murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Case of the Social Climbers


A Dixon Hawke Mystery

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

Est. Read Time: 16 mins

Will John Burton's ruse win him love and social status or will it just end up being a silly game of make-believe that leads to murder?



John Burton took a pin from his coat lapel and carefully elaborated the filigree tracery with which he had previously covered the surface of his cigarette case.

“I like that,” said Lucinda Mowbray, gazing at the case across the lavishly-equipped luncheon table. “Give it to me, please.”

Burton gave her the case, and she put it in her handbag, where she had put many another of Burton’s presents during the brief period in which they had been acquainted.

Deprived of this outlet for his nervous energy, he fidgeted in his seat, and flipped open the folded paper which had rested on the table at his elbow.

As he did so, the bill was placed at his other elbow by a waiter. Burton glanced at it, taking care to display no more than bored interest, and turned again to the paper.

“I see this chap, Dixon Hawke, has recovered those Hatton Garden jewels. I’ll bet he makes some money.”

He had involuntarily emphasised the “he,” and the girl was quick to notice this.

“But surely,” she said, “you’re not interested in making money?”

“Eh? Oh—er—no. Rather not. I have all I need, thank goodness.”

He strove to make light conversation, and on this occasion he did not acquit himself too well, for his mind kept drifting back to the subjects of Dixon Hawke, of criminal investigation, and of the business of “making money.”

Things were not going right for him. He had “borrowed” some three hundred pounds from the bank where he was employed as ledger-clerk, and that wealthy uncle of his, Arnold Croxton, had failed to “come across ” with the usual annual substantial gift which would have enabled him to put things right.

The silly old fool was having a love affair with a nursemaid, and she was the cause of the trouble. Burton had not seen her, and he only knew of her existence through vague rumours from Fenside, Croxton’s country home.



Burton was feeling a white-hot resentment against this unknown nursemaid, this intruder who threatened to rob him of his inheritance, and even his liberty. Already he saw the prison gates looming ahead on account of her. In a slightly lesser degree, he was infuriated with his uncle.

Croxton, his sole surviving relative, was his mother’s brother. His mother had eloped with a chauffeur, and Burton, consequently, did not belong in Croxton’s class of society, though Croxton had been benevolently disposed to him since his parents’ death.

It was Croxton who had given him the taste for extravagant living, and the mess in which he now found himself was, he argued, Croxton’s fault.

On the other hand, it was Croxton who had introduced him to Carlotti’s Club, where he now was, and it was through visiting Carlotti’s that he had got to know Lucinda. And Lucinda meant everything to him.

“I’ll meet you here again tomorrow?” he asked as they rose. Lucinda eyed him half mockingly.

“When are you going to invite me to your place in Mayfair?” she demanded.

“Oh—er—I’ve got the decorators in just now,” he said glibly. “I’m staying at one of my clubs, you know.” As he spoke he was agonisingly conscious of how the bottom would fall out of his world if she ever suspected that he lived in lodgings in Brixton.



Burton settled the bill, and having put Lucinda in a taxi, he walked citywards. All the way to the bank, his mind was grappling desperately with reality.

He had another three clear days. His exposure would then be a certainty. Probably he was already suspected. Would his “borrowings ” be discovered even if he raised the money in time for the audit?

He thought of Dixon Hawke. His bank retained the services of Hawke. Would the detective come probing, spying, asking questions?

At the bank that afternoon things began to look blacker for Burton. There was no mistaking the manager’s attitude. He suspected. He might arrange a surprise audit before the three days were up. Something had to be done, and done at once.

At six o’clock Burton got in the big sports car that was partly responsible for his trouble and drove off towards Fenside. The car had cost him nearly three hundred pounds, and now, such was the condition of the second-hand market, he could not realise a hundred on it.

He cursed the second-hand market, and fumed against the woman who had won his uncle’s affections. What was her name? he asked himself, as he drove on. Maggs. Sarah Maggs! She was nursemaid to some kids at a house in Moreton, eighteen miles from Fenside.

