Professional Sleuth

The Case of the Poison Pen

A Dixon Hawke Mystery

Dixon Hawke's Casebook | Spring 1940 | No. 4

The letters threatened scandal ... to out Miss Irene Walsford's fiancé's wild parties and other women.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

The Letters

Dixon Hawke glanced at the photographic prints which Tommy Burke had just placed on his desk.

The prints were enlargements of snapshots which Tommy had been assiduously collecting since he had acquired a new camera some weeks before. The enlargements were also his own work; he had fitted up a homemade apparatus in Hawke’s laboratory.

Dixon Hawke treated this new phase of his assistant’s with good-natured tolerance, and had consented to pose for some indoor time exposures. Tommy was now inviting criticism, and lifting one of the prints, Hawke said with feigned nonchalance:

“H’m, not bad for an amateur,” and bent his head to hide the twinkle in his eye.

Tommy opened his mouth indignantly.

“An amateur —” he began, but the shrill ringing of the doorbell interrupted him.

Tommy glanced quickly at his master. It was late Saturday forenoon, and they had just completed their business of the week; no callers were expected.

As the housekeeper was out, Tommy hurried to the door and ushered in a young lady, who introduced herself to the detectives as Miss Irene Walsford.

Miss Walsford was a tall blonde, with delicate features and wide blue eyes.

Hawke had risen to meet his visitor, and his practised eye noted that she was suffering from great mental agitation. He at once set about putting her at her ease.

“I don’t think we have met before, Miss Walsford, but your photograph is known to me. In fact,” he smiled, “since your engagement to Mr. Litteton I might say it is very well known.”

The girl smiled wanly.

“Yes, the newspapers have made a fuss. You see, Ralph is so well known in the City. We are to be married in three months, and —and that is —well, er —I —. Please read these, Mr. Hawke.”

Fumbling in her handbag, Miss Walsford handed the detective five letters.

As he scanned the letters Hawke’s brows contracted into a frown. He was amazed and disgusted at the temerity of the unknown writer.

The letters were addressed to Miss Walsford, and purported to give her information of the supposed nefarious conduct of her fiancé, Ralph Litteton. Mention was freely made of “another woman,” together with reports of drunken orgies at obscure night clubs.

Dixon Hawke threw the letters on the desk with a gesture of distaste, and turned to his troubled client.

Miss Walsford was biting her lip nervously. It was easy to see that, although she was shocked at the letters, they had created a suspicion in her mind. Hawke said abruptly:

“Miss Walsford, I forbid you believing one word of what is written here. Furthermore, I suggest that you show Mr. Litteton these letters immediately. I gather you have not done so.”

The girl looked up, startled.

“No, no, Mr. Hawke, I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to worry Ralph. That is why I came to you.”

“But why have you waited so long?”

“I —I thought if I simply took no notice of them they would stop. I have received one every Monday, and —well, I simply could not bear to wait this weekend. The suspense is terrible. But, please, there must be no publicity. The scandal would be dreadful.”

The detective frowned.

“There is only one way to stop this sort of thing, Miss Walsford, and you are playing into the writer’s hands in refusing to prosecute. I must insist that you prosecute and that you tell Mr. Litteton at once.”

“Very well, Mr. Hawke, if you think that is best. But leave me to tell Ralph.”

Dixon Hawke picked up the letters and the envelopes.

“As you wish, Miss Walsford. However, you might leave them with me for the present. I shall have copies made and return the originals to you shortly. I see the postmarks are all different. Here is one marked Liverpool.”

“That was the first. Then Manchester, Leeds, York, and Hull.”

Hawke noted the sequence on the envelopes and continued with some routine questions.

Miss Walsford was unable to supply any further information, and a few minutes later she left the criminologist’s rooms.

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Chapter 2

Find the Motive!

When the door had closed, a transformed Hawke turned back to the desk and Tommy sprang to do his bidding as Hawke handed him the letters.

“Get busy with that camera of yours, Tommy. Give me enlarged prints of each of those letters.”

The young assistant was not long in carrying out the order, and, leaving the damp prints to dry, Tommy hurried into the office, to find Dixon Hawke studying a map of England and a Post Office Guide.

Hawke looked up as his assistant entered.

