Author of Alex Rider, Foyle's War, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, TV and film writer, occasional journalist.


Short Story: Blackfriars Bridge

Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra

The perfect murder?

You want to know about that night on Blackfriars Bridge? Well, of course, I’m happy to tell you. It makes no difference now.

My victim’s name was Henry Allard. The motive? The oldest in the book, I’m afraid. The swine had been sleeping with my wife. He owned an antiquarian bookshop in Holborn and it was my wife’s passion for first editions that led her to him. How did I find out? Again, the answer is depressingly commonplace; a message she neglected to wipe from the answering machine and which I discovered, by accident, when I was home on my own.

I knew from the very beginning that I would kill Henry Allard but I also decided that his murder would be planned with the same eye for detail, the same precision that has made me something of a household name in the world of paediatric dentistry. I would consider every angle, every possibility. The murder would have to be clean and quick with no margin for error. I had read too many books where the killer was unmasked by the torn button, the footprint or the invisible speck of forensic dust. This would be different. It would have the precision of the fibre optic, high speed drill that I used daily in my work.

I spent two months working it out, and this is what I came up with: the blueprint for the extinction of my rival.

Allard had a dog, a dachshund which he walked every night across Southwark Bridge, along past the Tate and back over Blackfriars Bridge. He was quite religious about this. Even if he returned to the house after midnight, he would still give the dog its thirty minute exercise around the Thames. I would wait for a night when he walked late and would surprise him on Blackfriars Bridge, disguised in clothes which I would buy, for exactly this purpose, in Borough market. In the darkness of the night and wearing jeans, a hooded sweat shirt, trainers and gloves, I would pass for a young person, what the papers called a “hoodie” - and it helped that there had recently been a sharp rise in street crime in recent weeks. Using a kitchen knife, again purchased from the market, I would stab Henry Allard and throw his body into the dark water below. Then I would run away.

You think this crude? Let me assure you that my plan’s simplicity was its very essence. There would be no witnesses. Blackfriars Bridge is almost empty in the small hours of the night and anyone passing in a car would see exactly what I intended them to see. A young thug attacking a respectable old gentleman as he exercised his pet. No drivers would be able to follow me. My get-away route would take me down a twisting flight of concrete steps to the edge of the river itself and away in the cover of darkness.

I would destroy the clothes and with them any hope of forensic evidence that could link me with the crime. With any luck, Allard’s body would be sucked into the Thames and never found. And my wife? This was the clever part. A little anaesthetic, stolen from my dental surgery, would ensure that nothing would wake her. We would go to bed together. We would wake up together. There would be nothing to suggest that we had not been together the whole night.

I have to say that the construction and contemplation of this murder filled me with the utmost pleasure. True, it did not have the chicanery of, say, an Agatha Christie. It would barely have received the attention of any television detective worth his salt. But the true artistry was in its artlessness. Another example of urban violence. Another pinprick in the field of statistics. Perhaps two inches in the Evening Standard. “ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLER VANISHES. Police search for South London hoodie.” A crime that would never be solved and quickly forgotten.

What went wrong? What could go wrong? But, if you insist, let us proceed to the night itself.

I knew Allard would be out late. It was the annual dinner for AABS – the association of antiquarian book sellers – and a date that no self-respecting bibliophile would miss. My wife was, as I have explained, fast asleep in bed when I slipped out and waited in the shadows across the road from Henry Allard’s house. He arrived home in a taxi at exactly a quarter to one and at once I made my way to Blackfriars Bridge, knowing that he would arrive there soon enough.

Ah, Blackfriars at one o’clock in the morning! I always feel the night is never darker and the water never colder than in this little corner of London. There is something very Victorian about the bridge itself. Striving, I think, for an Italian effect with its five wrought iron arches, it is somehow mediocre. Look up the river and, in truth there is little to see: a mish-mash of classical and faux classical buildings with only the Oxo Tower a rather dubious landmark. But the east provides a truly spectacular view with St Paul’s in the foreground and the glitter and hype of the City beyond. In the middle of all this, Blackfriars Bridge is a sort of no-man’s-land. One could quite easily imagine Jack the Ripper striking here. In fact it has been home to only one famous murder. The Italian banker, Roberto Calvi, was found hanging here. I took it as a good omen that his killers were never caught.

One small part of my plan had already gone ever so slightly awry. The clothes that I was wearing were ill-suited to the weather. The jeans were too loose and there was a gap below the sweatshirt, exposing my stomach to the chill night air. It was drizzling slightly and it was freezing cold. In one sense, this was helpful. It made it almost certain that there would be no other pedestrians around. But I was shivering violently by the time Henry Allard arrived and almost fumbled, drawing out the knife.

