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…
Ah, the New Year!
I don’t know about you, but the New Year is a very happy time for me, a time for celebration. It’s not because I believe the next twelve months will be ever so much better and brighter than 2018 (although that’s not a very high bar to clear, if you know what I mean…). And it’s not that I have made solemn resolutions to be a kinder, gentler soul than in previous months. That won’t happen--not because of being irresolute, but because every new day presents a new challenge to that solemn vow when you are a born New Yorker and witty sarcasm is like a birthright, even if you move 3,000 miles west to the terminally nice Pacific Northwest.
No, the first week of the new year makes me happy because it means the hideous Christmas candy canes that hang from utility poles in the center of our little island town will be taken down at last. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a bah humbug person at Christmas. Far from it. I love how Christmas makes folks smile more and give generously to good causes. But these candy cane eyesores do test one’s holiday spirit.
Let me explain. These seasonal “ornaments” are composed of rows of ratty red and formerly white (now gray) streamers wrapped around a frame which, thanks to being clipped to the power lines, are illuminated at night. It must be said that the dark helps. History tells us that candy canes had their characteristic curve at one end to represent a shepherd’s crook. But to me they look like old barber poles with a bad case of brewer’s droop.
And, speaking of history, this is how ours came about: our little town’s retailers all had their own Christmas decorations, which they stored in the attic of the pharmacy. A fire there destroyed them (and the pharmacy). That Thanksgiving, at a local college football game, a sharp eared island spectator overhead someone in the bleachers mention he had a commercial ornaments business. Our civic-minded resident pounced and was taken to this fellow’s warehouse where, it being past Thanksgiving, all the attractive Christmas paraphernalia had long since been rented. The only thing left was the one thing no one with any taste at all wanted, specifically the cheesy plastic candy canes. Thus, they arrived on this benighted isle…where they have been in use ever since, despite very clearly losing their initial luster…such as it was.
The candy canes are like the Emperor’s missing clothes (except they’re not missing). Many on the island consider them a beloved, if bedraggled, tradition.
Others, like me, wish we had a bonfire night tradition like they do in England…and that the canes were the fuel.
They’ve been taken down this week, which is a mercy. But they’ll be back next year. Oh yes, they’ll be back.
It’s a tradition, you see…