As an addendum to my recent piece on Martin Edwards’ Lake District series of detective fiction, I’ve now borrowed and read books four and five.
Neither of them aroused in me the same paroxysms of fury about his supposedly-convincing setting in the County I love, but I was no more impressed by either of the books, as his ear for anything authentically Cumbrian/Old Westmorlandian is still correspondingly tin, as the supposedly ancient Mockbeggar Hall in The Hanging Wood demonstrates. Mockbeggar, I ask you.
I’ll grant that Edwards has done enough research in the latter book to guide his slowly-converging pair of historian Daniel Kind and Cold Case team boss, DCI Hannah Scarlett from the Market Place in Keswick to a rowboat on Derwentwater (as opposed to Derwent Water) with a minimal number of passing references. Mind you, as those mentioned include Market Square and Moot Hall, both of which are invariably described as the Market Square and especially the Moot Hall, perhaps that’s for the best.
It rather reminds me of the days when Tony Blackburn used to present the Top Thirty/Forty rundown on Sunday evenings, and his inability to use the definite article, meaning that we had to grow used to bands called Jam and Stranglers and Ruts.
Incidentally, for a series set in one of the most photogenic regions in the country, Edwards seems ruthlessly determined never to mention the natural architecture: how can you walk your characters past Hope Park and not mention the stunning view into Borrowdale?
The first of this pair, The Serpent Pool, didn’t ruffle my Cumbrian feathers, but I found myself gravely disappointed in it as a detective story, given that I identified the murderer by the second time he/she (no spoilers) opened his/her mouth.
It reminded me of something I’d long forgotten, which had a lot to do with why I stopped reading detective stories in the first place.
This related to one of the ten cool, elegant crime novels written between 1929 and 1951 by Elizabeth Mackintosh under her pen-name Josephine Tey. The most famous of these, the first of her work that I read, at Grammar School, and the only one of her books still in print, was The Daughter of Time, an audacious switch on the detective story form. Tey’s running character, Inspector Alan Grant (five novels), is laid up in hospital with a broken leg. To occupy his mind, he begins to examine the evidence against Richard III as murderer of the Princes in the Tower, and concludes that the King was innocent. In 1990, the Crime Writer’s Association voted this the best crime novel ever.
However, my experience was with her earlier Miss Pym Disposes. The Miss Pym of the title is a crime fiction writer who returns to her girls’ boarding school to give a speech, but who carries out an amateur investigation into the death of a sixth form pupil.
It was an enjoyable piece of work, but fifty pages before the murder even took place, I had worked out the victim, the girl who would be identified as the killer, and the real, unconvictable killer.
When you can solve a mystery that early, you’ve read too much detective fiction.
So it was with The Serpent Pool. It’s already clear that Edwards’ twist-in-the-tail style of fiction requires a seemingly innocuous, uninvolved party to be the actual murderer, and this one was just too obvious.
As for Daniel and Hannah, over the course of the two books it’s a case of half a step forward and pause. Still no descriptions: Hannah’s even stopped lightening her hair.
Daniel’s broken up with his partner Miranda after book 3, and winds up with his sister living with him for most of the next two books. As for Hannah, it’s clear for most of The Serpent Pool that her long term relationship with bookseller Marc is going downhill, though she ends up saving him from a predatory but drugged pit bull.
They separate, slightly at cross-purposes in this book, though I’d place Marc in a clear lead as to culpability, but though Daniel actually goes ahead and kisses Hannah during this story – on the mouth! – the leading pair put the incident resolutely out of their minds and spend the whole of book four avoiding any romantic suggestion whatsoever. Hannah’s decided it’s over between her and Marc but Marc is being patronising about her knowing her own mind and is determined to get her back.
If I get the chance, I’ll read the first book for completeness’ sake, but my main gripe remains: if these were not being marketed as being authentic Lake District settings, I’d have nothing to say about them. Though the will-they-won’t-they is so dreadfully slow, as far as I’m concerned it’s already a who-will-care-when-they-finally-do.