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A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn is attempting a difficult balancing act in her series titled A Cornish Mystery (this was the second in the series, now being reprinted in paperback). At one level, the series is historical mysteries. I say that in the broadest sense of the words because fifty years is not a long period of time in numerical terms. Having lived through the 1960s, I can confirm it might just as well have been more than a century ago. The culture then was radically different from the culture that envelopes us today. In that respect, Ms Dunn has got the time and place right. Although I’ve only visited Cornwall a couple of times, I recognise the village mentality of the time. As is somewhat appropriate for the time setting, we’re also playing with a Golden Age format of mystery to solve. Although there’s a minor role for forensic science in the relevant deaths, none of the evidence supplied by the scientists is used to solve the crimes. As a police procedural with an old lady in satellite mode to offer helpful insights, the crime is solved by the application of intelligence. Perhaps more importantly, we’re allowed a clear view of the facts as they emerge. There’s a limited pool of suspects. Hence, from quite early on, it’s fairly clear whodunnit even though the motive remains more challenging until quite near the end.

Thus, A Colourful Death (Minotaur Books, 2013) appeals as an exercise in nostalgia both in revisiting a time long lost and a format of writing now potentially considered old-fashioned. In modern police procedurals, we’ve grown used to seeing greater realism with more gritty plots and all the expertise of the different police departments brought to bear in analysing the evidence and identifying the criminals. Back in the 1960s, life in the south west of England was somnolent. Although lip service was paid to the forensic skills of the Met and better equipped urban police forces, local Cornish officers preferred to accept the superficial explanations as true so they could get back to their young wives to resume the sexual activity so rudely interrupted by the commission of crimes. It takes the dedication of one or two professions to get the real work done.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

The hub of the plot is Eleanor Trewynn, a character slightly more robust than Miss Marple, but in the same basic mould. She’s travelled the world, observing human nature. With the death of her husband, she’s now settled in Cornwall and has tuned into the local gossip mill which knows everything unimportant about everyone, and a few important things about those who matter for stories like this. We start off with Eleanor meeting artist Nick Gresham from the London train. When he gets back to his small gallery which was under the care of Stella Weller, he discovers his paintings have been vandalised by Geoffrey Monmouth. After an hour to cool down, he goes over to confront the man. As you might predict, he discovers the vandal dead on his studio floor with a knife in his back. The easy explanation adopted by the first senior officer on the scene is that Nick is the murderer. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Scrumble, ably assisted by Eleanor’s niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow, take up the case and quickly realise it’s not as easy as first thought. We then get twin track investigations as Eleanor and the vicar’s wife talk to a range of people, while the police formally interview possible suspects. Thus, by different routes, our sleuth and the police arrive at the same result. The formal reveal at the end is a team effort to the solicitor of one of the deceased.

Because it’s fairly obvious who must have done it despite the few red herrings that get dragged across the trail, the interest lies both in the recreation of the time and literally observing the process of detection. So this is more in the spirit of an inverted crime novel than a mystery novel. There’s nothing wrong with this except the book lacks a little of the suspense normally associated for more formal whodunnits. All this leaves me with the conclusion that A Colourful Death is better than The Valley of the Shadow but that’s not great praise.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see Heirs of the Body and The Valley of the Shadow.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Valley of the Shadow by Carola Dunn

Valley of the Shadow Carola Dunn

I suppose it was natural that, as a child I should read Enid Blyton. This overlapped with the work of other authors like Arthur Ransome, A A Milne, and so on but, for some reason, The Famous Five seems to have stuck most clearly in my memory. What then are the primary characteristics? Obviously, as books written with children in mind, there’s a certain simplicity of language. Events are always “very peculiar” and, in response, the children would exclaim, “Golly gosh” which was strong stuff at the time. All the adults could say by way of expletives was, “Mercy me!” But more importantly, there’s always a strong sense of place. Many of the “jolly japes” are based in Dorset and there’s always scope for excitement because of the local tunnels and caves used by smugglers. Because the early books were written during World War II with the series continuing into the fifties and sixties, there’s a certain lack of professionalism about the local police officers. They were unused to the excitement usually surrounding our heroic five and tended to be slightly out of their depth. There was also a certain innocence when it came to dealing with issues of the day like race.

All of which brings me to The Valley of the Shadow by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, 2012) A Cornish Mystery. Although this is written for adults and set in the late 1960s, it nevertheless was like looking back to my early reading experiences. In making this comparison, I’m not intending to denigrate the quality of this book. As a story, it deals with what was, at the time, a sensitive issue and the pace of the plot holds up to the end. But there’s a real sense of both the time and the place captured on the pages. Perhaps more importantly, there’s an essential innocence about the characters that I suspect reflects memories of childhood or early adulthood. I should explain that Ms Dunn was born in England but then set off around the world, ending up in America. She’s now looking back to write historical mysteries. Locating this new series in the 1960s means she’s writing about people as she knew them. I’m not at all sure this is a method likely to result in historically accurate content.

Carola Dunn and two of the Famous Five

Carola Dunn and two of the Famous Five

Ah now this sets off the rabbit for the dog to chase. Of course there’s no obligation for any book to be “accurate”. Even if the location is a real-world city, the author can change the street geography to produce events critical to the development of the plot. So it is with historical novels. Since we’re into the word of fiction, the author is paying the game of describing events for the modern audience. Assuming the intention is entertainment rather than information, any fact can be tweaked to make it acceptable for modern readers. In this book, the theme is the plight of one particular Asian family from Uganda. Since we’re apparently set in the 1960s, we predate the formal expulsion order made by Idi Amin in 1972. But we’re into the late sixties which featured highlights such as Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech. In the period following the race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, there were copycat riots in Birmingham and the Black County (sorry that really is the name of the area ) with a major riot in Dudley in 1962 as one of the more obvious tips of the iceberg representing racial tensions and active discrimination against immigrant communities. Reading this book is like putting on a pair of rose-tinted spectacles. The attitudes to race relations described in this fictionalised version of Cornwall seem to me completely unreal. Perhaps my life experiences are radically different from the author but, in a way, that’s why this book reminds me of Enid Blyton. Her world was full of blurred reality. Carola Dunn seems to assume an American readership could not take a book which admitted the extent of the racial tensions in England at this time.

Anyway, this is the third story about Eleanor Trewynn and her niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow who dives into the sea and rescues a man immediately described as a “wog” and later as a “Paki” — generalised terms of abuse for anyone of different race. Yet these two momentary usages are the only occasions in which the pervasive prejudices are referred to. Thereafter, everyone is amazingly colour-blind and tolerant as our busybody Aunt with hidden Aikido skills sets off around the villages of Cornwall to track down what may have happened to the family of this man. It’s all very cosy with romantic questions raised every now and then about Megan, as smugglers’ caves are identified and searched. As is required in mystery adventures of this kind, the police are well-meaning but always several steps behind the heroic biddy. This is not to say the local constabulary, later assisted by a man from Scotland Yard, are incompetent. But they do need to be pointed in the right direction by our amateur sleuth. So after drinking lots of tea, we all get to shout “jolly hockey-sticks” as another adventure involving some running around and mild excitement is satisfactorily resolved. I was underwhelmed by The Valley of the Shadow. It’s very thin gruel to sustain a healthy reader.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see A Colourful Death and Heirs of the Body.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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