Cheap Cumbrian Thrills


I’ve never been a particular fan of detective stories, not in print at any rate. The only crime fiction books I own, and which I’ve kept for thirty years, are the Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler (probably the Twentieth Century’s most frequently – and ineptly – imitated writer), though more recently I had a then-complete collection of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (in a fantastic variety of paperback editions) which had to go when it became necessary to downsize my collection.

I don’t dislike crime fiction, probably because I don’t read enough of it to get thoroughly tired of its tropes. I read the entirety of Agatha Christie when younger, courtesy of Greater Manchester Libraries, and solved the story before the detective exactly once, and that in a short story, but I couldn’t force myself to read another page of her ever again. I read most of Ellery Queen in the same period, with rather more enjoyment but similar bafflement (I hated that period of ‘his’ career when the crime would get solved about five-sixths of the way in, only for Queen to then pull a completely new fact out of his ass that invalidated everything that had gone before).

Only recently, but long enough ago for me to have completely forgotten how, I came across the name of Martin Edwards, a well-established and highly-respected crime writer based in Liverpool. Edwards was born the same year as I and also became a Solicitor, although he’s still in the profession and has got a lot higher in it than I did. He started off with a Liverpool-set series featuring Solicitor Harry Devlin, but what caught my interest was that he has also written a series of crime novels set in the Lake District, the first ever to do so.

You’re not going to be surprised at me immediately wanting to sample them. Unfortunately, Stockport Central Library could only offer me the latest Harry Devlin book, which was alright, though not particularly special, and that’s allowing for my anti-Liverpool bias. However, a rare visit to a remainders bookshop recently turned up copies of the second and third books in the six-so-far series, cheap enough to indulge myself upon.

It was meant to be light reading, inconsequential entertainment. One unexpected side-effect of this blog is the growing difficulty I have in reading anything without analysing it as if it were to be the subject of a blogpost. Unfortunately, the first one I read was so abysmally shite, despite all the praise Edwards has received – and from people who ought to know what they’re talking about, like the aforementioned Reginald Hill – that, despite the other one being a little better, I found it impossible not set down why these books are such a disappointment.

Let me first make it plain that, as crime books, as detective stories, they’re neither better nor worse than most that I’ve read. The Cipher Garden is an orthodox puzzle, presenting a long series of suspects without ever really tipping its hand about the guilt or innocence of any of them, before revealing the culprit as the only one with no seeming part in the game, right at the very end. The murder is nasty, and there are a couple of other deaths and one psychosexual revelation that ought to have been disturbing but which everybody seemed to take very casually (no, it wasn’t brother and sister for once, thankfully: even Reginald Hill got caught up in that overused cliche, I’m sorry to say).

In contrast, The Arsenic Labyrinth is more of a missing person plot, although the person ends up being missing because she’s dead. This time, it’s pretty clear whodunnit, since he plays a pretty major role in the forefront, the real puzzle being why this has all happened (the death is accidental, more or less, but it’s why the victim was where she was to suffer her accident that eventually unravels), and there’s a pretty similiar last minute death of a perpetrator as in the preceding book.

Both novels include a sub-plot mystery, one involving the titular Cipher Garden and what exactly it is concealing, the other a second, much older murder victim found in the same Arsenic Labyrinth. In both cases, the sub-plot has nothing to do with the story, not even as a reflection or complement.

But then I don’t read crime fiction for the crime or, primarily, the solving of it. I read it for the characters involved: for Marlowe’s cynicism and dry wit nevertheless not concealing a code of ethics that, battered and strained as it may be, is the bedrock of what he has to see when he looks in that mirror, or Mid-Yorkshire’s finest trio, the Fat Man, the Graduate Copper and the Impassive Model of Efficiency.

So who does The Lake District Series offer? It’s basically a two-hander, one pro, one amateur. Or should that be the other way around? Edwards’ blog indicates that he first grew interested in the amateur, Daniel Kind: former Oxford Don, a historian who approaches history as a detective, puzzling out the truuth of the past, and thus an interestingly plausible character as an amateur detective in the present. To counterbalance him, Edwards wanted a strong female character, hence Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett who, to complement the historical theme, is the head of the recently formed Cumbria Cold Case Review team.

Both characters come with baggage designed to clog down the seemingly inevitable (and horribly slow on the evidence of these two books) progression into each other’s bed (or at least a common one). Daniel has recently lost his partner Aimee to a suicide for which he feels guilty. His life has been changed by the beautiful, passionate livewire magazine writer Miranda, who persuades him to downsize from job, home and TV career and relocate with her to a remote cottage in the remote (and fictional) Lake District valley of Brackdale.

Hannah, in contrast, is a rising figure in the Cumbria Constabulary, that is until she makes a mess of the Rao trial (which may or may not be further explicated in the first book), allowing the accused to go free. Because of this mess, she has been shunted sideways to head the newly formed Cold Case team, complete with a former Detective hired as a civilian consultant (hark, do I hear Denis Waterman singing, ‘it’s alright, it’s ok’? …). Hannah lives with her long-term partner, bookseller Mark Amos, and, coincidentally, is linked to Daniel by the fact that her mentor in the force was Daniel’s estranged father Ben Kind (now deceased), who abandoned his wife and two children years earlier for a younger woman.

So Hannah investigates cold cases, whilst Daniel gets intrigued by historical incidents that somehow end up overlapping with these cases, and both spend lots of time trying to put the other out of their mind because they, just like the other, have a partner they are at the very least turned on by (so far, the copious, but only lightly described sex is between our couples), whilst trying not to come on too personally to each other when they do cross trails, in case the other gets the wrong, i.e., right idea. The fact that Miranda breaks up with Daniel at the end of book 3 no doubt does nothing to accelerate this pair’s progress.

