The Echoby Minette Walters
In this hypnotic novel of psychological suspense, a homeless man is found starved to death in the garage of a ritzy London home. The police chalk it up to an unfortunate accident, but a journalist, Michael Deacon, is intrigued. Amanda Powell, a socialite whose wealthy husband vanished five years ago after being accused of embezzlement, is just as interested as Michael… See more details below
In this hypnotic novel of psychological suspense, a homeless man is found starved to death in the garage of a ritzy London home. The police chalk it up to an unfortunate accident, but a journalist, Michael Deacon, is intrigued. Amanda Powell, a socialite whose wealthy husband vanished five years ago after being accused of embezzlement, is just as interested as Michael in finding out who died in her garage. They have no idea that this simple story will unveil a web of deceit that is an appalling as the people behind it.
Walters (The Dark Room, 1995, etc.), who's spent too long in Ruth Rendell's shadow, bids fair to break out of the pack with this teasing, impassioned puzzle, which shows her growing and broadening her range with a vitality as alarming as her characters'.
“Grips like steel…Plays havoc with your emotions, keeps you awake, ends with joy and relief.”
–Francis Fyfield, Mail on Sunday
Read an Excerpt
It was the smell that Mrs. Powell noticed first. Slightly sweet. Slightly unpleasant. She sniffed it on the air one warm June evening as she parked her car in her garage, but she assumed it came from her neighbors' trash can on the other side of the low wall that divided the properties, and did nothing about it. The next morning the smell of decay eddied out from inside when she pulled open the garage doors, and curiosity led her to poke amongst the stack of boxes at the back after she had reversed her car onto the driveway. Certainly, she didn't expect to find a corpse. If she expected anything it was that someone had abandoned their rubbish in there, and it shocked her badly to find a dead man huddled on sheets of flattened cardboard in the corner, his head slumped on his knees.
There was a flutter of media interest in the story, largely because of where the man was found--within the boundaries of an exclusive private estate bordering the Thames in London's old docklands--and because the pathologist gave cause of death as malnutrition. That a man should have died of starvation in one of the wealthiest parts of one of the wealthiest capitals of the world as the twentieth century drew to a close was irresistible to most journalists, even more so when they learned from the police that he had passed away beside a huge freezer filled with food. The rat pack arrived in force.
But they were to be disappointed. Mrs. Powell was a reluctant interviewee and had already vanished from her house. Nor was there anyone to flesh out the dead man's life and make it worth writing about. He was one of the army of homeless who haunted the streets of London, an alcoholic without family or friends, whose fingerprints were recorded under the name of Billy Blake as a result of a handful of convictions for petty thieving. Among London's policemen he had a small reputation as a street preacher from his habit of shouting aggressively at passersby about forthcoming doom and destruction whenever he was drunk, but as none of them had ever listened closely to his incoherent ramblings, nothing was added to their knowledge of the man through what he had preached. The only curious fact about him was that he had lied about his age when first arrested in 1991. The police had him on file as sixty-five; the pathologist's estimate, as officially recorded at the inquest, was forty-five.
Mrs. Powell's involvement in this bizarre tragedy was that she owned the garage in which Billy had died. However, he preyed upon her mind following her return two weeks later after the morbid press interest had died down and, because she could afford it, she put up the money for his cremation when the coroner finally released the body. She had no need to do it--as in other areas of social welfare, the trappings of death were covered by a state benefit--but she seemed to feel an obligation to her uninvited guest. She chose the second cheapest package offered, and presented herself at the crematorium on the due date at the due time. As she had expected, she and the vicar were the only people there, the undertaker's men having left after depositing the coffin on the rollers. It was a somewhat harrowing service, conducted to the accompaniment of taped music. Elvis Presley sang Amazing Grace over the sound system at the beginning, the vicar and she struggled through the service and the responses together, (while worrying independently if Billy Blake had even been a Christian), and a Welsh male choir gave a harmonious rendition of Abide with Me as the coffin rolled through to the burners and the curtains closed discreetly behind it.
There was little more to be said or done and, after shaking hands and thanking each other for being there, Mrs. Powell and the vicar went their separate ways. As part of the package, Billy Blake's ashes were placed in an urn in a small corner of the crematorium with a plaque giving his name and date of death. Sadly, neither piece of information was accurate, for the dead man had not been christened Billy Blake and the pathologist had miscalculated on his temperature readings and underestimated the time of death by a few hours.
