A New Scene for Crime

The Coffin Trail, The Cipher Garden, The Arsenic Labyrinth? Set in the Lake District? Why?

Well, after eight crime novels with an urban setting, it was time for a change. All writers need to keep fresh and it makes sense to stretch further. Try something different, take a few risks. Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin featured in my first seven books before deciding to catch up with his paperwork. With Take My Breath Away, I kept the legal setting, but moved the action to London for a stand-alone novel of psychological suspense. But the urge to begin a new series nagged away at me. I wanted to explore a different part of England. Different characters, a different type of crime writing.

Most of my life, I’ve lived in the country. But hardly ever had I written stories with a rural setting. It was only while editing the CWA’s anthology Green For Danger: crime in the countryside, that the full potential of England’s green and pleasant for the crime writer was brought home to me. As Sherlock Holmes famously said in ‘The Copper Beeches’: ‘the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…look at these lonely houses…think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places. As I wrote ‘Melusine’, a story prompted by the horrors of the foot-and-mouth funeral pyres, I realised how much I would relish the opportunity to transport my crime writing career away from the mean streets of Merseyside (much as I love them!) and into the dramatic landscape of the Lake District.

The more I travelled around the Lakes, the more I talked to people there, the more I wondered at the fact that this is one of the few major areas in this country that has not featured in a crime series. Astonishingly, neither the Lake District nor Cumbria even earn a mention in Scene of the Crime by Julian Earwaker and Kathleen Becker, a wide-ranging study of the locations and landmarks – some of them rather unlikely – that have inspired British mystery fiction. Not that the Lakes have lacked literary figures. Never mind Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, think of Coleridge, De Quincey, Ruskin, Hugh Walpole, Norman Nicholson, Melvyn Bragg, Postman Pat... But crime novels set in Cumbria are few and far between.

I’d visited the Lake District many times over the years, but quickly I learned how little, in truth, I’d reached the heart of it by staying a few nights in lovely spots like Windermere and Grasmere. Gradually I fell in love with the Lakes – as I had done with Liverpool twenty years before. The Lakes have startling, hidden depths, and I’m not just talking about Wast Water. Of course, the Lake District is England’s ‘most hyped scenic area’ as The Rough Guide says. It’s a small place, just 30 miles across, but utterly stunning in its sheer diversity. Even today, even with tourism at the heart of the region’s economy, parts of it are unexpectedly remote. Long before tourism, long even before the Lancashire mills were built, it was a place of industry and the scars of the past at places like the Coppermines Valley near Coniston are still visible today.

I had the idea of a historian, Daniel Kind, downshifting to the Lakes, ostensibly to ‘live the dream’, but in reality to uncover the secrets of his own past. I wanted, also, to create a strong female character to share the lead. I’d enjoyed completing the late Bill Knox’s novel The Lazarus Widow and decided it was time to have a go at developing a police officer of my own. A woman with her own secrets, a woman who is put in charge of a ‘cold case review team’. And so Hannah Scarlett was born.

Daniel and his partner move to an idyllic cottage near the village of Brack in the valley of Brackdale. If you check the maps, there is no Brack, and no Brackdale. But in my mind, the valley is tucked in between Kentmere and Longsleddale. There is always a challenge associated with writing about a real place – especially somewhere that lacks the anonymity of a large city. It’s vital to convey an authentic impression of place. But of course, readers need to appreciate that this is fiction, not documentary. The clichéd disclaimer that the characters and incidents in my books are imaginary really matters to me. When I write legal books and articles, it is essential for them to be accurate in all respects. But the appeal of fiction lies in escapism, in the chance to liberate the imagination. In my contemporary novels (it is different with some of the short stories I have written set in the distant past) I would not wish there to be any confusion between real-life people and the characters I have dreamed up. It is one thing to set a scene against a public background, such as the library, riverside or castle in Kendal, quite another to dump a corpse in, say, a private house that actually exists. I try to ensure, so far as I can, that settings which are integral to the plot, such as Marc Amos’s bookshop, and the ‘coffin trail’ over Tarn Fell, for example, have no direct counterparts in the real-life Lakes. In fiction, there has to be a limit to realism.

