Det. Inspector Luke Thanet is pulling into his driveway, anticipating a long, lazy evening at home, when murder intervenes. A village so lovely it seems straight out of a fairytale, Ribbleden is far from the main roads and Thanet’s usual beat. When the inspector pulls into town, the quiet country streets are deserted: Everyone is crowded outside the manor gates, waiting to learn what happened to Nerine Tarrant.
A notorious woman with a taste for married men, Nerine was found dead on her patio, her neck broken by the fall from the second floor. The wall was too high for an accidental tumble, and a woman with Nerine’s lust for life would never have committed suicide. Many in Ribbleden wanted her dead—but who gave her the final push?
Written by the CWA Silver Dagger–winning Dorothy Simpson, this classic village mystery with a shocking modern twist is perfect for fans of P. D. James or Midsomer Murders.
Element of Doubt is the 7th book in the Inspector Thanet Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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About the Author
Dorothy Simpson (b. 1933) was born and raised in South Wales, and went to Bristol University, where she studied modern languages before moving to Kent, the setting for her Inspector Thanet Mysteries. After spending several years at home with her three children, she trained as a marriage guidance counselor and subsequently worked as one for thirteen years before writing her first novel. Says Simpson, “You may think that marriage guidance counselor to crime writer is rather a peculiar career move, but although I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, the training I received was the best possible preparation for writing detective novels. Murder mysteries are all about relationships which go disastrously wrong, and the insights I gained into what makes people tick, into their interaction and motivations, have been absolutely invaluable to DI Thanet, my series character, as have the interviewing skills I acquired during my years of counseling.”
Read an Excerpt
Element of Doubt
An Inspector Thanet Mystery
By Dorothy Simpson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Dorothy Simpson
All rights reserved.
As he swung into the drive Thanet felt distinctly smug. Joan had asked him to try to be home by six and it was one minute to. He was still smiling to himself at the thought of her surprise at his almost unprecedented punctuality when the front door was flung open and Ben came racing down the path.
'Dad! You just had a phone call. There's been a murder out at Ribbleden!' At twelve Ben was still young enough to relish the more sensational aspects of his father's police work and to enjoy parading his imaginary inside knowledge before his friends.
Thanet groaned. The fantasy of the long, lazy, thoroughly self-indulgent evening he had planned lingered tantalisingly in his imagination for a moment or two longer before fading reluctantly away. He gave Ben an accusing look. 'And you shouldn't have been listening, anyway.'
'Oh come on, Dad! I can't just go deaf every time the phone rings.'
'You know perfectly well what I mean. But as you did listen, not a single word about it at Scouts tonight, do you hear?'
'I mean it, Ben. I don't want rumours flying around. If that's all it turned out to be, a rumour, there could be all sorts of complications.'
'Oh all right. If I must ... On one condition ...'
'Condition, my foot! If you think I'm going to submit to blackmail ...'
'Blackmail?' said Joan, as they reached the front door. She looked harassed.
Thanet shook his head. 'A joke.' He kissed her. 'We've got a problem, I gather.'
Joan, a probation officer, was due at a meeting at six thirty and it had been arranged that Thanet should do the Scout run and, later, pick Bridget up from Doc Mallard's, where she and Mrs Mallard were having one of what they called their 'creative' evenings. Helen Mallard was a well-established writer of popular cookery books and Bridget's love of cooking had forged a strong bond between them.
'Not any more. It's all organised.' Joan was fishing in her handbag for her car keys. 'If you could manage to take Ben and the others to Scouts, as arranged, Jane Orton will fetch them home. And Helen will bring Bridget back when they've finished their session.'
'Fine. Thanks. Ben, disappear for a few minutes, will you? Go on. Your mother's in a hurry.' Thanet waited until Ben had gone into the living room and shut the door, then turned to Joan. 'So, what's it all about? Ben said something about a murder out at Ribbleden.'
'That's right – well, a suspicious death, anyway. I don't know the details, but here's the address. I hope I didn't jump the gun, but as I had to ring Helen Mallard anyway, I arranged for you to pick up Doc Mallard on the way, as she'll be needing his car to bring Bridget home. Hers is in for servicing.'
