In her second Det. Insp. Anna Travis novel (after 2004's Above Suspicion), British author La Plante, best known for TV's Prime Suspectfeaturing DCI Jane Tennison, transports the unsolved Black Dahlia murder to present-day London with disappointing results. When a young woman is found butchered in a field, Anna unexpectedly ends up sharing the case with her former lover, DCI James Langton. As they learn the full extent of the murderer's depravity, letters begin arriving at the police station and local paper, echoing those from the infamous Black Dahlia killer, active more than 50 years ago in Los Angeles. The self-named Red Dahlia Avenger mocks Anna and Langton as they hit one dead end after another. Anna lacks Tennison's tough vulnerability and floats through the story without much emotional investment. Procedural minutiae bog down this novel, which, despite the lurid subject matter, never manages to shock the reader. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Red Dahlia (Anna Travis Series #2)by Lynda La Plante
THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER!
"FOR THOSE WHO LOVE MYSTERIES BUT WISH THAT PATRICIA CORNWELL HAD A DIRTIER MIND,"* the author of Above Suspicion and the acclaimed Prime Suspect series returns with a new mystery.
When the body of a young girl is found dumped on the banks of the Thames, even the police are shocked by the brutality of her/i>/i>/b>… See more details below
THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER!
"FOR THOSE WHO LOVE MYSTERIES BUT WISH THAT PATRICIA CORNWELL HAD A DIRTIER MIND,"* the author of Above Suspicion and the acclaimed Prime Suspect series returns with a new mystery.
When the body of a young girl is found dumped on the banks of the Thames, even the police are shocked by the brutality of her murder: horrifically mutilated, severed in half, and drained of blood, her corpse is an obvious mirror image of the famous Black Dahlia murder in 1940s Los Angeles.
Now Detective Inspector Anna Travis must race against time to catch this copycat killer. She turns to her mentor, the brilliant and volatile Detective Chief Inspector James Langton, but the frictions of their romantic relationship are complicating the case. And then a second girl is found...
The Guardian (UK)
Read an Excerpt
The Red Dahlia
By Lynda La Plante
TouchstoneCopyright © 2007 Lynda La Plante
All right reserved.
It was the kind of crisp, bright January morning that made the residents of Richmond, Surrey, glad to be living out of London's congested West End. The Thames glistened in the early-morning sun. The shops and main street were quiet: it was just before six a.m. Danny Fowler pedaled past the Richmond Hotel, eager to reach the sloping road and freewheel down the hill. He had only three newspapers left to deliver. With his usual finesse, he zigzagged across the street and mounted the pavement, pausing as he folded a Times and a Daily Mail before propping his bike against the wall and hurrying over to the houses that faced the river. Just a Daily Telegraph to go, and then his round was finished; he couldn't wait to get back home for his breakfast. As he returned to his bicycle, stomach rumbling, a white shape caught his eye. Unsure what it was exactly, he swung his leg back over the crossbar and scooted across the road to look down the sloping bank.
It looked like a mannequin or a blow-up doll. Its arms were raised above its head, as if waving for attention, and its legs were spread-eagled. There was something strange about the way it was positioned that Danny couldn't make out from this distance, so he pedaled down the narrow lane that led to the river for a closer look.
What Danny found would stay with him for the rest of his life. He ran screaming, leavinghis bike where it had fallen. The woman's naked body had been severed in two at the waist. Her dark auburn hair spread out behind her; her skin so white, it looked completely bloodless. Her face was bloated and the corners of her mouth had been slashed, giving her a clown's grimacing smile.
Detective Inspector Anna Travis arrived at the Richmond Hotel to join the murder team that had taken over the car park. She hurried over to Detective Chief Inspector Glen Morgan, who was standing by the police catering truck, Teapot One, with a cup of tea in his hand.
"Get yourself a hot drink and then we'll be going over to the tent. And brace yourself: it's not a pretty sight."
Anna ordered a coffee as the rest of the team huddled in a group around Morgan.
"Paperboy found her this morning. Came in with his mother; he's given us a statement. I let him go, as he was very shook up; he's only fourteen."
Morgan looked across at the second forensic white van drawing up, and then back to the faces of his team. "I've never seen anything like it," he said flatly.
"Is she fresh?" someone asked. Morgan shook his head.
"Hard to tell. I'd say maybe a couple of days, but don't quote me. The lab will give us a more specific time."
Morgan was a good-looking man with cropped dark hair and a leathery complexion. A golf fanatic, he spent most weekends out on his local course. He squashed his empty cup and tossed it into a bin. "Okay, let's get over there, and be prepared."
