Having time to kill yesterday, whilst waiting to see Valerian, I spent sometime in the Library. I glanced at the SF/Fantasy section, then turned to crime, where a very familiar word caught my eye: Coniston.
I’ve never heard of Rebecca Tope, who seems to be one of those very prolific crime fiction writers who turn out a book a year, in long-running series. Her main series is the Cotswold Mysteries, now running at something like twenty books, all centred upon Thea, a professional house-sitter, who encounters murder wherever she sits in a way that immediately makes me think of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.
The Coniston Case is the third of, to date, five books set in the Lake District, so Martin Edwards no longer has a monopoly on my beloved country. Rebecca Tope’s books are rather more concentrated in area, centred upon Windermere and basing themselves around events in nearby villages, all within a ten mile radius.
The heroine of this series is Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, and you’re right, it’s an awful name and the Simmy bit, with its overtones of antisemitism, is a constant distraction. Simmy is a florist, with a shop in Windermere Village, where she’s assisted by twenty-year old Melanie Todd, hotel-management trainee with an artificial eye, and pestered by self-confident, highly-intelligent schoolboy, the seventeen-year old Ben Harkness.
The ‘gang’ is completed by DI Moxon (revealed in this book to bear the first name of Nolan) who investigates the crimes that Simmy somehow, and very reluctantly, gets involved in whilst selling flowers. Moxon appears to have personal feelings for Simmy, who is probably somewhere around forty, divorced after losing an unborn child, and is nowhere described in the book. Neither are Melanie nor Ben, cometo think of it. It’s that kind of book.
Tope is firmly in the ‘cozy crime’ category. There’s no swearing, no violence, nothing too exciting. It’s all very much what I imagine Midsomer Murders must be like, and it’s meant for an audience that doesn’t want to be upset when reading about death and murder. I’m not a crime fiction buff to begin with, and this is not the kind of crime fiction I would choose, preferring stuff with either a greater or a much lesser connection to reality. With this kind of book, you never really get the sense of the passions and emotions that drive people to take another’s life.
The plot’s not really all that important. It’s set around Valentine’s Day, which has Simmy heartily sick of Red roses. She’s getting a spate of anonymous orders, cash, no sender’s details, cards whose messages upset the recipients something chronic, and gets pulled into a case when one of the recipients commits suicide, and his landlord is found murdered.
All the flower incidents turn out to be red herrings, sheer coincidences, and whilst the suicide is as a twisted result of a joke, the psychological basis is a long way from being convincing. Simmy’s friend Cathy comes up from Worcester because her daughter Joanna is sleeping with her tutor Ben and they’re doing some climate-change project on Coniston Old Man (Ms Tope, in this book, comes over as very much a sceptic). Ben, who carries a knife that we’re meant to assume is the murder weapon, is a self-centred obsessive who has spotted a new seam of copper on the Old Man that he expects will make himself rich, and kidnaaps Kathy for forty-eight hours.
But he’s not the murderer, and he’s pretty incomprehensible when it comes to human motivations, and the murderer himself turns out to be someone occasionally mentioned as a background character, about whom Simmy makes an ‘out of thin air’ deduction right at the very end.
I found it disturbing that in the case of both villains, their girlfriends make an instant decision to stand by them, despite the fact of their crimes being perpetrated against each young woman’s own family. One, maybe, as evidence of the peculiarity of human behaviour, both both? Too much like a trope, and it’s an unpleasant, outdated and pernicious one, that when a woman falls in love, she stands by her man, no matter how much of a moral sludge it makes her.
But you all know why I read the book, right? The same reason I read all six of Martin Edwards’ Lake District Mysteries: because it’s the Lakes. And is Rebecca Tope better at setting her books in South Cumbria than Mr Edwards?
Well, yes, though the difference is merely one of degree. Tope uses the real geography, without making up non-existent places, and unlike Edwards, she’s aware that fells and mountains and lakes exist, and can be seen, overshadowing places. Coniston Village is perpetually under the shadow of the Old Man, and the Yewdale fells.
On the other hand, Tope avoids details, suggesting that she’s getting her background from a map rather than direct knowledge, and there are two straight-out flubs that had me howling. Simmy, who, for reasons not gone into, loathes the Windermere ferry, has to deliver a bouquet in Hawkshead, so drives round Windermere lake at its northern end, going through Ambleside and Rydal, before turning down the narrow road to Hawkshead. All well and good, except that Rydal is some four miles north of Ambleside and to go through it en route to Hawkshead, you haveto drive there and turn round, back to Ambleside.
(Tope also fudges the fact that, since I was a boy and for I don’t know how long before, Hawkshead has been banned to traffic and vehicles have to be left in an out-of-village and correspondingly expensive car park, which complicates the plot.)
The other flub is a reference to the Yewdale fells flaring in the east, which is flat out wrong. The Ywedale fells present impressive looking ramparts above Coniston village, behind which they become a tussocky plateau: they face east and there is nowhere, and especially no road, from which they could be seen to the east.
Similarly, the book is set in Cumbria, and Melanie and Ben are both stated to speak with the local accent, but Tope does not define that accent, and except for one phrase that confuses the Worcester-based Kathy, say nothing that suggests anything Cumbrian to their speech. And even that phrase is more Liverpudlian that Cumbrian.
So, my overall verdict is, better than Edwards, but still nowhere where I’d like to see a story set in the Lakes. I have three of those available through Lulu.com, if you’re interested, and whatever their merits as adventures, the locality is impeccable…