Old Brown, his uncle’s gardener, had told him about her.

His uncle, according to Brown, had “fallen for her real bad.” He had bought her innumerable presents, including a baby car. The old ass was being so extravagant in his attentions that he was obliged to neglect his nephew.

Thus ranged Burton’s thoughts during the drive to Fenside. The last part of the journey, between Moreton and Fenside, was over steeply undulating hills, gashed in several places by deep chalk-pits.

In one place the road ran along the edge of one of these quarries. It was dangerous in the extreme. Only a broken-down wire fence and a sloping strip of glass separated the road from a three-hundred-foot precipice.

“A simple way of bumping anybody off—just force their car over the edge!” he reflected, and he started as the idle notion passed through his head.



Burton turned his car in to the drive of Fenside House, his uncle’s home. There was a baby car at the door, and he ground his teeth at the sight of it.

The butler showed him into the library.

“Mr. Croxton will be with you shortly,” said the man. “He has a visitor at the moment.”

“Miss Maggs?” asked Burton casually.

“Yes, sir. They’re in the drawingroom.”

With difficulty Burton concealed his impatience and anger, and when the butler had left the room he paced up and down, puffing furiously at a cigarette. Then he strode irritably across to the radio and switched it on.

“Before the news,” said the announcer’s voice, “here is a police message. At six o’clock last night a cyclist was knocked down at Kingston by a blue saloon car, which did not stop. Will the driver of the car, or anyone who saw the accident, communicate with New Scotland Yard, telephone number–”

Burton switched off.

How often, he wondered, did the police trace these cars which ran people down and failed to stop? The announcements were made frequently, yet one never heard of the driver being traced when his number had not been taken.

He strolled out through the French windows into the garden, and it was from the shrubbery near the orchard that he eventually saw Miss Maggs depart.

He could not form any opinion of her personal charms, on account of the distance between them and the fact that her back was towards him all the time she was within view. From his uncle’s solicitous behaviour as he fussed round her, however, it was evident that Croxton had a very high opinion of them indeed.

She climbed into the baby car and drove off up the steep hill in the direction of Moreton.

“You know, I can’t promise to do this again, my boy,” Croxton was saying a quarter of an hour later. “We all have to learn to draw our horns in at times, I mean.”

Ho was forcing a tone of severity, being in a far from severe mood.

“You see,” he said, a trifle diffidently, “I don’t intend remaining an irresponsible old bachelor much longer.”

“Are you going to marry that nurse?” asked Burton bluntly.

“Well,” was the rejoinder, “what if I am? Nice, wholesome, sweet-natured girl. Look after me, dash it! Prevent me doing silly things like this. And anyway she’s not a nursemaid any longer—gave up her job some time ago, on my suggestion. Would never have done for me to be marrying somebody’s employed servant, you know.”

He took his fountain pen from his pocket and signed a cheque.

Before he left, Burton learned that Miss Maggs was a nightly visitor to Fenside House, and he was very thoughtful as he drove back to London.

The next day, after he had made good his defalcations, with the help of his uncle’s cheque, he once more visited Carlotti’s.

Lucinda did not turn up.

She often acted in this capricious way, and her absence served as an acute reminder of what life would be like without her. He could not bear the thought of it. He had to live up to her world. He just had to have old Croxton’s money.



“Before the news,” said the announcer’s voice, as Tommy Burke switched on the wireless in Dixon Hawke’s Dover Street study, “here is a police message. At about ten o’clock last night Miss Sarah Maggs, a nurse, of Moreton, drove her car over a cliff-edge near the village of Fenside. She was returning from a visit to the home of Mr. Arnold Croxton, and it is believed that a fast sports car, which drove by without allowing her sufficient room, forced her to drive on to the grass. Her car skidded over the grass, through a broken fence, and toppled over the precipice. She was instantly killed. The sports car did not stop, and continued in the direction of London. Will the driver of this car, who may not have been aware of the accident, please communicate–’ ’

“Arnold Croxton,” said Tommy. “That’s the uncle of one of these bank clerks listed for inquiry.”