Curiously, though perhaps not so curiously, whilst Edwards is always quick to provide brief descriptions of all the supporting characters (especially when it comes to the skirt levels of the females), he doesn’t provide any substantial descriptions of either Daniel or Hannah. We know that the latter is gradually lightening her hair a shade at a time from book to book, on the way to being dazzlingly blonde, and that she doesn’t have pneumatic breasts, but that’s as far as it goes.

Nor are we given any hints as to their ages, which are presumably contemporary to some degree. Hannah’s young enough to get pregnant (but suffer a very early miscarriage) in The Cipher Garden but given the respective career paths to be travelled to reach, on one side, a Detective Chief Inspectorship and, on the other hand, a professorship at Oxford, I’d have though the pair must be in their forties at least. Six months pass between the two books, and Daniel shoots off to America after the latter, delaying book four until his return, so tempus is fugiting, yet Hannah’s Mark (who doesn’t want to become a father) is still plausibly arguing they have years yet to make a decision

I can’t say I’m impressed by either of them, as you may have guessed by describing the first of these two reads as ‘absolute shite’ and, if you’re the kind of perceptive reader I think you are, who knows how much I love the Lake District, and who has noted that whilst I said I was interested in these books because that’s where they’re set, but I haven’t mentioned that side of it yet, you’ve no doubt guessed by now what part of these two books I am SERIOUSLY not impressed with. So here we go.

The first of these two books is set east of Esthwaite Water, around a fictional village of Old Sawrey that’s an addition to the real landscape of Near and Far Sawrey, with their Beatrix Potter connections. The second is set in Coniston Village, with an added post-industrial feature transplanted from elsewhere in the form of the Arsenic Labyrinth. Cumbria Constabulary Divisional HQ seems, somewhat improbably, to be set in Kendal rather than the more obvious Carlisle (Kendal having been part of the long-obliterated Westmorland, pre-1974). Daniel and Miranda’s Brackdale feels to be somewhere in the south-east Lakes in the first book, though it’s never defined: indeed Edwards on his blog confirms that he visualises it being between Kentmere and Longsleddale, so score one for my perceptions.

And Edwards admits to fictionalising geography to one degree or another. As for the rest of it, his research has been thorough, detailed and a genuine pleasure for him. And, as far as I am able to discern, from a Cumbrian grandfather and an association with the Lakes stretching back over fifty years now, conducted with a completely tin ear. There is nothing, and no-one in either of these boks that remotely suggests the Lake District. There are place names, bandied about with no context but names, there are fells that are named with no thought for what they look like, what shape they give to the landscape – fur hilven, the word fell only appears once in either of these books, as part of the generic name of the fictional Tarn Fell in Brackdale: every single reference to the fells is as mountains! There are no fucking mountains anywhere near Esthwaite Water, the whole point of the place is that it is purely pastoral.

And not a single person in either of these books sounds like a Cumbrian for so much as a sentence. I’m not asking for dialect and phonetic spelling, but please, if this is supposed to be authentic, why does nobody speak with the slightest inflection in their voice, the slightest suggestion of Cumbrian rhythm, not even a suggestion of any slowness of speech. There is nobody in either book who sounds as if they have ever been to the Lakes for more than a half day trip, no matter how long they’re supposed to have lived there.

And Edwards seems obsessed by the idea that there is a motor-route called the Hardknott Pass. Not once does it get mentioned as anything other than the (as opposed to any of the other Hardknotts sprinkled round the place, or maybe the other Passes, not one of which has a name remotely like Hardknott) Hardknott (as opposed to, ooh, say, Hard Knott – since it’s name is derived from the definitely-spelt-as-two-words fell overlooking it) Pass. It’s Hard Knott Pass, and it’s universally referred to as Hard Knott, because there is probably only one person in every thousand who knows there is even a Hard Knott fell, and no-one in my fifty eight years of life has ever referred to it as the Hardknott.

That little gem featured prominently throught The Cipher Garden where it was the scene of a long ago alibi, and where it was the Hardknott Pass to Wasdale, which it is if you ignore the fact that it comes down into Eskdale, down which you have to travel a long way before there’s a road round into Wasdale – and that’s Eskdale, by the way, not, as people seem to think in the other book, the Eskdale Valley. As for the oh so closely researched The Arsenic Garden, much of the action, and indeed the murder, takes place in Coppermines Valley, between the Old Man and Wetherlem, Coppermines Valley, the scene of quarrying and mining, centuries worth, Coppermines Valley, which rises to the largest body of water this side of the Coniston Fells, Levers Water.

That’s Levers Water with an ‘R’. It is not Levens Water, NOT Levens Water with an ‘N’, is there nobody with an ounce of knowledge of the Lakes who could at least proof-read these books?

So pardon me if I cannot sympathise with the ultimately banal concerns of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind and in which book they will eventually satisfy their non-existent sexual tension (there was more tension in the relationship between Daniel and his law lecturer sister than I could finding his essentially schoolboy yearnings about the equally schoolgirlish DCI). I am thoroughly repelled by the complete lack of understanding or conviction on the writer’s part about the Lakes, the balloon thin conviction of place and the smugness with which he thinks he’s got it.

Try reading Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter instead. It might have a brother and sister having it off, and a highly melodramatic climax atop Pillar Rock, but if you want to feel that you’re in the Lakes, you’ll know it.