When Det. Inspector Luke Thanet was a young man, Alicia Parnell was one of the most popular girls in Sturrenden: beautiful, charming, and brilliant. But her perfect life was shattered when her teenage boyfriend killed himself. Alicia’s family left town soon after, and Thanet never expected to see her again. But two decades later, Alicia comes home to start her life over in the country village where she was born. No one knows what drew her back, and no one has a chance to ask—because less than a day after her return, Alicia is murdered.
Her body is found in the Black Swan hotel, and all signs point to strangulation. Inspector Thanet is shocked by the death of someone he knew, and to find Alicia’s killer, he’ll have to dig deep into their shared past. Someone in Sturrenden has a secret, and Thanet must uncover it before the killer strikes again.
The winner of the CWA Silver Dagger, Britain’s top prize for crime fiction, Last Seen Alive is a compelling puzzle from a “dependably pleasing” author (The Boston Globe).
Last Seen Alive is the 5th book in the Inspector Thanet Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Last Seen Alive
An Inspector Thanet Mystery
By Dorothy Simpson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Dorothy Simpson
All rights reserved.
Even before Thanet had closed the front door behind him Bridget was hurtling down the stairs, face radiant and long hair flying.
'She spoke to me, Daddy! She spoke to me!'
Thanet smiled indulgently as Bridget flung her arms around him. No need to ask who 'she' was. Like countless other young girls the world over, twelve-year-old Bridget was an ardent admirer of the Princess of Wales. Ever since that fairy-tale vision had floated up the aisle of St Paul's Cathedral, capturing the hearts and imagination of millions, Bridget had taken an avid interest in anything and everything to do with Princess Diana. Her bedroom was crammed with posters, books, commemoration china and bulging scrapbooks and she had been looking forward to today's royal visit for months.
When it had been suggested that the Princess should be asked to open the new children's orthopaedic unit at Sturrenden General Hospital, nobody had really expected her to say yes. But she had, and the small country town had been in a fever of anticipation ever since.
Thanet had been somewhat less enthusiastic. For the police, a royal visit means weeks of planning, a crescendo of detailed organisation culminating in a day of hectic activity and high tension, especially when the visitor is as universally popular as Princess Diana. But now it was all over and they could breathe a sigh of relief that nothing had gone wrong. The enormous crowds had dispersed without serious incident, the support groups drafted in from Canterbury had departed and traffic signs had been cleared away from the route. Most important of all, the Princess had gone and others were responsible for her safety. Thanet did not envy them their job.
'How exciting! What did she say to you?'
'She asked me how long I'd been waiting, and I said, since eight o'clock this morning.'
'She pulled a little face and said, what a long time.'
'And that was it?'
'Yes. I was really close to her, Daddy. I could have put out my hand and touched her! I didn't, of course, but oh, she's so beautiful, she really is, far more beautiful than all the pictures of her ...'
Thanet put an arm around Bridget's shoulders and they moved towards the kitchen as she chattered enthusiastically on. Thanet put his head around the living room door as they went by. 'Hullo Ben.'
'Hi, Dad.' Ben scarcely turned his head. He was deep in 'Doctor Who.'
In the kitchen Joan was shaking the water out of lettuce. She looked up, smiled and came to kiss him. 'It all went off well, I gather.'
'You weren't there? I thought you were going with Sprig.'
Joan shook her head. 'Mary took her, with Belinda. I had an emergency call.' Joan was a probation officer. 'Sprig, go and lay the table, will you?'
'Oh, but I haven't finished telling Daddy about ...'
'But I wanted to ...'
'I said, later. Go along.' Joan scooped up a handful of cutlery and pressed it into her daughter's reluctant hands. 'Go on.' She waited until Bridget had left the room. 'It was Tracey Lindop — you remember, the persistent shoplifter? Well, she's pregnant, apparently, and by her stepfather. When her mother found out, she just threw her out. I had to find her somewhere to stay. She's only fourteen. Just think, Luke, that's only two years older than Sprig. And, what's more, she's saying she's not only going to have the baby, she's going to keep it.'
'She might well change her mind, as time goes on.'
