The Whitstable Pearl series is now coming to TV on 24th May! Discover the Whitstable Pearl mysteries: a combination of seafood, murder, and a multi-tasking heroine on the coast of Kent. . . Soon to be a television series! It really is murder on the dance floor... A new dance school opens in Whitstable run by celebrity tango champions - Tony and Tanya Ballard. Pearl Nolan knows herself to be an ace cook and a sharp private eye but has always left the dancing to her mother, Dolly, a former member of the town's infamous Fish Slappers dance troupe. But Pearl becomes intrigued by the Ballards when they visit The Whitstable Pearl restaurant, and she realises that dance classes could provide the perfect cover for her clandestine relationship with DCI Mike McGuire... McGuire is the only man Pearl has ever considered partnering - and not just for tango - but the pair soon find themselves with more than steps to master when death joins them on the dance floor and a brutal killer stalks the school. Praise for Julie Wassmer's Whitstable 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!nt>' Jane Wenham-Jones, author of Mum in the Middle 'While Oxford had Morse, Whitstable, famous for its oysters, has Pearl' Daily Mail 'Come to Whitstable without actually coming to Whitstable. A good read!' Anthony Jemmett
Release date: June 10, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 320
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‘Excuse me,’ she said quickly, having heard quite enough. ‘I think we could do with a bit of fresh air, don’t you?’
She moved to open the window and allowed the soft tinkle of a small set of wind chimes to enter the room on the sea air. Then she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and imagined for a moment that she was sailing her dinghy out on the rising tide with the warm breeze flowing through her long dark hair – free of all cares …
At this time of year, an early-morning swim or sail before the crowds gathered to the magnetic pull of Whitstable’s shore was always a welcome pleasure, but Pearl knew that both would have to wait. Radcliffe, or ‘Ratty’ as he was known to most of his constituents – a nickname acquired from the toupee the councillor wore, which looked like something wild animals had fought over – had managed to extend his appointment beyond the usual time allotted and Pearl now recognised that if she failed to take control of this meeting, she would be late for opening her High Street restaurant, The Whitstable Pearl. She turned to see Radcliffe using a handkerchief to dab beads of sweat emerging from his toupee, and she couldn’t help wondering what his wife, Hilary, seated beside him, could possibly find attractive in her husband – other than Radcliffe’s status and perhaps his recent purchase of the historic home they now shared. The Old Captain’s House was a fine piece of Georgian architecture, situated in the heart of the town near the harbour. White-walled and sporting mullion windows, it had gained its name from a series of maritime owners, including one with connections to the deep-sea diving industry that Whitstable had pioneered in the nineteenth century after a local man had invented the diving helmet. That fact went largely un-commemorated save for a few artefacts in the local museum and the naming of a street of dwellings as ‘Dollar Row’, after it had been built with the proceeds of a salvage operation of a ship full of silver dollars. But the Old Captain’s House stood as a reminder of that era while providing a suitable residence for Councillor Radcliffe, from which he enjoyed lording it over this little north Kent fishing town that was most famous for its native oysters.
‘So,’ said Pearl, ‘you’re absolutely sure that these items of clothing have been stolen?’
‘Sure? Of course I’m sure,’ the councillor bellowed. ‘And this isn’t mere “clothing”, you know,’ he added with a disparaging sneer. ‘I’ve told you, the “items” are of the highest quality. Explain, Hilary.’
Hilary Radcliffe cleared her throat, producing, as she did so, a single high note like a ship’s whistle piping aboard a passenger, before confirming: ‘Peter’s right. It’s an exclusive selection, sold only in Paris, London and Rome. Five items from the Scarlet Woman range, six from the Black Widow and four from… Virgin Queen.’ She looked slightly abashed.
‘Fifteen items in total!’ Radcliffe exploded – entirely unabashed. ‘The cost runs into thousands!’
