Part One: A Land Fit for Heroes
In a lonely lane running through rural Leicestershire, a solitary bicycle lies on its side, its metal frame catching the glow of the fading evening light. Its front wheel slowly turns about its axle, producing a soft clicking; a rhythmic sound, soothing like the ticking of a study clock.
Next to the bicycle, lying at an angle across the road, is a young woman. She is partly on her back, partly on her left side, with her right hand almost touching the mudguard of the rear wheel. Her legs rest on the roadside verge, where fronds of white cow parsley and pink rosebay rise above luxuriant summer foliage. On her head sits a wide-brimmed hat, daintily finished with a ribbon and bow. She is dressed in a pastel blouse and long skirt underneath a light raincoat, the pockets of which contain an empty purse and a box of matches.
The blood-flecked coat tells a story: the afternoon had threatened rain, but the evening has brought death. The left side of her head is heavily bloodstained, and her brown eyes are fixed in a cold, lifeless stare. From underneath her hat, creeping fingers of crimson slowly percolate through the weathered gravel. A macabre trail of bloodied bird tracks leads back and forth from the body to a nearby wooden gate, its top also sporting the same marks like a sinister satanic rite. From the gate, a path has been beaten across the wispy grass of a small meadow, snaking towards a golden field of corn beyond. Unmistakably, it has been made by human feet - and recently.
The turning wheel comes to rest with a final click. On the other side of a high hedge, a grazing rabbit in the meadow freezes, its ears pricking up. For a fleeting moment there seems to be no sound or movement anywhere, not even a summer breeze to tremble the full-bodied birch trees that line the lane. Nature holds her breath, as if even she has been shocked into silence by the senseless act.
A deep bellow, like the tolling of a bell, echoes across the fields. Further along the lane, amid a sea of flicking tails and lolloping heads, a farmer nonchalantly herds his heifers. In a few languid minutes, accompanied by a raucous cawing of quarrelling crows in distant tree tops, the grisly scene will be discovered.
And the mystery will begin.
* * *
The singular circumstances of a dead cyclist lying in an isolated country lane with bloodied bird tracks to and from the body could have been lifted from a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the perplexed farmer in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street explaining his shocking discovery to a pensive Holmes puffing intently on his calabash pipe. If we blur the lines between fact and fiction for a moment, the dates fit. The unfortunate cyclist died in the summer of 1919, when the world's most famous detective was alive, at least to the readers of The Strand Magazine, with more cases yet to be solved.
There was no hawk-faced detective for Leicestershire Police to call upon to solve this intriguing case, although its officers acquitted themselves admirably, as you will see later. After a lucky break, and through sheer dogged detective work, a suspect was tracked down and stood trial for murder. However, the jury returned a 'not guilty' verdict and the case went cold - the ideal temperature to fascinate criminologists, which it has done for nearly a century. The nature of the crime, the period in which it is set, the character of the victim and the sinister behaviour of the suspect each contribute to make this a classic case to put before the Cold Case Jury.
I am inviting every reader to take a seat in the jury box. I will take you back to the scene of the crime to reconstruct several versions of how events unfolded, according to the three major theories that have been advanced to explain the untimely death of the young cyclist. I will impartially examine the evidence for each. I hope you will then give your verdict. You can enter your decision at the Cold Case Jury website, where you can also see a poll of how your fellow jurors have voted. The result should be a fascinating verdict in the court of public opinion on a death that has been described by one writer as the most fascinating English murder mystery of the twentieth century. On the website, you will also find my view of the case. But it is your opinion that matters. As in a real court of law, the verdict always rests with you, the jury.
How did the cyclist most likely die? As a member of the Cold Case Jury, this is the question on which you are being invited to reach a verdict. In this case there are three available verdicts: murder, manslaughter and misadventure. Your role is different from that of a juror at the real criminal trial in which the court asked: has the prosecution shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused murdered the victim? By contrast, you are being asked to look at the evidence, decide what is plausible and then deliver your verdict as to what most likely occurred on that summer's evening a century ago.
As well as examining the three major theories, in a later chapter you will be presented with recently unearthed evidence. Kept in a police safe for decades, it is a document that might change the whole complexion of the case and is being published in full for the first time. Like all the other evidence, it will be introduced and analysed at the appropriate time, but it will be for you to decide how it affects your eventual verdict.
For now, you need to be introduced to the victim and also understand the time in which she lived - and died. For the circumstances surrounding this unexplained death owe as much to the prevailing character of the period in which it occurred as to the idiosyncrasies of those involved. It is a Zeitgeist murder, one could say, and this quality supplies this case with its sheen of enduring fascination. Whether this death was actually murder, however, is for you to decide.
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