"High as a kite, is it?" asked a young detective.
"There's no stench, but what you see will turn your stomach."
They made their way down the same narrow lane that Danny had taken to get to the riverbank. There a white forensic tent was already erected, paper-suited scientists milling in and around it. There was a large box of paper suits outside, along with the usual masks, overshoes, and rubber gloves.
Bill Smart, a forensic expert, came out of the tent and looked at Morgan, shaking his head. "It's bloody unbelievable." He removed his rubber gloves. "I won't be eating breakfast this morning, and that's a first. She wasn't killed on site. Someone brought her here and set up a sick tableau that's had us all stunned. At first glance I'd say we don't have much forensic evidence; maybe come up with more when we get the body over to the lab."
As the murder team donned their paper suits, Bill Smart removed his, rolling it into a ball and dumping it into the waste bin provided. As he bent down to remove his protective shoes, he had to pause and take a deep breath. In his thirty years as a forensic expert, he had never come across anything so grotesque. It was the hideous gaping smile that had got to him. It would get to them all.
Anna adjusted her mask as she followed Morgan into the tent. This was now her fourth murder inquiry and she had come a long way since that first cadaver that had made her instantly sick. She had not seen DCI Langton, who she had worked with on the Alan Daniels case, since then, but she had often heard about his exploits. She doubted if he had paid any attention to hers, or the fact she had upped her rank from detective sergeant. Her subsequent cases had been domestic; to have cut her teeth on a serial killer like Daniels was something a good few junior detectives envied.
The detectives stood in silence outside the police tape encircling the body.
"She's been severed at the waist. The two sections of her body are about ten inches apart," Morgan said quietly. He gestured with his gloved hand. "Mouth slit each side. Hard to tell what she looked like before this was done to her. She's got abrasions all over her body."
Anna inched further forward, staring down at the dead woman. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a young rookie detective turn away and hurry out of the tent. Anna didn't look up. She knew exactly how he felt, but remained calm as she took in the awful sight.
"We won't have anything from any clothes, obviously. First priority is to identify her." Morgan blinked as flashbulbs went off; photographs were being taken from every angle. He looked over to the doctor, a rotund man with thick glasses, who squinted back.
"Neat job. Whoever did the dissection knew what they were doing. Her blood's been drained: reason her skin is so white. I'd put the approx time of death at two or three days ago." He headed out of the tent, sidestepping two scientists in his haste. Morgan followed.
"Doc, can you just give me a few minutes?"
"Outside. Can't talk in there." The doctor and Morgan moved further away from the tent. "Jesus God, what animal did that to her?"
"Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"No, I was just called out to determine your victim was dead. I've got to get back to surgery."
"You said it looked professional," Morgan said.
"Well, it looks like it to me, but the pathologist will give you more details. It's a very neat cut, not jagged, and a thin-bladed knife was used on her mouth. How thin, how long, though, I couldn't tell you. There are further cuts to her face, neck, shoulders, and legs."
Morgan sighed, wanting more details. He turned back to stare at the flapping tent opening. One by one his team came out, subdued and shocked. They removed their paper suits and overshoes. Anna was last out and by the time she'd discarded her suit, the others were heading back toward the car park. She looked up the bank to see that a group of spectators had already gathered on the road. The sightlines between them were clear: the killer obviously wanted the victim found quickly. Whoever it was might even be watching them at work. The thought chilled her.
Richmond police station was only ten minutes' drive from the murder site, so the incident room had been set up there. They regrouped at eleven thirty as a large whiteboard was being erected. Desks and tables with computers were brought in for the team to work at. They busied themselves, selecting their areas, as Morgan stood in front of them.
"Okay, let's get started," Morgan said, and burped; he excused himself and took an antacid tablet. "We need to know who the victim is. We'll be getting photographs in, but until we get her identified and the lab reports back, there's not a lot we have to go on. According to the doctor, the work on her body looked professional, so we could be after a suspect with medical or surgical experience."
Anna put up her hand. "By the way the body was displayed, knowing it would be visible from the road and therefore would be found quickly, do you think the killer could be local?"
"Possibly," Morgan said as he crunched his tablet. He stared ahead, as if trying to think of what he should say next, and then shrugged. "Let's start with missing persons in this area."
The victim was eased into a thick plastic body bag and removed from the site at one fifteen. A team of uniformed officers had already been assigned a fingertip search of the area. Due to the good weather and early-morning frost, the ground was hard, so any footprints were few and far between.
Morgan had also asked for a house-to-house to be started on the properties overlooking the river. He knew this murder had been carefully planned, but they still might get lucky if someone had seen a car in or around the area during either the night or early morning.
