr. Roundtrip.”

“My God! Captain Combover, my God! It wasn’t the bullet that killed him!”

Roundtrip stood, mouth agape, as he discovered the railroad tie that had been jammed through Forehead’s head. It protruded by four feet on either side.

“That’s right. The bullet through the heart was a very clever act of misdirection, intended to draw your attention away from the railroad tie that actually killed him. And the killer was the only one who had access to railroad supplies and equipment. It was Ted Forehead!”

Roundtrip boggled. “But what about the mistaken identity? Didn’t you say—”

“Yes. Ted Forehead attempted to commit suicide by ramming a railroad tie through his head, but he accidentally mistook his identical twin’s head for his own.”

“It was dark,” Ted explained. “I’ve always had poor night vision. And then when I missed, I tried to cover up the deed. It’s a bit embarrassing, you see. But how did you know I was suicidal?”

“That part was quite simple,” Combover explained. “I saw the photo of you with your pet wallaby. In that photo, your tie clip was fastened improperly, which revealed the heartbreak you felt. Only a man in the deepest pit of despair would wear his tie clip that way in the presence of a wallaby. You see, I’ve made an exhaustive study of Australian exotic pet owner psychology, and that means it’s plausible.”

“That, and my wife is dead,” added Forehead.

“Amazing, Combover!” said Doug Dirtplug. “All those other detectives that authors write about are worthless compared to you! I wonder who will play you in the movie!”

“Time will tell, Dirtplug, but I bet he’ll have a chiseled jaw. Now let’s all sip some tea to authenticate the English setting.”

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