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.

Cozy Cumbrian Thrills: The Coniston Case by Rebecca Tope

This image has no bearing upon the story

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…