Photographs of the victim were pinned up in the incident room to an uneasy silence from the team. In the past few years, such photographs had been kept in files rather than displayed: it was felt that the investigating detectives were not helped in their work by the emotional impact of constantly seeing death staring down at them. There was also the possibility that a relative or someone being questioned might see them and become distressed; however, Morgan insisted the photographs should be on view. He felt it was necessary for each and every one of his team to understand the gravity of the case. The murder was going to create a media frenzy. Until the killer was arrested, there would be no weekend leave.
By six o'clock that evening, their Jane Doe was still unidentified.
The lists of missing persons in the Richmond area yielded nothing, so the net was spread wider. None of the residents of the riverside houses had seen anything suspicious, not even a parked car. The area was not well lit, so their killer would have been able to come and go undetected at night. What they were able to ascertain, however, was that a resident walking his dog at two in the morning passed the murder site and saw nothing. Therefore, their killer had deposited the body between the hours of two and six.
Day three and they were ready at the mortuary. Morgan asked Anna and another detective to join him for the preliminary report. Time of death was now estimated at three days prior to discovery. They had not as yet been able to take a rectal temperature, as there seemed to be some kind of blockage, but they would have more details after the full postmortem. The pathologist also confirmed what the doctor had suspected: the incision was professionally done, using a surgical saw, and the blood had been drained before the dissection. There were four lesions where drainage tubes might have been inserted; the amount of blood would have been considerable. He suggested their killer would have needed a place to perform the "operation."
"She has severe bruising to her back, buttocks, arms, and thighs. It would appear she suffered numerous blows from some kind of blunt instrument. The cuts to either side of her mouth could very well have been done with a sharp scalpel. They are deep, clean, and precise."
Anna looked to where the pathologist indicated. The victim's cheeks now gaped open, exposing her teeth.
"I will need a lot more time, but I understand the need to give you as much as possible at this stage. In all my years, I have never seen such horrific injuries. The pubic area and the skin around the vagina have been sliced numerous Times. You can see the slash marks like crosses, up to five inches in length."
His lengthy report continued as Anna made copious notes, not allowing herself any emotional connection. The constant crunching sound of Morgan chewing his tablets was becoming annoying. The pathologist then removed his mask and rubbed his eyes.
"She must have suffered an awfully slow death and she must have been in excruciating pain as these injuries were forced on her. She has marks to her wrists that I would say were from some kind of wire, so she would have been held down for the brutality to occur. The wire has cut the skin quite badly on her right wrist."
He slipped his mask up again as he moved around the body, and then gently brushed back her thick auburn hair. His hand still resting on her head, he paused before speaking softly.
"There's more," he said.
As he continued, Morgan stopped chewing. Anna couldn't write a note. What was described next was so horrific that she felt her own blood draining. It was beyond all their comprehension that someone could have subjected the victim to such atrocities while she was still alive.
Anna sat in the rear passenger seat, Morgan up front. He had not said a word for the past ten minutes. Anna turned the pages of her notes and began adding more.
"Back to the station, sir?" their driver asked.
"You all right back there?" Morgan asked as they slowly pulled out of the mortuary car park.
Anna nodded, closing her notebook. "I won't sleep well tonight," she murmured.
Back at the incident room, Morgan repeated what they had been told at the mortuary. Again Anna noted that strange uneasy silence. The team looked at the dead woman's photograph and then back to Morgan as he took a deep breath.
"And that's not all. Our victim was tortured and humiliated and forced to endure a sickening, perverted sexual assault. We have not as yet had all the details, as they are still working on her."
Anna glanced furtively around the room; the detectives' expressions said it all. Two female officers were in obvious distress.
Day four and they still had not identified their victim. No witness had come forward. The fingertip search had found nothing incriminating in the immediate vicinity, so the search area was now being widened. Moreover, the forensic report had brought disappointing news: their girl had been thoroughly cleaned up. They had no fibers or hairs; her nails had been scrubbed so vigorously, the tips of her fingers were raw. They had been able to determine that her hair was dyed auburn and her natural color was dirty blonde, but the make of the dye would take time to identify, as they had so many brands to test. Fingerprints yielded no clue to her identity, as there was nothing on any police record. However, it seemed that she had recently had some dental work done: there was a certain amount of decay to her teeth and two caps were missing, but her fillings were intact. It was possible, therefore, that they might get a result from her dental records. The team also now knew she had been dead for seven days: three days before the body was discovered and the four days they had been investigating her murder.
The team had been waiting for a photograph that was being worked on to remove the clown cuts before being issued alongside the press release. They gathered round as a computer printout was posted up on the board. Her face had been re-created with no imperfections.
