Cozy Cumbrian Crime: Rebecca Tope’s Lake District Mysteries

For several years now, predating the COVID lockdown of 2020, I’ve been not going to the Library. However, a few weeks ago, returning from my first Dental appointment since pre-pandemic, I passed its doors and decided to drop in. I am now attending regularly.
Certain books I fancied reading but not buying turned out not to be in the Catalogue, but then I recalled the name Rebecca Tope, prolific writer of cosy crime fiction since 2005 and author of three series, one of which I have written about previously.
I was attracted, if that’s not too strong a word, to Tope’s work by the fact that one of her three series is set in the Lake District, only the second crime series to explore that background after the better-written but tonally inept series by Martin Edwards. I don’t read much crime fiction and I do not have much time for ‘cosy’ crime, the kind of stories where blood and violence are kept to a bare minimum and occur at a distance from the centre of the narrative. No, I wouldn’t dream of reading any of Tope’s Cotswolds or West Country mysteries, but the Lake District is an irresistible magnet.
When I last read anything by Tope, the series had extended to either seven or eight books. I’d missed the first in the series and at least one other early book but had read either three or four books in the series. The protagonist is florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown (awful name, both of them), plus a slowly growing cast of supporting players.

Tope 1

The set-up, for those not familiar with the books, is that Simmy, aged 38, is a recent divorcee whose marriage has collapsed after she had a stillborn daughter. She’s moved from Worcester to Windermere where she’s opened her shop (her parents, Russell and Angie Straw, have run a successful B&B in neighbouring Bowness for twenty years), assisted by local Melanie Todd, ambitious to work in the Hotel business, who has an artificial eye, who brings with her genius schoolboy Ben Harkness.
The gimmick is that Simmy’s flowers (her shop is called Persimmon Petals) cause her to make deliveries to places where murders have either just been committed or take place shortly afterwards. Simmy wants nothing to do with it but both Melanie and especially Ben get her involved in solving the crimes, to the advantage of local Detective Inspector Nolan Moxon (Nolan, reet guid Cumbrian name, that) who appears to be sweet on Simmy,to her embarrassment though he will eventually be found to be happily if childlessly married.
That’s basically how the series works. Simmy’s based in Windermere and lives north of that, in Troutbeck. Tope keeps the series concentrated upon the south east corner of the Lakes, more old Westmorland than Cumberland, giving each book an alliterative title, such as The Coniston Case, The Bowness Bequest or The Hawkshead Hostage. Melanie gets written out when she gets her opportunity in the hotel business and her place is taken by anorexic foster child Bonnie Lawson, who becomes Ben’s mostly platonic girlfriend, theirs being a meeting of minds rather than of bodies
That’s more or less where things were when I stopped visiting the Library, save that Tope had just introduced a potential love interest for Simmy in the form of Keswick-based Auctioneer Christopher Henderson. Chris is an old friend and family friend who Simmy hasn’t seen in twenty years whilst he’s been mostly wandering the world. They were born on the same day in the same hospital, the families went on holiday together, everybody simultaneously expected and feared, that sort of thing. Would Christopher rescue Simmy from her loneliness? Would he give her the baby she still wanted so desperately? Will she solve the murder of his parents that’s the catalyst for their reunion? If you can’t answer the last one, don’t read on.
What prompts this essay is that in the past month I have gotten completely up-to-date with the series via reading the latest four books, volumes nine to twelve, consisting of The Patterdale Plot, The Ullswater Undertaking, The Threlkeld Theory and The Askham Accusation, though not in that exact order (I reversed the middle two). As a result of which I have some observations I want to make.