Joan shook her head. 'I doubt it. She seems pretty set on the idea. Honestly, she has absolutely no idea of the difficulties involved. How on earth is she going to manage? She has no qualifications, she'll never get a job ...'
'She'll scrape along on social security, I expect.'
'Yes, but what sort of permanent prospect is that? She says, if she keeps the baby, at least she'll have someone to love who'll love her. ... I can just see the whole cycle starting up again. Sooner or later the baby'll begin to get on her nerves and she'll probably batter it just as her own mother battered her. ... The whole business is so depressing.'
Thanet gave her a brief, wordless hug.
'Honestly, I sometimes wonder if I'm achieving anything, anything at all ...'
'Are these ready, Mum?' Bridget had returned and picked up two of the plates on the table.
'Yes. Come on, we'll eat.'
Bridget, still fizzing with excitement, chattered on through most of supper. Thanet and Joan listened benevolently and it was some time before Thanet noticed that Ben was unusually subdued and was only picking at his food.
'What's the matter, Ben? Aren't you hungry?'
Ben shook his head and mumbled something about having eaten a large tea at Peter's house.
Thanet raised his eyebrows at Joan, who gave a little shrug, but said nothing. Thanet, following her cue, let the matter drop.
After supper they all settled down to watch a family quiz show. Thanet felt in the mood to spend the entire evening mindlessly in front of the television set, then have an early night. It was good to have the prospect of a free Sunday ahead tomorrow, his first for some time. He hoped that nothing would crop up at work to spoil it. He lit his pipe and relaxed into the comfortable depths of his armchair. They'd get up late, he thought contentedly, go to church together, enjoy Sunday lunch at home, and in the afternoon they'd take the children to the sea ...
The call came while they were still at breakfast next morning. Resignedly, he replaced the receiver and returned to the kitchen. Just as well he hadn't mentioned the beach to Bridget and Ben.
'Oh, no,' said Joan, after one glance at his face.
'I'm afraid so.'
'Couldn't someone else go, just for once?'
'Not possible, love. I'm sorry.' He gave a 'not in front of the children' glance at Ben and Bridget. He needn't have bothered.
'Is it murder, Dad?' Ben, whose uncharacteristically quiet mood seemed to have lasted the night, was at last showing signs of animation.
'Could be.' Almost certainly was, by the sound of it.
'Where?' Ben was on his feet, following Thanet and Joan into the hall.
Thanet ruffled his son's hair. 'Don't be a ghoul. You'll read all about it in good time, I daresay.'
'Oh, Dad. What's the point of having a police inspector for a father, if you don't hear all the juicy bits before anyone else?'
'That's enough, Ben,' snapped Thanet. 'Murder is not supposed to be a source of entertainment.'
Ben returned to the kitchen, scowling, and Thanet kissed Joan goodbye. 'Not sure when I'll be back.'
'You don't have to tell me. ... Take care.'
To add insult to injury, it looked as though it was going to be another lovely day, he thought gloomily as he drove through the deserted streets. It was now the end of July, and so far it had been a truly glorious summer, one golden day following another in a seemingly endless procession. It was really galling to have this one snatched away from him at the eleventh hour. With difficulty, he forced himself to stop dwelling on his disappointment and concentrate on the scanty information he had been given.
The dead woman's name was Alicia Parnell and she had arrived in Sturrenden the previous day. She had been a guest at the Black Swan, the oldest and most luxurious hotel in the town. For centuries it had been a coaching inn, much frequented by travellers on their way to Canterbury, but with the advent of the motor car its fortunes had declined and the beautiful old building had become more and more delapidated. Then, in the late nineteen-fifties, when the country was gradually recovering from the bleak austerity of the post-war years, it had been bought by a man called Jarman, an ex-R.A.F. Wing-Commander who had recognised its potential and had accurately predicted the tourist boom. Now it was a thriving business, run by his son.
Thanet turned in through the arched opening in the black and white façade and parked in the cobbled yard alongside two other police cars and Detective-Sergeant Lineham's Ford Escort.