'Thanks, that's fine. Off you go then, love.' Thanet paused. 'What's the matter?'
Joan was hesitating.
'That address. High Gables, Ribbleden ... Damon Tarrant lives there.'
'Damon ...? Ah ... Possession of drugs, right?'
'The poor little rich boy.'
'I wish you wouldn't call him that!'
Thanet held up his hands in apology. 'All right, I'm sorry. But why so uptight?' Joan hesitated. 'He didn't turn up for his appointment this afternoon,' she said reluctantly.
'I see ... And now you're worried in case he had something to do with this ... suspicious death.'
'Well, not worried, exactly, not in that sense. Concerned would be a better word. He is only eighteen, after all.'
'Were you told who the victim is?'
Joan's mouth turned down at the corners. 'His mother. Of course, his not turning up for an appointment could be purely coincidental.'
'True. But in any case, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it at the moment, so you'd better get off. You're going to be late as it is. I'll let you know what the situation is when I get home. OK?'
Joan nodded. 'I suppose you're right. But ... Oh goodness, it's twenty past already. I must fly.'
Thanet gave her a quick kiss and a gentle push towards the front door.
'Ben?' he called. 'Ready?'
Doctor Mallard, the police surgeon, was ready and waiting when Thanet's car pulled up outside the bungalow transformed since Mallard's recent remarriage by fresh paint, new curtains and a garden full of flowers instead of weeds. Every time he passed it Thanet would marvel at the difference this marriage had made to his old friend after the years of sadness and depression which had followed the death of the little doctor's first wife. The man himself had also taken on a new lease of life. Gone was the irritability which had made him so uncomfortable to work with, the scruffy, down-at-heel clothes and unpolished shoes. Watching him now as he walked briskly down the path to the car Thanet offered up a brief prayer of gratitude on his friend's behalf.
Helen Mallard and Bridget appeared at the front door, waving. Thanet got out of the car. 'Thanks for helping out, Helen,' he called.
She smiled and made a dismissive gesture. 'Any time.'
'It's very kind of Helen to take so much trouble over Bridget,' said Thanet as they moved off. 'Joan and I really appreciate it, and I know Bridget does.'
'Nonsense. She really enjoys having someone to share her ideas with. It's a relief for me to get out tonight. I'm definitely persona non grata on Thursday evenings.' But Mallard's indulgent smile belied his words. 'She says Bridget is very talented.'
'The admiration is mutual, I assure you.'
'Anyway, tell me a bit more about this case. Joan didn't say much on the phone.'
'I don't suppose I know much more than you. A suspicious death at Ribbleden. A Mrs Tarrant.'
'Of High Gables? Good grief!'
'You know her, then?'
'I have met her a few times. Know of her, would be more accurate.'
'Don't be tantalising. What do you know of her?'
'Far be it from me to pass on gossip,' said Mallard, primly.
Glancing at his companion Thanet caught the mischievous glint above the lenses of the half-moon spectacles. 'Don't be infuriating, Doc. If this turns out to be a murder case ...'
'It's just that she has something of a reputation, that's all.'
'Promiscuity.' Mallard was no longer smiling. 'And as a matter of fact, it's not just gossip. I know of at least one marriage she destroyed. It's a number of years ago now, but the husband was a friend of mine. What I found so hard to swallow was the fact that she'd just been playing around with him. He thought it was the great love of his life, but when it came to the crunch and his wife left him, taking the children with her, and he suggested to Nerine Tarrant that she get a divorce and marry him, she just laughed at him. He was left with nothing.'
'His wife didn't come back?'
Mallard shook his head. 'Said the whole experience had been so humiliating and so disillusioning that she could never trust him again.'
'So what happened to him?'
'He left the area, soon afterwards. Last I heard, he was thinking of emigrating.'
'Nerine ... It's an unusual name.'
'Just what I said, when I first heard it. Apparently Mrs Tarrant's father was very fond of flowers and named his daughters after two of his favourites, Nerine and Daphne. He owned a nursery, but he died some years ago and Daphne now runs it – very efficiently, I believe.'