Whoever Billy Blake was, he died on Tuesday, the thirteenth of June, 1995.
The two visitors who came to view Billy Blake's plaque a few days later went unnoticed. The older man jabbed a stubby finger at the words and made a derisory noise in his throat. "See, what did I tell you? Died twelfth of June, nineteen ninety-five. The frigging Monday. Okay? Happy now?"
"We ought to've brought some flowers," said his young companion, looking at the profusion of wreaths that other mourners had left in last respect to the recently cremated.
"There'd be no point, son. Billy's dead and I've yet to meet a corpse 'oo appreciates floral arrangements."
"But nothing," said the old man firmly. "I keep telling you, the bugger's gone." He pushed the youngster forward. "Satisfy yerself I'm right, and then we'll be off." He glanced around with a look of distaste creasing his weathered face. "I never did like these places. It ain't 'ealthy thinking too much on death. It comes soon enough as it is."
Despite having her garage cleansed three times in six weeks by three different cleaning companies, Mrs. Powell disposed of her chest freezer, shopped rather more frequently, and started parking her car in the driveway. Her neighbor remarked on it to his wife, and said it was a pity there was no Mr. Powell. No man would allow a perfectly serviceable garage to go to waste simply because a tramp had died in it.
(Extract from: Unsolved Mysteries of the 20th Century by Roger Hyde, published by MacMillan, 1994.)
Precisely how many people leave home for good every year in Britain remains a mystery, but if we define "missing" as "whereabouts unknown" then the figure is believed to run into hundreds of thousands. Only a tiny percentage ever hit the headlines, and these are usually children who are abducted and subsequently murdered. Adults rarely attract attention. The most famous missing person of recent years is the Earl of Lucan who vanished from his estranged wife 's house on 7th November 1974, following the brutal murder of Sandra Rivett, his children's nanny, and the attempted murder of Lady Lucan. He was never seen again, nor was his body found, but there seems little mystery about why he chose to vanish. Less explicable were the disappearances of two other "missing persons": Peter Fenton OBE, a Foreign Office "high flyer"; and James Streeter a merchant banker.
The Case of the Vanishing Diplomat--
Peter Fenton OBE
The disappearance of Peter Fenton during the evening of 3rd July, 1988, only hours before his wife's body was discovered in the bedroom of their Knightsbridge home, created a sensation in the British press. The house was less than a mile from where the terrible Lucan tragedy had been played out nearly fourteen years before, and the parallels between Peter Fenton and Lord "Lucky" Lucan were startling. The two men had moved in similar social circles and both were known to have loyal friends who would help them; each man's car was later found abandoned on the South coast of England, leading to speculation that they had fled across the Channel to France; there was even a bizarre similarity in their appearance, both being tall, dark and conventionally handsome.
But comparisons with the Lucan case ended when the police revealed that, following detailed forensic examination of the house and body, they were satisfied that Verity Fenton had committed suicide. She had hanged herself from a rafter in the attic some time during the evening of July 1st while Peter Fenton was on a five-day visit to Washington. A reconstruction of the evidence suggested that, on his return from America during the afternoon of July 3rd, he had found her suicide note on the hall table and had then searched the house for her. There seems no doubt that it was he who cut her down and he who laid her out on the bed. Nor is there any doubt that he phoned his stepdaughter and asked her to come to the house that evening with her husband. He did not warn her of what she would find, nor did he mention that he wouldn't be there, but he told her he would leave the door unlatched. She described him as sounding "very tired."
Unlike Lord Lucan, who was formally committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court after the inquest into the death of Sandra Rivett, Peter Fenton was effectively absolved of blame in the death of his wife, Verity. A verdict of "suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed" was recorded, following evidence from her daughter that she had been unnaturally depressed while her husband was away. This was borne out by her suicide note, which said simply: "Forgive me. I can't bear it anymore, darling. Please don't blame yourself. Your betrayals are nothing compared with mine."
However, the question remained: why did Peter Fenton vanish? It seemed logical to many columnists that "betrayals" referred to love affairs, and there was much speculation that he had run to the comforting arms of a mistress. But this did not explain why his car was found abandoned near a cross-channel ferry port, nor why he continued in hiding after the inquest verdict had been published. Interest began to center on his job in the Foreign Office and the two postings he had held in Washington ('81--'83 and '85--87), where he was thought to have had access to highly secret information about NATO.
