Just after eleven o’clock on a bright spring morning, the sort of day when the sunshine is almost white and promises a warmth that it doesn’t quite deliver, Diana Cowper crossed the Fulham Road and went into a funeral parlour.
She was a short, very businesslike woman: there was a sense of determination in her eyes, her sharply cut hair, the very way she walked. If you saw her coming, your first instinct would be to step aside and let her pass. And yet there was nothing unkind about her. She was in her sixties with a pleasant, round face. She was expensively dressed with a pale raincoat which hung open to reveal a pink jersey and grey skirt. She wore a heavy bead and stone necklace, which might or might not have been expensive, and a number of diamond rings that most certainly were. There were plenty of women like her in the streets of Fulham and South Kensington. She might have been on her way to lunch or to an art gallery.
The funeral parlour was called Cornwallis and Sons. It stood at the end of a terrace, with the name painted in a classical font both on the front and down the side, punctuated by a Victorian clock which was mounted above the front door. Beneath the name, again printed twice, was the legend: Independent Funeral Parlour since 1820. There were three windows looking out onto the street, two of them curtained, the third empty but for an open book made out of marble, engraved with a quotation: When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. All the wood – the window frames, the frontage, the main door – was painted a dark blue, nudging black.
As Mrs Cowper opened the door, a bell on an old-fashioned spring mechanism sounded loudly, once. She found herself in a small reception area with two sofas, a low table and a few shelves with books that had that peculiar sense of sadness that comes with being unread. A staircase led up to the other floors. A narrow corridor stretched ahead.
Almost at once, a woman appeared, dressed in a suit and spectacles, coming down the stairs. She was smiling pleasantly, politely. The smile acknowledged that this was a delicate, painful business but that it would be expedited with calm and efficiency. Her name was Irene Laws. She was the personal assistant to Robert Cornwallis, the funeral director, and also acted as his receptionist.
‘Good morning. Can I help you?’ she asked.
‘Yes. I would like to arrange a funeral.’
‘Are you here on behalf of someone who has died recently?’ Again, the word ‘died’ was instructive. Euphemisms, she seemed to imply, would not do anyone any good.
‘No,’ Mrs Cowper replied. ‘It’s for myself.’
‘I see.’ Irene Laws didn’t blink – and why should she? It was not at all uncommon for people to arrange their own funerals. ‘Do you have an appointment?’ she asked.
‘No. I didn’t know I’d need one.’
‘I’ll see if Mr Cornwallis is free. Please take a seat. Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?’
‘No, thank you.’
Diana Cowper sat down. Irene Laws disappeared down the corridor, reappearing a few minutes later behind a man who so exactly fitted the image of the funeral director that he could have been playing the part. There was, of course, the obligatory dark suit and sombre tie. But the very way he stood seemed to suggest that he was apologising for having to be there. His hands were clasped together in a gesture of endless regret. His face was crumpled, mournful, not helped by hair that had thinned to the edge of baldness and a straggly beard. He was about forty years old. He too was smiling.
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘My name is Robert Cornwallis. I understand you wish to discuss a funeral plan with us.’
‘You’ve been offered coffee or tea? Please come this way.’
The new client was taken down the corridor to a room at the end. This was as discreet as the reception area – with one difference. Instead of books there were folders and brochures which, if opened, would show images of coffins, hearses (traditional or horse-drawn) and price lists. A number of urns were arranged on two shelves should the discussion veer towards cremation. Two armchairs faced each other, one beside a small desk. Cornwallis sat here and motioned to Mrs Cowper to take the other seat. He took out a pen, a silver Mont Blanc, and rested it on a notepad.
‘The funeral is your own,’ he began.
‘Yes.’ Suddenly Mrs Cowper was brisk, wanting to get straight to the point. ‘I have already given some consideration to the details. I take it you have no problem with that.’
‘On the contrary. Individual requests are important to us. These days, pre-planned funerals and what you might call bespoke or themed funerals are very much what people demand. Our business is to provide exactly what you want. After our discussion here, and assuming our terms are acceptable, we will provide you with a full invoice and breakdown of what has been agreed. Your relatives and friends will have nothing to do except, of course, to turn up. It will give them great comfort to know that everything is being done exactly in accordance with your wishes.’
Mrs Cowper nodded. ‘Excellent. Well, let’s get down to it, shall we?’ She took a breath, then dived straight in. ‘I want to be buried in a cardboard coffin.’
Cornwallis was about to make his first note. He paused with the nib hovering over the page. ‘If you are considering an eco-funeral, might I suggest recycled wood or even twisted willow branches rather than cardboard? There are occasions when cardboard can be . . . not entirely effective.’ He chose his words carefully, allowing all sorts of possibilities to hang in the air. ‘Willow is hardly more expensive and a great deal more attractive.’
