The cover of my novel Harm None—the first in the Davies and West mystery series set in Cornwall, England—is dominated by the image of a massive stone monument, a thirteen ton slab of granite perched atop three hulking stone pillars. The image is not photo-shopped, it’s real. It’s been real for at least 5,000 years, maybe longer. It’s prehistoric. It is called Lanyon Quoit and is technically a dolmen, believed to have been a burial chamber for a chief or shaman, originally covered with earth and stone. It stands on a lonely hill but it’s hardly alone. It’s one of several in this area.
But that’s just the beginning. The far southwestern tip of Cornwall, called West Penwith, is home to the largest concentration of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age stone monuments in all of Europe: standing stones, stone circles, hill forts, settlements, long barrows, clusters of stone huts (their foundations intact), sacred wells, ceremonial underground fogous, not to mention ancient field systems bordered by stone walls (called “hedges” here) that suggest stone was the prehistoric settlers’ first “harvest.”
The variety is stunning; the fact that they survive at all is mind-boggling. Not long ago, I shouldered a light day pack and walked all the way from the English Channel on the south of this peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean cliffs on the north (it’s not a big achievement; it only took about four hours and one of my favorite pubs was waiting for me at the end). But so help me, every few hundred yards I was almost literally tripping over prehistoric monuments of one sort or another. It is a strange and humbling experience to wander among these ancients.
Harm None also features a settlement that may first have been established before the Bronze Age. It too is very real and was only abandoned after the Roman Era. That’s thousands of years! I call it Carn Dewes in the book but its real name is Carn Euny. With a commanding hillside location looking south toward Land’s End, the settlement is circled by a thick stone wall that encloses nine round courtyard houses complete with outbuildings for storage and livestock. But its most stunning feature is a sixty-five foot long stone-lined underground passage within which is a perfectly round domed underground stone chamber. I am well over six feet tall and I can stand up in it.
Its purpose? There have been theories, most of them debunked. Was it to store grain? Not likely: too damp; the grain would have rotted. A hideout from invaders? Equally unlikely, as it would have been quickly discovered and anyone sheltering there would be smoked out easily. It is likely to have been ceremonial, worshipers must crawl in order to enter. There is a sort of “hearth” directly opposite the chamber entrance, but no chimney. It is a mystery.
You’ll have to read Harm None to learn what I think that “hearth” was for…
As my readers know, Cornwall, England is the setting for my Davies and West mystery series and my second home (at least in my heart). At the far southwest tip of England, with its soaring ocean cliffs, pearlescent beaches, granite knuckled tors, stone built hamlets in pocket ports (think Doc Martin’s “Porthwenn”—actually Port Isaac), and prehistoric monuments and settlements dating back 5,000 years scattered all over the landscape and still intact, it manages to feel magically untamed yet today.
But of its many secrets, one stands out: it’s a gastronomes’ paradise. Kissed by the warm remnants of the Gulf Stream (yes it reaches that far), its climate is mild and roughly evenly moist and sunny. It’s ideal for grazing prime livestock and growing fresh produce year-round. Flowers, too: Cornwall is the world’s leading producer of daffodils. And, of course, there is the sea. Newlyn, next door to Penzance, is the top whitefish landing port in the UK and a rich source for shellfish as well.
Little wonder, then, that some of the top TV and Michelin-starred chefs in England—Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw, Paul Ainsworth, to name only a few—have opened flagship restaurants in Cornwall in the last ten years or so. Rick Stein’s seafood “empire”—restaurants, bistros, cooking school, cookware shops, and boutique hotels—all located in the Atlantic harbor village of Padstow have residents there calling the place, “Padstein.”