That was the other slight surprise. Usually, he travelled in a clockwise direction, crossing the river from south to north. Tonight, for some reason, he came the other way and he had almost crept up behind me before I noticed him, walking quickly, pulling the dog behind. He seemed to be in pain, cradling his jaw in one hand. Did he have toothache? I would put an end to his suffering soon enough.

Wheeling round, I held up the knife, the blade glowing yellow in the street lamps. “You must pay for cheating me, Henry Allard,” I exclaimed.

“I’m not…” he began.

I plunged the knife into his chest with such force that the blade snapped. This was annoying as I had planned to take the weapon with me. I wanted to leave no clues should the body ever be found. But I had only just taken in this unforeseen development when I noticed something else.

It was not Henry Allard. I had stabbed the wrong man.

Now that I could see him more clearly, I realised that there was no resemblance at all. The man I had stabbed was much younger with a full head of hair. Seeing him with a dog, out at this time of the night, I had jumped to quite the wrong conclusion. And the dog was not even a dachshund. It was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier as I discovered soon enough when, with a snarl, it launched itself at my crotch, sinking its teeth through my trousers and into the fleshy part of my thigh.

I cried out with pain. At the same time, I was aware that I was spraying blood in all directions. This was infuriating. I had taken great care not to provide the police with any forensic evidence and now, thanks to this wretched animal (which was still dangling in mid-air between my legs), I was supplying it by the bucketful.

Even at this stage I was hopeful that, although the murder had not proceeded as planned, I would still be able to evade capture. After all, nobody knew who I was. I had no reason whatsoever to murder a complete stranger and so the police would be unable to find any motive. Nobody had seen me.

Alas, even in this belief I was mistaken. For I now realised that the young man had not been holding his head in pain. He had been talking to someone on his mobile phone. He was still talking.

“My God!” he was exclaiming. “I’ve just been stabbed on Blackfriars Bridge. Call the police. My attacker is about fifty. He’s short, with a hooked nose and a cleft in his chin. He’s dressed like a teenager in jeans and a hooded anorak. Rufus is biting him. He’ll need treatment…”

They were his last words. He fell to his knees and died – but by now, whomever he had been speaking to had a fairly good description. And it was true. The dog was doing terrible damage to me. How could I possibly receive medical treatment without drawing attention to myself?

I had to get rid of the dog. Dropping what remained of the broken knife, I reached down and tore it free. The entire leg of my jeans came with it, the rags hanging from its sharp little teeth. I threw the dog onto the pavement. It leapt back again and fastened itself onto my left arm. The pain was intense. Well, I would deal with it later. My every instinct told me that I had to get rid of the body, quickly, before anybody saw.

Ignoring the dog, I leant down and somehow managed to drag the young man to his feet. The road was still clear – but as I manoeuvred him to the edge of the bridge, a train rattled past on the railway section of Blackfriars Bridge. How could it possibly be running at that time of the night? And why was it so full? In all my exertions, the anorak had slipped and my face was fully visible. I was illuminated by the light from the windows as they streaked past and at least a dozen people clearly saw me.

Get rid of the body! That was still my only salvation. With all my strength, I tipped it over the side of the bridge.

In my view, it was sheer bad luck that a police boat happened to be passing at that precise moment. I heard the thump as the body hit the deck and, a moment later, the wail of the siren. I knew at once that my original escape route, down the steps and along the embankment, was now impossible. With the dog still clinging to me, I ran across the road, making for the lower reaches of Clerkenwell. I should have looked first. I never even saw the taxi that hit me. In truth, I remember nothing more.

I very nearly died of the pneumonia that I contracted that night but in the end I was fit to stand to trial and was sentenced to life imprisonment – not for one murder but for two. It seemed that I had given my wife too strong a dose of anaesthetic and she had died in her bed. I was rather sorry about that as I had always hoped we would be reconciled.

I was sent to the secure hospital at Rampton where I am now. And what is the moral of all this? Well, only that murder is not as easy as the crime writers suggest and that – as in my case – even the most carefully thought out plans can be disrupted by a slight shift circumstances.

But, between you and me, I am not disheartened. Over the past nine years I have been thinking a great deal and – I think I can confide in you – I have come up with what I can only describe as the perfect escape. You will understand if I don’t give you the details…at least, not yet.