Ever the glutton for punishment, I have now read the last – as in the first – Martin Edwards’ Lake District Series, The Coffin Trail
It’s a better book that its successors, mainly because the vast majority of the action takes place in and around Edwards’ fictional south eastern valley, Brackdale, and I’m ok with him concentrating on his made-up names and places since he’s no longer mangling real Lakes places.
Well, you know me, this isn’t going to be entirely free of niggle.
The Coffin Trail hews closest to Edwards’ original intentions, to centre the series upon Daniel Kind, the former Oxford and TV historian downsizing to a new life in the Lakes, with his new partner Miranda. His opposite number, Hannah Scarlett, doesn’t even come into the book in the first near-hundred pages, and though large parts of the book are seen through her POV, she’s clearly meant to be a secondary figure at this stage.
This is evidenced most strongly in the ending of the story when, the cold case having been solved, an innocent man cleared and a brutal, thuggish, obvious killer dead, committing suicide by Police, it is Daniel who unravels the clue that identifies the real villain.
Thankfully, it being the beginning of the series, we get very little sighing and soul-searching over the putative relationship between Daniel and Hannah (we also get the most detailed physical description of Chief Inspector Scarlett in the entire series and I’ve still no real idea what she looks like). There’s just a few mini-thrills in the few and entirely professional meetings between them, and these are almost exclusively on Daniel’s side.
As far as the crime goes, Edwards starts with a brief section on the crime itself, seven years earlier, before relegating it to a Cold Case issue that the newly formed squad haeded by the not-demoted Hannah also picks up. The accepted villain, Barrie Gilpin, was on the Asberger’s spectrum and was seen as a creepy culprit, though his own, accidental death meant he was never questioned. The original officer in chargem, Ben Kind, Hannah’s mentor and Daniel’s father, was never satsified, and Hannah has inherited his scepticism.
Daniel is also interested in the case: he had been friends with Gilpin during a Brackdale holiday and can’t accept him as a killer, he and Miranda buy the old Gilpin cottage (though it’s Miranda’s enthusiasm that drives and Daniel who follows in this project).
With Daniel stirring things up at one end, and the Police at the other, the obvious, thuggish suspect is quickly identified. A mystery telephone voice initially suggesting it has additional information is also quite obviously his put-upon wife. Her death precipitates the violent end to the story. But it’s all too easy to see who the real culprit is, by virtue of her very openness and innocence (not to mention a carefully laid Arthur Ransome clue that I admit I didn’t see the significance of at the time).
As for the Lake District side of things, it’s interesting to note who careful Edwards is to establish Brackdale as a rather major and substantial valley, albeit a quiet one. Later books don’t reinforce this description, giving the impression of the valley as being a backwater in size as well as position.
And Edwards is more detailed in the setting: from later books, you might think (well, I did) that Brackdale has only two features, its unnamed tarn, and one summit, Tarn Fell. From this book, we learn it has a Horseshoe walk that competes with the Kentmere Horseshoe for attractiveness and interest, although Edwards doesn’t really establish any other summits than the flat and prosaic Tarn Fell.
What does bother me is that Brackdale has a coffin trail (hence the title of the book). This refers to an old trail, established centuries earlier, by which coffins were carried from a valley with no consecrated ground for burial in another place. Edwards acknowledges that elsewhere in the Lakes they are also called corpse roads, but to be honest, they are all called corpse roads, and I have never heard the phrase coffin trail until opening this novel.
This is what irritates me so much about this series, that its supposed to be set against the authenticity of the Lake District, and takes pride in being the first to do so, but that Edwards instantly junks a perfectly good and authentic name for a made-up variation that immediately undercuts the reality of the background he wants to make so much of.
On an aesthetic level, it bothered me slightly that Edwards had the corpse road coming into Brackdale from a neighbouring valley, rather than the other way. It’s a personal detail, but it doesn’t feel quite right. It raises Brackdale’s importance, in an area where it is supposed to be isolated, for it have have such a long-established Church and consecrated ground. Not so far north of this fictional valley, the much more substantial Mardale has a corpse road that can still be traced on the ground, but that leads out, via Swindale, to Shap.
It doesn’t quite sit right with me, I’m sorry to say. It inflates Brackdale’s importance in a way that I don’t find consistent.
Anyway, I’ve now read the book, and satisfied my instinctive compulsion to completion. I’m sure more books will be written: I doubt I’ll read them. Martin Edwards can sleep tonight…