It's springtime and Whitstable is emerging from hibernation. While neither the restaurant nor detective agency is too busy, Pearl resolves to spend some time at the family allotment. But her best friend, Nathan, has persuaded one of his favourite actresses to open the May Day festivities at Whitstable Castle and involves Pearl in his plans. Like Pearl, Faye Marlowe is a Whitstable native, but having left the town more than two decades ago, the star has been living in the South of France since her agent's phone stopped ringing. Charming but 'sensitive', she arrives with a small entourage and though her presence in the town causes a stir Pearl's mother Dolly remains unimpressed, choosing to remember Faye Marlow when she was plain old Frankie Murray, the daughter of a local whelk merchant. Nathan soon realises he has made a mistake with this invitation and his doubts are confirmed when Faye is nowhere to be found on the morning of May Day. And as 'Jack in the Green' puts on his impressive costume to lead the parade, the actress's dead body is discovered - tethered to the maypole on the Castle grounds . . . and so it's left to Pearl and DCI Mike McGuire to unravel the mystery of the May Day murder. Praise for Julie Wassmer's Whistable Pearl Mysteries: 'A tried-and-tested crime recipe with Whitstable flavours that makes for a Michelin-starred read' Daily Mail 'My new favourite author in the genre' George Galloway 'Thoroughly enjoyable with a host of wonderful characters - I adore Dolly! - and evocative descriptions of Whitstable. Perfect for foodies too. Pearl is great and the ongoing will they/won't they love story with McGuire is compelling. Comforting, cosy and entertaining with excellent Agatha Christie-style reveals. I love these books!' Jane Wenham-Jones, author of Mum in the Middle
Release date: April 7, 2016
Print pages: 288
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May Day Murder
‘Can someone tell me why we are going to all this trouble for just one customer?’
Pearl’s mother was over sixty but at that moment she looked more like a petulant teenager, standing with her hands on her hips, waiting for her daughter to reply. In fact, it was Pearl’s young waitress, Ruby Hill, who spoke up.
‘Faye Marlow’s not just any customer,’ she insisted. ‘She’s special.’
Ruby then turned to her boss as if for confirmation, but Pearl replied only: ‘All customers are special.’
It was a diplomatic response designed to close down further conversation and it left Ruby far from satisfied. ‘But she’s a film star!’
‘Was a film star,’ Dolly quickly corrected her. ‘She’s rather more of a has-been these days.’
A stunned silence followed this stark assessment until Pearl asked Ruby if she could fetch some bread baskets. The girl turned obediently on her heels and headed off to the kitchen, her newly bobbed fair hair bouncing above her shoulders.
Dolly remained unapologetic under her daughter’s admonishing gaze. ‘It’s true,’ she shrugged. ‘I don’t know why you’re all so star-struck.’
‘No one is star-struck.’
‘No? Then why are we fussing about this table long after we should have gone home?’
Pearl refused to rise to her mother’s bait. She was well aware that Dolly’s irritability was due largely to her toothache, but as Dolly hated visiting the dentist she had been steadfastly refusing to make an appointment. For her own part, Pearl was frustrated because the restaurant had indeed closed after a busy lunchtime service, and by accepting this special reservation she had given up on her chance to visit the family allotment. The weather was perfect for it – set fair with uninterrupted blue skies offering a few hours of sunshine during which Pearl had hoped to plant some runner beans and chard. At this time of year, by late afternoon the sun’s warmth could be chased away by a northerly breeze sharp enough to remind anyone in Whitstable not to ‘cast a clout till May is out’.
In fact, the mood of the little North Kent fishing town seemed always to be determined by the weather. During the winter months Whitstable entered a period of hibernation when the shops and eateries were largely free from a veritable tsunami of DFLs (the town’s acronym for Down from Londoners), who flooded the coast throughout the summer, especially during the annual Oyster Festival in July. But spring was a time of reawakening, and the first hint of blossom signalled a burst of activity during which shopfronts and beach huts were hastily repainted, and front gardens and window boxes were weeded and newly planted.
A competition had recently taken place to clear the many alleyways of brambles, litter and snails, with the first prize being a meal for two at The Whitstable Pearl. The winner was a resident who had not only single-handedly cleared the alley near to her home but also transformed it with seeded wallflowers and a carpet of pebbles and oyster shells. Dolly herself had even found some time to arrange a few pots at the allotment but, as ever, her efforts remained centred on aesthetics rather than hard work in the vegetable plot. That was usually contributed by Pearl and her son, Charlie, but as he was spending a year out in Berlin until September, his services were currently unavailable.
