The Troutbeck Testimony
by Rebecca Tope
on Tour October 24 – November 23, 2016
A huge funeral for Windermere’s popular resident, Barbara Dodge, is taking place and florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown and her new assistant, Bonnie Lawson are busy compiling wreaths in preparation. There’s word of a series of sinister dognappings occurring in nearby Troutbeck and whilst taking a walk up Wansfell Pike, Simmy and her father, Russell, stumble on a dog, strangled to death – it’s not long before Simmy reluctantly finds herself caught up in a murder investigation…
Genre: Mystery & Detective, Cozy
Published by: Morrow/Witness Impulse
Publication Date: October 2016
Number of Pages: 384
Series: Persimmon Brown #4
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Read an excerpt:
The first anniversary of Persimmon Brown’s opening of her florist shop in the Lake District had almost coincided with Easter and an explosion of spring flowers and blossom. Wordsworth’s daffodils performed to their greatest strength and pussy willow attracted hosts of honey bees who had failed to notice that they were meant to be in terminal decline. A month later, on the first long weekend in May, walking along a sheltered footpath to the west of Troutbeck, Simmy – officially Ms Persimmon Brown – could hear an energetic buzzing and murmured ‘something something something in the bee-loud glade’ to herself. Not Wordsworth, she was sure, but somebody like Yeats or Hardy. She would ask her young friend Ben, who knew everything.
The sun was warm on her shoulders; the light so clear that she could pick out numerous fast-growing lambs on the fells far above the village. Every weekend throughout the coming summer, she promised herself, she would get up at first light and go for an early walk. The anniversary had been a time for resolutions and one of them was to make much better use of the natural delights that surrounded her.
She felt an almost pagan euphoria at the burgeoning landscape, vibrant with flora and fauna at the start of another cycle of life. Her mother would say it was a mark in Christianity’s favour that it had been clever enough to superimpose all its biggest rituals onto far more ancient moments in the natural year, with Easter an obvious example.
There was now a bonus Spring Bank Holiday that Simmy was savouring with complete abandonment.
The late morning, with a sunny afternoon still ahead of her, brought feelings of richness and privilege that were almost shameful. But she had earned it, she reminded herself. The winter had been grey and protracted, interspersed with a number of unpleasant adventures. She had been repeatedly drawn into events that demonstrated the darker side of human behaviour, forced to confront far too much reality.
Now that spring had arrived with such a colourful crash, she was determined to shake all that off and concentrate on her flowers.
The plan for the day was to meet her father, Russell Straw, for a long-promised fellside walk after a modest lunch at the Mortal Man. The full walk, along Nanny Lane and up to the summit of Wansfell Pike – and back – was easily four miles in total, with some steep sections of stony path. ‘By rights, we should go across to the Troutbeck Tongue at the same time, but that’s rather ambitious,’ Russell conceded.
‘I shall want some fortification first,’ Simmy had warned him. ‘And if there’s the slightest risk of rain, I’m cancelling the whole idea. Neither of us is fit enough to do anything rash.’
There was no suggestion of rain, the sky a uniform blue in every direction. It was, in fact, the most perfect day for very many months and Simmy was duly thankful for it. Her father would bring water, map, and dog. She would provide a camera, mobile phone and two slabs of Kendal mint cake.
The fells above Troutbeck were stark, dramatic and uncaring. There were barely any flowers or trees adorning them, other than the tiny resilient blooms that crouched underfoot. More than happy to accommodate her father’s wishes, Simmy nonetheless preferred the softer and more moderated lower levels.
This explained her morning stroll, taking a zigzag route from her house to the hostelry along lanes that had been colonised by humanity, with gardens and houses taking their place in the picture. The bees at least agreed with her. Azaleas and rhododendrons were in bud, reminding her of her startled surprise at the vibrant colours, the year before. Not just the natural purples and pinks, but brilliant orange, deepest crimson and a wide array of other hues shouted from gardens all over the relatively balmy area around Windermere and Ambleside. Even the wilder reaches of Coniston boasted spectacular displays. Aware that it might be foolish to expend energy on this pre-walk stroll, she nonetheless felt the need to exploit the sunshine and the flamboyant floral displays. It was semi-professional, too – she ought to be apprised of the full range of seasonal blossoms in gardens, in order to echo and embellish them in the offerings she stocked at the shop. Flowers were her business, and any lateral information she could acquire would always come in useful.
