Detecting Landscapes

Like many, I have been eagerly devouring each release in the British Library Crime Classics series ever since ‘The Mystery In White’ kicked things off some five and a half years ago. Amongst the first batch of releases were a couple of John Budes’ terrific ‘place’ series novels, ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ and ‘The Sussex Downs Murder’. Both of these are wonderful reads and I very much recommend them. As with his ‘Lake District Murder’ they are novels that intentionally root themselves in place and in these times of limited travel I am very tempted to re-read them in order to travel back to these landscapes, at least in my mind. The recently reissued ‘two for the price of one’ paperback of Budes’ ‘Death In White Pyjamas’ and ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ may not follow the earlier formula of being tourist promotional materials for English Counties, but are nonetheless welcome additions to the British Library series. As Martin Edwards’ typically well informed introduction tells us, both these novels are almost impossible to find in their original versions, largely because they were published during WW2 and therefore in limited numbers. As Edwards also notes, the war permeates both books in the sense that both are decidedly up-beat and shot through with lightweight humour in attempts to raise spirits and create entertaining diversions. In this they are both assuredly successful, and if this means that they function slightly less well as detective conundrums then that is all to the good. In our similarly (but very differently) trying times such lighthearted entertainments are a singular balm.

In both novels it seems to me that Bude has summoned the spirit of Wodehouse into his prose, and this is to be applauded of course. Something in the dialogue has the wit and whimsy of Bertie Wooster and his pals and I admit that at times I could not help but hear Hugh Laurie’s voice ringing in my head. Indeed in ‘Death Knows No Calendar’ we encounter a character called Honoria whose dialogue comes complete with exaggerated lisp, and whilst of course in Wodehouse land the lisping lady would be little Madeline, all the names and traits mingle in my mind into one delicious jambalaya of amused reference and gentle ribbing. In both novels Bude pushes the narrative along at a smart pace whilst always being careful not to exhaust us. His characters are almost comic and certainly chipped from the rock of caricature, but in the context of the detective entertainment this is not only to be expected but to be encouraged. And if the denouement in each novel rather trips over itself in a desperate attempt to deliver justice and wrap up loose ends in a bluster of ‘and that was that’ then again, this is all fine, and I for one would rather that than endless lingerings and ‘another thing’s. Highly recommended.

Ditto the reissued ‘Crossed Skis’ by Carol Carnac which I devoured in a couple of sittings. This is a post-WW2 title that very nicely captures something of an England and Europe attempting to recover some sense of normality at the start of the 1950s. The novel neatly navigates between a dingy rationing-ravaged London in January and the snowy landscapes of the Austrian Alps where a party of Young Things have gathered to dance, dine and (of course) ski, all the while with an unknown interloper in their midst. If it all feels rather impossible to the modern eye, this is surely part of its charm, as Carnac (a thinly disguised E.C.R. Lorac – herself a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett) paints a convincing portrait of the contemporary society in a moment of flux, where class distinctions begin to erode and connections between individuals become by necessity random and accidental. As a whodunnit detection challenge it barely registers on the difficulty spectrum, but this is hardly the point as Carnac takes great pleasure in describing charming Alpine landscapes and the thrill of skiing to an audience desperate for an escape (literal and metaphorical) from the post-war austerity. As with Bude’s two novels, this sense of escapist entertainment is palpable, and the publication of these paperbacks in the current situation seems strangely apposite.

There are another five Lorac novels already published by the British Library and each of these are as good as, or even better, than ‘Crossed Skis’. Two of these five are set in London, whilst another two find themselves based in Devon (the fifth takes in the fell lands of the southern Lake District). All are tremendous, but it is in the more rural based novels where Lorac shares, through her recurring character of Inspector MacDonald, an obvious love for landscape and nature. Of course it is the Devon novels that I personally find most engaging and I admit that I have spent many hours tracing the fictionalised references to place. Dulverton and Exeter certainly crop up in ‘Fire In the Thatch’, whilst the family name of the characters at the centre of the novel is ‘St Cyres’ (a reference, I like to think, to the village of Newton St Cyres, home to the legendary Beer Engine public house and brewery). The fictitious Milham on the Moor in ‘Murder In The Mill-Race’ meanwhile is described as being on the route from Taunton to Barnsford (though quite why Taunton should be named whilst Barnstaple has to be barely disguised is beyond me) which would place it around South or North Molton, or perhaps East and West Anstey.