Was it coincidence that Fenton had vanished only weeks after the arrest of Nathan Driberg* in America? Why had he made the five-day trip to Washington alone when it must have been clear to him that his wife was deeply depressed? Could it have been a desperate attempt to find out if Driberg was going to talk in order to then reassure Verity that he was safe? For why had she written of "betrayals" before hanging herself unless she had known that her husband was a spy? Parallels were now drawn, not with Lord Lucan, but with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, the notorious Foreign Office spies of the '30s and '40s, who disappeared in 1951 after being warned by Kim Philby that a counterintelligence investigation by British and American agencies was closing in on them. Had Peter Fenton, like Donald Maclean, used his position of trust in our Washington Embassy to betray his country?
*Nathan Driberg (b 1941, Sacramento, California) joined the CIA from Harvard in 1962. Although a man of high intellect he tailed to make progress within the CIA and is said to have become increasingly angry with the system. Some time during the early 1950s he conceived the idea of a syndicated spying ring whose aims would he purely profit-making and whose members would be known only to him. Information was supplied by syndicate members and sold on to a selected buyer. Purchasing countries are said to have included: Russia, China, South Africa, Colombia, and Iraq. The syndicate is believed to have contained other CIA agents, members of Congress, foreign diplomats, journalists and industrialists, but as Driberg has consistently refused to name any other person, their identities remain a secret. The syndicate's activities were only discovered when one of its members, Harry Castilli, a CIA agent, began to adopt an overly lavish lifestyle. In retain for immunity, he led investigators to Driberg and testified against him at his trial. Shorly after Driberg's arrest, a French diplomat and a prominent US Congressman both committed suicide. A UK diplomat, Peter Fenton, vanished.
Sadly, we shall probably never know because, if Peter Fenton was a traitor, then he did it for the money and he is unlikely to resurface as Burgess and Maclean did in Moscow in 1956, claiming a long-standing allegiance to communism. With the sort of wealth that the Driberg syndicate is said to have made, he could have had millions stashed away in Switzerland with which to fund a new identity for himself. But, according to his stepdaughter, Marilyn Burghley, it would be wrong to assume that he benefited from his treachery. "You have to understand that Peter adored my mother. I never believed that 'betrayals' meant he'd had affairs. Which means, I suppose, that I have to accept he was betraying his country, and that she knew about it. Perhaps he asked her to run away with him, and when she refused, he accused her of not loving him. I think they must have had a terrible row for her to kill herself like that. Whatever the truth, life without her would have been something he couldn't bear. My mother's death was a far worse punishment than anything the courts could have given him."
An examination of Peter Fenton's earlier life and background sheds little further light on the mystery. Born on 5th March, 1950, he was the adopted son of Jean and Harold Fenton of Colchester, Essex. Jean always described him as her "little miracle" because she was forty-two at the time of the adoption and had given up hope of a child. She and her husband were both teachers and lavished time and effort on their son. Their reward was a gifted child who won scholarships, first to Winchester and then to Cambridge where he read Classics. However, he became gradually estranged from his parents during his teenage years, spending fewer vacations in Essex and preferring whenever possible to stay with friends in London. There is evidence that he resented his humble background and set out to rise above it. He showed little love for his adoptive parents.
In a letter to his brother in 1971, Harold Fenton wrote: "Peter has broken Jean's heart and I shall never forgive him for it. When I tackled him about his gambling, he asked me if I'd rather he stole to buy his way out of our lives and our house. He's ashamed of us. Apparently, he intends joining the Foreign Office when he leaves Cambridge and he wanted to 'warn' us that we will see very little of him once that happens. His career must come first. I asked him if he had any explanation for why God saw fit to bless us with so objectionable a child and he said: I made you proud. What more did you want?' I would have struck him had Jean not been present."
Peter Fenton joined the Foreign Office from Cambridge in 1972, and was spotted early by Sir Angus Fraser, then Ambassador in Paris. With Fraser's backing, Fenton seemed set for a glittering career. However, his marriage to Verity Standish in 1980 was seen by many as a mistake, and his meteoric rise appeared to falter. Verity, a widow with two teenage children, was thirteen years older than Fenton and because of her age was considered an unsuitable wife for a future ambassador. Interestingly, in view of what he had said to his father ten years earlier, Fenton chose to put his love for Verity before his career, and his decision would seem to have been vindicated when he won his first posting to Washington in September 1981.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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