The pale spring sunshine was doing its best to chase light into dark corners and lately The Whitstable Pearl, noted for its seafood and local oysters, had become much busier, with bookings for several private functions. One of them was for the party of visitors being met at that very moment by Pearl’s friend and neighbour, Nathan Roscoe, at local Manston airport. Ruby had been right in declaring that one of these was no ordinary customer: it was the actress, Faye Marlow, arriving from Nice with a small entourage consisting of her private assistant, her maid and her chauffeur. Dolly was also correct in suggesting that Pearl would never have reopened her doors for a single table of guests, but she had a good reason to do so other than being ‘star-struck’ – and chose now to remind Dolly of it.
‘I’m doing this as a favour to Nathan,’ she said, not for the first time.
‘He’s star-struck too,’ said Dolly, not missing a beat. ‘He’s wanted to meet Faye for years and now he’s finally seen his chance.’
There wasn’t much Pearl could say to this because it was true. Having begun his working life as an advertising copywriter in his native Los Angeles, Nathan had soon tired of using his best ideas to overhype the qualities of dog biscuits and detergent and had moved on to become a freelance journalist, contributing articles to magazines on subjects that included interior design, food and his greatest passion – film. Nathan had always been a great fan of Faye Marlow’s best work: a series of films produced mainly in the mid-1990s. Together with a fellow fan, he had managed to secure this visit by inviting the actress to open a local event and, to his astonishment, Faye had accepted, leaving Nathan with the impression that he might finally gain an opportunity to interview the star.
‘You know as well as I do why Faye’s here,’ countered Pearl. ‘She’s agreed to open the May Day programme – and that’s got to be a good thing for Whitstable.’
Dolly remained stubbornly unimpressed. ‘Oh yes? And why’s that?’
Pearl gave a sigh of exasperation. ‘Because Faye’s so well known, of course, and she also has connections to the town.’
To this, Dolly offered only a derisive snort. Then she looked up at her daughter, reflecting for a moment on how little Pearl resembled her. Dolly’s fashion sense was nothing short of flamboyant and she sported magenta highlights to mask her grey hair, with a clashing pink blouse visible today beneath her starched white Whitstable Pearl apron. She had always felt the need to scream her existence and she did so not only with her appearance but through her creative endeavours, like the paintings that lined the restaurant walls and the ‘shabby chic’ ceramic plates she crafted, which rarely escaped mention from Pearl’s customers.
In contrast, Pearl’s own style was distinctly understated. Much taller than her mother, she seldom wore jewellery – no rings or earrings that could become lost in restaurant dishes during their preparation – just a small silver locket that lay flat against her bare throat. Her modest wardrobe of clothes had been bought, for the most part, for comfort and practicality, and consisted mainly of vintage items so, with her long gypsy-dark hair tumbling around her shoulders, she could sometimes appear like a romantic heroine returned from another era – a latter-day Cathy from Wuthering Heights.
The fact was that Pearl looked striking whatever she wore and whatever she did to herself. A tall, dark beauty with grey eyes the colour of moonstone, some said she had the look of the ‘black Irish’ – the descendants of Spanish Armada sailors who had escaped death on the beaches of the west coast of Ireland to serve under rebel chiefs such as Sorley Boy McDonnell and Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. It was true that Pearl’s father, Tommy, had been able to trace his own roots back to Galway, and she had inherited the best features of both parents in her mother’s spirit and her father’s dark good looks.
Drawing herself up to her full height, Dolly now challenged her daughter. ‘ “Connections”?’ she repeated scornfully. ‘Thirty years ago, that woman turned her back on this town and I doubt if she’s ever given a moment’s thought to us in all that time. There may be plenty who know the name Faye Marlow, but to me she’ll always be plain Frankie Marshall – the granddaughter of a whelk merchant. If you ask me, the woman is nothing but trouble.’
Pearl was just about to inform her mother that she hadn’t asked her anything at all when she noticed Ruby standing at the kitchen door, anxiously clutching three small bread baskets. It was clear the girl feared that she might be witnessing something beyond the usual small conflict of views between mother and daughter, but at that moment, a mobile sounded and Pearl went off to the seafood bar to answer it. Noting that the caller was Nathan and with Dolly’s words still ringing in her ears, Pearl sensed that a problem could be looming.
‘What is it?’ she asked starkly.