Tope 2

The first of these, as any Lake District aficionado will instantly spot, is that there has been an abrupt geographical shift northwards. All four places lie in the northern Lakes, the north-east to be precise (Tope has never ventured further west than Coniston). There is an undeniable story rationale for this, and change is very often a good thing for long-lasting series, but I hope I’m not being over-cynical in suspecting that it’s more a case of Tope having run out of viable villages south of Kirkstone Pass.
I don’t intend to go into detail about any of the murders, save to record a definite, but strictly isolated change in approach in book 9, as the victim actually expires in Simmys arms, on the landing of her parents B&B, claiming to have been poisoned. The intrusion of the actual death into the vision of the audience is not repeated and every other homicide thereafter is reported from afar and after the fact.
It’s so long since I read any of the earlier books for me to recall with any certainty, but reading these four books in such quick succession left me with the impression that, along with the geographical switch, Tope has changed the style of her mysteries, to the extent that, functionally, all these books are identical.
There’s an uncanny similarity between all four. The victims and where they die are different, of course, and Simmy and her little crew more or less solve them each time, but in terms of what happens between the covers, the ‘action’ is almost exclusively concentrated upon the day-to-day, personal events affecting our florist heroine and her ‘family’, whilst the case du jours is discussed as a matter of endlessly canvassed possibilities. And given that the ongoing soap opera element has Simmy continually questioning her life and where it’s going, the effect is that of a book in which there are nothing but speculations in both of its strands. It’s woolly, to say the least.
Of course, things do happen, there are resolutions of a kind, and not just the identification of the killer, but such resolutions as we get in the soap opera are really only springboards for whatever will be on Simmy’s mind next time round.
For instance, in The Patterdale Plot, Simmy is heavily pregnant. On top of the primary fear, of a repetition of her previous stillbirth, Simmy is a mass of worries: about where she and Christopher will live that is somewhere roughly halfway between their respective businesses, how they will cope with living together full-time, how her shop in Windermere will work, not so much with Bonnie as the effective manager but with new assistant Verity, a middle-aged, empty-headed gossip who’s nevertheless useful making deliveries, whilst Ben’s younger sister Tanya helps out Saturday mornings, and the effect of the murder on her parents’ business and them personally.
Next book, the baby has been born healthy and is named Robyn, not that that slows down Simmy’s fears to any degree, over him or the as yet unconcieved second child, whilst their new home in Hartsop is a barn conversion still being converted by builder Humphrey, and will Chris be the kind of supportive new father she needs him to be, and unlike him she really doesn’t want them to get a dog, and what about getting married, is that really a good idea?
After that the wedding takes place in Threlkeld with the minimum number of guests (Simmy would have had none if she could have managed it). The honeymoon sees her off the premises for a few days whilst the latest murder victim was found dead at the other end of the village, killed at more or less the same time as the wedding. Then they do get a dog and Simmy’s got to worry about that as well as her son and her fears about being a good mother, not to mention her parents’ life-changing decision (see below).
Most recently, Simmy and Chris attend the funeral of builder Humphrey in Askam, after a bizarre and gory self-inflicted accidental death, which is followed the next day by the death of a ninety year old woman and Simmy being accused of knocking her over the head.