Certain irregularities had been suspected by the London United Bank, at a branch of which Burton worked, but no definite proof bad been forthcoming. It had been Hawke’s task to inquire into the mode of life of certain of the staff.

It was one of those uncongenial but necessary routine tasks, and Hawke had deputed it to Tommy.

“The chap’s name is Burton,” said the youth. “John Burton. He goes to Carlotti’s, but that doesn’t mean anything wrong at the bank. He bites the uncle’s ear a good deal.”

Both forgot the matter until the following morning, when Hawke was visited by Arnold Croxton himself.

Croxton was in a distracted, almost hysterical state.

“You can’t bring her back to me,” he said, after explaining how matters stood, “but, by heavens, you can see justice done. You must find this infernal road hog. The police are no good. They pigeonhole it. What are we coming to that hare-brained idiots can go about killing people like this, and get away with it?”

Hawke did his best to calm the man, and finally accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at Fenside House and make a personal inquiry into the fatality.

On arrival there he was introduced to a burly and somewhat petulant young man, who sat on a leather fender seat in the drawingroom, moodily scratching patterns on a new cigarette- case with a pin.

“This is my nephew,” announced Croxton, “John Burton.”

From the first moment of their meeting Hawke sensed that the young man was curiously interested in him, and this feeling grew to a conviction as time went on.

Burton followed him about, and Hawke several times found him watching him as though about to speak but unable to pluck up the resolution to do so.



The detective visited the local police station, where he made a careful inspection of the wrecked car and its contents.

Afterwards he went to the cliff-top and searched the ground.

He noted that one of the soft wooden posts of the broken wire fence had been struck by some heavy metallic object about a foot from ground level.

Pointing it out to Tommy, he remarked: “That was made by the hub of a big car. It wasn’t done by the baby car.”

“That doesn’t get us very far, does it?” exclaimed Tommy.

“I’m afraid not. The chances of our ever tracing the thing are pretty remote.”

Returning to the house, Hawke was cornered by Burton, who, after some display of nervous hesitancy, said: “I wonder if you would undertake a commission for me, Mr. Hawke. I’m very anxious to trace the whereabouts of a friend of mine in London. A Miss Lucinda Mowbray.”

He spoke in distinctly agitated tones, and worked away furiously with the pin on his cigarette case.

“I’m no good at inquiries,” he explained. “Haven’t the cheek to go up to hotel waiters and other people asking vague questions; but it would be easy for you.”

Hawke smiled at this.

“I do my best,” he said. “You sound very interested in the young lady.”

“I am,” was the fervent answer. “I don’t know what I shall do if I can’t find her.”

“Dear me. In that case, I shall have to see what I can do. You’re something of an engraver, I see.”

“Oh, I’m always doing this. I can’t resist a plain metal surface. I want to draw flowers and leaves all over it. Especially when I’m — er — deep in thought. By the way, Lucinda has one of my engraved cases. I gave it to her the last time we met. Perhaps that’s a clue, eh? If you see a young lady with a cigarette-case engraved like this you’ll know its Lucinda, I mean.”

“Quite,” answered Hawke dryly. “I’ll be on the lookout. Incidentally, is Miss Mowbray not likely to try to get in touch with you?”

Burton coloured slightly.

“I—she doesn’t know I’m a bank clerk. You see, she belongs in society, and she thinks–”

“Oh,” said Hawke shortly.

Burton had revealed his snobbishness, and the man from Dover Street did not suffer snobs gladly.

Shortly after this interview a very odd thought occurred to the detective, and he returned to the police station, where he had an interview with the superintendent.



Hawke and Tommy drove back to London on the Sunday night.

“A deucedly odd business this,” commented the detective, and Tommy was puzzled.

“I don’t see much in it, sir; frankly, I don’t.”

