Murder at Mount Ephraim
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Murder at Mount Ephraim is the ninth book in Julie Wassmer's popular crime series - now a major Acorn TV drama, Whitstable Pearl, starring Kerry Godliman as private detective and restaurateur, Pearl Nolan
'While Oxford had Morse, Whitstable, famous for its oysters, has Pearl' Daily Mail
Pearl Nolan receives a wedding invitation from an old school friend. Journalist Amy has chosen somewhere very special for the wedding ceremony - the historic Kent manor house of Mount Ephraim - and the invite includes a pre-nuptial stay for Pearl and other guests at this venue. Nestled in an 800-acre estate, and surrounded by beautiful gardens and a lake, Pearl sees this break as a chance to leave crime behind, along with her own detective agency and her restaurant, The Whitstable Pearl.
Accepting the invitation, Pearl looks forward to meeting the happy couple's friends and family, as well as Amy's fiancé, Guy, a handsome and successful adventurer who appears to be Mr Perfect. She also has time to reflect on her own engagement to Canterbury CID detective, DCI Mike McGuire...
But before any wedding bells sound, murder strikes - and Pearl and McGuire are thrust together again - as partners in crime.
Praise for Julie Wassmer's Whitstable Pearl Mysteries...
'One of the best episodes in Wassmer's longrunning Whitstable saga' Daily Mail
'As light as a Mary Berry Victoria sponge, this Middle-England romp is packed with vivid characters' Myles McWeeney, Irish Independent
'All of the thrills without any of the gore' The Sun
'This is a quality title...a very entertaining read' The Puzzle Doctor
'A wonderful way to explore Whitstable . . . if you love cosy mysteries, then get acquainted with Pearl (and her mum and her cats!) and enjoy a trip to Whitstable through the eyes of this very convincing author' Trip Fiction
'Proves she's mistress of her craft' John McGhie, author of White Highlands
'Good, solid whodunits, without gruesome details or gratuitous violence, Murder on Sea may be just your cup of tea' Bec Stafford
Praise for the TV series...
'Scandi noir meets the English seaside in Whitstable Pearl, a murder mystery series based on Julie Wassmer's novels...' Drama Quarterly
'...explores all the murder and debauchery in the seemingly perfect English seaside town of Whitstable...' Washington Post
'...you never know what might turn up, either on the menu or alongside an oyster boat.' Wall Street Journal
Release date: August 25, 2022
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 320
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Murder at Mount Ephraim
‘So, what do you think?’ asked Dolly Nolan, beaming as she waited for an opinion. For a moment, Pearl was lost for words as she noted that the seascape in her mother’s hands had been created in Dolly’s favourite medium, ‘objets trouvés’ – a sophisticated term for the flotsam and jetsam Dolly was apt to collect on her beach walks: dried seaweed, fragments of bleached timber and tiny pieces of ancient glass polished by the tide.
‘It’s …’ Pearl struggled for a suitable adjective. ‘Unique,’ she said finally, ‘and very kind of you to do this for Amy.’
Dolly gave a shrug. ‘Well, as there’s no wedding list I thought a personal gift might fit the bill. It ticks all the boxes.’
‘Boxes?’ asked Pearl as she zipped up the travel bag she had packed that morning.
‘The old rhyme,’ said Dolly, ‘to bring a bride good luck on her wedding day. Something old,’—she indicated the painting’s antique gold leaf frame—‘something new’—She paused to remind Pearl: ‘It’s a brand-new piece of work. And as to “something borrowed”,’ she went on, ‘a friend lent me some brushes for this piece, and I haven’t yet given them back.’ She offered a mischievous smile then. ‘Something blue? Well …’ She allowed her daughter to guess for herself.
‘The sea,’ said Pearl, pointing to the azure band above a mass of oyster shells affixed to the canvas. She returned Dolly’s smile. ‘I’m sure Amy will really appreciate this. A reminder of home?’
Dolly considered the painting. ‘Yes,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘though not quite the tropical climes she’s used to. You said she’s been living in Thailand?’