Tope 3

That’s just Simmy. There’s Ben Harkness’s arc. I last saw him going off to Durham University to study Forensic Science as the lead-in to a brilliant career, but it turns out he doesn’t like the course and is talking of transferring to History, which makes his martyr-to-arthritis architect mother look blackly at Simmy but actually it’s University that doesn’t suit him and he ends up taking an admin job at Chris’s Auctioneers after his predecessor is murdered. Meanwhile, he and Bonnie have tried sex but don’t think much of it, but they’re separated by the length of the Lake District, poor lambs. Simmy worries about them. A lot.
Russell and Angie? They get over and past the death in their B&B then abruptly, in The Threlkeld Theory, decide to retire and go to live in Threlkeld. Naturally, Simmy worries about them (perhaps she needn’t bother after all, Russell’s slow onset dementia has cleared up as spectacularly as Ernest Saunders). Constantly.
Bonnie herself gets to be the focus of worries in the most recent book when it turns out that Sophie Craig, the widowed mother of the unfortunate Humphrey, is actually the sister of Bonnie’s long-disappeared father (the fact the pair are nearly identical given the twenty years between them is the first pointer but it will turn out that Sophie’s known all along, as has Verity (?!?!), and how will this impact on the tiny, formerly-anorexic young girl, though given who the murderer turns out to be in the end, that’s going to be something to be further pursued in next year’s book. Needless to say, in amongst worrying about the accusation against her, which she is the only person in the whole of the Lake District to take remotely seriously, Simmy worries about Bonnie.
In case you need the reminder, these are crime fiction novels, about murders and finding out who has committed them.
But these concerns, and the constant fret and worry about what might happen, are the meat of these books, to be ruminated upon possibility by possibility.
And the true curiosity is that the same approach is taken to the investigation of the murders themselves. Though the death in The Patterdale Plot is prominent by virtue of where it takes place, it’s solving is conducted through exactly the same kind of waffling speculation as Simmy’s fears over her unborn child. There’s a paucity of fact so it’s all down to talking through possibilities, motives, means, opportunities, until the answer come almost out of the blue, thanks to a chance piece of cameraphone footage.
At least this case is solved in something of a rational manner. That can’t be said for any of the next three.

Tope 4

The big, and I mean serious problem is the shift in location to north of Kirkstone Pass. This hits the format right where it lives. For one thing, Simmy’s distance from her florist’s business removes her from being peripherally involved in the discovery of the bodies but, more fundamentally, it removes DI Moxon. As long as the deaths fall under the jurisdiction of the Windermere Police, he can be the investigating officer and Simmy’s little can attach to him, in the knowledge that, unlike most real policemen, he not only respects but welcomes their input.
But Moxon has no official standing with Keswick or Penrith Police. Indeed, Tope is honest enough to present him as almost a figure of fun to them, because his success rate is so clearly based on Simmy, Ben and Bonnie’s efforts. Without that official standing, and the leeway Moxon enjoys south of Kirkstone to furnish the flower shop mob with Police information, Simmy and Co are reduced to, yes, unconcrete speculation.
Tope does contrive to get Moxon involved in the cases, one way or another: in the case of the Threlkeld victim, it is because he was stood where the body was found less than fifteen minutes earlier and becomes obsessed with it. But Tope has created a rod for her own back here. If Moxon is to be hammered, square peg-like, into cases north of Kirkstone, credibility will vanish.
It’s already teetering after three such stories, especially so in the most recent book,which threatens to parody itself. Instead of the more or less organic collisions between Persimmon Petals and murders in and around south east Lakeland, she and her two teenage assistants are now having to be treated as semi-official crime solvers, in an unconvincingly Holmesian manner. And in the afore-mentioned Askam Accusation, Tope dabbles with metafiction by suggesting that Simmy was only accused in order to draw her and her squad in to sole the case in the first place.
I shall be very interested in seeing what form the thirteenth book takes. Because once the series starts to become metaphysical like that, the distance from its contemporary state to the factors that made it popular in the first place becomes insurmountable: one more like that and the next stage is a mercy killing.
As for the murders themselves, the last three books all eventually come up, in their very late closing pages, with a villain who has appeared innocuously and who has never been the subject of speculation. Indeed, the killers in the two most recent books are practically interchangeable, as is the unintentional fatal action. It’s a crime fiction trope, the villain being the last person you thought of, or someone above suspicion, but in these three cases, the perpetrators are peripheral figures and their exposure carries no emotional weight. Certainly the last two are a frank disappointment. The first one might be acceptable as a neat twist, if it were a one-off, but to re-run it immediately dissolves any credit Tope might deserve for being offbeat.
So after a dozen books, I’m looking at a series that’s run into serious problems artistically. I have no idea about commercially, but next year’s trip to the Lakes is fraught with peril for Rebecca Tope as well as someone wholly unconnected with Persimmon Henderson (she’s married now, remember).


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