The Case of the Portly Murderer

The answer lies with one small but crucial clue that has been left behind on the carriage.

"So tell me, what brought you to criminal investigation as a way of life?"

Lindenbaum and I had journeyed together from the tragedy of the woodcutter at Mistendorf, and were continuing north towards Berlin, he to return to his hometown of Amsterdam, and I to continue my poorly planned exploration of Europe. Our train had several stations still to go through before we reached Munich, and we had stopped at one small station in the middle of flat arable land, to enjoy ten minutes or so of easier chatter without the gushing sounds of the steam engine.

"What a question!" he said. "Well, I suppose like anybody, it was a combination of interests and happenstance. I remember once as a small boy, I was on holiday with my parents in Normandy. We had finished all the activities that we'd planned, but still had a day left before our return. Father decided we should spend the day relaxing beside the Seine - no doubt a blessed luxury for adults, but a situation that could only bore a small boy. As I sat on the riverbank, I saw three birds flying swiftly through the sky. I watched them as they flew out of sight, then I asked myself, where were they going so earnestly? Why were there places that were so much better for birds that they had to reach there so quickly? How had they learnt this? And how did they communicate with each other, and why was it so important that they go there together? I wondered if it had something to do with what they called 'migration' - then I realised that they'd been flying west, and I had some vague conception that birds only migrate between north and south..."

"And did you ever find answers to those questions?"

"Alas, I can't recall. But it may be my earliest memory of wanting to know the answers to things. And soon I found that the answers to some questions brought questions of their own. I remember, before I was married, I was getting to know her... I was a young man, in love, and I asked her, what is in your heart? And she said to me, no, it is too early for words. Was that the moment that I knew she was the girl I wanted to marry? Ah... some questions can never be answered."

The train's whistle shrieked, and we began to pull out. As our compartment drew almost to the end of the platform, I saw a man standing there, looking back toward the building. As if he sensed me watching him, he suddenly turned to meet my eye. He was large, with a round, bald head, and a huge belly that comes from drinking too much beer. His cheeks seemed to push inward and open his mouth, and his eyes were surrounded by wide, bruise coloured circles. Our eyes met for only a moment, as the train moved past, but I was unsettled by the encounter, in a way I could not explain.

"Good Lord," I said.

"Do you mean the farmer? Yes, he was an unpleasant looking fellow!"

"How do you know he is a farmer?"

Lindenbaum shrugged.

"Well, his hands and arms were covered in dirt, and most of this part of the country is farmland. Of course I don't know for sure, but if he were the subject of a criminal investigation, these facts would help to point us in the right direction!"

After a while the train slowed as it drew into the next station. I examined my timetable.

"There's a mistake of some kind - we aren't scheduled to stop here."

Lindenbaum looked out of the window.

"A German train? I doubt it."

The train sat at the platform for some time, but no passengers seemed to get on or off. There was a knock on the door of our compartment, then it was wrenched open. Two men stood there, one of whom wore the uniform of a police officer. The other had no smile on his face, and he leant forward in a way that I found slightly threatening. He immediately began to address us in German, then he and Lindenbaum entered into a discussion. At some point Lindenbaum pointed to me and said my name, then he offered some identification to the man. He gave a slight nod of approval and handed it back to Lindenbaum. They continued to converse for some time, then Lindenbaum turned to me.

"This is Senior Inspector Engel of the Bavarian State Police. He is investigating a serious crime that has been committed on this train - a man has been found murdered in a compartment of the carriage behind this one. I've shown him my credentials, he knows of my reputation as an investigator, and he has allowed me to follow him in this matter and assist in any way I can. I'd be grateful if you'd accompany us, although I must of course ask for your discretion."

"By all means. But as I can't speak German, I don't see that I can be of any use."

"This is clearly a serious situation, Albert. It's because you don't speak German that I can't leave you alone, or there may be some misunderstanding."

We stepped out of our compartment, and followed the inspector. As we moved along the passage, Lindenbaum repeated the story to me.

"It appears the victim has been strangled with a leather belt - his name was Dmitri Orloff, and he was a representative of a steel manufacturer. He wears braces, so the belt doesn't belong to him. The police observed that the belt was rather long - the distance between the buckle and the most chafed hole was measured, and it indicates a man of extreme girth. The victim still has money on his person, but his suitcase has been forced open. If there was anything inside of value, it has been taken. The murder was discovered by the conductor two hours ago, an hour after he came on duty at Bamberg. He says the night conductor reported nothing unusual. Apart from the victim, there were eight people on the carriage, and at this stage there is no obvious reason to suspect any of them, or indeed anybody on the train, although they continue to be questioned. It will be difficult to determine where on the line the murder occurred, and the criminal will almost certainly have fled from a station before this one. But perhaps somebody will have noticed something that could help us."