Lineham was in the foyer, talking to the proprietor. Thanet knew most of the prominent people in Sturrenden and Jarman was no exception.
'Ah, there you are, Inspector.' Jarman came hurrying across, looking harassed. He was in his early forties, his well-cut suit almost, but not quite, hiding his growing paunch. The Swan had a superb chef.
'This is terrible. I don't know what to say. It's just ... unthinkable. I keep wondering if I'll wake up and find it's all a nightmare.' He mopped at his forehead and moved closer, lowering his voice. 'Look, do you think we could ... The other guests ... My office, perhaps?'
'Not just yet. I must go upstairs, first. There's no need for you to come with us, I'm sure you must have a lot to attend to down here. Sergeant, have you had time to talk to any of the staff yet?'
'Only the chambermaid who found the body, sir.'
'In that case, Mr Jarman, perhaps you could have a discreet word with your members of staff, find out if any of them saw the woman at any time since her arrival yesterday. When did she get here?'
'So far as we can tell from the register, some time between four and four-thirty yesterday afternoon.'
'She was alone?'
'Right, well, if you could do that, then ... Oh, and make sure none of the other guests checks out until we've been able to talk to them.'
Jarman closed his eyes in despair. 'If it's absolutely necessary ...'
'Come, Mr Jarman, you must see that it is.'
Jarman gave a resigned shrug and Thanet followed Lineham to the lift, trying to ignore the cramp-like sensation in his stomach. No one could have guessed from his calm, business-like demeanour just how much he was dreading the next few minutes. Even Joan, with whom he shared almost all his secret hopes, fears and aspirations, was unaware of this one most private weakness, his inability to look upon the newly-dead with equanimity. For years he had hoped that he would overcome it, that custom would dull the edge of his sensibility, but gradually he had had to accept that this wasn't going to happen. Now he tried to meet the experience with the same stoicism with which he faced the dentist's drill: endure, and the pain will soon be over. And it always was, thank God. It was just that first sight of the corpse ...
'What did the chambermaid have to say, Mike?'
'Nothing much. She found the body when she went to make the bed this morning. She wasn't on duty last night, so she hadn't seen the woman before.'
'What do we know about this Mrs Parnell?'
'Very little. She's in her late thirties, I'd say. Pretty well-off, nicely dressed — well, you'll see for yourself. She's been strangled, manually by the look of it.'
'Late last night, I should think. Rigor is pretty well-established.'
'Is the SOCO here?'
The Scenes-of-Crime Officer is an essential part of any murder investigation. It is his job to find and preserve the forensic evidence which, however microscopic, may succeed in establishing the vital link between murderer and victim.
'Arrived shortly before you, sir. The SOCO sergeant has come along too.'
'What about Doc Mallard?'
Lineham grinned. 'On his way. Not too pleased about having his Sunday morning disturbed, though.'
'He's not the only one.' But Thanet's tone was mild. He was too preoccupied with bracing himself against the next few minutes to resurrect his sense of grievance.
'Here we are.'
The lift had stopped at the third floor. A corridor stretched right and left, with rooms on either side. The carpet was thick, the wallpaper expensive, and there were original prints on the wall.
'There's a flight at each end of the corridor, I'm afraid.'
Lineham turned left and Thanet followed him. Strangled. Sir Sydney Smith's description of a strangler's victim flitted through his mind. ' ... Not a pretty sight ... Bluish or purple lips and ears, change of colour of the nails, froth and possibly blood-staining about the nose or mouth, the tongue forced outwards, the hands clenched ...'
They had arrived. Lineham opened the door and Thanet preceded him into the room, automatically returning the greetings of the SOCOs, who were still busy taking photographs. They stood back as he approached the body. Grimly, without touching her, he silently confirmed Lineham's diagnosis, forcing himself to note the details as the roaring in his ears faded to a hum and his stomach settled. She was half-lying on the bed, her short, softly-waved dark hair framing that hideous parody of a face, the bulging brown eyes fixed in that blank, motionless stare which instantly proclaims the absence of life. Her black dress and high-heeled sandals were clearly expensive, and a heavy gold chain bracelet encircled her right wrist, a cocktail watch her left. She also wore a chased platinum wedding ring and an engagement ring, a sapphire and diamond cluster. Somebody's wife, then, probably somebody's mother. Thanet was filled with the familiar anger at the waste of a life, with all its attendant suffering for a shocked and grieving family.