‘But you haven’t notified the police,’ said Pearl. ‘If you did that, you could claim on—’
‘Insurance – I know, I know,’ Radcliffe broke in testily, ‘but I’d only end up paying a higher premium. Besides,’ he added, ‘considering the delicate nature of the items, I can’t say I trust the local police not to leak the details to the press. I have a public image to maintain, you know.’ He preened and dabbed his sweaty forehead once more.
‘And you think your wife’s stolen underwear might affect that?’ said Pearl starkly.
‘I’ve told you,’ said Radcliffe, holding Pearl’s gaze, ‘it isn’t any old underwear, it’s—’
‘Exclusive lingerie,’ said Hilary, breaking in. ‘Torn from our washing line,’ she added with a wounded look.
Radcliffe nodded. ‘And by what I can only assume to be a local pervert.’
‘Or,’ said Hilary, ‘a covetous woman with exquisite taste.’ She offered a tight smile and for a moment, Pearl questioned whether she really wanted to go searching for the thief of Hilary Radcliffe’s underwear. If the stolen goods weren’t recovered quickly, the case would surely require prolonged contact with the Radcliffes – an idea Pearl didn’t exactly relish, especially at this time of year. Did she really need to burden herself with a mundane case from potentially difficult clients when The Whitstable Pearl, and the town itself, were busy with holidaymakers taking advantage of a final staycation before the school holidays ended? Pearl knew she could rely on her assistant chef, Dean Samson, in the restaurant that bore her name, as well as her small but hardworking band of devoted staff whom she considered more like family than employees, but there had been a dearth of cases recently for Nolan’s Detective Agency, nothing to tax the skills Pearl knew she possessed, but which she had failed to make use of following the police training she had undertaken as a young woman. The training had been abandoned by Pearl when she had discovered she was pregnant with her son, Charlie. Now, over twenty years later, Charlie was away, enjoying a working holiday on an organic farm in Burgundy with a family who made their own wine and olive oil, having a wonderful summer while his mother was at something of a loose end …
‘So,’ said Pearl, trying to wrap up the appointment with the Radcliffes, ‘what you want to know is if I can discover who’s responsible for this theft and recover all the items?’
‘Precisely,’ said Radcliffe, adding, ‘and how much that’s likely to cost me.’
Pearl plucked a leaflet from her desk and handed it to Radcliffe. ‘My rates and conditions.’
Radcliffe quickly ran his beady eyes across the text, raising caterpillar-like eyebrows and patting his sweaty brow once more.
‘Fine,’ he announced. ‘I’ll give you a retainer right now.’ He plucked a chequebook from his pocket, followed swiftly by a gold biro. ‘Who do I make this payable to – you?’ He was still staring down at his chequebook when Pearl replied.
‘The Whitstable Carnival.’
At this, Ratty looked up and saw Pearl’s slow smile. ‘The carnival committee is in need of funds,’ she explained. ‘I said I’d help by donating the fee from my next case to them.’
Hilary squealed. ‘What a lovely idea! We could help with a donation too, couldn’t we, Peter?’
She looked to her husband for a response, but Radcliffe seemed ready to scotch the idea until Pearl intervened with: ‘The committee will be listing every single donor in the carnival programme – which goes out to practically the whole town – just before the next council elections.’
‘Is that a fact?’ said Ratty, ruminating on this for only a moment before he made a hasty decision and, with a flourish of his gold pen, quickly signed two cheques and handed them both to Pearl. ‘You’ll be keeping me fully updated?’
‘About the carnival funding?’ asked Pearl, casting her eye over the sums on his cheques.
‘About my wife’s missing lingerie,’ Radcliffe said tersely.
‘Of course,’ said Pearl, relieved to see that the Radcliffes were finally getting to their feet. ‘I’ll come to the house tomorrow and check out exactly where the items were stolen from. Will you be home around ten?’
‘I’ll make sure I am,’ said Hilary before she remembered the folded newspaper lying on top of her stylish designer bag. ‘And I suppose we’ll be seeing you tomorrow evening, too?’
‘For the new dance class.’