The list of stunning restaurants in Cornwall seems to grow daily. Some years ago I was given the task of writing about the gourmet scene in Cornwall for a major magazine. It was a horrible assignment. I had to eat in all the best restaurants. Nightmare! My favorites then and now? Stein’s “The Seafood Restaurant” in Padstow (Stein is a minor character in some of my mysteries) and Paul Ainworth’s “#6,” both in the same village; Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant in Port Isaac, and Jamie Oliver’s “Fifteen Cornwall” just north of Newquay on spectacular Whitesand Bay, where Oliver trains disadvantaged young people to become chefs. These are among the finest restaurants in England and, with the British pound weak compared to the dollar, they’re very affordable as well!
But I must confess that my heart longs for lunch or dinner by the fire at Cornwall’s most ancient pubs—many of them now upgraded to “gastropubs” because of the quality of the food. My favorites though are, I suppose, personal. They include “The Tinners Arms” on the wild Atlantic coast in the hamlet of Zennor almost at Land’s End, built in the 1200s, and “The Crown” tucked into a hollow in tiny Lanlivery near Bodmin Moor, and built in the 1100s. I have to duck to get into each of them and am often recognized and welcomed.
You will be, too.
Every time I do a reading and talk at a bookstore, I inevitably get this question: “What book was your greatest influence?” I know they’re expecting something like War and Peace, but my answer is always the same: The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I let that sink in for a moment and then I tell them why: Holmes taught me, at the age of about twelve, how to think.
In a 1926 story, author Conan Doyle has Holmes say, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There, in a single sentence, is the core principle of deductive reasoning. Life is often a puzzle, a series of unlikelihoods disguising the truth. Holmes helped me make sense of things and find the truth.
Before I began writing the Davies and West series of British murder mysteries, I had been a devotee of the British mystery genre, especially those written during the so-called “Golden Age” between the two great wars. Who were those authors? Agatha Christie, of course, though I never much liked her books—too many tricks. The real Queens of Crime in that period were Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and the paragon: Dorothy Sayers with her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. The Wimsey stories were dramatized on the BBC in the 1970s. The first in the series is Whose Body, but my favorites are The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (“I’m afraid there’s been another unpleasantness…”) and The Nine Tailors (which, by the way, has nothing to do with seamstresses). They are deeply atmospheric, baffling, and wonderful.
Gentleman sleuth Albert Campion features in more than two dozen of Margery Allingham’s mysteries, but start at the beginning: The Crime at Black Dudley. Ngaio Marsh’s detective is Inspector Roderick Allyn and the first of her nearly three dozen stories is A Man Lay Dead. I love reading them all in series.
Of the current crop of British mysteries, my favorites are Deborah Crombie’s A Share in Death; Elly Griffiths’ Crossing Places; Ann Cleeves’s first Vera mystery (just to get you hooked), The Crow Trap; Peter Lovesey’s first mystery featuring the irascible, rule-breaking detective, Peter Diamond, The Last Detective, and Val Macdermid’s non-fiction guide, Forensics.
Try just one of these and you’ll be in for the whole series. These are remarkable authors…and isn’t it interesting that most are women!
June is here and spring is well advanced on the small island in Puget Sound where I live. It is the time of rebirth—not just for the natural world but also for me. Let me explain:
So many of my wonderful readers have written to ask why they can’t find the fourth book in my Davies & West murder mystery series set in Cornwall, England, Murder on the Commons. I’d promised it more than a year ago, and an explanation is long overdue. The answer is…cancer.
Although robustly healthy all my adult life, I began getting infections more than a year ago—viral bronchitis and then pneumonia, among others. They sap your energy so completely that it’s like someone pulled the plug and you simply drained out onto the floor. I also began losing weight. Rapidly. Tests finally revealed I have a rare and incurable form of blood and bone marrow cancer.
Incurable, yes, but treatable!