"Do you think that farmer at the last station may have been involved?" I suggested.

"Maybe. He was wearing overalls, but the belt could still belong to him."

The inspector took us out onto the platform to talk to the conductor of the carriage. He was a short man with a cap that was too big for his head. Lindenbaum looked him in the eye.

"I'm told there is little you can tell us."

"Yes, I am sorry, sir," the porter replied. "The journey had been totally normal until I discovered the poor man's body, just after we left the last station."

"And the night conductor, he said nothing."


"Is he a friend of yours?"

"Boris? I wouldn't say so. But he is a good man. We have worked on the trains for a long time. He must have checked the man's ticket, probably just before Erlach."

"Did you hear any noise at all that you did not understand?"

"Er... no, I don't... Oh, perhaps there..."

Lindenbaum leant forward, and said sharply,


"...No. No, I don't think so..."

"Or did you, perhaps, see anyone on the train who was extremely large? Perhaps a person walking with his hands in his pockets, as if to hold up his trousers?"

"Ha ha! Das ist lustig! No, I did not see that."

"Never mind. If you remember anything at all, please tell one of the officers."

As we re-boarded the carriage I whispered to Lindenbaum,

"I say, do you think a belt could have been hidden under that cap?"

"A good idea, Albert. Let us keep it in mind."

I followed Lindenbaum and the inspector as they moved through the compartments of the train, questioning the passengers further. The inspector asked most of the questions, and occasionally Lindenbaum asked something more, with a gentle but penetrating look. As we approached one compartment, the inspector turned to Lindenbaum.

"This woman says she has seen and heard nothing, but as you will see, she is afraid."

The woman in the compartment was middle-aged and quite plump, but not excessively so. She wore a dark, shabby trenchcoat. As the inspector had observed, the woman seemed to be consumed by fear, shaking and starting at noises. Lindenbaum's manner softened, and he asked his questions more slowly.

"What is your name?"

"Mette, Mette Paul."

"Now, Mette, the officers tell me that you cannot help us."

"No, I have seen nothing. I was asleep."

"I understand. Where did you board the train?"

"No, no, I have seen nothing, please!"

"Mette, I promise you that you are not in danger."

"Please, I have seen nothing!"

As gentle as Lindenbaum was, he did not learn a thing. As we left her compartment, Lindenbaum exchanged a look with the inspector.

"When people are in such an extreme state, they're often hard to read. We should leave her be for the moment, and if she needs to be questioned again, let me do it alone."

The acumen of my friend was beginning to make itself so evident that the inspector gradually gave him the responsibility of the questioning. As we reached the next compartment, the inspector turned to Lindenbaum.

"This woman told one of the officers of a fat man she saw running along the platform - she had not been told of the length of the belt we found, so one would assume she is not making something up."

We knocked, then entered the compartment. Inside was a small woman, old and scrawny, wearing cheap clothes. Lindenbaum sat down beside her and looked at her for a moment or two.

"The officers have told me that you saw a man running away."

"Oh yes, I saw a man who was extremely fat and ugly, with spectacles, grey hair and a large moustache stained yellow from smoking, and his left hand was missing the index finger. I saw him yesterday, running past on the platform, but I cannot remember which station."

"Indeed. Now tell me, which way was he running?"

"Oh, back the way we had come."

"So was that towards the platform office or away?"

"Most definitely towards."

"And how long had the train been stopped?"

"Err... five minutes or so, I think."

"And what was the man wearing?"

"Well, I cannot entirely remember, but I think he was wearing pinstripe trousers, a white woollen sweater, and I believe his spectacles were horn-rimmed. And his shoes, oh, what are those ones with lots of little holes in them?"

"Brogues? Stra├čenschuhe?"

"Ja, ja! Stra├čenschuhe! Brown ones."

Lindenbaum paused for a moment.

"I see. And was he wearing a watch?"

"Yes, definitely. A gold one with a black strap."

"And is there anything else you can remember? Any other small detail?"

"Well... his hands seemed to twitch back and forth as he ran... as if he was digging the air."

"I understand. Now tell me, what is the purpose of your travel?"

"Surely you don't suspect me?"

"Not at all, madame. But we must establish a complete picture."

"I am going to Munich to attend a teacher's conference. It will be a very important event."

"Interesting. And do you have family there?"

"No, my husband died eight years ago. My daughter lives in Canada."


"I have one or two friends at home."