Hilary noted Pearl’s confused expression and exclaimed: ‘Oh my goodness! I thought you would have enrolled by now. Tango – with Tony and Tanya Ballard?’ At Pearl’s lost look, Hilary explained: ‘They’re the leading exponents. Look …’ She handed the newspaper to Pearl, who unfolded it to reveal a front-page photo featuring an attractive couple in flamboyant Latin costume. Tanya Ballard wore impossibly high stiletto heels and a low-cut, figure-hugging scarlet dress, the black frills of which stood out horizontally suggesting she had just completed a very rapid spin. Her partner, Tony, sported a tight-fitting black shirt and trousers, together with red braces and a white trilby hat pulled low over one eye.
‘They’ve taken over Taylor’s Dance School. It’s now Ballard’s,’ Hilary went on. ‘The new tango classes begin at eight tomorrow evening.’ She offered a knowing smile. ‘Perhaps you could invite your friend, the police detective. I haven’t seen him around for a while?’
Pearl noted the smile playing on Hilary’s lips. ‘No,’ she said flatly, ‘DCI McGuire is away on a training course.’
Peter Radcliffe gave a derisive snort. ‘Fancy that,’ he said. ‘You’d have thought once they reach the rank of DCI they might already be fully trained.’ He took Hilary’s arm. ‘Come on, my dear.’
With a self-satisfied smile, Radcliffe steered his wife to the door. As it closed behind the departing couple, Pearl heaved a sigh of relief then looked down again at the photo in the newspaper. How had news of Whitstable’s intriguing new dance duo passed her by?
‘What on earth possessed you to take on a case from Radcliffe?’ asked Pearl’s mother, Dolly Nolan, as she chopped parsley in a quiet corner of the restaurant kitchen.
‘It was really for Hilary,’ said Pearl, before taking a sip of the mignonette sauce she had just prepared for a selection of Pacific rock and native oysters. She paused to savour the sharp blend of minced shallot, white wine and rice vinegar then added some white peppercorns while Dolly pointed out: ‘Paid for by Ratty.’
‘But the proceeds will go to the carnival fund,’ Pearl explained. ‘Radcliffe’s also given a donation, so, all in all, it will make a nice tidy sum for the committee. You know how desperate they were this summer. But if we start fundraising now, as early as possible, next year should be so much easier for them.’ Pearl handed the mignonette sauce to her kitchen hand, Ahmed, who ferried it across to chef Dean, a young man who had proved himself more than capable of replicating all Pearl’s most popular dishes – and a few more besides.
Dolly lowered her voice before commenting: ‘So desperate you had to take on trying to find Hilary Radcliffe’s knickers?’
Pearl said nothing, waiting until Ahmed had crossed the kitchen to the sink before she looked back at her mother and explained, ‘I’ve only told you about this in case you happen to hear anything, but I expect you to keep it strictly confidential, understood?’
Dolly gave a reluctant nod. ‘All right,’ she agreed, ‘but why couldn’t she have just put it all in the tumble dryer like anyone else, instead of flaunting it for all her neighbours to see?’
‘Because,’ said Pearl, ‘they’re not the kind of pieces you’d trust to the tumble dryer.’
‘Oh?’ Dolly’s curiosity was suddenly piqued.
‘They’re from an exclusive range, a gift from—’
‘Don’t tell me,’ said Dolly, grimacing. ‘Naughty nicks, courtesy of Ratty? What a horrible thought.’
‘It’s actually a beautiful range from an exclusive company,’ said Pearl, producing the catalogue from her bag. ‘You can’t say she doesn’t have taste.’
‘Not in men,’ said Dolly. ‘If you ask me, Hilary Radcliffe is a traitor to the sisterhood – an attractive woman like that succumbing to Ratty? She’s nothing more than his trophy wife.’
‘Yes, I’m sure there’s a price to pay.’