'A real mine of information, aren't you, Doc?'
'I get about ... And don't forget, Luke, I've been living in the area since before you drew your first breath. Turn left here.'
Ribbleden lay at the heart of an unspoiled area of countryside south of Sturrenden, the country town in Kent where Thanet lived and worked. Protected from coachloads of tourists by the maze of narrow twisting country lanes which surrounded it, the village was a sight to gladden the heart of any photographer in search of calendar material. Village green, pond with ducks, picturesque pubs and period houses, they were all there. At this hour of a fine June evening the place was deserted. Presumably the entire population was either eating its evening meal or glued to its television sets.
A moment or two later Thanet was kicking himself for being so naive. As they rounded a bend he saw that the entire population of Ribbleden seemed to be clustered around some tall iron entrance gates.
Mallard frowned. 'The ghouls are out in force I see.'
'As usual,' said Thanet grimly.
The crowd parted reluctantly to allow the car through, closing behind it like the Red Sea behind the Israelites. Ahead, a curving drive led to a substantial Victorian redbrick house ornamented with the gables, pinnacles and turrets so beloved of that era. A number of police and private cars were parked on the gravel near the front door.
'Lineham's here, I see,' said Mallard, nodding in the direction of a red Ford Escort. 'How is he these days? He seems a lot more cheerful, I must say.'
'Yes, he's pretty buoyant at the moment.'
'Recovered from not getting his promotion last year, has he?'
'I think so, yes.'
'Is he going to try again?'
'No, he seems pretty determined not to.' Privately, Thanet thought this a wise decision. Mike Lineham was a first-rate sergeant, but he lacked the extra flair essential for the higher rank. In Thanet's opinion Lineham would never have made the application in the first place if it hadn't been for his wife. Louise was both determined and ambitious.
'That'll suit you, I should think.'
'True. There's no one I prefer to work with.'
Thanet got out and stood for a moment taking in his surroundings. The drive continued around the left side of the house and disappeared, presumably in the direction of the garages. The whole place had an air of complacent prosperity. The gravel was weed-free, the lawns and flower-borders well maintained, the house itself, despite its size, in excellent order.
'What does Mr Tarrant do?'
'He's a surgeon at Sturrenden General, with a prosperous private practice.'
Thanet grinned. 'You're in the wrong branch of your profession, Doc.'
Mallard smiled back. 'Bit late to do anything about it now.'
'Ah, there's Lineham.'
The detective sergeant had appeared round the right-hand corner of the house. He raised a hand in greeting, then beckoned. The two men began to walk towards him.
'Evening Mike. Not inside?'
'Evening, sir, Doc. No. This way. She fell,' the sergeant explained, 'from a first-floor balcony onto a stone terrace. Broke her neck, by the look of it.'
'And you don't think it was an accident, presumably?'
Lineham shrugged. 'Difficult to see how. The balcony rail is just that little bit too high for her simply to have overbalanced.'
'I see.' Thanet's tone was abstracted and unconsciously his pace had quickened. They were approaching the corner of the house and he was steeling himself for the moment he dreaded, that first sight of the corpse. He wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
'Here we are, sir.'
It was the familiar scene of disciplined activity. Sketches were being made, measurements and photographs taken. Trace, the Scenes-of-Crime Officer, was waiting for the police surgeon officially to pronounce death before launching on the painstaking task of taking his samples. And at the heart of it all lay the inanimate object that had once been the miracle that is a live human being. Thanet took a deep breath and moved forward to look as Mallard dropped to his knees beside the body.
Nerine Tarrant lay sprawled on her back on the wide stone terrace, limbs splayed, neck at an unnatural angle, feet pointing away from the house. She must have been in her early thirties, Thanet thought, and even now, in death, was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen: classic oval face, high cheekbones, and a Dallas-style rumble of long dark expensive curls. Already, in mid-June, her skin was tanned to a rich honey (sunbed? he wondered), and her simple linen dress the colour of an unripe lemon enhanced the slim youthful body, the long shapely legs. A second, closer look told him that he had underestimated her age. The faintest lines at the corners of eyes and mouth reminded him that Damon Tarrant, aged eighteen, was her son. Late thirties, then, he decided. But exceedingly well preserved. He would guess that a great deal of money had been spent on maintaining that youthful façade. And to what end? To die only half-way through her allotted span in the garden of her own home on this tranquil June evening. No one deserved an end such as this.