"I see. Now, will it be convenient for us to question you about this case in the future if necessary?"

"Oh, yes! Of course I will do anything I can to help."

"Thank you. Madame, I believe your testimony will prove to be of immense benefit to us."

Lindenbaum turned and whispered to me,

"Albert, please leave the compartment for a moment. Close the door, and say something, anything you like, in a normal, audible voice."

I went outside and read some of the conditions of travel on the back of my railway ticket. Then Lindenbaum and the inspector emerged from the compartment to join me.

"Well, Inspector, one passenger says nothing, and another says too much. I suggest you have one of your officers remain with her - we may possibly learn something more. Albert, the inspector has allowed me to examine the compartment in which the murdered man was found. Don't be alarmed, the body has been removed."

We reached the compartment, and the inspector gestured toward a suitcase lying open on the seat.

"The man's suitcase. As you can see, the locks are broken. There are only clothes and toiletries inside."

Lindenbaum put on his spectacles and searched through the contents of the case for some time. Then he began to examine the case itself. After a few moments he stopped.

"Ah. Interesting. Yes. Interesting."

"What is it?"

"The latches."

Lindenbaum closed the suitcase and looked at it again, then stood thinking with his eyes closed for some minutes. Suddenly he opened his eyes and chuckled. Then he began to look around. He took his time, seemingly examining every inch of the compartment. Then something seemed to catch his eye - he began to stare through the window. I looked outside the train, but I could see nothing on the platform that might be of interest. The inspector also peered out the window.

"What can you see?"

"Hmmm... I'm not sure as yet."

He continued to stare, then closed his eyes again, thinking.

"Perhaps... Perhaps. Tell me, Inspector. Has there been any rain recently?"

"Yes, it rained two days ago, in most of the district."

"Very good. Yes, excellent."

Lindenbaum went closer to the window, and continued to stare outside. Then, after some time, he turned to me.

"Albert, do you have the timetable?"

I retrieved the train timetable from my pocket and handed it to Lindenbaum, who began to examine it. After some minutes he looked up and removed his spectacles.

"Well, we're in luck. Inspector Engel, listen carefully. I believe this is not a robbery, but a crime of revenge. I have no reason to think that the criminal was fat, or thin, or indeed any other width. I believe the crime was committed by a man of about five feet and two inches tall, of modest means, who intended to travel from Erlach station, but did this murder there, then fled from the station by leaving the train on the other side. If he had booked his passage, the investigation will be assisted greatly, but you should at least be able to obtain a better description from the platform authorities at Erlach. Look for places on the far side of the line where he could have quickly found overnight lodging."

"Mister Lindenbaum, you seem very sure. How can you make such a complicated deduction? I cannot instruct my officers to concentrate their energies without reasonable expectation of success."

"Well, Inspector, the facts in this instance have all quickly lined up to give a clear view of what has almost certainly occurred. To begin with, of all the passengers in the carriage, it seems there is only one who has seen anything - the woman who saw a running fat man. But one of the best indicators of an honest testimony is doubt. The liar has an answer to everything. She seems to remember many details, like the little holes in the shoes... yet she can't remember which station it was. Is she lying? Why? Is she protecting someone? Or is there another reason entirely? How can such an elaborate description sit beside the complete lack of reports from the other passengers? Well, as we heard from my friend's dictation, it is quite possible that she overheard the officers through the compartment door, discussing the alleged fat man. This is where her story was born, although it hasn't occurred to her that she needs to explain how a man with no belt can run along a platform, waving his hands, without his trousers falling down. Maybe there was a rather portly gentleman at one of the stations that might have helped her imagination, but it's unlikely he is the murderer - she claims to have seen him yesterday, yet the night conductor would have checked the victim's ticket before Erlach, late in the evening. No, I believe this is a lonely woman, in need of somebody to talk to. I think we can safely disregard her testimony. And what about the woman who insists she saw absolutely nothing? If she was covering something up, she also would most likely have a story, however transparent. Evidence of fear proves nothing on its own. Some people are naturally nervous, particularly of uniforms - we've all lived through the war, after all. So then, it would seem that of all the passengers on this carriage, nobody has seen anything.

"Now let's consider what we've found in the compartment where the murder was done. It seems to me that a thief would surely check the pockets of his victim before he would take the time to break open a suitcase... yet the victim has money in his pockets, yes? It's possible the murderer wanted something he knew was inside the suitcase... but let's wait to see if this deduction fits into the bigger picture. Now, have a close look at the latches of the victim's suitcase. There are no fresh scratches scarring the patina on the metal hasps - they have not been forced, but have been broken for some time. Now, if you own a suitcase that has broken latches, but you still need to use it, what would you do?"