“We’ve got to find a motive, Tommy. Find out Litteton’s address in the City. We’ll start there.”

Litteton & Company were wine importers. Although Ralph Litteton was a director of several businesses, his main interest was in the offices at which the two detectives called.

Proffering his card to the girl who inquired his business, Dixon Hawke and his assistant were ushered into the inner office.

Ralph Litteton greeted Hawke affably.

“This is certainly an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Hawke. I don’t think we’ve met, but your name is well known.”

Hawke smiled as he gripped the outstretched hand. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Litteton, I should like to put a few routine questions.”

“What! Don’t tell me you suspect me of being an international crook.”

Dixon Hawke laughed and briefly explained to Litteton that he was on the track of a man or men whom he believed had been employed by the wine importer.

Litteton pursed his lips.

“Afraid I can’t help you very much there. There are quite a few men in the warehouse here, and, although I engaged them and so forth, I leave all supervisory work to my foreman, Brown. To tell you the truth, these last two or three weeks I have been so busy I have been taking very little interest in the business here.”

“Perhaps I could see Brown.”

“Yes, that would be best.”

Litteton pressed the bell, and, to the girl who answered its summons, he said:

“Miss Wilson, take Mr. Hawke to the warehouse and instruct Brown to give him all the help he can. You’ll excuse me if I don’t come along. I’m rather busy, and I —”

Dixon Hawke interrupted quickly.

“Quito all right, Mr. Litteton. I am sure Mr. Brown will take very good care of us.”

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Chapter 3

The Dismissed Clerk

When Dixon Hawke had explained his business to the warehouse foreman, Brown looked doubtful.

“Well, there’s been two men sacked here recently, Mr. Hawke,” he said.

“The first was Oxenam, one of the carters, and the other was a clerk, Meazer.”

Hawke looked interested.

“And the reason?”

“I caught Oxenam beating one of the horses, and Meazer —”

While the man was talking they had been walking through the warehouse.

At this moment they were passing through a room where three clerks were working at a long desk, and Brown was interrupted by a cry from the outside.


Instantly one of the clerks left his desk and crossed the room to where a narrow conveyor belt emerged from the left wall, and terminated in a large tray. Below the tray a larger belt continued across the room, disappearing through the right wall.

Seating himself on a stool, the clerk pulled over a switch, and the belts whirred into motion. Long-necked bottles appeared on the narrow belt, and began piling up on the tray. Waiting until a number had gathered, the clerk pulled a small lever, and the tray tilted, depositing the bottles on the lower belt, where they were whisked out of sight. At the same time the clerk made a note on a paper by his side.

The two visitors watched the operation with interest.

“Quite an ingenious idea,” Dixon Hawke commented.

“Yes, it was Mr. Litteton’s idea,” Brown explained. “You see, we unpack imported wines on the right, and they have to be carried through to the left, and the clerks have to count and check them.”

Hawke watched the clerk closely.

“By the way,” he said, “that man was writing with his right hand when we came in. I see that he made these notes with his left. Is he ambidextrous?”

“Er —ambi —”

“I mean, can he write with both hands?”

“By Jove, you have quick, eyes, Mr. Hawke! No, that’s just a trick they learn working those belts. You see, the lever is on the right side and there is only room for their book on the left, and it is easier to write with the left. They don’t actually write, of course. Just scribble a number and some code letters, then enter them in the ledgers here. That reminds me. This is where that fellow Meazer worked, until I discovered he was slipping bottles off the belt and biding them behind the switchboard there. He walked out at night, as calm as you please, with a bottle under his coat.”

“You sacked him?”

“Well, I reported him to Mr. Litteton, and he told me to get rid of him.”

Continuing the conversation, Dixon Hawke was gratified to learn that Brown could give him particulars of the whereabouts of the two men.

Oxenam, it appeared, had learned to drive a car, and was working as a lorry driver between London and the Midlands, whilst Meazer had a position with a firm of wholesale manufacturers.

After a short tour of the warehouse the two detectives bade good-bye to Brown.

Leaving the warehouse, they made their way to the addresses which the foreman had given them, and confirmed the information about Oxenam, at the same time eliciting the fact that Meazer was employed as a commercial traveller, working a Midlands district.

