Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Novels that tell parallel stories from past and present times can draw the reader in to two different timelines. Let’s look at an example of that sort of story today, and turn the spotlight on Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, the first in her Wesley Peterson/Neil Watson series.
In the present day, DS (later to be DI) Wesley Peterson and his wife Pam have recently moved to Tradmouth, in Devon. Peterson is there to take up his duties at the local CID; his wife is serving as a supply teacher, filling in for absent full-time teachers.
Peterson barely has time to take up his new duties before the Tradmouth CID gets involved in two very difficult cases. One is the disappearance of young Jonathon Berrisford from the yard of the summer cottage where he’s been staying with his mother, Elaine. The police put out an immediate alert, and there’s a large-scale search for the boy.
The other case, reported about two weeks after Jonathon’s disappearance, involves the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The victim has no ID with her, so it’s difficult at first to find out who she is. One of the first tasks, then will be to identify her, and then to trace her movements and find out who would want to kill her.
In the meantime, Peterson’s old friend from University, Neil Watson, is supervising an archaeological dig in town. A row of older shops has been demolished to make way for a new block of residences, and Watson’s got six weeks to excavate before the new construction begins. He and his team have discovered a four-hundred-year-old home belonging to wealthy merchant John Banized and his wife Elizabeth. More than the house, the team members have discovered two skeletons in the basement: a young woman and a baby. Peterson studied archaeology at university, so he takes an interest in what Watson and the team are doing.
Bit by bit, Peterson and his team find out who the dead woman was. Once they discover that, they work to trace her final days and weeks. The CID’s also working on the case of Jonathon Berrisford, too, and slowly learn what happened to the boy. As this is going on, Watson is looking for whatever records may exist about the Banized family. He discovers that John Banized kept a diary, and that that diary has been passed down through the generations. If he can find a modern-day descendant of the family, it may even be that he can see the diary and find out the truth about the skeletons in the basement of the excavated home. Watson’s work proves to be very helpful to Peterson as he and his team look for answers to their modern-day puzzles.
In many ways, this is a police procedural, so police customs and ways of solving cases are important elements in the novel. They solve the mystery by making sense of evidence, talking to witnesses and suspects, getting information from experts such as forensics people, and so on. And they have plenty of lies, half-truths, and honest mistakes to get through before they find out what really happened.
Because this is a police procedural, we also get to know the members of the CID team. Along with Peterson, there’s DI Gerry Heffernan, DI Stan Jenkins, DC Rachel Tracey, and DC Steve Carstairs. They all have their faults, but this isn’t one of those novels where police politics threaten to tear a department to pieces. At first, Peterson wonders how he’ll fit in, since he’s just come from London, and since his colleagues are all white and he’s black. But it’s not long before he’s accepted as one of the group. Readers who are tired of police who sabotage each other will be pleased to know that, for the most part, these coppers work as a team – it’s an ensemble cast, as the saying goes. The story is told from their different perspectives, too, so we get to know the way each of them thinks.
Readers who enjoy learning a little about the sleuth’s home life will appreciate the fact that we learn about Peterson’s. He is happily married to Pam, and both would very much like to have a child. It hasn’t happened yet, though, and one of the sub-plots of this story is their process of going through all sorts of tests to find out why. That process is frustrating, embarrassing and, sometimes, very costly. It strains them as a couple, too. But they have a strong bond.
The story of John Banized is told in the form of short diary entries that begin many of the chapters. Through those entries, we learn who he was, and we learn the story behind the skeletons that the excavation team finds. Little by little, as this plot thread unfolds, we also see how the events reflect the events of the modern-day mysteries. So another element in this story is the way the stories unfold in parallel, and the way each one tells us something about the other.
The solutions to the mysteries in this novel are very sad, and have their share of moral ambivalence. In fact, without spoiling the story, I can say that it raises some interesting ethical questions about what the right thing to do really is. That said, though, we do learn the truth about what happened in both the modern-day cases and the older one. And there are some ‘bright spots,’ too.
The Merchant’s House is the story of how a CID team goes about solving a case as heart-wrenching as a missing boy and as horrible as a murder – at the same time. It weaves together past and present timelines, and features a group of sleuths who each contribute to the solutions. It also introduces an interesting pair of protagonists who may be in different professions, but who find they help each other. But what’s your view? Have you read The Merchant’s House? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 February/Tuesday 2 February – Maximum Bob – Elmore Leonard
Monday 8 February/Tuesday 9 February – The Unquiet Dead – Ausma Zehanat Khan
Monday 15 February/Tuesday 16 February – Bullet For a Star – Stuart Kaminsky