Thanet's gaze swung upwards. A white-painted wooden balustrade edged the covered balcony which ran right along this side of the house at first-floor level. An unusual feature for a Victorian house, surely? Perhaps this section had been added on later. On the ground floor two sets of french windows led out onto the terrace and stepping back he could see that there were two matching sets on the balcony above, one open, one closed.
'Her bedroom and sitting room,' said Lineham's voice in his ear. The two men had been working together for so long that the sergeant could gauge to a second the right moment to break into Thanet's thoughts. 'The open windows lead into the sitting room. The bedroom windows are locked.'
'And there's no other access to the balcony?'
Lineham shook his head.
'Have you looked at the sitting room yet?'
'Only a quick glance. There's no sign of a struggle, if that's what you're thinking. And the balcony rail is about three foot six high. At a guess, Mrs Tarrant was around five seven, so the rail would have come roughly to the top of her thighs.'
Thanet glanced from balcony to body and back again. 'From the way she's lying it looks as though she came over head first, wouldn't you agree?'
'Yes. Did a somersault, I'd say.'
'Did you bring up the question of suicide, with her husband?'
'Touched on it, that's all. He's pretty shocked, of course, I thought it could wait. But he dismissed the idea out of hand.'
'They always do,' said Thanet. 'All the same, in this case I'd think it a pretty remote possibility. If you really want to kill yourself there are far more certain ways of doing it. That balcony can't be much more than – what? – fifteen feet from the ground?'
'Something like that, yes.'
'If you threw yourself from that height you'd quite likely end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life ... No, I think we can safely rule out suicide.'
'Or accident, sir, surely. I mean, if she'd been leaning on the rail and just fallen, either because she was dizzy, or drunk, or even dragged ...'
'Are there any indications, up there, that she had either been drinking or taking drugs?'
'No, sir, not that I could see. But as I said, I only took a quick look ... I was just speculating.'
'Right, sorry, go on.'
'Well, if she just toppled over, for whatever reason, surely she would be lying closer in to the house.'
'I would have thought so, yes. She could have been sitting on the rail, I suppose.'
'Most unlikely,' said Lineham promptly. 'It's too narrow, only about three inches wide.'
'Hmm. Well, it looks as though you're right, and she was helped on her way. If she was leaning on that rail, all anyone would have to do would be to bend down, lift her legs off the ground, give one hard shove, and that would be it.'
Mallard closed his bag with a snap and stood up.
'Well, Doc?' said Thanet.
'I'd be very surprised if the PM shows she died of anything but a broken neck. One never knows, of course, the unexpected is always a possibility ... But there seems to be no sign of a struggle. Difficult to see how she could have fallen over of her own accord, though.'
'That's what we thought ... If she'd taken any drugs, would you be able to tell?'
'Here and now, you mean?'
'Unlikely – though it would depend on what they were and how and when they were taken. Most tablets dissolve pretty quickly and are absorbed into the bloodstream, so it's impossible to tell until the analyst has had a go at some samples.'
'What about constriction of the pupils?' said Lineham.
'Unreliable. It's quite normal for pupils to be either dilated or constricted after death, and you sometimes even get irregular dilation, with one pupil much larger than the other. Anyway, this woman's look all right to me.'
'And injection marks?' persisted Lineham.
'There are certainly no obvious punctures, but as you know, they're not always visible. Is there any suspicion that she was involved with drugs?' 'No, none, at the moment,' said Thanet. 'It's just that her son was up on a drugs charge recently.'
'In that case, in the present economic climate, I think you'll find it difficult to make a case for drug tests to be done.'
'I doubt that we'd even suggest it, at the moment. We're just looking at possibilities. We might ask for an alcohol test, though.'
Excerpted from Element of Doubt by Dorothy Simpson. Copyright © 1987 Dorothy Simpson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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