Inspector Engel frowned for a moment, then grinned.

"Ha! Of course, of course! There was no fat man! Rudy, put the belt around the case."

One of the policemen produced the belt and wrapped it around the suitcase. The tongue of the buckle reached the chafed hole exactly. Lindenbaum nodded.

"Just so. That's why the suitcase was open, not because it was searched for valuables. So there's no compelling reason to believe anything was taken, and therefore no reason to believe this was a robbery at all. The crime in all likelihood was done for more personal reasons, a murder of revenge for some offence the victim had committed. But this was an unplanned crime, as we can gather from the improvised use of the belt as a weapon.

"Now, how could such a violent crime have been committed, yet there is no reliable witness who has noticed anything at all? The answer lies with one small but crucial clue that has been left behind on the carriage. As the inspector told us, there has been rain two nights before. If not for this fact we may know nothing. As I looked about, I was thinking it unlikely that we would ever know what had happened here, until, as you may have noted, I saw something - on the outside of the window pane. There, if you look closely, you can see a faint smudge, as can only be caused by somebody's forehead pressed against the glass, looking in."

We examined the window, and as Lindenbaum had described, there was a greasy mark, about the size of a one penny coin, on the outside of the pane. Lindenbaum continued.

"As there had been rain two nights ago, the smudge must be newer than that. Now, why would somebody peer into the carriage? Obviously to see inside, but to see what? Whoever it was, he didn't anticipate that anybody would return his stare, as he would have then been regarded as rude. And besides, why would he have to concentrate his attention? Because it was during the night. He believed that everybody was asleep, and he had to look as closely as possible in the darkness. He had seen somebody who he knew, but he wasn't sure. Yes. He peers in, and recognises a man who he'd come to regard as his enemy, for some offence done in their past. He enters the compartment, well before the train is due to leave. The victim is still sleeping. Perhaps the murderer is still not sure he will do this... Perhaps he will just assault the victim. But he sees the suitcase, and he removes the belt. By the time the victim is awake, the belt is already around his throat, he cannot scream, he is doomed. Then it is done, and the murderer is gone.

"Now, from the timetable I can see that there are nine stations that this train passed through, but only three during the night. One had no platform, only sheltering and portable steps, therefore the murderer couldn't have pressed his face against the glass. The other was a station not scheduled to stop on this trip. That leaves only Erlach. From the height of the smudge, and comparing it to my own height, I deduce that our friend is not a tall man. As it was an unplanned crime, it's likely that he had wanted to travel on this train, but for obvious reasons he didn't stay as he'd intended. He didn't want to be seen, so he most likely left the train on the other side, and had little alternative but to seek somewhere to stay the night until he could decide what his next step would be. Like many who travel on the cheaper night trains, he's unlikely to be affluent, and will have tried to find cheap lodging. Inspector, I suggest you order your men to go to Erlach with all possible haste."

The inspector began to bawl orders at the officers, and they dashed from the carriage, leaving Lindenbaum and I to ourselves. I reached out and shook his hand.

"Ha! Well done again, old chap, well done! But I must say that I couldn't help thinking of that uncouth fat fellow we saw at the last station - a more murderous face I couldn't imagine!"

"Yes, I suppose so. But the second greatest obstacle in the path of a criminal investigator, after the liar, is the coincidence. Come, Albert, I don't think this train will be going anywhere for a while. There is a kiosk on the platform - why don't we have a cup of tea!"

Lindenbaum had once more conjectured with great accuracy. Although the murderer had not booked his ticket at Erlach, there were only a small number of passengers who had boarded the train there, and the railway officials had little trouble recalling a man whose description coincided with what Lindenbaum had told us. Further police work obtained witness evidence from the village of Erlach which soon led to the apprehension of the felon - he had indeed known the victim, and had acted exactly as Lindenbaum had surmised. He was arrested at an inn several streets from the station, and upon interrogation he told of a drunken argument between the two men, three nights before, in Bamberg.

Lindenbaum was required to stay for a few days to complete the details of the investigation. A few weeks later he sent me a postcard forwarded to my hotel in Budapest. On it was a picture of a grotesquely fat elephant wearing a bow-tie and waistcoat, surrounded by the other intimidated members of his circus. On the other side, Lindenbaum had written;

Dear Albert,

Thank you again for your help in Bavaria. If you should ever travel to Amsterdam, my wife and I would be honoured if you would stay with us. I shall try to ensure that there won't be so much mayhem!

Warmest regards,


October, 2012

 the next chapter » 
 « contents