Cover image for The merchant's house
The merchant's house
Ellis, Kate, 1953-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
246 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"Thomas Dunne books."
Format :


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A marvelous British police procedural featuring detective and amateur archaeologist Wesley Peterson, a man whose unusual talents will be needed to solve two brutal murders--one of them over 400 years old.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson transfers from London to Tradmouth in Devon so his wife can be closer to relatives. His first day on the Tradmouth force brings a murder, a missing child, and a medieval skeleton unearthed by Peterson's archaeologist friend. As he investigates, Peterson learns that the skeleton offers a clue to both the murder and the missing child. Ellis' first novel is a strong police procedural featuring some distinctly nonstereotypical characters. Peterson, for example, is a black detective in rural England who is in an interracial marriage and enjoys archaeology as a hobby. Ellis' scenes of southern England and the sea are vivid, and the mysteries are difficult. This novel will appeal to fans of Triss Stein's Digging Up Death [BKL Ap 15 98] or Beverly Connor's Lindsay Chamberlain series. --John Rowen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Enough promise survives this choppy debut to warrant hope for future mysteries by Ellis. British Detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson's transfer from London to Tradmouth in South Devon promises a fresh start near his wife's hometown. Peterson, a black detective with a degree in archeology, is warmly received by his new colleagues, among whom are unorthodox Detective Inspector Gerry Heffernan and bright Detective Constable Rachel Tracey. Although Tradmouth is a small town, the precinct has its hands full with two puzzling cases: one involves the kidnapping of a young boy, the other the brutal murder of an anonymous woman. As Peterson and his colleagues track down the identity of the murder victim and find her killer, Ellis unfolds a parallel mystery set 400 years earlier by placing short excerpts from an old journal at the beginning of each chapter. All the while, Peterson also follows a longtime archeologist friend's excavation of a 17th-century house that contains the skeletons of two bodies. Peterson, Heffernan and their colleagues form an interesting ensemble, and an effective subplot concerning Peterson's wife's anxiety over her inability to conceive a child adds emotional punch to the tale. Ultimately, however, the coincidences converge too neatly, and the clumsy tying together of the historical and present mysteries undermines the novel. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

An exciting blend of historical and present-day police procedural, this first novel stars Wesley Peterson, a black British detective who majored in archaeology. Newly transferred to Tradmouth, Peterson chances upon a university buddy whose excavations at a building site have yielded a victim of Elizabethan murder. Up in the hills, meanwhile, the discovery of a grisly murder sends police off in the wrong direction until the supposed victim turns up alive. And elsewhere a little boy has disappeared. Peterson's skill and intuition make this is an involving, adventurous, nicely detailed work for all collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Periwinkle is now restored to a goodly condition but Master Cornworthy, the shipwright, doth tell me that the Starfish is in need of a new mizzen mast. She must be ready to sail for the Newfoundland by March. Elizabeth is sick of a morning and thinks herself with child. I rejoice if this be so. We have awaited the Lord's blessing full ten years this Michaelmas. Elizabeth hath taken in a new maidservant to help in her time of sickness. The girl's name is Jennet and she is most comely. Extract from the journal of John Banized, Merchant of Tradmouth, 15 February 1623 The streets that led from Wesley Peterson's newly acquired house, perched above the town, down to the crazy huddle of buildings that clung to the riverbank were hill-steep, narrow and winding; not built for cars. Wesley felt it would be easier to walk to his new place of work. He told himself that this was a good thing: he would become fit. In London he had never walked; had never really had the time. Downhill was easy; the return journey up those cobbled streets would be the real test of endurance.     It wasn't long before he reached the heart of the town; an ancient heart of timber-framed and whitewashed plaster, interspersed with examples of later architecture; over-confident Victorian and self-effacing modern. The town centre was crowded with people on their way to work and cars pushing ambitiously through the narrow streets. Wesley's pace slowed to a stroll.     To his left, between two shops of Victorian vintage, was a gap, like a missing tooth, filled by a wire fence. In London he would have passed by without a second look, but here in Tradmouth things were different. He stopped and stared at the exposed site: the small mounds of brickwork; the intriguing holes dotted here and there; the skeletal layout of a building revealing itself on the brown earth. A dig was in progress, unmistakable. Wesley was on familiar territory.     Three dusty figures behind the wire screen bent over the ground with trowels, brushes and concentration. One of them he recognised.     `Neil!'     A young man in torn muddy jeans and with a mess of brown hair looked up. When he saw Wesley he grinned.     `Wes! Good God, man, what are you doing here? You look a bit smart. What are you selling?' He abandoned the tools of his trade and hurried to admit Wesley to the site via a wire gate set in the fence.     Wesley looked around. `What's this, then?'     `You tell me,' Neil said, throwing out a good-natured challenge.     Wesley noted the features of the site and thought for a moment. `House? Sixteenth ... seventeenth-century? Courtyard? Bit like that one we worked on in Neston, remember? Outhouses, by the look of it. Situated in the centre of an old seaport. Merchant's house?'     `Spot on. Demolished at the turn of the century ... shops built on it. Now they've knocked down the shops to build flats, so here we are. Got six weeks before the concrete's poured in. Usual story. How's life in the police force, then? I thought you were pounding the beat in London.'     Wesley smiled. `I gave up the beat years ago ... joined CID. Now I've got a transfer to Tradmouth. We've always liked the place and it's near Pam's mum.'     `Great. How's Pam?' asked Neil quietly. `Any kids yet?'     Wesley shook his head and looked at his watch. `Look, Neil, I'm late. I'll have to go ...'     `If you're doing nothing tonight come down the Tradmouth Arms about eight thirty. We're always in there. It'd be nice to see Pam again.'     `Yeah, that'd be good.'     `And I'll tell you all about this place. We had a bit of excitement about a week back. Should interest you in your line of work ...'     Wesley, intrigued, would have questioned Neil further, but time's winged chariot, in the shape of a passing patrol car, reminded him that he had to make a quick exit if he was to make a favourable impression. The first day in a new job is invariably the worst. Sergeant Bob Naseby looked longingly at the steaming mug of tea behind the counter, hidden discreetly from public view. When he had dealt with Miss Beesby's lost budgerigar he promised himself five minutes' peace before he started on his paperwork.     Satisfied with the sergeant's assurances that the entire force would be on constant lookout for little Joey, Miss Beesby left. But no sooner had the station door swung shut than it opened again and a tall, smartly dressed young man entered and walked confidently up to the counter. Bob Naseby hadn't seen him before; he would have remembered. The dark brown face was pleasant and the eyes intelligent. If Bob had to hazard a guess he'd put the newcomer down as a new doctor at the local hospital.     `Morning, sir. Can I help you?'     `Detective Sergeant Peterson. I've been told to report to Detective Inspector Heffernan.'     `Oh, yes. We've been expecting you. Transfer from London, isn't it?'     `Word gets round.'     `It does in a place like this. You'll find it a bit different from what you're used to.'     `I hope so.'     `What is it they call us up there? Turnip heads?'     Wesley Peterson smiled but said nothing.     Bob picked up the phone and dialled. The new man had to be an improvement on his predecessor, who had recently shaken the dust of Tradmouth off his boots and headed for the Met's bright lights. And the Chief Constable would be delighted. He was forever sending memos about attracting more ethnic minorities into the force. The acquisition of DS Peterson would do his statistics no end of good.     `Hello, Rachel? I've a DS Peterson here to see DI Heffernan. Can you come and fetch him? Thanks, my luvver.'     Wesley smiled to himself at the use of this Devon endearment which could have caused considerable misunderstanding in London.     Bob put the phone down. `Someone'll be along in a minute ... show you round.' He put out the large hand that had delivered so many wicket-taking balls for the police cricket team. `Bob Naseby, by the way.'     `Wesley Peterson.'     `Know this area at all, do you?'     `Yes. I used to be at uni ... used to live in Exeter.'     The door at the side of the counter opened and a young woman stepped out. She had straight blond hair, wore a crisp linen suit and sensibly flat shoes; pretty in a practical sort of way.     `DS Peterson? I'm Rachel Tracey ... Detective Constable.' She looked him up and down appraisingly. `A call's just come through. Suspicious death. Little Tradmouth Head.'     Bob's face clouded. `Not the kid?'     `I don't know yet. The inspector's not here. I've just rung him and he said to pick him up.' She turned to Wesley. `You'd better come along with me.'     She set off with bustling determination. Wesley followed. DC Rachel Tracey was a woman who knew exactly where she was going.     `You can't park by his house,' she added as they got into the police car. `I'll get as close as I can, then we'll have to walk.'     She parked on double yellow lines in a narrow street leading to the harbour. Then Wesley followed her at a frantic pace through a dark, restaurant-lined cobbled street which opened out onto a picturesque quayside with castle walls at the far end and a startling view over the river to a hill-hung town on the opposite bank. Seagulls yelled their hearts out overhead, drowning the gentle chug-chug of the nearby car ferry, and the air was heavy with the scent of seaweed.     `He lives here.' She pointed to a row of waterfront houses of indeterminate age, probably very old; the kind of dwellings favoured by retired sea captains in the last century. The end house was smaller than the rest, almost a cottage. She opened the rusting white front gate, marched up to the door and knocked loudly.     An upstairs window was flung open and a tousled head appeared. `That you, Rach? I'll be down in a sec.' The accent was more reminiscent of the Mersey than the West Country. The head disappeared before Wesley had a chance to get a proper look at his new boss.     Then he emerged out of the front door, a big untidy bear of a man with curly hair and a well-worn anorak: more like an off-duty local fisherman than a detective inspector, Wesley thought. He shook Wesley's hand firmly and listened to Rachel's report on the situation as they walked to the car.     `So we don't know if it's Jonathon Berrisford or not.'     `They didn't say ... just a body. SOCOs are up there now, and Dr Bowman.'     `Has the super been told?'     `He's over at Morbay ... at a meeting. They've been trying to get in touch with him.'     `And Stan Jenkins?'     `He's in Bristol. Someone reckons Jonathon Berrisford's living next door.'     `Let's hope he is, then.'     Heffernan turned to Wesley. `It's all happening, Sergeant ... body on your first day.'     `I hope it's not Jonathon, sir.' Rachel's mask of efficiency slipped for a split second.     `So do I, Rach. So do I.'     Rachel Tracey was a good driver. Her father, a farmer, had taught her to drive a Land Rover at the age of twelve, and she had passed her test on her seventeenth birthday. Wesley closed his eyes as she swept confidently down the narrow lanes which were walled with hedgerows that made the fields beyond invisible. The bends were blind and the roads single-track, but when they met a vehicle it would invariably back up to let them pass. Such is the influence of the law.     They parked in the small carpark thoughtfully provided by the National Trust for visitors to Little Tradmouth Head. In high summer they would have had difficulty getting a space, but in mid-September the only vehicles parked there were those belonging to the SOCOs and Dr Bowman's brand-new Range Rover which stood, gleaming, in their midst.     It was a long, steep walk, and Wesley regretted that his shoes were more suited to driving round London than walking through the countryside. He made a mental note to buy himself something more substantial. He spotted the fluttering blue-and-white tapes, like the bunting of some grim village fête, ahead of them on the path. White-overalled figures went about their work with professional preoccupation while flashing cameras recorded the scene.     A tall, thin, balding man approached them, grinning like a genial host at a party.     `Gerry Heffernan. Haven't seen you in ages. Margaret's been asking after you, you know. How are you? How's the diet?'     `Non-existent, Colin. You know me -- too fond of my grub. This is my new sergeant, Wesley Peterson. Replacement for you know who.'     `Nice to meet you, Sergeant. You won't mind if I don't shake hands. Rubber gloves -- occupational hazard.'     The inspector surveyed the scene. `So what have we got, Colin? Is it the kid?'     `No, thank God. It's a woman. Early twenties. About five foot seven. Fully clothed. No sign of sexual assault that I can see but you never know. Fair hair ... face bashed in. Your lot have found bloodstains and disturbed ground near the path, and they reckon she was moved into the bushes after death to conceal the body. I'd go along with that.'     `Time of death?'     `Couple of days ago, I'd say.'     `How soon can you do the PM?'     `First thing tomorrow. Report by tomorrow evening?'     `Fair enough.'     Heffernan turned his attention to a spotty young uniformed PC who was hovering nervously outside the taped-off area, studying Wesley with undisguised curiosity.     `Morning, Johnson. Any sign of a weapon?'     `Not yet, sir. Nothing obvious.'     `Who found her?'     `Lady by the name of Mrs Truscot, sir. Walking her dog. Gave her a bit of a turn.'     `I'm not surprised. Where is she now?'     `Up at Hutchins Farm. That's where she rang from.'     Heffernan grinned at his new sergeant.     `I'm going to be generous seeing as you're new. Go and interview this Mrs Truscot, will you? Hutchins Farm's over there; you can just see the chimneys. If Cissy Hutchins is there, which she will be if anything interesting's going on, you'll get a cup of tea, and she bakes the best scones in Devon. Off you go. You can take PC Johnson here as your native guide. I imagine he's partial to a home-made scone or two. And organise a house-to-house, will you?' He looked round. `Or should it be cottage-to-cottage? It shouldn't take long. And see if anyone's been working in the fields in the last couple of days -- they might have noticed something. And try to find out who walks here regularly.'     `Right you are, guv.'     Johnson smiled to himself. He'd never heard the inspector being addressed as `guv' before. But rumour had it the new bloke was from London. You had to make allowances.     `Hedgerow Cottage is just down the lane.' Rachel Tracey looked concerned. `We don't want to go barging in, do we? If Mrs Berrisford saw two policemen at the door she might think ...'     `Good thinking, Rach. You do Hedgerow Cottage ... and go easy, eh?'     As the photographers packed up, Wesley followed Johnson up the steep path towards the culinary pleasures of Hutchins Farm, wondering what it was about Hedgerow Cottage that made his new colleagues so nervous.