'Robbery certainly wasn't the motive, anyway,' said Lineham's voice, close beside him.
'Nor a sexual assault, by the look of it.' Thanet stepped back. 'Carry on,' he said to the photographers.
He looked around. There were no signs of a struggle. The Black Swan certainly did its customers proud, he thought. It was a beautiful room, more like a room in a private house than a hotel bedroom, with leaded casement windows and sloping ceilings striped with ancient beams. The bed on which the woman was lying was an authentic four-poster, with chintz hangings and bedspread in delicate shades of cream, lilac and pink. Ruched blinds of matching chintz hung at the dormer windows and the fitted carpet was lilac. The bedside table and the chest of drawers were genuine antiques. The adjoining bathroom was equally luxurious, with an oval lilac bath, thick cream carpet and built-in dressing-table. Alicia Parnell's cosmetics — all expensive — were neatly ranged upon it.
In the bedroom a cream silk jacket was lying across an armchair. It looked as though she might have tossed it there when she came in. Had she been out, Thanet wondered, curiosity beginning to work in him like yeast. And if so, where had she gone, and with whom? What had she been like, this woman? He spotted a photograph in a silver frame on the bedside table and bent to examine it. A man and a woman — Mrs Parnell and her husband? — smiled up at him, the man seated and invisible from the chest downwards, Mrs Parnell standing behind him with her hands on his shoulders. Thanet frowned. Surely ...
It looked as though the frame had already been dusted for prints, but he checked before picking it up and examining the picture more closely. Yes, he was sure, now. Alicia ...
Image after long-forgotten image began to race through his mind: Alicia, hair streaming behind her in the wind as she and the others sailed past in Oliver Bassett's open-topped sports car ... Alicia on the tennis court, her sensational legs golden beneath the flare of her brief white skirt ... Alicia cycling past in the usual noisy, laughing group, her straw school hat pushed back at a forbidden angle, her face tilted provocatively up at the boy beside her....
Thanet glanced at the body on the bed and his grip on the photograph frame tightened.
Lineham had noticed the look on his face.
'What is it, sir?'
Thanet put the photograph carefully back on the table. 'I knew her, Mike, long ago, when we were at school.'
Thanet shook his head. 'Oh no, not well. But she ... she was stunning, then. She was a couple of years older than me, and I don't suppose she even noticed my existence, but half the school was in love with her, or claimed to be.'
'She was at the Girls' Grammar?'
'Yes. She and another girl — I can't remember her name, but she had red hair, that I do remember — used to go around with a group of sixth formers from the Boys' Grammar ...' Thanet shook his head. 'I can hardly believe it.'
'You're sure it's her?'
'Certain.' Thanet picked up the photograph and held it out. 'Look at her.'
Alicia Parnell had had the sort of face which, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The chin was too pointed, the nose too tip-tilted for beauty, but combined with huge dark eyes and high, classically-rounded cheekbones, they created an individuality which had not become blurred over the years. Looking at the snapshot over Lineham's shoulder Thanet could clearly visualise the softer, more rounded adolescent Alicia beneath the mature face in the photograph.
'I see what you mean,' said Lineham.
'I'd have recognised her anywhere, though I hadn't seen her in years. Not since ...' He stopped, remembering.
'Not since what?'
Excerpted from Last Seen Alive by Dorothy Simpson. Copyright © 1983 Dorothy Simpson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great style believable characters well balanced and thoughtful
I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Dorothy Simpson and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. This novel was originally published December 1988 by Penguin. Thank you for sharing your hard work with me. A Dorothy Simpson novel is always a good choice for an entertaining read. Her mysteries stay nicely hidden until she is ready for you to figure them out, Her characters are interesting and very completely known by the reader, and you will always feel good about the way things end. Last Seen Alive is excellent, a novel I can highly recommend to friends and family. As always, Ms. Simpson delivers.