Pearl nodded. ‘And we might be short of waving palm trees here, but Whitstable has its own charm – as has your gift,’ she added, before checking her watch and noting it was almost midday. ‘I’d better get going.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ asked Dolly. ‘The wedding’s not until tomorrow.’
‘I know, but as the guests have all been invited to stay at the venue for the whole weekend, I was hoping to arrive reasonably early today to catch up with Amy.’
Pearl grabbed a white linen jacket from the back of an armchair while Dolly began carefully wrapping her painting in a sheet of silver gift paper. Pearl watched her and flipped her long dark curls from the collar of her jacket as she mused, ‘It’s true there’s no wedding list, but it’s usual these days to have one, isn’t it?’
Dolly shrugged. ‘I presume they’re not in need of much,’ she commented as she continued wrapping. ‘Guy Priddey’s a very wealthy man.’
Pearl reacted to an element of disdain in her mother’s voice. ‘Successful,’ she said.
‘An adventurer,’ said Dolly with conviction before she pushed back her fringe, which had recently been coloured a bold magenta – a return to her favourite shade after a period of sporting a strong turquoise. Pearl knew it wouldn’t be long before her mother chose another attention-grabbing hue. Vivid colour was a weapon in the armoury Dolly used against age, as evidenced by her shockingly bright clothes. Dolly was sixty-five but going on sixteen and committed to growing old disgracefully. She finished wrapping the painting and remarked, ‘I can quite see why Amy’s been swept off her feet by him.’
‘Can you?’ asked Pearl.
Dolly looked back at her daughter as she secured a gold bow to the wrapped painting then stood up and smoothed the folds of her Technicolor artist’s smock.
‘Of course. Quite aside from his money, Priddey’s a free spirit – just like Amy – though he needed to be more than that to salvage that precious cargo from the South China Sea.’
‘And sell it for a small fortune,’ said Pearl.
‘Not so small,’ remarked Dolly knowingly. ‘It raised over five million at auction.’
‘That much?’ Pearl asked in shock.
Dolly gave a nod. ‘And I wasn’t in the least surprised. It was the finest Ch’ing dynasty porcelain.’
Pearl suddenly felt out of the loop. ‘How d’you know so much about it?’
Dolly preened before declaring: ‘I made it my business to find out. I read a few articles about the whole operation. I’m a ceramicist, remember?’ Pearl paused before humouring her. ‘Of course,’ she said, failing to point out that her mother’s shabby-chic platters hardly resembled priceless Chinese porcelain – though they did come in handy for oyster displays at the High Street restaurant that bore Pearl’s name – The Whitstable Pearl.
‘There again,’ said Dolly tentatively, ‘we mustn’t think that having all that money makes Priddey any more attractive to Amy than he clearly is.’
Pearl eyed her mother before setting the record straight. ‘Amy’s in love,’ she declared. ‘She called me from Bangkok and talked of nothing else but Guy. They may only have been together for a short while but they’re both old enough to know what they feel for one another.’
‘Good,’ said Dolly, seemingly satisfied, ‘though why Amy, or any other woman, feels the need to get married these days remains a mystery to me.’ She gave a sidelong glance at her daughter to which Pearl failed to react, then added: ‘Especially when you’re in your forties.’ She now offered the wrapped gift to Pearl, who gaped at her in shock.
‘Like me, you mean?’
‘You’re not married.’
‘Yet,’ said Pearl. ‘But I am engaged.’
‘Yes,’ said Dolly with a confused frown. ‘But what does that actually mean? You’re promised to one man and therefore unavailable to any other?’ She gave a pinched look. Pearl grabbed the wrapped painting from her and said, ‘McGuire proposed.’
‘And you accepted,’ said Dolly quickly, raising a finger to stress her point. ‘So now you’re neither single nor married, but in a form of … purgatory? You’re not even living together.’
‘This cottage is too small for us.’