‘And it’d be far too high for me.’ Dolly shoved the catalogue back at Pearl, who watched her mother huffing over her chopped parsley. Although Dolly was in her sixties she was nevertheless sporting a newly dyed turquoise fringe while each of her fingernails was painted a different colour. Beneath her Whitstable Pearl apron she wore one of her own handmade artist smocks – another riot of colour that screamed, Ignore me at your peril.
‘Well,’ said Pearl, ‘I don’t think you have much to worry about: I don’t think you’re Ratty’s type.’
Dolly looked up sharply. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment,’ she said proudly.
‘Meanwhile,’ Pearl went on, trying now to change the subject, ‘Hilary happened to mention this …’ She produced a copy of the local paper and Dolly smiled as she saw the front page.
‘Ah, so news has hit the Chronicle.’
‘You knew about this?’
‘Of course,’ said Dolly, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Tanya Ballard is Irene’s niece.’
‘Taylor. Irene was Susanne’s sister – that’s Tanya’s mother. She was a dancer too. Modern – not ballroom.’ Dolly looked wistful for a moment, as she recalled something. ‘Beautiful young thing she was, a pocket Venus. There was something quite … ethereal about her – especially when she danced. Like a little sylph.’ Dolly mused on this for a moment before continuing: ‘She joined a dance group – four girls – only teenagers at the time but they became quite a success … a phenomenon. Long before you were born, of course – I’m talking about the sixties. Skip to my Lou. Dreadful name, but the group’s leader was called Louise, if I remember rightly. They were all very talented, and pretty, of course, or they would never have got on to TV, where they spent most of their time prancing around to hits of the day on a chart show. They must have made quite a bit of money, though – enough for Susanne to start up the dance school. It’s a fair-sized building, you know, used to be an old chapel and would have cost quite a lot even back then. Irene ended up running it because Susanne disappeared off to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the “giggling guru” – the Maharishi – and all the other “beautiful people” he attracted at the time: the Beatles, Mia Farrow—’
‘What happened?’ Pearl broke in, curious. ‘To Susanne, I mean?’
Dolly shrugged. ‘She met a rock star and moved to California. Became a fully fledged Flower Child and never returned. A decade later, she had Tanya and …’ Dolly paused for a moment, her brow furrowing. ‘Well, she became rather a casualty of it all.’
‘Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, of course. I think there were clinic referrals … psychological problems … substance abuse? The poor woman died some years ago.’
‘And the dance school?’
‘It’s managed to carry on, despite being a bit off the beaten track. Susanne may have started it up, but Irene’s always done most of the work. She never married, so in many ways it’s been her baby – her pride and joy – as is Tanya, too. Irene’s a remarkable woman – strong, persevering, responsible. The complete opposite of her sister, who always seemed so vulnerable.’ She paused and looked at Pearl. ‘If only I could have got you to Taylor’s when you were young, but you never showed the slightest interest in ballet or tap – you were much happier out with your dad on his boat.’
Pearl smiled as she watched her mother now ladling herrings in Madeira sauce on to slices of homemade sourdough bread. It was true that Pearl had adored the company of her late father Tommy, accompanying him out to sea as often as she could to fish Whitstable’s waters for oysters. From a young age Pearl had learned the routine: the heavy dredge, lowered off the stern, dragging along the seabed to fetch up a catch from which unwanted intruders would be plucked. Crabs were capable of cracking open the shells of young oysters but starfish remained the oysterman’s nemesis, seemingly innocent baby fingers clamping on to the oyster’s shell to suck the life from it. As a child, Pearl had helped her father to wrench them from their prey, sorting through his catch, on the culling table at the boat’s stern, before returning on the lowering tide with full baskets of oysters to mark a good day at sea. With her gipsy black hair and grey eyes the colour of moonstone, Pearl even resembled her late father – a rebel at heart, who had been able to trace his roots back to Galway. In contrast, Dolly was from Whitstable stock; short and stout, she appeared to have passed nothing down to her daughter – beyond her own indomitable spirit.
‘You’re the dancer,’ Pearl reminded her mother.