Research completed, I started work in earnest on The Coffin Trail. Writing it felt like a wholly different experience from writing the Harry Devlin books, or writing Take My Breath Away. But it felt good. Even better when the novel reached the final shortlist of six for the Theakston’s Prize for best crime novel of 2006. The prize was ultimately won by Val McDermid, but it was gratifying to feature alongside Ian Rankin and Susan Hill in the group of runners-up.

The Coffin Trail drops a subtle hint about the inner life of one of the protagonists that provides one of the revelations in The Cipher Garden. And in the first book, when Daniel Kind escapes to the Lake District to live the dream, he is puzzled by the strange lay-out of the grounds at his idyllic cottage. One strand of the new book deals with his attempts to uncover the secret significance of this ‘cipher garden’.

Family relationships are central to The Cipher Garden. The principal locale is Old Sawrey, an imaginary village in Beatrix Potter country. Hill Top makes a brief appearance in one scene and when I was filmed by Border TV on publication, the National Trust was kind enough to allow us to use the lovely garden of that marvellous house as a setting. At the heart of the novel is Hannah’s inquiry into the death of a landscape gardener. Warren Howe was killed by a scythe and flung into a trench. As Hannah learns, Warren dug his own grave in more ways than one. When the police look for suspects, they are spoiled for choice. Hannah is set on the trail by an anonymous letter accusing Warren’s wife of the crime – and it was interesting to write a novel featuring poison pen letters that was to be published, in the US, by Poisoned Pen Press…. I relished plotting the whodunit puzzle, but above all the delight in writing the book came from charting the developing relationship between Hannah, Daniel and the supporting cast.

The Cipher Garden earned great reviews and my publishers in the UK, US and Germany are hoping for great things from The Arsenic Labyrinth. This is the set-up: Guy, a drifter with a taste for deception, has returned to Coniston in England’s Lake District after a gap of ten years. The story demanded a credible setting in the vicinity of old copper mines, so Coniston was an obvious choice. There is, in fact, no arsenic labyrinth to be found in the fells above Coniston (and if the term is new to you, do read the book to discover what an arsenic labyrinth is…), nor any relics of an arsenic works, but arsenic was mined elsewhere in Cumbria, at Caldbeck, and again it seemed right to blend a recognisable locale with made-up events, Lakeland history and even a legend of my own devising. Because the dictates of the story made it essential to utilise Coniston village as a setting, rather than a make-believe village like Brack or Old Sawrey, I took various liberties with the local topography, to make it clear that this is emphatically a work of fiction, not an account of the misadventures of real-life characters. When I was interviewed about the Lakes books by Peter Holland for a feature on BBC TV’s regional news, the pier at Coniston (which plays a part in the climax to The Arsenic Labyrinth) proved an excellent setting for conversation and filming – the search for a suitably accessible ‘coffin trail’ proved more of a challenge…

At the start of the book, a local journalist called Tony di Venuto, is campaigning to revive interest in the disappearance of Emma Bestwick. Guy is a drifter who has returned to Coniston after a ten-year absence and taken up lodgings in a down-at-heel house owned by a kind but lonely woman who hides a sad secret. Guy’s own secrets are much more sinister; he knows exactly what happened to Emma. When he tips off the newspaperman that Emma will not be coming home, DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria’s Cold Case Review Team, re-opens the old inquiry. The cold trail leads her to the Museum of Myth and Legend (another invention!) where Emma once worked, and eventually to the remote and eerie Arsenic Labyrinth. Meanwhile, historian Daniel Kind is immersing himself in the work of John Ruskin, who lived at Coniston and one of whose neighbours created the Arsenic Labyrinth. A shocking discovery makes it clear to Hannah that there is not one mystery to solve, but two. She turns to Daniel for help in untangling them. As Hannah and Daniel struggle to resist a growing but dangerous attraction to each other, Guy’s plans to make a quick buck run into trouble and he has to resort to desperate measures. And then a violent death in the present day reveals that someone is determined to kill to preserve the mystery of past crime…