‘All right. I want to be buried in Brompton Cemetery, next to my husband. We already have the plot so there’ll be no problems there. And this is what I want in the service . . .’ She opened her handbag and took out a sheet of paper which she laid on the desk. The funeral director glanced down. ‘Partly religious, partly humanist,’ he observed.
‘Well, there’s a psalm – and there’s the Beatles. A poem, a bit of classical music and a couple of addresses. I don’t want the thing going on too long.’
‘We can work out the timings exactly . . .’
And so the conversation continued. I cannot write down the exact words that were said because, of course, I wasn’t there. But I did visit Cornwallis and Sons and spoke at length to both Robert Cornwallis and his assistant (she was also his cousin), Irene Laws. The rooms are exactly as I describe them. You would have no trouble finding the funeral parlour if you set your mind to it.
Diana Cowper had planned her funeral and she was going to need it. She was murdered about six hours later that same day.
I’d never heard of her and I knew almost nothing about her death. I may have noticed the headline in the newspapers – ACTOR’S MOTHER KILLED – but the photographs and the bulk of the story were all for the more famous son who had just been cast as the lead in a new American television series. The details on these pages are taken from witness statements and police reports. I’ll set them out as briefly as I can.
We know when she entered the funeral parlour because her movements were recorded on CCTV both in the street and on the bus that took her from her home that morning. It was one of her eccentricities that she always used public transport. She could easily have afforded a chauffeur.
She left the funeral parlour at a quarter to twelve, walked up to South Kensington Tube station and took the Piccadilly line to Green Park. She had an early lunch with a friend at the Café Murano, an expensive restaurant on St James’s Street, near Fortnum & Mason. From there, she took a taxi to the Globe Theatre on the South Bank. She wasn’t seeing a play – she was on the board and there was a meeting on the first floor of the building that lasted from two o’clock until a little before five. She got home at five past six. It had just begun to rain but she had an umbrella with her and left it in a faux-Victorian stand beside the front door. Thirty minutes later, somebody strangled her.
She lived in a smart, terraced house in Britannia Road, at the far end of the King’s Road. There were no CCTV cameras in the street so there was no way of knowing who went in or left around the time of the murder. The neighbouring houses were empty. One was owned by a Hong Kong consortium and was usually rented out, though not at this particular time. The other belonged to a retired lawyer and his wife but they were away in the South of France. So nobody heard anything.
She was not found for two days. It was Andrea Kluvánek, a Slovakian cleaner, who made the discovery when she came in on Wednesday morning. Diana Cowper was lying face down on the living-room floor. A length of red cord, normally used to tie back the curtains, was around her throat. The forensic report (which I read) would describe blunt-force injuries of the neck, a fractured hyoid bone and conjunctivitis of the eyes. Andrea saw something rather worse. She had been working at the house for two years and had come to like her employer who had always treated her kindly, often stopping to have a coffee with her. On the Wednesday, as she opened the door, she was confronted with a dead body – one that had been lying there for thirty-six hours. The face, what she could see of it, had gone mauve. The eyes were empty and staring, the tongue hanging out grotesquely. One arm was outstretched, a finger with a diamond ring pointing at her as if in accusation. The central heating had been on. The body was already beginning to smell.
Andrea did not scream. She was not sick. She quietly backed out of the house and called the police on her mobile phone. She did not go in again until they arrived.
To begin with, the police assumed that Diana Cowper had been the victim of a burglary. Certain items, including jewellery and a laptop computer, had been taken from the house. Many of the rooms had been searched, the contents scattered. However, there had been no break-in. Mrs Cowper had clearly opened the door to her attacker, although it was unclear if she had known the person or not. She had been surprised, strangled from behind, and she had barely put up a fight. There were no fingerprints, no DNA, no clues of any sort, suggesting that that the perpetrator must have planned this with a great deal of care. He had distracted her and plucked the red cord off the hook beside the velvet curtain in the living room. He had crept up behind her, slipped it over her head and pulled. It would have taken only a minute or so for her to die.
But then the police found out about her visit to Cornwallis and Sons and realised that they had a real puzzle on their hands. Think about it. Nobody arranges their own funeral and then gets killed on the same day. This was no coincidence. The two events had to be connected in a ‘cause and effect’ sort of way. Had she somehow known she was going to die? Had someone seen her going in or coming out of the funeral parlour and been prompted, for some reason, to take action? Who actually knew she had been there?
It was definitely a mystery and one that required a specialist approach. At the same time, it had absolutely nothing to do with me.
That was about to change.