I wonder if any of you can help me.
Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, my Droylsden-based grandparents were devotees of a long-defunct British weekly tabloid newspaper called Reveille. It had been started up in 1940 as a Serviceman’s paper but it was brought into the Daily Mirror stable after the War, and thrived for a long time as a lightweight, pro-Royal Family, entertainment. By the time I became familiar with it in the Sixties, it was in a well-oiled groove, and both my parents and myself would have a read through it during a Saturday afternoon.
I remember few details about Reveille‘s contents, though it did play a part in awakening my nascent sexuality, or at least feelings that were decidedly strange and not entirely comfortable, not at my age. Each week, the paper would print a short story, frequently to do with murders and affairs. I said this was a tabloid paper.
One such story featured a woman’s nude body being found in an apartment shared with the narrator, who was being set up for her death. I have no other recollection of the story, but I can still see the drawing done to illustrate it, of the woman, lying on her back, nude. Not blatantly so, not full-frontal or anything like that, or even especially revealing, but still nude, and despite the arty shading, clearly nude. If you think I’m overdoing the nude-word, please bear in mind that, for a lad like myself who, at best, was just hitting the cusp of teenagerdom, this was territory that I was not equipped for yet. I did contrive, privately, to remove and retain that page from the copy before it went off to whatever happened to cheap newsprint in those days before recycling.
And given that Reveille went in for cheesecake pictures of bright, sunny girls in bright, sunny bikinis, every now and then, in conditions of imperative secrecy, other pages escaped the bin.
But that’s not why I’m writing. Though I remember this story for its illustration, there was another short story in Reveille that had a profound effect on me, independently of any pictures created to break up the columns of type.
I haven’t a clue as to the writer of the story, its title or even the year of publication, which is where I hope to enlist the aid of somebody who might read this blog and recognise what I am speaking about.
I remember very little of the story itself, save its main set-up. It was narrated by a male protagonist who hates and resents discourtesy. He is continually frustrated by bad behaviour: selfishness, obstructiveness, unnecessary anger, snide uses of power, offensiveness, rudeness: every form of grit in the wheels of trying to live a smooth life, everyone who, by their thoughtlessness or provocation, sets out to make the passing day pass for the worse for everyone they encounter.
So he kills one.
It’s over something that might seem trivial in itself, but in which the victim has set out to be mean when he didn’t need to; for the fun of it, because he could. That sort of soul-tarnishing experience that”s only got ever more prevalent in the decades since. But our narrator has had enough, and he kills the guy. There are no witnesses, no trail that identifies him, he gets away with it, scot free, and he even leaves a note explaining why the victim brought it on himself.
Yes, it’s a monstrous, shocking notion. But as the story progresses, the killer finds himself killing others for similar reasons. He’s never caught. In fact, he gets a newspaper name, The Politeness Killer, or something like that. He becomes a subject of conversation at dinner parties, his motives are debated publicly, factions support and celebrate him.
The story ends with the narrator witnessing a scene where an elderly lady commits some kind of minor traffic infraction. She’s all apologetic, indeed trembling, but the traffic cop who’s pulled her up is a nasty brute, who keeps going on at her, relishing his power, humiliating her. Until she takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him. Seeing the narrator watching her, she enlists his sympathy, only half-apologetically saying that her victim deserved it. Then she leaves a Politeness Killer-type note and drives off unconcerned, leading the narrator refllecting on how he seems now to be heading a crusade.
It’s so very long since I read that story that I’d hardly be surprised to learn that I’d got loads of details in that account wrong, that my memory had constructed a shell-format to tie together the tiny, correct elements into something that makes sense. Because that’s the point of writing this.
The central notion of the story, the proposition that the killing of people who erode and destroy the experience of life without justification, for no other reason than their ineradicable shittiness, has stuck with me ever since, a powerful thought that I would never act upon, but which at times comes to me as I look at people who would certainly take a central role in any updating of this story.
Was there really such a story as this? Am I displacing a dark urge, putting it into the hands ad the responsibility of someone distant and strange, who maybe never existed, to avoid responsibility for having these thoughts? Or did some short-story writer of the Sixties really conceive of the Politeness Killer and his controversial attitude to good manners? That’s why I’m asking you: do this story, this notion ring a bell? Is it real? Can you lead me to the writer, the story? Because I really would like to read this story again, to match my recollections with the product of someone’s imagination, that lit a dark torch in my head that burns, dimly, even now.