A MAN STOOD THIGH-DEEP IN WATER, motionless,
absorbed, unaware of what was drifting towards him. He was
fishing on the north shore of Chew Valley Lake, a 1200-acre
reservoir at the foot of the Mendip Hills south of Bristol. He
had already taken three brown trout of respectable weight.
He watched keenly for a telltale swirl in the calm lake
where he had cast. The conditions were promising. It was an
evening late in September, the sky was overcast and the flies
in their millions had just whirled above him in their spectacular
sunset flight, soaring and swooping over the lake in a
mass darker and more dense than the clouds, their droning
as resonant as a train in the underground. The day’s hatch,
irresistible to hungry fish.
A light south-westerly fretted the surface around him, yet
ahead there was this bar of water, known to fishermen as the
scum, that showed a different pattern in the fading light.
There, he knew by experience, the fish preferred to rise.
So preoccupied was the man that he failed altogether to
notice a pale object at closer proximity. It drifted languidly
in the current created by the wind, more than half submerged,
with a slight rocking motion that fitfully produced
a semblance of life.
Finally it touched him. A white hand slid against his
thigh. A complete arm angled outwards as the body lodged
against him, trapped at the armpit. It was a dead woman,
face-up and naked.
The fisherman glanced down. From high in his throat
came a childishly shrill, indrawn cry.
For a moment he stood as if petrified. Then he made an
effort to gather himself mentally so as to disentangle himself
from the undesired embrace. Unwilling to touch the
corpse with his hands, he used the handle of the rod as a
lever, lodging the end in the armpit and pushing the body
away from him, turning it at the same time, then stepping
aside to let it move on its way with the current. That accomplished,
he grabbed his net from its anchorage in the mud
and, without even stopping to reel in his line, splashed his
way to the bank. There, he looked about him. No one was
This angler was not public-spirited. His response to the
discovery was to bundle his tackle together and move off to
his car as fast as possible.
He did have one judicious thought. Before leaving, he
opened the bag containing his catch and threw the three
trout back into the water.
A LITTLE AFTER 10.30 THE same Saturday evening,
Police Constable Harry Sedgemoor and his wife Shirley
were watching a horror video in their terraced cottage in
Bishop Sutton, on the eastern side of the lake. PC Sedgemoor
had come off duty at six. His long body was stretched
along the length of the sofa, his bare feet projecting over
one end. On this hot night he had changed into a black
singlet and shorts. A can of Malthouse Bitter was in his left
hand, while his right was stroking Shirley’s head, idly teasing
out the black curls and feeling them spring back into
shape. Shirley, after her shower dressed only in her white
cotton nightie, reclined on the floor, propped against the
sofa. She had her eyes closed. She had lost interest in the
film, but she didn’t object to Harry watching if it resulted
afterwards in his snuggling up close to her in bed, as he
usually did after watching a horror film. Secretly, she suspected
he was more scared by them than she, but you didn’t
suggest that sort of thing to your husband, particularly if he
happened to be a policeman. So she waited patiently for
it to end. The tape hadn’t much longer to run. Harry had
several times pressed the fast-forward button to get through
boring bits of conversation.
The violins on the video soundtrack were working up to
a piercing crescendo when the Sedgemoors both heard the
click of their own front gate. Shirley said bitterly, ‘I don’t
believe it! What time is it?’
Her husband sighed, swung his legs off the sofa, got up
and looked out of the window. ‘Some woman.’ He couldn’t
see much in the porch light.
He recognized the caller when he opened the door:
Miss Trenchard-Smith, who lived alone in one of the older
houses at the far end of the village. An upright seventy-yearold
never seen without her Tyrolean hat, which over the
years had faded in colour from a severe brown to a shade
that was starting to fit in with the deep pink of the local
‘I hesitate to disturb you so late, Officer,’ she said as her
eyes travelled over his shorts and singlet in a series of rapid
jerks. ‘However, I think you will agree that what I have found
is sufficiently serious to justify this intrusion.’ Her gratingly
genteel accent articulated the words with self-importance.
She may have lived in the village since the war, but she
would never pass as local and probably didn’t care to.
PC Sedgemoor said with indulgence, ‘What might that
be, Miss Trenchard-Smith?’
‘A dead body.’
‘A body?’ He fingered the tip of his chin and tried to
appear unperturbed, but his pulses throbbed. After six
months in the force he had yet to be called to a corpse.
Miss Trenchard-Smith continued with her explanation.
‘I was walking my cats by the lake. People don’t believe that
cats like to be taken for walks, but mine do. Every evening
about this time. They insist on it. They won’t let me sleep if
I haven’t taken them out.’
‘A human body, you mean?’
‘Well, of course. A woman. Not a stitch of clothing on
her, poor creature.’
‘You’d better show me. Is it . . . is she nearby?’
‘In the lake, if she hasn’t floated away already.’
Sedgemoor refrained from pointing out that the body
would remain in the lake even if it had floated away. He
needed Miss Trenchard-Smith’s co-operation. He invited
her into the cottage for a moment while he ran upstairs to
collect a sweater and his personal radio.