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Chapter 4

Tracking Down Meazer

Dixon Hawke looked thoughtful as he returned to the office.

Taking the dry prints from Tommy, he studied them carefully. For some ten minutes he concentrated his attention upon the enlarged writing, and Tommy Burke, watching closely, strove to follow his master’s line of thought.

The writing in each of the letters was identical. It was slow, laboured writing, sprawling all over the page, and had evidently been the subject of much concentration on the part of the writer. It resembled the painful efforts of a child. Suddenly Hawke looked up.

“Go down to Simpson’s, the hardware manufacturers, and ask for the loan of a sample bag —a small one will do —and an order book.”

Tommy Burke looked surprised, and Hawke smiled.

“Go along, my lad. I’m not thinking of changing my profession, if that’s what is troubling you. Bring that bag to the station; we are going to Sheffield. I’ll pack everything we need personally.”

An hour later Dixon Hawke and his assistant were entrained and speeding towards Sheffield. On the rack above their heads reposed a leather bag containing samples of Simpson’s manufactures, and from Hawke’s pocket protruded a blue order book.

In Sheffield Dixon Hawke hailed a taxi. To the driver he explained that he and Tommy were commercial travellers new to the district, and asked the driver to take them to some good hotel where they might meet some fellow-travellers.

“I know the very place you want, sir,” the man answered. “The Bank Hotel, in Swintell Street.”

After they had arrived there and Hawke had signed the register as Mr. Robertson, he engaged the clerk in conversation.

“By the way,” he said casually, “I think an acquaintance of mine comes here —a Mr. Meazer. Will you tell me if he arrives to-day?”

“Oh, yes, I know Mr. Meazer, sir,” the clerk answered readily. “He arrived only a short time ago. He comes here every five weeks.”

When the clerk mentioned the name, Tommy Burke’s eyes instantly dropped to the register. A few names above their own, the name “Meazer” was inscribed.

Tommy was bitterly disappointed; the writing was in no way comparable to that of the letters. Once again Tommy found himself stumped, and the clerk was speaking again.

“Why, there is Mr. Meazer now, sir. Just going into the dining-room. Shall I call him?”

Hawke answered quickly:

“No, no. I’ll look him up after tea.”

Tommy Burke needed no prompting. He followed their man into the dining-room and took a table some distance from the corner where the man was seating himself.

Completing his arrangements at the desk, Dixon Hawke joined his assistant, and they observed Meazer order tea.

“That’s our man, Tommy,” Hawke whispered.

Tommy accepted the information without question.

“How are we going to get him, guv’nor?”

Dixon Hawke pursed his lips.

“That’s it, my lad. We have no definite proof. We shall have to wait developments. Keep an eye on him, but be careful he is not aware he is under observation.”

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Chapter 5

Caught in the Act

After tea Tommy Burke followed Meazer closely, but two hours passed before he observed any suspicious move.

Meazer wandered around the hotel, read a paper, spoke to a few men, and generally behaved in the manner of a man idling away his time. Suddenly, as if the idea had occurred to him or he had come to a decision, he made his way to the writing-room.

As this was late Saturday afternoon the writing-room was empty.

Meazer made his way to one of the writing-tables. Taking a piece of paper from his pocket, he picked up a pen and began to write.

Tommy Burke, watching from the doorway, gave a gasp of excitement. Meazer was writing with his left hand. From the awkward manner in which the pen was held, it was easy to see that this was not the writer’s normal position.

Tommy Burke hurried off to find his master. Returning with Hawke to the door of the writing-room, he pointed to the bent back of the industrious Meazer and whispered:

“He’s using his left hand.”

Dixon Hawke smiled.

“Easy, isn’t it, Tommy? However, we’ve got to get that letter. Go into the room, pick up an envelope or something, and stumble against Meazer. Make no noise, and try to catch a glimpse of what he is writing.”

Tommy carried out the instructions carefully.

As the lad stumbled against him, Meazer instantly covered his work and cursed the apologising Tommy profusely.

Tommy, however, had seen all that was necessary. The letter began — “Dear Miss Walsford.”

Picking up some sheets of writing-paper, Tommy renewed his apologies and hurried from the room.

Dixon Hawke nodded approval at his assistant’s information.

“Now we’ve got him. Just give him a few minutes to settle down again.”