"She was beautiful," Anna said.
Morgan sucked on another tablet. He shrugged. "Let's hope to God this gets us a result, because we've been going fucking nowhere fast!"
The Evening Standard's late issue carried the picture and a request for anyone with information to ring the incident room. The article did not give any mention of the body being dismembered, or any details of the way it had been discovered: just the location.
The phones soon started ringing nonstop, all the team busy fending off the crank calls and listening to the possibles. It was at seven minutes past eight in the evening that Anna received a call from a Sharon Bilkin. Hesitantly, she gave her name and address before saying she was sure that the photograph was of her flatmate, Louise Pennel. The last time Sharon had seen Louise was three days prior to the murder.
Sharon Bilkin came to the station at nine o'clock. She was twenty-six years old, a baby-faced blonde wearing too much makeup. She had brought numerous photographs of Louise with her. The team knew immediately Louise was their victim. Sharon was able to tell them that she had last seen Louise at Stringfellow's nightclub; Louise had stayed on after Sharon left, which was just after midnight on January ninth. Louise had not returned home. When asked why she hadn't reported this, Sharon said that Louise often stayed away for two or three nights at a time.
Sharon told them that Louise worked as a dental receptionist. When the surgery was contacted, they said that they also had not seen her since the ninth. They had not raised the alarm either: Louise's frequent absences from work meant they were not surprised or suspicious when she didn't turn up. Moreover, they had given her notice to quit the week before.
Louise, they also discovered from Sharon, was an orphan; her parents had died when she was a young teenager. There were no close relatives, so Sharon was asked if she would be prepared to formally identify Louise.
Sharon was shaking with nerves; when the green cover was drawn back, she let out a gasp. "What's the matter with her face? Her mouth?"
"Is this Louise Pennel?" Anna asked.
"Yes, but what's happened to her mouth?"
"It has been cut," Anna said, giving the nod to the mortuary assistant to recover Louise's face.
Sharon spent two hours with Anna and Morgan, answering their questions. She gave them a few names, but was sure Louise had no steady boyfriend. She also said that Louise wanted to get into modeling like her, which was why she had so many photographs. One in particular that Sharon showed them was heartbreaking. Louise was wearing a red, glitter-sequined minidress, a glass of champagne in one hand and a red rose caught in her hair. She had the sweetest of smiles, her lipstick a dark plum. Her large, dark brown eyes were heavily made up and she had a small uptilted nose. She had been a very pretty young woman.
The incident room was buzzing with the news that they had an identification, giving the whole team an adrenaline rush. They had been so frustrated, waiting for their first break. Now that she was identified, they could kick-start their hunt for her killer.
Morgan was back at his desk the following morning at seven fifteen. A priority was to interview the dental surgeon Louise had worked for. Morgan was busy listing everyone he wanted to see that morning when Anna walked into his office with a copy of the Mirror.
"Excuse me, sir; have you seen this?"
Morgan reached across to take the paper. He sat down heavily. "Fuck. How did they get this?"
"Must have got it from Sharon; she had enough photographs. We put out so many requests for help in identifying Louise, no one would have thought to ask Sharon not to go to the press."
Morgan sucked in his breath in a fury. The article said little: just that the victim the police were trying to name was Louise Pennel. There were a few sentences about how Sharon, her flatmate, had identified Louise. There was a picture of a scantily dressed Sharon, but the main photograph was of Louise with the red rose in her hair.
Roses are red, violets are blue, who killed Louise and slit her mouth in two?
Jack Douglas, the Mirror journalist who had printed Sharon's story, looked at the single sheet of typed writing that had been sent anonymously to the crime desk.
"Sick fuckers," he muttered. He screwed it up and tossed it into the waste bin.
DCI Morgan held up the newspaper to the team in the incident room. "We're gonna get a lot of crap aimed at us over -- " Before he could finish his sentence, he buckled over in agony, clutching his stomach. There was a flurry of activity around him. He was helped into his office in excruciating pain, unable to stand upright. An ambulance took him to Richmond Hospital at ten fifteen. The team hovered around, discussing what could be wrong with their gov. By midmorning they knew it was serious. DCI Morgan had bleeding ulcers and would be out of action for some considerable time. This meant that a new DCI would have to take over the case, and fast.
By early afternoon, they were informed that DCI James Langton was stepping in, and bringing two officers with him.
Copyright © 2006 Lynda La Plante
Excerpted from The Red Dahlia by Lynda La Plante Copyright © 2007 by Lynda La Plante. Excerpted by permission.
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