murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Case of the Weighted Life Buoys


A Dixon Hawke Mystery

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

Est. Read Time: 13 mins

One learns to expect the unexpected, because human nature is so perverse, and mankind is so endowed with cussedness. Nevertheless, I confess that I have never before given a thought to the possibility of life-saving apparatus being used for the purpose of committing suicide ... or murder!




One learns to expect the unexpected, because human nature is so perverse, and mankind is so endowed with cussedness.”

The insurance agent agreed.

“Nevertheless,” continued Dixon Hawke, “I confess that I have never before given a thought to the possibility of life-saving apparatus being used for the purpose of committing suicide.”

“It’s certainly a bit of a novelty,” agreed the caller, rising. “Well, Mr Hawke, we’ll await your report on the matter in the usual way. Good-morning.”

The story which Hawke was shortly afterwards recounting to his assistant, Tommy Burke, concerned the salvage of a twenty-foot sailing boat from Yarthorpe Bay.

“There was a rough, circular hole in the bottom of it, forward, underneath the decked-in locker,” remarked Hawke, “and this appeared to have been deliberately cut. It had been patched from the inside with a piece of tarpaulin, nailed down, and caulked with pitch — a very crude and foolish kind of repair.”

“It was a pretty old boat, eh?” queried Tommy.

“No. That’s the remarkable thing about it. The boat was brand new.”

“Wasn’t the tarpaulin patch effective?”

“It might have been had it been left intact, but it was split right across, as though somebody had put his heel through it.”

“An accident?”

“It wasn’t in a position where it could have been trodden on accidentally. As I say, it was inside the forward locker.”

“Somebody must have accidentally dropped some sharp, heavy object on it.”

“Perhaps. But now we come to the really odd side of the business. The bodies of two passengers were hauled to the surface. These were a man and a woman, and round the body of each was a circular lifebuoy.”

“What? Then why didn’t they float?”

”Because attached to each lifebuoy was a piece of rope connected to a fifty-six-pound weight, presumably used in the boat for ballast and anchorage.”

“That’s a silly sort of thing to do with lifebuoys! By the way, is it usual to carry those things in small sailing boats?”

“No. The life-saving jacket is more usual, since it occupies less space. These lifebuoys were a shade smaller than the usual ship’s lifebuoys, so that they fitted rather tightly about tho bodies.”

Hawke paused to light his pipe, at which he puffed reflectively for a space.

”The dead man was Hector Morgan, a salesman,” he proceeded, “and the woman was Miss Isobel Duckworth, a millinery buyer. I understand that she was a handsome woman, of striking personality, with whom Morgan had been acquainted for several months.

”Now, as Morgan insured his life less than a year ago, the suicide clause applies, and if he took his own life the claim is not payable. We are asked to ascertain whether it was suicide or accident.

”If you support the accident argument,” went on Hawke, “you have to explain away the extraordinary circumstance of those weights being attached to the lifebuoys. And if you favour the suicide idea you have the equally difficult poser as to why lifebuoy’s were employed at all.

”Naturally, therefore,” the detective continued,”we look to see if there could be a third explanation, having no contradictions and illogicalities in it.”

”The third explanation, of course, would be that it was murder,” exclaimed Tommy. “Do you mean that either Morgan or the woman secretly tied those weights to the lifebuoys with the object of committing both suicide and murder?”

”That is what was in my mind,” agreed Hawke.

”In that case, our job is to find out which of them was the perpetrator and which the victim.”

”Not likely to be easy, is it, eh?” remarked Hawke.



On arrival at Yarthorpe. Hawke called on Mr. Pargeter, the manager of the Yarthorpe Boat-building Yard.

Mr Morgan, the boat-builder said, had called on him about three weeks previously and purchased the boat in which he had gone to his death, paying £175 in cash. He had berthed it in the harbour, and had since sailed it once or twice in the evenings. Mr Pargeter did not know Mr Morgan’s address, nor anything about him, apart from his making that particular transaction.

At the local police station Hawke inspected the odds and ends which had been taken from the salvaged boat’s locker. The only item which appeared to interest him was the discarded stub of a cheque-book.

It was of the type issued by the Southern Union Bank, but the counterfoils gave no clue as to the branch from which the book had been issued.

One of the entries was “Self — £175.”

“That’s the price of the boat, Tommy,” Hawke pointed out to his assistant. “I wonder why he didn’t give the boat people a cheque instead of drawing cash?”

Subsequent inquiries during that day yielded the bewildering information that neither Morgan nor Miss Duckworth had ever had an acccount with the Southern Union Bank.

