For ten years, an execution hid murder. Then Michael Stoddard came to town.
Bearing a dispatch from his commander in coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, redcoat Lieutenant Michael Stoddard arrives in Hillsborough in February 1781 in civilian garb. He expects to hand a letter to a courier working for Lord Cornwallis, then ride back to Wilmington the next day. Instead, Michael is greeted by the courier’s freshly murdered corpse, a chilling trail of clues leading back to an execution ten years earlier, and a sheriff with a fondness for framing innocents—and plans to deliver Michael up to his nemesis, a psychopathic British officer.
Susanne Alleyn: What year is it now for you, Mr. Stoddard?
Michael Stoddard: It is March of the year 1781, almost five years after fifty-six representatives from His Majesty’s thirteen North American colonies declared independence from the rule of Britain. Wishful thinking on their part, perhaps. For here I am stationed in the port town of Wilmington, North Carolina, with nearly three hundred infantrymen and artillerymen: the King’s finest.
SA: Why are you in Wilmington, may I ask?
Stoddard: My unit, the Eighty-Second Infantry Regiment, occupied Wilmington in late January, madam. Unfavorable winds delayed our landing for three days, thus only the gods know why so many of Wilmington’s rebels were caught by surprise when we finally marched on the town. Many took little with them when they fled in advance of our approach. They left behind their unoccupied homes. As a result, good officers have had little difficulty finding decent lodging. I admit to having grown weary, moving hither and yon during my nine years in the Army. Thus my billet on Second Street, and the comfortable bed in which I sleep, come as quite a pleasant change.
SA: Would you rather be somewhere else?
Stoddard: Almost anywhere else. I’ve been stationed in Georgia and South Carolina for a year and haven’t yet acquired a fondness for hailstorms or tropical heat. Mosquitoes and ticks appear ubiquitous in America but seem larger and more aggressive in the South. I anticipate summer on the coast of North Carolina to deliver a similar experience. But of course, I dutifully serve His Majesty wherever I’m sent.
SA: What do you like most about the time and place in which you live?
Stoddard: I find it stimulating that a man of common birth like myself can become a military officer—thus the presumption among all but the jaded that such a man is a gentleman. You see, in times past, an officer’s commission was only open to a man gently born. Yet in my time, the son of a merchant—Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton being a prime example—may purchase a commission. And during wartime, further advancement is even possible without additional purchase of commissions. For a man who claims the military as his career, the prospects are excellent.
I’m undecided as to whether my future lies in the military. Far more fascinating to me are the strides merchants and artisans have made to attain financial security and even prosperity. It’s no myth that a poor man in America with just a few pennies to his name, a man with talent and intelligence, may through perseverance and years of hard work find himself living comfortably in a home of his own, well before the end of his days. But I suspect that you don’t comprehend what a rare and admirable quality this is in a land, in its people. In pursuit of this comfortable place where men are neither very wealthy nor very poor, merchants and artisans in America have stridden farther and more quickly than their counterparts in Britain. Cherish and protect this financial oasis of the middle ground.
SA: What particular aspect of your world would you change, if you could?
Stoddard: Perhaps this will come as a surprise to you, but I sympathize to a degree with those in America who have desired independence from Britain. Many who wear the King’s scarlet do so, too—including Charles, Lord Cornwallis. At home in England, in the coffee shops and teahouses and taverns, men label this military action by its true name: a war brought down upon us by wealthy, powerful statesmen who purport to listen to the people but are deafened by the siren song of their own greed. Britain, now all-but-bankrupt, has hemorrhaged two generations of sons in America. My mother’s only brother died on the Plains of Abraham fighting for the great General Wolfe. Now that this insurrection has dragged out six years into apparent stalemate, a number of us would rather be on a front where we might be of use.
Thus if I could change matters, I would have the peace commission headed by the Earl of Carlisle reach agreement with the Continental Congress back in 1778. Had the Congress not been so bloody insistent on being gratified with immediate and full independence, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation today, madam.
SA: I quite agree, sir. So what about your background?
Stoddard: I was born in the year 1754, in Yorkshire, England, and am approaching my twenty-seventh birthday. My father, Abraham, is a poor stonemason. It was his blacksmith brother, my uncle Solomon, who arranged for me to work in Lord Crump’s mews and tend his falcons when I was eleven years of age. Three years later, while still working for Lord Crump, I discovered that his gamekeeper and steward were stealing from him.
By stealing, I don’t mean shooting a buck on the peer’s estate to feed hungry mouths in a poor man’s family. (I presume you appreciate such tactics from Robin Hood.) You see, the gamekeeper and steward weren’t poor men, and their families had plenty to eat. When they stole from Lord Crump, it was to feed their own greed. Full of themselves they became, and they played Lord Crump for an old fool. I brought my observations to his lordship. He and the butler devised a way to track the criminals’ thefts and entrap them. In short order, they were dismissed from his service, none the wiser who had tipped their hand.
Three years later, Uncle Solomon approached Lord Crump about assisting in the purchase of an ensign’s commission. His lordship had no son of his own. Ever grateful for my keen observation skills where the gamekeeper and steward were involved, he responded in a generous manner and bade me make something of myself in the Army as an officer.
