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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Merchant’s House by Kate Ellis

November 1, 2003

St. Martin’s Press, New York
1999 (hc)

The Merchant’s House is the first in a mystery series authored by British novelist Kate Ellis. I had read about the series (which now numbers seven novels) in a New York Times Book Review article earlier this summer and the premise of the book in question sounded fascinating. The series features two protagonists, Detective Sergeant Wesley Peterson, a black policeman recently moved from London to a small town in South Devon, and Neil Watson, an archaeologist who works for the County of Devon. (In the US, this would be roughly equivalent to the State Archaeologist.) The two had been close college friends and both had pursued degrees in archaeology. While DS Peterson maintained his love of archaeology, he nevertheless pursued a career in law enforcement, and his transfer to Tradmouth in Devon has brought him back together with his old friend and his love of archaeology.

The mystery unfolds in a complex multi-layered fashion as Wesley is first drawn into the case of a missing, and presumed kidnapped, little boy, and then the bludgeoned body of a young model. At the same time, Neil Watson and his crew uncover the skeletons of a new-born infant and an adult, apparently murdered some 400 years earlier, and buried in the basement of a 17th Century merchant’s house. These crimes, separated by more than four centuries, begin to blend together as the two detectives, one an officer of the law, the other an archaeologist, carefully follow the strands of evidence.

And this latter gambit, the linking of ancient crime with contemporary crime, is apparently a recurring theme. This theme is not of the vulgar “Jack the Ripper Returns to Modern-Day London” variety, but rather a variation on William Faulkner’s statement that “The past isn’t over; it’s not even past.” Kate Ellis believes that human nature remains very much the same throughout time and evil remains a constant in the human condition.

I was mesmerized by the complexity of this mystery, I was captivated by her description of the West Country (a part of England a dearly love), and I found myself very much caught up in the characters she introduced and developed as the mysteries unfolded. What made this all the more interesting is that she seems to draw her supporting characters with finer detail and in sharper relief than her two main protagonists. Wesley Peterson and Neil Watson in sketched in subdued tones; they are somewhat shadowy and indistinct. We are not always certain what moves and motivates them other than an indomitable need to find the truth.

What I am certain of is that I relish the thought of reading the next six books in this wonderful series and I hope Kate Ellis intends to write many more.