So the good news is that I’m going to be okay. The bad news is that the treatment—chemo- and immune-therapy drug infusions—effectively shut my brain down for months. It’s commonly called “chemo brain” and it is a remarkable, even amusing phenomenon if you have a perverse sense of humor: your brain simply stops functioning normally. You become unable to recall why you got out of your chair and walked across the room and this just makes you smile, retrace your steps, and start over again in the hope that the purpose will again be revealed. You are perfectly happy to stare out the window at the trees (for hours) with absolutely nothing else going on in your head. Weeks go by like this. The little bit of brain that is still functioning understands this is abnormal but is helpless to change the situation. In fact, it is annoyed. It berates you. It tells you to pull your socks up and get to work. But of course, you don’t care because your brain is in a fog! And anyway, your imagination is off on holiday in some far more pleasant location—a powdery beach, perhaps, with a tropical cocktail in its hand and coconut palm leaves rustling in the warm breeze. It has no interest in returning home.
But it is June at last, those brain-deadening treatments are over (for now at least), and the desire and ability to write has slowly returned. Murder on the Commons, I am pleased to announce, is alive and well and moving again toward completion.
Here’s a hint of what’s to come: Colin West’s pacemaker operation is healing well and he and Morgan Davies (who, uncharacteristically, has been acting as his nursemaid and a loving surrogate mom for his daughters) are back on the job. DCI Penwarren is caught up in the complexities of his ex-wife’s family, the Cuthbertsons, Lords of the Manor on whose land a strangely tattooed body was found. And the victim himself turns out to have had a very shady past. But how he turned up dead in a mire more than three hundred miles from his home remains a twisted mystery for Penwarren’s team to unravel. And that’s just the first 130 pages!
Thank you for your patience, my friends. It won’t be long now. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer!
I’m from the Northeast where, in winter, snow is a regular and expected climatological feature AND people pretty much know how to cope with it and drive in it—in it, around it, through it. To us, it’s as natural as breathing. Albeit rapidly. It’s an adrenalin adventure. Any hill, any curve, any intersection is a new challenge. It’s you against nature…and against that other idiot who has recklessly decided to go for a joyride in the winter wonderland.
Then I moved to Seattle where, as is well-known, it rains a lot in winter. Temperatures are mild. Rain is a bit of an annoyance, but moisture is good for your skin and hardly life-threatening.
Until it turns to snow. Then, it’s mayhem. All hell breaks loose out here.
There is a scientific reason for this. Seattle is hilly. Steeply hilly. I’m talking cable car and tram hilly. We had them once. Then cars and buses rendered them obsolete and they vanished. But did gravity adjust? It did not. It still held stubbornly to the rule that what goes up—or tries to go up—must come down, often in graceful, or not so graceful, descending pirouettes, until you crash into an immovable object. Like another car, or a bus, or an electrical pole. The electrical pole at least has an excuse; it’s anchored to the ground; it didn’t just ark there. The cars and buses? They’re just stuck, often bunched up in cozy, if strangely configured, groups at the bottom of said hills.
So I moved to a small island in Puget Sound…not just because of incompetent snow drivers in Seattle, but it did figure into the decision. What didn’t figure into the decision was that this island, too, is hilly. Very. And while it is surrounded by arguably warmer than freezing salt water, snow happens. Rarely, it is true. But when it does, as it has this month, the island and its incompetent snow drivers make Seattle look like heaven by comparison.
Over a couple of days, we got about a foot of snow. Maybe more. No one is sure because almost no one can get out of their homes to measure. Also we had no power for several days; my house got down to 38 degrees. That’s what it should be outside, not inside! Thankfully, I have a wonderful neighbor who has a 4WD pickup and we’ve been able to get out for food. On our travels, we have seen only one snowplow. It was broken down by the side of the road.
In terms of square miles, this island is about the size of Manhattan…but with fir trees instead of high-rises and a year-round population of only perhaps 10,000 people. Some of those people work for the electrical utility and the country roads department and they have been doing yeoman work. Both of them. But I can’t help but think they are under-equipped and understaffed for such an event. You know: the kind of event where people think, Hey, let’s go bombing around in the snow in our cars! In short, an event invented for idiots.
Idiots like me. I got as far as the end of my driveway before I got stuck. That was four days ago. The car is still stuck and so am I.
Lesson learned: I am just another idiot…