SA: Most interesting! So how and why, after your first successful bit of sleuthing at fourteen, did you become an official investigator?
Stoddard: Several commanding officers have assigned me to investigate criminal activity. Upon the Eighty-Second Regiment’s arrival in Wilmington, Major James Henry Craig assigned me the position of lead investigator. I promptly selected Private Nick Spry as my assistant, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
SA: Describe some contemporary techniques that you use, if any.
Stoddard: “Contemporary” investigative techniques, madam? I wager that basic techniques of investigation have changed little in 230 years and that, if asked, twenty-first century investigators will tell you that the skill of talking with people and extracting details is the most valuable technique an investigator possesses. I’ve been assured that I’ve a face without guile, an “honest face,” and I admit to using that to my advantage. My second most valuable skill would be that of observation, whether it’s to catalogue details at the scene of a crime or upon a murder victim, follow a suspect, or perform surveillance upon his place of business. I’ve also compared handwriting samples and firearm balls, assessed the spattering of bloodstains, and performed an analysis of fibers using a magnifying lens.
For my most recent investigation, circumstances necessitated that I dress in civilian clothing. Out of desperation, I tried something new. I used a witness’s description and the talent of a skilled local artist to produce a likeness in charcoal sketch of a suspect. Surprisingly, it advanced the investigation.
SA: Tell me about your most recent case, which is, I believe, recounted in Regulated for Murder by one Suzanne Adair.
Stoddard: Scarcely a week after the Eighty-Second Regiment’s occupation of Wilmington, Major Craig assigned me to ride five days northwest and meet a loyalist in Hillsborough, North Carolina who knew the location of Lord Cornwallis. The dispatch I carried with me would apprise Lord Cornwallis that his strategy to use the town of Cross Creek as a supply depot could not be implemented, due to interference from the rebels. I traveled through territory unfriendly to the Crown, and the people of Hillsborough had no great love of His Majesty. Thus I traveled in civilian clothing and concealed my identity.
Alas, I found my loyalist contact in Hillsborough brutally slain. The town sheriff’s inclination was to accuse me of the deed and prove that I was not who I said I was. A quirk of Fate initially spared me incarceration, and the sheriff instead deputized me to find the murderer. At first, I went along with the game to save my own hide, perhaps find a way to sneak out of town so I could complete my original mission. But as evidence unfolded, I realized that the sheriff and his men were monsters who hoped to manipulate me into producing evidence that would implicate several innocent people in town.
And I was shocked to uncover a link between the loyalist’s murderer and executions ten years earlier of leaders of a failed rebellion—and nefarious deeds performed beneath the cover of those executions. Never before had I solved a crime so far in the past, one for which a rebellion and executions had scattered most of the witnesses.
Yes, I saw justice served. Did I complete my original mission? I fervently hope so.
SA: What’s going on in the world around you?
Stoddard: The military might of His Majesty is stretched thin, occupied on a number of fronts against the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch. In particular, the North American engagement has proven a challenge.
Truthfully, after six very expensive years of war, His Majesty doesn’t appear to be making much headway at subduing the colonial insurrection. Valiant actions and imbecilic decisions have been made aplenty on both sides. But the King’s finest men battle on rebel soil. The hands of the attrition clock speed forward for us, while rebels have merely to await the exhaustion of our resources. I do wonder whether Parliament realizes that.
SA: What about your world do you think is most relevant to those of us who live in the early 21st century?
Stoddard: Insurrections and revolutions are commonplace throughout history. Few evolve into a stable, intact system of government, sustainable for generations. Those that do are worthy of study by statesmen and citizens alike.
SA: And what would you say to 21st-century people who complain about hard times (and what seems like more than our usual share of natural disasters) and declare that “God must have decided that the end of the world is due any day”?
Stoddard: Could you transport yourself to my time, you’d find many who believe the end of the world was soon forthcoming. Both the Congress and Parliament are ineffective, full of more hot air than the deserts of Arabia. Unemployment rages throughout Britain. The land of America is populated with religious fanatics, themselves descendants of the fanatics who left Britain more than a century earlier.
Natural disasters? Nearly every year that I’ve been stationed in North America, at least one hurricane has affected the colonies; last year, 1780, the greatest of all storms killed more than 20,000 people in the Caribbean and sank British and French ships. This you call the end of the world.
Do pay attention to the goodness in your own world. For example, amazing feats of the sciences allow you to visit other worlds, more than double the lifespan of adults and reduce deaths among infants, and enjoy instant communication with people thousands of miles away.
You of the 21st century believe that times past were somehow different, simpler, more idyllic. I tell you the rigors of the world don’t change and have been with us always, taking the same forms. I’ve been a soldier nine years. I’ve seen that we carry the portmanteau of human nature with us wherever we go. Even were we to transport ourselves to another world, one with pink skies and twenty-mile-high mountains, the end of the world would follow us because we carry it with us.
Regulated for Murder is available as an eBook from Amazon.com.
Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair is a Florida native who lives in a two hundred-year-old city at the edge of the North Carolina Piedmont, named for an English explorer who was beheaded. Her suspense and thrillers transport readers to the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. Visit her at her author website, www.suzanneadair.com/.
Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear around the middle and end of each month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.
Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in eBook form and in hardcover and/or trade paperback via Amazon.com and other major retailers.