‘A hitch,’ came the reply. Nathan’s soft mid-Atlantic accent was still in place, but it had lost its usual relaxed tone. ‘Nothing too serious, sweetie,’ he added hastily, ‘but . . .’ He paused for a moment.
Ruby was busily setting the bread baskets on the table and arranging cutlery on the fresh white tablecloth, but Dolly continued doggedly to observe Pearl until the call had finally ended.
‘Well?’ she asked.
The restaurant table now looked immaculate with a bowl of fresh narcissi in place – a tribute to spring as well as a reminder of Pearl’s missed visit to the allotment. She took a deep breath before sharing the news she had just received from Nathan. ‘It seems that Faye has changed her mind and would prefer to eat at home.’
Dolly’s jaw dropped, but her expression then transformed into one of sheer triumph. Jabbing the air with her finger, she ripped off her apron, exclaiming: ‘I told you, Pearl! That blasted woman is nothing but trouble!’
Half an hour later, Pearl was driving along Tower Parade with Ruby beside her; the girl was listening to some upbeat music on her headphones, judging by the tempo of her fingertips tapping on the dashboard. The boot of Pearl’s Fiat was stocked with ingredients for the meal she had agreed to prepare at Arden House, where her client was staying. The house was the first in a row of grand, double-fronted Victorian and Edwardian properties that lay close to Whitstable Castle on its southern side. Pearl watched as a flock of shiny-feathered starlings swooped down to peck at the front lawns of a terrace of old almshouse dwellings, their gardens filled with mimosa, tulips and a deep blue campanula called Canterbury Bells – a fitting choice, she thought, since the city was only a twenty-minute drive away.
As they passed the western entrance of the Castle, the old flint and brick gatehouse looked at odds with a new sign that touted space for hire for weddings, functions and conferences – and Pearl couldn’t help wondering how Wynn Ellis, the first owner of the Castle, also responsible for the building of the almshouses, might have felt about such brazen advertising. The road ahead forked left towards Marine Parade and the grassy slopes studded with colourful beach huts, but Pearl headed right on to Tankerton Road, turning into a driveway leading to a small parking area at the rear of two houses.
Killing her engine, she turned to her waitress with a smile and said, ‘Thanks for coming, Ruby.’
The girl took out her earphones and returned the smile. ‘No problem. I’m looking forward to this.’ She was clearly excited at the prospect of meeting someone half-famous, while Pearl was merely grateful that her waitress had agreed to help out. Dolly herself had refused to have anything do with it and stormed off home, taking her painful pre-molar with her.
Having explained to Ruby that she’d be right back, Pearl got out of the car. She glanced around, noting that a rear access path ran along the back of the houses. A wooden fence separated it from the Castle grounds but a few panels were down so it was possible to peek through to the Castle building itself, which lay beyond some mature trees and a shrubbery that lined a walkway leading up from the gatehouse. Most local people knew that the Castle had originally been built at the end of the eighteenth century as a seaside villa owned by a businessman named Charles Pearson. Tankerton Towers, as it was then known, passed to his son, and was later taken over by Wynn Ellis and used as a country retreat – in which he promptly installed a mistress. Major improvements resulted in a summer residence in the style of a Gothic castle with the grounds extended and landscaped in a style befitting a man who was to become an MP, magistrate and county sheriff. Apart from creating the local almshouses, the Castle’s former owner had also bequeathed a valuable art collection to the National Gallery in London, as well as a considerable sum to local charities.
In time, Whitstable Castle, as it became known, had been sold to the Local District Council and was now managed by a charitable trust. A £3 million restoration had resulted in a revamp – but Dolly abhorred the result, claiming that the charm of the old gardens had been destroyed and replaced with something resembling a TV garden makeover. In spite of her criticisms, the Castle was well loved by everyone. It now boasted a play area that was popular with toddlers, and a bowling green, as well as the conference space advertised on the gatehouse.
The grand houses that now surrounded the Castle had been built only after the sale of plots from a large estate had allowed for the development of a residential settlement as well as a direct route to the small town of Tankerton and its eastern neighbours of Swalecliffe and Herne Bay.
As she stepped back from the fence, Pearl noticed that a gate led directly into the rear of Arden House, but instead of making use of it she headed back on to the street.