With a view to getting information on her past life which might tend to show whether or not she was a potential suicide before her death, Hawke called on the employers of the late Miss Duckworth.

There, in a department-store at Westwick, some twenty miles from Yarthorpe, he learned of her friendship with a married man, a Mr. Mervyn Quintock.

Mention of his name always occasioned the hesitant half-smile and the doubtful exchange of glances, and the reason became apparent when Hawke met Quintock in the Westwick Golf Clubhouse.

Hawke was able to have a highly-confidential talk with liim in a corner of the deserted lounge.

“She was like a magnet to me, a magnet, my dear fellow,” he said, when Hawke mentioned Miss Duckworth. “It was an affinity stronger than even I, a poet, would have thought possible.”

“I understood,” said Hawke mildly, “that you were an estate agent.”

Mr. Quintock winced and clicked his tongue, but made no reply to Hawke’s statement.

He sighed, rose, and walked round his chair, before reverting to the subject of Miss Duckworth.

“She was part of me, don’t you understand ! When she and I were near one another it was like the approach of positive and negative electrical elements!

“But I am married, Mr Hawke. I am tied to another woman, and my soul was on the rack, for I realised I must do what was right. I must do the right thing, you see — the right thing … ”

His voice trailed off, and he was introspective for a moment.

“The thought of breaking my vows, of — of ridding myself of my obligations,” he resumed presently, “was as intolerable to me as — as the thought of not being able to — to possess this other — to remain in communion with my affinity.

“And now,” Quintock continued, “how do you imagine I felt in face of Miss Duckworth’s ultimatum?

“‘It cannot go on like this,’ she said. “Another man has come into my life now.’ Another man!”

Quintock shuddered.

“The thought was utterly unbearable, but she was uncompromising. Either I left my wife and went away with Miss Duckworth or she would marry this — this other man!

“I had to choose between going away with her and doing the right thing — the socially, humanely right thing.”

He walked restlessly to the window and stood staring out, his twitching hands clasped behind his back.

“By the way,” said Hawke after .a time, “did you ever meet this man, Morgan?”

“No,” answered Quintock in an almost inaudible voice.



Hawke was presently talking to the club secretary in the latter’s office.

“Oh, Quintock,” said that robust gentleman, looking nauseated. “Wait a minute. I must collect his sub. He said he was going to pay it to-day.”

He returned a moment later with a cheque-book.

“Our tame Shelley has gone into a poetic coma,” he said, “and can’t be bothered with such sordid things. I had to take his cheque-book and fill it in myself.

“His wife would have been a jolly sight better off,” he added presently, “if he’d left her. He never takes her about. Treats her like a doormat, and thinks it’s very decent of himself to grace the home with his presence.”

One of the club members whom Hawke afterwards met was a local doctor, who happened to be an old acquaintance.

At mention of Quintock, the doctor frowned.

“He told me all about it,” he said, “and asked my advice. Perhaps I ought not to tell you this, Hawke, but I will. He aroused in my mind the conviction that he was toying with the idea of poisoning his wife. I became so certain that he was thinking on those lines when he spoke of his wife’s failing health that I spoke to him very bluntly about it.”

After his interview with the doctor, the criminologist left the clubhouse, and having instructed Tommy to drive him as quickly as possible over to Yarthorpe, he remained very thoughtful during the run.

When they returned from Yarthorpe, bringing Mr Pargeter with them, Quintock was leaving the clubhouse and making towards his car, which was parked on a piece of waste ground at the back of the professional’s hut.

“Of course I know him,” said Pargeter when Hawke pointed Quintock out to him.

They had just alighted from the detective’s car, and were standing some thirty yards away from Quin took, who was not in a position to see them.

The boat-builder made his remark in astonishment, and turned a questioning gaze on Hawke.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Whose body was it that was pulled out of the bay?”


“But I tell you that’s Morgan over there.”

“Yon mean,” said Hawke, “that he is the man who, calling himself Morgan, came to you and bought the boat.”

Pargeter nodded vigorously.

“He certainly is.”

“I fancy,” said Hawke as Quintock drove away, “we have enough information now to justify our putting the police on to him.”

They drove into the town, where they saw the man leaving the Southern Union Bank.

“It was his use of a Southern Union cheque-book, which I saw in the clubhouse, that put the idea into my head,” remarked Hawke. “Perhaps we’d better keep track of him in case my interview with him should have persuaded him to leave the district.”

The occupants of Hawke’s car exchanged significant nods on noting Quintock’s start when, happening to turn, he saw Pargeter in the detective’s company.

