In Fenland of P D James police hunt a callous killer

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EVEN ON the most clement of days, the Fens are a bleak and brooding place. Yesterday, lashed by wind and rain, a heavy sky pressing down on fields turned grey by an overnight dusting of snow, they offered a vista of unrelieved desolation.

The landscape, flat as a billiard table, crisscrossed by rivers and dykes, is familiar to fans of the crime novelist P D James. At present, though, it is a real-life murder mystery that is being played out in this inhospitable corner of East Anglia.

Police announced yesterday that they had launched a full-scale murder investigation into the deaths of Janice Sheridan, a 45-year-old dog breeder, and her 89-year-old mother, Constance.

The two women lived together quietly outside the Norfolk village of Upwell, near Wisbech. On Sunday, they were found dead in the living room of their isolated cottage, stabbed many times, in what detectives called a "callous and ruthless" attack.

At a press conference yesterday, Detective Superintendent Steve Swain, head of Norfolk CID, said police were baffled by the lack of an obvious motive. "They had no enemy in the world who had reason to inflict such horrible injuries on them," he said.

The women were not wealthy and there were no signs of a break-in. Local people regarded the pair as reclusive, but not unfriendly.

A team of 30 officers is pursuing two lines of inquiry. One, that the murders may be connected to the women's vocal opposition to the establishment of a travellers' site near Upwell. Two, a possible link to the notoriously murky world of pedigree dog breeding.

Janice Sheridan, who was single, bred prize-winning whippets and was well known on the show circuit. She was due to exhibit a puppy at Cruft's in March. She and her mother, a widow, kept 20 whippets at home.

Det Supt Swain said police were trying to establish whether any of the dogs had been stolen. None of the whippets was injured in the attacks, and all were in good condition.

The cottage, at the end of a winding, single-lane track called Pingle Bridge, was shrouded in silence yesterday.

Police were searching for tyre tracks and were also scrutinising footprints found near the house, although it was thought that they probably belonged to a neighbour who raised the alarm.

The tiny village of Upwell, intensely insular like most Fenland communities, has not known a murder since the 1960s. Pauline Overland, 54, a smallholder, said: "I used to go down Pingle Bridge to play when I was a child. It's a peaceful and happy place."

In the Five Bells Inn, where a lone drinker supped at lunchtime, the barman, David Ward, said he often saw Janice Sheridan out walking her dogs. "Whoever did this is sick and twisted," he said.

In the Fens, people say that geographic isolation and the monotonous landscape can induce a peculiar form of madness. Whether it can turn into something more sinister, push someone over the edge to commit two apparently senseless murders, must remain, for now, pure speculation.