An impressive property built on three storeys, Arden House was hedged for privacy with fragrant rosemary bushes, and though the windows of its high gables would once have offered a view for housemaids, they now provided the same for any guests who cared to rent the two holiday apartments into which the old servants’ quarters had been converted. The house belonged to Tom Chandler, an actor friend of Nathan’s who had offered it as accommodation to Faye while he was away touring in Dubai with a Shakespeare company.
A tall wrought-iron gate opened on to an Edwardian tiled path that led Pearl through a front garden filled with shrubs and littered with bluebells. The lower front windows were obscured by white plantation shutters and the front door was enveloped in wisteria blossom. A coach lamp swung above the front step in the breeze as Pearl rang the bell.
Pearl had expected that Nathan would greet her; instead she heard the quick patter of footsteps from inside and the door opened to reveal a petite young woman with a slim build and black hair cropped short like a pixie. Her gamine look and dark eyebrows reminded Pearl of a young Audrey Hepburn. She wore a simple black dress with a Peter Pan collar and a pair of espadrilles with ribbon tied at her ankles. In a thick French accent, she asked: ‘You are ze food?’ Her expression was stressed as she waited anxiously for Pearl’s response.
‘I am,’ Pearl replied helpfully.
At this, the young woman gave a sigh of relief and stepped back, allowing Pearl to enter the black-and-white-tiled hallway. A wide central staircase wound its way to the next floor and at that moment, Nathan Roscoe appeared at the top of it.
An attractive man in his early forties with dark brown hair and a toned body, today Nathan was wearing a pale pink linen shirt and fashionably tight black trousers. He had begun to grow a short beard lately, and Pearl couldn’t make up her mind whether she liked it or not, since it seemed to be flecked with ginger patches. Nathan was Pearl’s closest friend and confidant in Whitstable and he might very well have been more to her – had he not been gay.
Visibly pleased to see her, he exclaimed, ‘There you are!’ But as he noticed the young French woman turn to look at him, he stopped himself from commenting further and, instead, hurried down the stairs to explain quickly, in his perfect French: ‘Tout va bien, Rosine. Ne t’inquiètes pas. Je vais m’en occuper.’
Rosine nodded. ‘Merci.’ And with a polite smile at them both, she headed swiftly back upstairs.
Nathan waited until he heard a door close on the upper floor before whispering, ‘I’m so sorry, Pearl. She lost her nerve.’
He nodded. ‘She suddenly got spooked about coming to the restaurant and said she might feel . . . “exposed”.’
Pearl thought that Nathan might offer up some criticisms of the ‘diva’ that Dolly had predicted, but instead he gave an unexpected smile and said, ‘She really is a darling, you know. A little sensitive perhaps, and the journey’s taken it out of her, but I’m sure you’ll love her.’
‘Where is she?’ Pearl asked.
‘Upstairs relaxing. I know she’ll be fine once she’s eaten, but . . .’ He paused before asking: ‘Will it take ages?’
‘No more than half an hour.’
He was about to lean forward and kiss Pearl but, before he could do so, a woman’s voice rang out. ‘Nathan?’ It was neither loud nor harsh in tone, but compelling nonetheless – like the soft insistence of a baby’s cry.
Nathan answered immediately. ‘Coming, Faye!’
As he turned back again to Pearl, looking decidedly torn, she pointed towards the staircase and urged him: ‘Go on. I’ll be right back with Ruby and the food. We’ll soon have lunch ready – a meal fit for a movie star.’
It didn’t take too long to prepare the meal in the kitchen of Arden House. Pearl had decided on a dish based loosely on a Florentine panzanella salad, though it was always her style to transform a simple recipe into something of her own. Using the recipe as a foundation, she would build on it, much as a jazz musician might use a simple tune for the basis of a complex improvisation. And so she had added to the panzanella her own choice of ingredients: plump black olives and anchovies. Ruby was busy laying another table, this time in a conservatory straight off the kitchen, using all Pearl’s training to make it as attractive as possible, only now with a small glass vase filled with forsythia as decoration. Pearl observed her through the kitchen window, hearing Ruby humming to herself as she worked. Then she spotted the young French girl, Rosine, hovering at the door to the conservatory, as if checking on Ruby’s progress, before picking up a sewing box and disappearing back upstairs with it to fulfil her principal duties as Faye’s maid.
The kitchen was impressively large – and open-plan – with a butler’s sink and a butcher-block table. Root vegetables were stored in wicker baskets alongside strings of garlic and onions, while gleaming copper pots hung from an overhead rack. Pearl’s own kitchen at Seaspray Cottage would have been dwarfed by comparis. . .
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