‘It was big enough for me and your dad,’ said Dolly, ‘and now that Charlie’s moved out, you have a spare—’
‘I’m not getting rid of Charlie’s room,’ said Pearl quickly, before picking up her travel bag.
‘Why not?’ asked Dolly. ‘Charlie’s in his twenties and managing to pay rent on his own place in Canterbury – finally,’ she added, aware that Pearl had been subsidising him for quite a while.
‘And what if something goes wrong?’
‘If Charlie knows you’re keeping his slippers warm at home, it most certainly will,’ said Dolly. ‘He’ll be bouncing back here instead of learning to stand on his own two feet. But if he does ever need somewhere to stay in Whitstable there’s always my place – if I don’t have any guests staying.’
‘You’ve always got guests staying,’ said Pearl, knowing that Dolly’s Attic, the Harbour Street apartment situated above her mother’s home and the shop from which she sold her ceramics and artwork, was one of the town’s most popular holiday haunts.
‘Then he can sleep on the chaise longue in my conservatory,’ argued Dolly before she paused and considered her daughter. ‘There again … if you’re looking for a reason not to settle down with McGuire—’
‘I’m not,’ Pearl insisted. ‘We … just haven’t had time to discuss wedding plans, that’s all.’
Dolly watched as Pearl hitched her bag over her shoulder, then she paused and came closer. ‘So … this is really what you want, is it? Marriage?’ Somehow she made the word sound deeply unattractive.
‘Would I have said yes otherwise?’
Dolly took a moment to consider this. ‘Lots of women get carried away with a proposal. There’s nothing wrong with having second thoughts.’
‘You mean cold feet? I haven’t got them.’
‘After all these years of independence?’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘You’ll be giving up the life you’ve carved out for yourself – your routines. We settle into middle age like a pair of comfy slippers.’
‘Forty is not “middle-aged”.’
‘You’re over forty now, Pearl.’
‘So, I’m just saying … our needs change as we grow older. When I was young, I’d have given anything for love.’
‘And now?’ asked Pearl, curious.
‘Now, it’s a foot spa.’
Pearl gave a heavy sigh. ‘Is it marriage you’re trying to put me off – or McGuire?’
Dolly gave a shrug. ‘It’s really nothing personal.’
‘You just don’t like the idea of having a police officer in the family, is that it?’
It was true that Dolly Nolan had always shown a disregard for all authority – including members of the police – though she had warmed to Pearl’s fiancé, DCI Mike McGuire, evidenced by the fact that she no longer called him ‘the flatfoot’.
‘Now that you mention it,’ mused Dolly, ‘we could do with a useful profession in the family.’
‘Like a plumber,’ said Dolly. ‘With the money they charge these days, I’m going to have to remortgage just to get my old boiler overhauled.’
Pearl gave up. ‘Why don’t I find a brain surgeon and get you overhauled?’
‘Uncalled for,’ said Dolly. ‘I’m just pointing out the obvious, that’s all: you hardly have time to see one another as it is, what with McGuire on call at the police station and you at the restaurant – or embroiled in trying to solve someone’s problems.’
‘Cases,’ said Pearl. ‘Nolan’s is a detective agency – not a knock-and-drop-in centre.’
‘Whatever,’ said Dolly dismissively before beginning again. ‘I’ve always wanted what’s best for you, Pearl. You need to invest time in a marriage for it to work.’ She gave a knowing look. ‘As for Amy,’ she went on, ‘why on earth would she want to give up a dream job like hers, jetting all over the world and writing about interesting people?’
‘I told you – she’s in love.’
‘She was in love with her job.’
‘Work isn’t everything.’
‘It is to you and McGuire.’
‘Well then,’ said Pearl. ‘Things will have to change.’ The finality of her tone seemed to serve as a punctuation mark to the conversation. Dolly got the message and finally softened.