Shirley, meanwhile, had stood up and wished a good evening
to Miss Trenchard-Smith, whose tone in replying made
it plain that in her view no respectable woman ought to be
seen in her nightwear outside the bedroom.
‘What a horrid experience for you!’ Shirley remarked,
meaning what had happened beside the lake. ‘Would you
care for a nip of something to calm you down?’
Miss Trenchard-Smith curtly thanked her and declined.
‘But you can look after my cats while I’m gone,’ she said as
if bestowing a favour on Shirley. ‘You don’t mind cats, do
you?’ Without pausing to get an answer she went to the door
and called, ‘Come on, come on, come on,’ and two Siamese
raced from the shadows straight into the cottage and leapt
on to the warm spot Harry had vacated on the sofa as if it
When Harry came down again, Shirley glanced at what
he was wearing and said, ‘I thought you were going upstairs
to put some trousers on.’
He said, ‘I might have to wade in and fetch something
out, mightn’t I?’
He picked his torch off the shelf by the door. Managing
to sound quite well in control, he said, “Bye, love.’ He
kissed Shirley lightly and tried to provide more reassurance
by whispering, ‘I expect she imagined it.’
Not that tough old bird, Shirley thought. If she says she
found a corpse, it’s there.
Harry Sedgemoor was less certain. While driving Miss
Trenchard-Smith the half-mile or so down to the lakeside
he seriously speculated that she might be doing this out
of a desire to enliven her placid routine with gratuitous
excitement. Old women living alone had been known to
waste police time with tall stories. If this were the case he
would be incensed. He was damned sure Shirley wouldn’t
want to make love after this. Whatever there might or
might not be in the lake, the mention of a corpse would
colour her imagination so vividly that nothing he did or
said would relax her.
With an effort to be the policeman, he asked Miss
Trenchard-Smith to tell him where to stop the car.
‘Anywhere you like,’ she said with an ominously nonchalant
air. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea where we are.’
He halted where the road came to an end. They got out
and started across a patch of turf, his torch probing the
space ahead. The reservoir was enclosed by a low boundary
fence, beyond which clumps of reeds stirred in the breeze,
appearing to flicker in the torchlight. At intervals were flat
stretches of shoreline.
‘How exactly did you get down to the water?’ he asked.
‘Through one of the gates.’
‘Those are for fishermen only.’
‘I don’t disturb them.’ She gave a laugh. ‘I won’t tell anyone
you broke the law.’
He pushed open a gate and they picked their way down
to the water’s edge.
‘Was this the place?’
She said, ‘It all looks amazingly different now.’
Containing his annoyance, he drew the torch-beam
slowly across a wide angle. ‘You must have some idea. How
did you notice the body?’
‘There was still some daylight then.’
Fifty yards along the bank was a place where the reeds
grew extra tall. ‘Anywhere like that?’
‘I suppose there’s no harm in looking,’ she said.
‘That’s why we’re here, miss.’
He stepped in and felt his foot sink into soft mud. ‘You’d
better stay where you are,’ he told Miss Trenchard-Smith.
He worked his way through to the far side. Nothing was
there except a family of ducks that put up a noisy protest.
She said, ‘Just look at the state of your gym shoes!’
‘We’re looking for a body, miss,’ PC Sedgemoor reminded
her. ‘We’ve got to do the job properly.’
‘If you’re going to wade through every clump of reeds,
we’ll be out all night,’ she said blithely.
Twenty minutes’ searching resulted only in Miss
Trenchard-Smith becoming more flippant and PC Sedgemoor
less patient. They moved steadily along the shoreline.
He shone the torch on his watch, thinking bitterly of Shirley
alone in the cottage with those unlikeable cats while he
danced attendance on this scatty old maid. Almost 11.30.
What a Saturday night! In an impatient gesture he swung
the beam rapidly across the whole width of the water as if
to demonstrate the futility of the task. And perversely that
was the moment when Miss Trenchard-Smith said, ‘There!’
‘Give me the torch,’ she said.
He handed it to her and watched as she held it at arm’s
length. The beam picked out something white in the water.
PC Sedgemoor took a short, quick breath. ‘What do you
know?’ he said in a whisper. ‘You were right.’
The body had lodged among the reeds not more than
ten feet from where they stood, in a place where waterweed,
bright viridian in the torchlight, grew densely. Unquestionably
a woman, face upwards, her long hair splayed in the
water, a strand of it across her throat. The pale flesh was
flecked with seedpods. No wounds were apparent. Sedgemoor
was reminded of a painting he had once seen on a
school trip to London: a woman lying dead among reeds, evidently
drowned. It had impressed him because the teacher
had said that the model had been forced to lie for hours
in a bath in the artist’s studio and one day the artist had
forgotten to fill the lamps that were provided to keep the
water warm. As a result the girl had contracted an illness that
didn’t immediately kill her, but certainly shortened her life.