They were passing over the road near the chalk quarry, and Hawke pointed to the grass verge where the disaster had occurred.

“It was no accident,” he said. “The sports car not only drove the little one on to the grass; it followed. It actually pushed the nurse’s car over the edge, for its hub struck that post.”

During the next few days Tommy was busy with Burton’s commission.

He inquired at Carlotti’s, and the commissionaire recalled the lady he sought.

“She hasn’t been here for several days,” he said. “All I can tell you about her is that she sometimes got in a taxi and called to the driver to take her to the Berkeley Hotel.”

So Tommy inquired at the Berkeley Hotel and learned that no Lucinda Mowbray was known there.

“It looks,” remarked Hawke, “as though she was a fake as well. The instructions to the taxi-driver to drive her to the Berkeley were probably to impress Burton.”

“You think they were a pair of snobs kidding one another about their social standing, eh, guv’nor?”

“Yes, but I’d like to check it as far as possible. See what you can find out from the taxi-drivers.”

When all inquiries had been completed Hawke sought out Burton. Six days had slipped by, and he learned that the young bank clerk was spending another weekend at Fenside. He was pursuing a policy of “keeping in” with his uncle.

“That’s excellent,” said the detective. “Just where I want him to be. Off we go. Tommy. He’ll be mightily interested to know that we’ve finally discovered the whereabouts of his Lucinda.”

He interviewed Burton that evening in the garden at Fenside.

“What news?” asked the young man.

“I’ve traced Lucinda Mowbray.”

“You have? Where is she? For heaven’s sake tell me. I must see her.”

But Hawke did not satisfy his curiosity.

“All in good time,” he said. “Remember I have other inquiries to attend to. Yours isn’t my only case. There’s this question of the quarry crash, for instance. I have a line on that, and it’s chiefly on that account that I came down here.”

Hawke calmly put his hand in his hip pocket and produced an elaborately, though amateurishly, engraved cigarette case.

Burton stared at it, and was beside himself with excitement.

“That’s it. That’s the case I gave Lucinda. Where is she? Did she give it to you to return to me?”



Hawke returned the case to his pocket. “I’m going up the hill,” he said, “to have another look at the scene of that accident.”

He began to move away, and, as he had expected, Burton came after him.

“I’ll drive you up there,” said Burton. “You mustn’t keep me on tenterhooks. Tell me–”

Burton got out his car and drove the detective up the hill.

At the latter’s request he drew the car in to the left-hand side of the road, and was still asking vain questions when Hawke set about examining the damaged wooden post.

He picked it up and carried it across the grass, trailing the wires after it.

He placed it against the nearside front wheel of the car.

“As I thought,” he said. “This indentation exactly fits your hub-cap. Now, would you like to tell me where you were on the night when Miss Maggs was killed?”

Burton was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse with terror.

“You—you trapped me into coming up here, you—you–”

“Yes,” Hawke said evenly. “I trapped you into coming here with me. Not only that, but I left word with my assistant to follow us and to bring the police superintendent with him. And there, I think, is the police car coming up the hill now.”

Burton looked round wildly.

“But what–” he choked. “Even if I was the driver of that sports car, it was an accident, wasn’t it? I couldn’t–”

“It was no accident.” Hawke’s voice was pitilessly cold. “I have sufficient evidence to prove that it was murder. You deliberately forced that unfortunate young woman’s car over the edge.”

The police car came to a standstill beside them, and the superintendent produced a pair of handcuffs as he stepped out.

“Tell me one thing,” demanded Burton, before he was taken away. “Where is Lucinda?”

“You and she,” said Hawke, “were both playing the same silly game of make-believe, each thinking the other a means of social climbing. You both had the same idea, and were, by chance, both introduced to Carlotti’s by the same person. Lucinda Mowbray,” he added, “is dead. Murdered.”

“What!” shouted Burton. “Who killed her?”

“You did. You see, I found this cigarette case in Miss Sarah Maggs’ handbag.”