‘At least you’ve got a nice break to look forward to.’ She plucked an invitation from its place on Pearl’s mantelpiece. It featured an aerial photograph of a country manor house nestled in stunning grounds. Dolly gave the card an approving nod. ‘Very tasteful,’ she said, eyeing the silver lettering against its stylish dove-grey background before checking the back of it. ‘Thompson’s of Faversham,’ she noted. ‘Nice work. They’ve done Mount Ephraim proud with this. It’s a beautiful venue,’ she said, ‘for a special person.’ She looked over at Pearl as she suddenly recalled, ‘Poor Amy had a lot to overcome as a child, didn’t she? Can’t have been easy losing her mum as she did, only for her dad to fall under the spell of Madame Meadows.’
‘The Stepmonster,’ said Pearl. ‘That’s what Amy used to call her.’
‘And I’m not surprised. Barbara Meadows squeezed herself into Geoffrey’s life like an octopus into a bottle.’
‘Yes,’ said Pearl, pained by the thought. ‘She completely displaced Amy.’
Both women reflected on this for a moment before Dolly remarked, ‘She must have been so unhappy. Perhaps that’s why she always looked so … otherworldly?’ She thought for a moment then added, ‘As though she was trying to … absent herself from life.’
‘She certainly always hankered after getting away from Whitstable,’ Pearl commented. ‘I missed her when she left, but now she’s back. To get married,’ she added pointedly. ‘And I, for one, am very grateful for my invitation.’ She plucked the card from Dolly’s hand then picked up her travel bag, moved to the door and threw a glance back to where her two tabby cats lay sprawled on the sofa. ‘You will look after Pilchard and Sprat for me?’
‘Of course,’ said Dolly. ‘I’m Cat Woman of Whitstable,’ she purred. ‘They’ll be in safe hands with me – as will the restaurant.’
‘No need to worry about that,’ said Pearl, grateful that her young chef, Dean Samson, could more than cope in her absence. ‘Charlie can cover some shifts if needed.’
‘As can I,’ Dolly insisted.
Pearl smiled, aware that while her mother was no cook, Dolly Nolan’s spirited presence front-of-house was always a boon at The Whitstable Pearl – unless she had to talk about the town’s most famous delicacy – oysters – which she despised.
‘In any case,’ Dolly went on, ‘you’ll only be gone for the weekend. Back on Monday?’
Pearl nodded. ‘Right.’
She moved towards the front door then eyed her mother, asking hesitantly: ‘Did you … really mean what you said?’
‘Me getting married?’
Dolly looked uncomfortable and carefully gathered her thoughts. ‘Look,’ she began, ‘in my day, you got wed because you needed a bit of stability before starting a family. You already have a family – unless, of course, you’re thinking of—’
‘I’m not,’ said Pearl firmly.
‘Then you won’t be needing a spare room.’ Dolly smiled again – triumphantly this time. Pearl decided to let the matter drop. Instead, she leaned forward to kiss her mother before finally heading to the front door.
Once outside, Pearl hurried over to her Fiat, which was parked nearby on Island Wall, a long street that ran parallel to Whitstable’s coastline. A row of seagulls perched on the roofs across the road appeared to observe Pearl carefully as she placed her travel bag in the boot; once they were sure there were no food scraps forthcoming, they lost interest and returned to basking in the pale sunlight. Pearl got into her car and settled Dolly’s wedding gift carefully on the passenger seat beside her. Opening the driver’s-side window, she saw her mother was already waving from the doorstep. ‘Have fun!’
Dolly blew a kiss at her daughter and Pearl called back: ‘Don’t worry, I will!’ Then Pearl put the Fiat firmly in gear and drove off, leaving Dolly gazing after her, confident that her daughter was about to enjoy a well-earned, peaceful break.