The story had been given to the class as an example of
obsessive fidelity to the subject. Sedgemoor had stood in
front of the painting until the teacher had called his name
sharply from the next room, for it had been the only painting
of a dead person he had seen, and death is fascinating to
children. Now, faced with an actual drowned corpse, he was
made acutely aware how idealized the Pre-Raphaelite image
had been. It wasn’t merely that the girl in the painting had
been clothed. Her hands and face had lain elegantly on the
surface of the water. The face of the real drowned woman
was submerged, drawn under by the weight of the head.
The belly was uppermost, and it was swollen. The skin on
the breasts had a puckered appearance. The hands hung
too low to be visible at all.
‘There’s a wind blowing up,’ said Miss Trenchard-Smith.
‘Yes,’ he responded in a preoccupied way.
‘If you don’t do something about it, she’ll drift away again.’
The duty inspector at ‘F’ Division in Yeovil picked out the
significant word from PC Sedgemoor’s call. ‘Naked’ meant
a full alert. You can generally rule out accident or suicide
if you discover a naked corpse in a lake. ‘And you say you
handled it? Was that necessary? All right, lad. Stay where
you are. I mean that literally. Stand on the spot. Don’t trample
the ground. Don’t touch the corpse again. Don’t smoke,
comb your hair, scratch your balls, anything.’
Sedgemoor was compelled to ignore the instruction. He
hadn’t cared to admit that he was calling in from the car,
where he had stupidly left his personal radio. He set off at a
trot, back to the lakeside.
Miss Trenchard-Smith stood by the body in the darkness,
sublimely unconcerned. ‘I switched off the torch to save
He told her that assistance was on the way and he would
see that she was taken home shortly.
‘I hope not,’ she said. ‘I’d like to help.’
‘Decent of you to offer, miss,’ said Sedgemoor. ‘With
respect, the CID won’t need any help.’
‘You were glad of it, young man.’
She was unstoppable. Women of her mettle had climbed
the Matterhorn in long skirts and chained themselves to
railings. ‘They’ll want to identify her,’ she said with relish.
‘I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I can tell them several
things already. She was married, proud of her looks and her
shoes pinched. And it appears to me as if she had red hair.
It looked dark brown when you first brought her out, but I
would say on closer examination that it was a rather fetching
shade of chestnut red, wouldn’t you?’ She switched on
the torch and bent over the face admiringly as if it had none
of the disfigurement caused by prolonged submersion. ‘No
wonder she let it grow.’
‘Don’t touch!’ Sedgemoor cautioned her.
But she already had a lock of hair between finger and
thumb. ‘Just feel how fine it is. Don’t be squeamish.’
‘It isn’t that—it’s procedure. You don’t handle anything.’
She looked up, smiling. ‘Come now, you just dragged her
out of the water. Touching her hair won’t make a jot of difference.’
‘I’ve had orders,’ he said stiffly. ‘And I must request you
‘As you wish.’ She straightened up and used the torch
to justify her deductions. ‘The mark of a wedding ring on
the left hand. Traces of nail polish on the toes as well as the
fingernails. Cramped toes and redness on the backs of the
heels. Neither a farmgirl nor a feminist, my dear Watson.
Where are they? They ought to be here by now.’
It was with distinct relief that Sedgemoor spotted across
the landscape the flashing light of a police vehicle. He
swung the torch in a wide arc above his head.
In a few bewildering minutes their sense of isolation was
supplanted by activity on a scale the young constable had
only ever seen in a training film. A panda car, two large vans
and a minibus drove over the turf and halted and at least a
dozen men got out. The area was cordoned off with white
tapes and illuminated with arc-lamps. Two senior detectives
approached the body and spent some time beside it.
Then the scenes-of-crime officers moved in. The forensic
team arrived. A photographer took pictures and a screen
was erected. Miss Trenchard-Smith was led to the minibus
and questioned about the finding of the body. The detectives
took more interest in her green Wellingtons than her
deductions about the victim. The boots were borrowed,
photographed and used to make casts. Then she was driven
back to PC Sedgemoor’s house.
Sedgemoor was not detained much longer. He made his
statement, surrendered his muddy trainers to the forensic
examiners, waited for them to be returned and then left the
scene and drove home. Miss Trenchard-Smith and her cats
were still there when he arrived a few minutes after midnight.
She was still there at 1.30 a.m., drinking cocoa and
reminiscing about her days in the ambulance service during
the war. As she graphically expressed it, sudden death
was meat and drink to her. This was not the case with Harry
Sedgemoor. He refused Shirley’s offer of cocoa and went
upstairs to look for indigestion tablets. He had to be on duty
at eight next morning.
A woman's body has been found floating in a large reservoir just south of Bristol. In order to solve the mystery of the "Lady in the Lake," Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond must locate two missing letters attributed to Jane Austen and defy his superiors on the force to save a woman unjustly accused of murder. This is the first of the Peter Diamond series; it won the 1992 Anthony Boucher Award for Best Mystery Novel.
Peter Lovesey is the author of more than thirty highly praised mystery novels. He has been awarded the CWA Gold and Silver Daggers, the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement, the Strand Magazine Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards, and many other honors. He lives in West Sussex, England.