A Comparison of Cumbrian Crime


I rarely visit the library these days, having too many of my own books that need reading to need to borrow others. Usually, I only drop in at the library if I happen to be passing, with time to spare. Last week, on the way back from the dentist, with no work to go to, I stopped for a browse. Gravitating to the Crime Fiction shelves I came out with ‘new’ books by Martin Edwards and Rebecca Tope.

As crime fiction writers, the pair have very little in common. Edwards writes about Cold Case DCI Hannah Scarlett, usually aided by former TV Historian, Daniel Kind, whilst Tope, a very prolific writer with three multi-book series, focuses upon Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, a florist.

Straightaway, you can see the difference. Edwards is about police procedure and grittiness, crimes of anger and violence. Tope is a writer of ‘cozy’ crime fiction, in which violence is kept at a safe, non-threatening distance. A florist who’s a crime-solver versus an experienced Police Inspector: no comparison.

What the two series do have in common is their setting. They are, so far as I am aware, the only crime fiction series set in the Lake District.

I’ve reviewed previous books in both series, and not very favourably, either. Edwards writes out of love of the Lakes, but he’s got an appallingly tin ear when it comes to representing it. No-one in his books sound remotely Cumbrian (I don’t mind writers preferring not to phonenticly reproduce the accent, but you should at least use the local dialect and take a stab at the rythm of speech: you know, sound authentic), his made up names are unimaginative and have no Cumbrian roots and apart from the odd token mention, you’d barely know there were such things as fells and lakes strewn about all over the place.

I’ve read and blogged the six books of the series at different times, but when nothing new appeared, assumed Edwards had come to a conclusion, having finally resolved the by-then tepid sexual tension between Hannah and Daniel by having them finally snog and lay plans for a very forthcoming shagging weekend. I was mildly surprised by the appearance of book seven, The Dungeon House, and even more surprised to discover it’s been out since 2015, and this was the first time I’d seen it.

Tope is a different case. I’d read The Coniston Case, attracted by the name, but not been overly impressed. ‘Cosy’ crime is not my thing, but apart from a couple of errors based on inadequate research, the book, and the other one I read after it, was fairly authentic. Tope confines her stories to within flower-delivering range of Windermere Village and uses real locations with their correct names. Like Edwards, however, she makes no effort to make anybody, no matter how local theey and their roots are, sound remotely Cumbrian, though honesty requries me to state that all her books thus far are set in what was once vanished Westmorland, or Furness Lancashire.

I’d picked up two more of Tope’s books on a recent previous visit. The series now extends to four after The Coniston Case, itself the third book. By chance, I’d picked out books five and seven so in each of them I was having to adjust to background changes that had taken place in the intermediate books. This visit saw me borrow The Troutbeck Testimony (all the books have alliterative titles: Tope’s running out of localities, so I’m eagerly awaiting how she manages to incorporate Kentmere into her running theme).

Back to Edwards and The Dungeon House. Although he’s followed his usual formula of starting with the cold case, twenty years ago (insanely posssessive booze-sodden husband, convinced his seriously attractive MILF wife, is having it off behind his back, candidates multiplying exponentially in his paranoid head, blasts her in the face with a shotgun), Edwards takes a different angle on the contemporary investigation, making this book into almost a Hannah Scarlett solo. Daniel’s there and abouts but he’s mainly a background character, though he does provide a vital clue as the demouement approaches.

Instead, Edwards splits the viewpoint between Hannah and one Joanna Footit, a minor character in the twenty-years-ago prelude who, after two miserable decades away, returns to the area on impulse, aiming to be more positive, whilst still holding a torch for Nigel Whiteley, her ex-boyfriend, the nephew of the murderous Malcolm, who killed his wife, his sixteen year old spoilt brat daughter whom he worshipped and himself.

Nigel’s in the news. His sixteen year old daughter has disappeared. Hannah’s team are involved because three years earlier another young girl, daughter of a local Accountant, also went missing, never found or solved.

By the time the book is over, practically every character named – and everyone is in each other’s business and/or pockets to an almost incestuous degree – is found to be guilty of something. But the truth is out, including the truth about the old crime, and what Joanna Footit, with her long, attractive legs and her tits like thimbles, saw that she’s kept secret for twenty years. Both the missing girls are found alive, though yoou can’t say that their futures are going to be free of rocks and shoals after their completely contrasting experiences.