Dolly sighed. ‘If only,’ she said. ‘Imagine being paid to dance for a living? I can’t think of anything nicer.’ For a second Dolly considered all her former terpsichorean exploits – from belly dancing to flamenco, not to mention a stint in an eccentric local troupe known as the Fish Slappers, whose aquatic costumes – featuring scallop-shaped bras and cod headdresses – had caused quite a stir at local Oyster Festival parades in years gone by. She heaved a sigh. ‘These days,’ she continued, ‘I lack even the basic requirement.’
‘A centre of gravity,’ Dolly admitted, staring down glumly at her plump figure in contrast to Pearl’s willowy frame. ‘And the flamenco really did play havoc with my knees, you know?’ she added. ‘All that stamping?’ She rallied now with a smile. ‘But I’m sure I’ll do better with tango.’
Pearl turned to her. ‘You mean, you’re actually going to enrol?’
‘Already have,’ said Dolly, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘You have to get in quick, you know. Tanya and Tony are a class act. Coming along?’
Pearl shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Because,’ said Pearl, ‘as the newspaper headline states: “It Takes Two to Tango”, and somehow I don’t think you and I would make the best partners.’ She stood close to Dolly and by doing so, underscored their difference in height.
‘You’re right,’ Dolly agreed, ‘which is why Ruby’s agreed to partner me.’
‘Ruby?’ Pearl glanced across the kitchen towards her young waitress, who was just heading out, with a platter of oysters, on to the restaurant floor.
‘Yes,’ said Dolly. ‘Her friend Florrie works at the school and she’s managed to get us both in for classes. I’ll ask her to put you down too – plus one – in case Nathan needs a partner.’
‘Nathan’s up for this too?’ asked Pearl, surprised to hear this about her journalist friend and neighbour – especially since he had only just returned from researching a travel piece in Italy.
‘Along with half of Whitstable, I’d imagine,’ said Dolly, ‘once they’ve seen this headline.’ She slapped the newspaper and handed it back to her daughter as she remarked knowingly: ‘Strange that the “X-ray specs” of our town should be so slow off the mark about this?’ Dolly moved off with her herrings, leaving Pearl to wonder how someone who prided herself on knowing most of what took place in her town could possibly have remained ignorant about this development. Before she could respond, Ruby Hill came back into the kitchen, this time with a cordless phone in her hand.
‘Customer,’ she explained hurriedly. ‘Says she’d like to book a table for tomorrow but asked to speak to you personally?’ Ruby handed over the phone and allowed her boss to take the call.
‘Pearl Nolan. Can I help?’
The woman on the end of the line carefully explained: ‘I realise this is short notice,’ she began, ‘but I’d like to make a group booking for tomorrow lunchtime, if at all possible?’
‘For how many?’ asked Pearl, moving to her computer screen.
‘Eight,’ said the caller. ‘I know you’re always busy and I really should have called sooner, but a relative told me that if I mentioned the name Dolly Nolan you might be able to work some magic for us?’
‘A relative?’ asked Pearl, curious.
‘Yes, my aunt, Irene Taylor. She’s an old friend of your mother’s.’
‘And you are …?’
‘Tanya Ballard – from the dance school.’
‘Tanya and …’
The woman spoke quickly. ‘Tanya and Tony, that’s right,’ she said. ‘To be honest, I’d like to treat my staff by taking them somewhere special before classes begin tomorrow. Everyone agreed there was only one place to go – The Whitstable Pearl.’
Pearl took this in and checked her seating plan, realising that with a bit of juggling she could make room for a single table near the window.
‘How does one o’clock sound?’
‘Wonderful!’ said Tanya Ballard, clearly relieved. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘It’s a pleasure,’ Pearl replied. ‘I look forward to meeting you then.’
Replacing the receiver, Pearl stared down at the newspaper, her curiosity piqued as she realised how much she actually meant this.
Later that evening, Pearl dropped in on her neighbour, Nathan Roscoe. Natha. . .
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