Meazer watched Tommy’s exit suspiciously, and, muttering to himself, turned once more to his letter. For a few minutes he considered what he had written, then bent to his task.

Then a hand like a steel vice suddenly seized his wrist.

“Quite a pleasant after-dinner recreation, Mr. Meazer,” Hawke said.

Starting back in his chair, his eyes dilated with terror, Meazer gasped: “Who are you?”

Dixon Hawke ignored the question and glanced at the letter on the table.

The scandalous contents of the latest epistle were enough to prove beyond all shadow of doubt that Meazer was responsible for the poison-pen letters.

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Chapter 6

What the Letters Revealed

In his office that Saturday night was enacted a little drama which gave Dixon Hawke great satisfaction. Miss Walsford had just arrived, summoned by an urgent telephone message, and with her came her fiancé, Mr. Ralph Litteton.

“Look here, Mr. Hawke,” he burst out as the detective greeted him. “I wish you’d find the rat for me. You can claim any fee you like.”

Hawke smiled as he motioned him to a seat.

“I can appreciate your feelings. I presume Miss Walsford has acquainted you with the facts?”

“Yes. She told me the wretched story.”

Litteton took a seat beside his fiancée. As he did so he became aware of a man seated in a corner of the room.

“Hello, Meazer. What are you —By Jove, you —you are —”

With a start Litteton jumped to his feet, but Hawke intervened.

“Please, Mr. Litteton, you must remain quiet.”

Walking across the room, Dixon Hawke addressed the girl:

“Miss Walsford, I am glad to be able to give you a certain amount of satisfaction in this painful business. I have brought the author of those letters here to offer an apology. I regret this distressing scene, but since you do not wish publicity, I feel this my only alternative.”

Turning to the cringing Meazer, he continued:

“Now, please make your statement.”

Meazer rose from his chair and addressed the girl.

In halting sentences the man told how he had been employed by Litteton, and had been dismissed for pilfering. The dismissal had rankled in his mind until the announcement of his ex-employer’s engagement had given him the opportunity for revenge, and he had attempted to wound Litteton through the girl. He ended with an abrupt apology.

During this time Miss Walsford made no remark. It was obvious that the interview was as painful to her as it was to the wielder of the “poison pen.” When the man had finished Dixon Hawke stepped across to the door and pulled it open. On the threshold stood a man with a notebook in his hand.

“Did you get it all, Inspector?”

“Every word,” the man replied, and slipped handcuffs on Meazer, whom he led away.

When the police officer had gone with his prisoner, Hawke turned to Miss Walsford.

“I must apologise for the deception. Miss Walsford, but you realise that you owe that to the public. I think this fright will cure Meazer of any further “poison pen” attempts. There will be no names given at the trial, and you need fear no scandal.”

Alone with Tommy Burke after his clients had gone, Dixon Hawke turned to his assistant.

“I see the questions in your face, Tommy, and I think I owe you an explanation. I shall try to explain my line of deduction.”

Seating himself at his desk, Dixon Hawke arranged the letters and photographic prints before him, while Tommy watched his chief closely.

“You see,” Hawke began, “in the first place, the writing is laboured, which offers the obvious explanation that the writer was illiterate. If you will study the letters closely, however, you will see that they are balanced and written in good English. You will also observe certain characteristics —a certain flourish which denotes the practised writer. Now, when I write with my right hand there is a flourish to my writing which is the outcome of years of constant use of the pen; when I take the pen in my left hand I not unnaturally attempt to write my normal style. This is a mistake, as my left hand must be trained from simple forms, as has been my right.

“One other point. All normal people form the letter ‘o’ anti-clockwise. In these letters the word ‘ on ‘ occurs frequently, and friend Meazer in the first of the letters has formed the ‘o’ clockwise, which is easier with the left hand, but towards the end he has reverted to his normal style.

“There are other small points —for instance, where he has retouched with his right hand, but these are the main features. From them I concluded that the writer was a practised penman, and someone who, although not ambidextrous, had at least some skill with his left hand. Our little tour of the warehouse confirmed my deductions.”

“And Sheffield, guv’nor?”

“Well, the letters came from towns forming a circuit. I chose Sheffield as the next largest town on the circuit.”