In short, it’s typical of Edwards. It has the same virtues and failings of the earlier books in the series, even down to trying to keep the will-they-won’t-they-oh-who-cares-any-more? tension between Hannah and Daniel alive. She’s living wuith him at Tarn Cottage, beneath Tarn Fell (see what I mean about imagination?) in fictional Brackdale, enjoying herself and getting good sex out of it, but contiinuallyworrying about whether the relationship’s going to be long-term, will he get bored with her? You know, the usual weak and feeble stuff meant to keep things tottering still, but here just annoying. Having brought thetwo together, Edwards should really be about creating a new dynamic appropriate to the changed situation rather than prolonged a clapped-out one no longer fitting the changed emotional environment.

Noticeably, we never get Daniel’s take on this, except that he wants her to stay instead of move out to her own place.

The setting, this time, is West Cumbria, where Edwards has never seen fit to tread before. More specifically, it’s Ravenglass and its local villages, like Seascale and Drigg. Now I’m precious about the Lake District, but that’s nothing to my being precious about Ravenglass, because that’s where my roots spring from. And Edwards presentsa picture of Ravenglass that is superficially accurate but in every important respect doesn’t feel remotely like Ravenglass. He misdescribes the estuary, the triune of the rivers Esk, Mite and Irt, he makes everywhere sound much bigger and busier than it really is (which is colossally stupid in the case of Santon Bridge) and whilst having one of his characters be a landscape painter means he has to recognise more of the fells, all they are are names. Not places. Not places he can evoke the way anyone who sets a story in the Lake District really has to do.

Rebecca Tope’s Simmy Brown (and that is such an awful name on so many levels) is not an amateur detective. The basis of the series is that, as a Windermere-based florist, her flower-delivering brings her to places where murder has either taken place or takes place shortly afterwards. Simmy doesn’t want to know about crime, but keeps getting dragged into it, by constant chance, and by pressure from her two ‘team’-mates, Melanie Brown, her assistant in the shop, and eager, intelligent schoolboy Ben Harkness. Simmy is 38 to their 20 and 17 respectively. The fourth recurring character is DI Nolan Moxon of the Windermere Police, who appears to fancy Simmy, an attraction not reciprocated by the florist, who has come back to Windermere following the end of her marriage in the wake of a stillbirth.

The Troutbeck Testimony is set post-Easter, a year after Simmy opened her shop and several months after both she and Moxon were badly hurt in the previous book. There’s change in the background. Simmy’s having the occasional night in with the unreliable and extremely passive potter, Ninian, Melanie’s job-hunting to further her career and suggests the anorexic Bonnie Lawson to replace her in the shop but, most serious of all, Simmy’s father Russell is sddenlt getting paranoid and fearful, as a consequences of Simmy’s adventures.

Throw in Russell overhearing what appears to be a planned burglary, he and Simmy finding a dead dog on Wansfell Pike, and a man having his throat cut in Troutbeck, the villages in which Simmy lives, and there’s a new complication that, despite all her efforts to remain uninvolved, the florist finds herself once again caught up in.

There’s a lot going on, a lot of new people being introduced and some quite complex background elements to be sorted out, whilst Simmy would rather concentrate on the extensive funeral flowers ordered to commemorate a prominent local citizen, with a wedding hard on its heels, her difficulty in getting to grips with the initislly confusing Bonnie and her Dad’s fears.

It’s a different approach. Melanie’s backing off – the hyper-inteelligent Bonnie is her replacement in more ways than one – and Ben’s being pushed away from the murder, which seems to be at the centre of things but which turns out to be incidental to everything. It’s Simmy who works out who the murderer is, just ahead of the woman coming to give herself up: the closest thing to horror in this mannered version of crime is that the killer made more or less the same mistake everyone’s made, and killed an innocent man.

Knowing changes that are to follow in more recent books, I can be appreciative of how Tope doesn’t let her backgrounds go static, and I realise I’ll probably follow this series to keep up with the quasi-soap opera background because I’m engaged at this refreshening. That, for me, puts Tope ahead of Edwards.

The Dungeon House is the most recent to date of Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, and the lapse of time is the longest gap between books, assuming he has plans for more. Rebecca Tope’s series seems too be coming out roughly every eleven to twelve months, so that suggests another in March this year.

They’re neither of them what I want to see in a Lake District crime series, but for that I think you’re going to need a born and bred Cumbrian, someone who will treat the Lakes as more than just a coloured backcloth, and make it integral to the story without being overwhelming. Doesn’t look like anyone on the horizon, yet.

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