The Merchant's House (Wesley Peterson Series: 1) by Kate Ellis
Piatkus Books (July 9, 2010), 256 pp.
Personal Kindle purchase.
I love starting out the New Year with a nice, grisly murder, don't you? Especially when it's set in the lovely Devonshire region of England, supplemented with a parallel storyline in which an Elizabethan woman is murdered for much the same reasons as the contemporary woman - poor, friendless souls!
Liverpool native Kate Ellis - now working on the 17th novel in the Wesley Peterson series - started out these novels with such verve and supreme storytelling talent I can't imagine how much better her later novels must be. In The Merchant's House a two-year old boy goes missing while playing outside his parents' remote vacation cottage in the English countryside, his distraught mother completely unaware, as she assumed he would be safe in their fenced garden while she got some work done inside the house. By the time she went outside to relax and spend time with her son, he had vanished without a trace, the garden gate still locked, nothing else amiss.
Shortly after this crime, an unidentified woman is found brutally murdered along a walking trail, her face cut off in a possible attempt to disguise her identity. She's found with no identification, no purse and only the most minimal personal effects. All they have to go on is the fact she's blonde, of medium build and height, and doesn't match the description of any missing person reports. Who is she and who would kill her with such violence? And why had no one reported her absence?
Detective Sgt. Wesley Peterson, recently transferred from London to the small port town of Tradmouth in Devon, is assigned the case of the missing woman. At the same time he's getting settled into his new job, beginning to dig into the evidence and expand the case, he and his wife are experiencing the heartbreak of infertility, his wife's nerves stretched nearly to breaking. With a wife at home living on edge, and a complicated case before him, Wesley's transition from London life to living in a smaller town is not an easy one. One thing in their favor, the fact theirs is an inter-racial marriage - Wesley being black and Pamela white - seems to cause no ripples. Otherwise, Wesley's life is stressful and challenging. Luckily, his personality is even-keeled. Had he a temper things could have been far worse. Instead, he keeps his head, able to separate work life from home.
Educated as an archaeologist, Wesley Peterson chose a more lucrative career as a police officer, though much of his heart remained mired in history and digging for artifacts. Fortunately, his good friend Neil, an archaeologist himself, was working on a dig nearby at the time Wesley is settling in to Devon. Given permission to dig on the site of a former merchant's house, between the time the old building is knocked down and the new one erected, Neil has only weeks to work with. He's both amazed and dismayed when he discovers first the skeleton of a young woman and then that of a baby. Because the police must investigate what proved to be 400-year old remains, until it could be determined the presumed murder wasn't a recent one, Neil must hold off digging. In the meanwhile, Ellis gives us snippets of the diary of the merchant himself, explaining what went on in the house, ultimately revealing the truth behind the deaths of the two victims.
Ellis weaves the story of the Elizabethan family into the two coinciding contemporary murders with enviable seamlessness. Each is complex and messy, as you'd expect them to be, but at the same time fascinating. Can the truth be figured out within the course of reading the book? Well, I connected enough dots to figure out part of it but I'll admit I didn't solve the case all on my own. There were too many unknown details, rendering the complexity satisfying.
I enjoyed this book so much I plan to read the others in the series. I love the complexity of the characters, the multi-layered plots drawing in elements of history/archaeology and Ellis's smooth, flowing writing style. Really, there's nothing here not to love. It's an intelligent mixture of contemporary and historical mystery.
A highly-recommended 5-star read.
Author Kate Ellis.