Ten minutes after leaving home, Pearl found herself in a heavy flow of traffic on the dual carriageway heading in the direction of London. Putting her foot hard on the accelerator, she recognised she was not only responding to the general road speed but to the faster pace of life that existed beyond Whitstable. Pearl’s hometown on the North Kent coast had been something of a backwater, most famous for its oysters and a fishing industry that had existed since Roman times, with the estuary waters providing the perfect shallow mix of salt and fresh water in which the molluscs thrived. At the start of the twentieth century, during the ‘glory days’ of oyster fishing, more than a hundred boats had been involved in local dredging, and oysters had been so plentiful they had been considered not an expensive delicacy but the mere cheap padding of a steak and oyster pie. Now, for the most part, Whitstable’s famous native oyster had been replaced by its larger grey-shelled competitor, the Pacific rock oyster, which could be eaten all year round and was therefore now farmed, not fished, in industrial proportions on a proliferation of metal trestles which stretched out for some distance along the foreshore to become visible at low tide as the estuary waters receded.
The rock oyster was also now considered to be an invasive species as it had escaped its local containment to spread along the Kent coastline at such a rate that it threatened other sea life. Local fishermen talked of rock oysters weighing more than two kilos – monsters taking over the local marine ecology – and environmental groups were working hard with volunteers to destroy the species, likening the farming of rock oysters for profit to growing Japanese knotweed in polytunnels. In other coastal areas, a similar programme of removal had been put in place, not least because the razor-sharp shells of the Pacific rock oysters, which sat vertically rather than horizontally on the sea bed, were sharp enough to penetrate the soles of rubber boots and injure the feet of sailors jumping out of their boats at low tide.
There were parallels between the threat from the rock oyster and Whitstable’s other non-native ‘invasive species’: the DFL – the acronym locals used for the ‘down from Londoners’ – who were snapping up second homes for themselves in what they considered to be a quaint little fishing town less than an hour’s drive from south London. They had pushed up property prices so that a whole generation of young adults could no longer afford to remain in their hometown. Charlie was one. He had first moved into student accommodation in Canterbury while studying graphics at the university, but he now seemed permanently settled there, secure in the knowledge that he would be unable to manage the rent on even the smallest Whitstable apartment. To Pearl’s chagrin, her son had now made his home in a university city filled with tourists, bars and chain stores – a contrast to all he had ever known in Whitstable. The fact that Charlie had become a city boy continued to unsettle Pearl, whose own haven remained the estuary coastline which was now fast receding out of her driver’s-side window.
The sea was in Pearl’s DNA, gifted to her by her fisherman father, and his before him, from a bloodline of men whose harvests were gathered from the seabed itself. The estuary waters coursed through Pearl’s veins – ebbing and flowing with the beat of her heart – so much so that even following the traffic on its way to London made her slightly uneasy. Relief finally appeared in the form of a road sign which offered an exit just before those for the creek-side haunts of Faversham and Oare. Pearl moved into the slow lane destined for local traffic and followed a signpost for the hamlet of Fostall.
Bordered by orchards and farmland, the winding road was in fact little more than a country lane, and it was a welcome contrast to the busy dual carriageway as it carried Pearl uphill through glades of overhanging trees until another sign came into view, this time informing her that she was nearing the village of Hernhill – twinned with the French town of Vis en Artois. From a landscape of rolling farmland, a tractor appeared, which hindered Pearl’s progress but allowed her time to appreciate the pretty cottages that lined the road. The tractor slowed to a halt, forcing Pearl to do the same just in front of The Red Lion, a centuries-old inn that looked out on to a village green where an ancient oak tree stood guard over the old church of St Michael’s.
As the tractor waited to turn into a nearby farm, Pearl stared across at the pub’s half-timbered exterior, graced with colourful window boxes and the date, 1364, above the door. A chalkboard menu was displayed outside, which Pearl took the opportunity to investigate as the tractor continued to block her path. It soon became clear that the old country inn had long since exchanged ‘pub grub’ for a more sophisticated bill of fare which included starters of crispy salt and pepper squid, Chinese five spice duck rillettes, and a chevre cheese cheesecake on walnut sable. Vegans were catered for with a Buddha bowl salad of mixed grains, nuts and spiced corn, and a vegetable risotto with a garlic-oil confit. Within the Pub Classics section, even the beef pie was ‘handmade’, and there was a selection of chef-inspired de. . .
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