From these geographical games it is quite clear that Lorac enjoys having fun, creating fantastic collages where fragments of the real combine to make illusory conceits of immeasurable pleasure. It’s never more mad and delicious than in her 1943 novel ‘Death Came Softly’ in which place names are entirely imaginary whilst still retaining some nods to reality (I like to think this is some kind of nod to the wartime obfuscation of place names and road signs). Exeter, for example, becomes Enster, whilst it strikes me that Valehead House may be a reference to Mamhead House, although geographically it would be in entirely the wrong part of Devon (Lorac tells us the house is “hidden in one of the wooded north Devon valleys”). Architecturally, a close fit would be the Italianate Buckland House (yours to rent for the weekend at the bargain price of between £3000 and £5700), but whilst this is indeed towards the northern part of the county, everything else in the novel points to the south. A character gets lost in the mist on the moor and shelters at one of the tors, which suggests Dartmoor rather than Exmoor, whilst Inspector MacDonald catches a train from Towmouth (Teignmouth?) through Starford (Starcross?) to connect with the London train from Enster (London is always just London (or Town) in every English detective novel ever written). Another strong clue to Valehead being modelled on Mamhead is in Lorac’s opening paragraphs of the book, in which she describes the early summer blooming of the gardens. The description is a triumph and with its mention of vast magnolias and rhododendrons would appear to be quite an accurate take on the extensive gardens around Mamhead (which, incidentally, is currently on the market should you have something in the region of £10 million kicking around down the back of the sofa). Needless to say ‘Death Comes Softly’ is, as well as a geographical detective pleasure, a fine whodunnit with an ingenious mode of murder and some marvellous period characters sketched in finest caricature. Currently only available on Kindle (unless you want to shell out £600 for a signed hardback first edition) it is, like all of Lorac’s work, tremendously entertaining.

Now mention was made earlier of how John Bude’s ‘Sussex Downs Murder’ makes me want to visit this landscape, and this has been very much the case too when reading Justin Hopper’s ‘The Old Weird Albion’. I had enjoyed the ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ record that Hopper made a few years ago for Ghost Box with Sharon Kraus and Belbury Poly but will admit that, fine and enjoyable as the record is, there is something just not quite right about hearing Hopper’s American accent narrating words about a place suffused with such ancient Albion magic. His book traces some of the same passages as the record, but extends the narrative into something that blends personal historical exploration with something that touches on the deeper pre-history within the landscape of the South Downs.

At the start of the book Hopper tells us how he grew up atheist but came to reject his parents’ lack of faith, eventually looking outside of organised religion to find that spiritual succour in landscape. It seems to me that however much we may grow to embrace or reject our parents’ beliefs at various stages of our lives, there exists in most of us always a tension between skepticism and a desire to discover some sense of faith. Certainly Hopper’s interest in exploring the histories stored by landscape underpinned by the notions of ancient natural magic is something that resonates strongly with me at this point in my life. Yet it is that underlying, perhaps even barely perceptible tension between faith and doubt that prevents ‘The Old Weird Albion’ from falling into the trap of becoming too heavily enveloped by the reek of new-age mysticism and crystal cradling hippiedom. Instead I feel that Hopper treads the line of intrigue where the threads of ancient mysteries weave into contemporary 21st Century questions of reality, myth, purpose and belonging. When new modes of normal are defined in the coming months and years, I will certainly feel the pull of the landscapes that Hopper writes about and look forward to opportunities to follow some of his pathways. I feel sure I will revisit ’The Old Weird Albion’ as I do so.

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