In The Spotlight: Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House

>In the Spotlight: Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing ServantHello, All,

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


Filed under Kate Ellis, The Merchant's House

23 responses to “In The Spotlight: Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House

  1. I’m a long time fan of this series. I feel sure they would make good television. This book certainly got Wesley’s career off to a sound start.

  2. This is a series I’ve considered but never read and as you know Margot, I’m a huge fan of the past and present connections – when the TBR reduces a little…

    • Oh, I know all about the TBR issue, Cleo…*sigh*… I do recommend the series, particularly given your interest in past/present connections. These are, in my opinion, well-written mysteries featuring interesting characters.

  3. Col

    I like the use of multiple perspectives in my reading. I’ve not tried this series and probably won’t though you make it sound appealing.

  4. How do you always seem to find authors or series that I have not heard about or not read? Just to tempt me, I am sure…

    • Yes, Marina, Sofia, it’s a carefully thought-out plot..Bwahahahaha 😉 – In all seriousness, I know all about TBRs and so on – all too well. If you do get a chance to try this series, I can recommend it.

  5. Kay

    Oh, I have read this book. It was several years ago when I was still working at the library. My branch had several books in this series and I think I read this one and maybe the 2nd and 3rd in the series. And then…well, I moved on to other books. I’d love to go back and begin again. The past/present connection was so interesting – much like Elly Griffiths relates in her Ruth Galloway books. Thank you so much, Margot, for reminding me about Kate Ellis and this great series. It probably has 15 or 20 books in it now, but that’s OK. Wonder if the library still has the book I read – lately, I’ve noticed so much weeding going on and there are authors that I’m afraid are going to be forgotten. Great authors.

    • I always think about that, too, Kay, when libraries start to weed out their collections. And Kate Ellis really is a talented author. You make an interesting comparison between her work and that of Elly Griffiths; they both certainly are really effective at putting together past and present connections, aren’t they?

  6. I read this book a few years ago but did not continue the series. I would like to try it again. I do have the first book in her other series, Seeking the Dead, but have not read it.

  7. Another interesting-sounding book… but I must be strong! The TBR has already increased by two today… *laughs maniacally*

    • There is a secret international TBR conspiracy, FictionFan! I know there is! You should see how mine keeps increasing. This is a good series, perhaps for a time when you can squeeze another one in..

  8. Thanks, Margot, for adding another author to my “must read” list.

  9. I read one of her books a while ago, but don’t remember which one! You make this one sound intriguing, perhaps I should return to her.

    • I know the feeling all too well of dipping into a series and not getting back to it, Moira. There’s never time to read everything, even every good thing. I think this is a very well-written series, and I hope you’ll enjoy it if you get back to it.

  10. Glad you enjoyed this Margot. I also really enjoyed TMH. Recently I read the 2nd book in the series & I now have the 3rd book (An Unhallowed Grave) on my night-table, just waiting for me to finish my current novel.

    This series is a nice light read. No overt violence, interesting characters with a bit of light history thrown in – perfect escapism for me in between heavier reads.

    • I like the way you put that, Anne. The series is light, and the violence is not brutal or gratuitous. There are really interesting connections to history, too. And yet, it’s also not what I would call a ‘frothy’ series. It’s ‘meaty’ enough to satisfy readers who don’t want their crime fiction to be ‘too sweet.’

      • Well said Margot, this series does have more “meat” about it than the average easy read. I’m not a fan of most cozies because for the most part, they are just too silly and the writing is dreadful. This series is unlike the typical cozy and I always learn something from the historical bits that Kate Ellis includes 🙂

  11. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…2/3/16 | Traci Krites

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