Quintock’s car snaked away through the traffic at a reckless speed, and Tommy had difficulty in keeping track of him.

The chase led into Yarthorpe, where Quintock again got well ahead.

Near the docks of the busy little port they almost lost him. They were prevented from following for several exasperating minutes while a long line of goods trucks crawled slowly along the outer dock road.

After a ten minutes’ search they found the car parked by a pile of merchandise on one of the jetties, but there was no sign of Quintock.

Pargeter had a pocket telescope, which he directed towards the open sea.

Turning, he handed the powerful glass to Hawke, who saw the lone figure of the self-styled poet sitting in the stem of a motor launch, which was already a couple of miles from the shore.

“He seems to have hired Joe Greenway’s speedboat,” remarked Pargeter.

“I wonder if he means to try to escape along the coast,” said Hawke.

“He appears to be heading straight out to sea. He’s taking a mighty long chance if he hopes to get picked up.”

“It’s more likely a romantic form of suicide. It’s just about the style of thing with which I would credit him.”

”Joe Greenway’s is a pretty fast boat,” said Pargeter, “but I’ve got one that’s got an extra knot or two.”




Hawke, his assistant, and Pargeter were presently gliding out of the harbour in a cabin cruiser three times larger than the one they were pursuing.

Thev had been following the smaller craft for nearly an hour; the sun had set and the light was fading out of the sky when Pargeter glanced anxiously at the fuel indicator, and expressed the opinion that they had better turn back.

They were now riding great mounds of swell, and it was difficult to keep the smaller craft in view.

“He’s only a few yards ahead,” stated Hawke, who had been peering out through the gloom and the curtain of spray. “Hang on a little longer.”

A moment later he shouted a warning to Pargeter.

“Look out! He’s turned. He’s coming straight at us all out. He means mischief!”

Glancing over the port side, Tommy saw the sharp prow of the small launch cutting its way over the top of an enormous roller.

Its speed increased by the current, it raced down at them, and, had not Pargeter wrenched the wheel round in the nick of time, it would have cut the larger boat in two.

The passengers were flung to the floor and deluged with the huge quantities of water that were shipped by the manoeuvre.

The light was now failing very rapidly, and, whilst bailing feverishly, they had to keep a look-out on all quarters.

Presently there was a shout from Tommy, “Here he comes.”

This time Quintock was charging from the starboard side.

Hawke had determined on his course of action, and as Pargeter swung about once more, be sprang for the boat that came shooting by.

He caught its gunwale, and, in the same instant, realised that he was in imminent danger of having his head crushed between the two boats.

His shoulders were painfully scraped, and, for a second, he found himself in the churning, foaming water within an inch or so of the cabin cruiser’s whirling propeller.

He felt his fingers slipping slightly as the small launch roared on its way, but he contrived somehow to hang on, with his body bouncing over the surface of a sea which seemed to have become solid.

In such circumstances he could not have pulled himself into the boat, and would eventually have been compelled to let go had he not been literally thrown in.

Quintock, who was not aware of his presence, had turned again sharply, and this brought Hawke’s body hurtling up over the side.

Handicapped by the bouncing of the boat and his own exhaustion, Hawke found it impossible to drag Quintock away from the tiller. At the same time he was aware of the close proximity of Pargeter’s boat.

With the shouts of Pargeter and Tommy in his ears he made a supreme effort and threw his whole weight on the man. They were flung heavily against the side of the boat, and there was a loud scraping sound as the small launch struck the big one a glancing blow.

The small craft overturned, and Hawke had the horrible sensation of being trapped beneath it. But only for a moment. The pressure of the air thrust it on its side before it sank.

A moment later he was dragged aboard the cabin cruiser by Pargeter and Tommy. Whilst he lay there in a dazed and semi-conscious state he heard Pargeter say:

“I’m afraid he’s in a bad way. I’ve seen enough cases to know the signs.”

He opened his eyes, to discover that they were talking about Quintock, to whom they were applying artificial respiration.

When eventually, with their petrol supply almost exhausted, they reached harbour, it was quickly established that Quintock was dead.

Hawke later recounted his story to the local police superintendent.

“Remarks Quintock made to a doctor friend of mine,” he concluded, “tend to show that he was toying with the idea of murdering his wife, but he decided that that was not the right thing to do. He was terribly anxious to solve his love problem in the right way — so he murdered the other woman! It is quite easy to imagine how he lured her and her new boy friend out for a night trip in his specially-prepared murder boat, and hustled them into the fatal lifebuoys when the boat foundered, afterwards swimming ashore himself, possibly with the aid of a cork jacket.”