Her father was waiting for her at the pub, sitting at an outside table on a lower level, with his dog. She kissed the man and patted the animal. ‘Is he going to cope with such a long walk?’ she wondered. It was a rather ancient Lakeland terrier, officially named Bertie, but mostly just called ‘the dog’. His forebears had failed a purity test, it seemed, and poor Bertie had found himself rejected as breeding stock and consigned to a rescue centre until eventually rescued by kindly Russell Straw.
‘Oh yes. And if he doesn’t we’ll have to carry him.’
‘When did you last take him on a jaunt like this?’
‘About eighteen months ago. We’ve been waiting all this time for you.’
‘Dad! That’s ridiculous.’ In spite of herself, she laughed. ‘Poor old chap. He won’t know what’s hit him. His feet will be sore for weeks.’
‘Not a bit of it. He spends all his time digging up stones. His feet are as tough as iron. He could easily outwalk both of us. Now let’s get on with it. I want to set off by one at the latest.’
That gave them forty-five minutes to eat a hearty pub lunch with beer to wash it down. ‘We shouldn’t walk on full stomachs,’ Simmy remarked. ‘We’ll get a stitch.’
‘Better than trying to do it empty. We need the food to give us stamina.’
‘At least we’ve got the weather for it. And listen to those birds!’ A pair of collared doves cooed at them from an overhead wire, the gentle three-note song a backdrop that Simmy always loved, despite the blatant lack of musical variety. Her habit of feeding garden birds had attracted another pair of doves to her own little patch, a few hundred yards from the pub, and she had grown used to waking to their call, imagining that they were deliberately asking her for some breakfast.
Russell cocked his head. ‘They’re not native, you know. They’re quite recent immigrants. I mean recent. I was about ten years old when the first ones settled here. The BBC put them in a medieval radio play by mistake not long ago. Lots of people wrote in about it.’
‘Well, they’re very welcome as far as I’m concerned.’
‘I agree with you. I also like grey squirrels, even if I get lynched for saying so.’
She laughed again, after a wary glance around. In Troutbeck, the red squirrel was verging on the sacred and the grey accordingly considered devilish. Anyone overhearing Russell was liable to take exception to his views. But nobody at the neighbouring tables was reacting. Nothing could sully her delight at the carefree afternoon ahead with the best of all possible fathers. It took a lot to disturb Russell Straw – but then a lot had happened in recent times, and his daughter had certainly caused him some worry over the winter. His wife was the powerful half in the marriage, leaving him to contented pottering and sporadic researches into local history. They ran a somewhat eccentric bed-and-breakfast business in Windermere, in which Angie Straw broke a lot of rules and earned a lot of profound gratitude in the process. Her reviews on TripAdvisor veered from the horrified to the euphoric, depending on how much individuality her guests could stomach. She was a capricious mixture of old fashioned and hippy, refusing to use guests’ first names unless they insisted, and cheerfully producing full breakfasts at ten-thirty, if that’s what people wanted.
‘Let me just pop to the lav and then we can be off,’ Russell said. ‘Mind the dog, will you?’
She took the lead attached to Bertie and nodded.
The sun was as high as it was going to get, and the afternoon stretched ahead of them with no sense of urgency. The sky remained an unbroken blue.
The views from the summit of Wansfell Pike would be spectacular. At least two lakes would be visible, and any number of fells on all sides. Russell knew the names of most of the main landmarks, and had a map with which to identify others. Simmy had only a rudimentary and theoretical knowledge of any of it.
Bertie whined and pulled annoyingly. ‘He’ll be back in a minute,’ Simmy told him. ‘Don’t be silly.’ Dogs were generally annoying, to her way of thinking. So dreadfully dependent and needy all the time. It had come as a surprise when her parents rescued this little specimen, and even more so when Russell developed such a fondness for it. To Simmy’s eyes, the animal lacked character, which Russell insisted was a consequence of his harsh life, full of betrayal and confusion. ‘He just wants everything nice and peaceful from here on,’ he said.
Which was generally what he got, apart from a never-ending procession of B&B guests, who mostly patted his head and then left him alone.
‘You were a long time,’ she told him, when her father eventually returned.
‘I know.’ He was frowning distractedly. ‘I overheard something, outside the gents, and I have no idea what to make of it. I kept out of sight for a minute, just in case they didn’t like the idea of anyone hearing them.’
‘Two men talking. It sounds a bit wild, I know, but I think they were planning a burglary.’
I am often asked about influences on my writing, my answers varying considerably according to what I am reading, and what I can remember from past decades. Given that the whole process of creating a story is largely mysterious, the question can evoke a good deal of introspection.
It seems clear to me that the strongest influences are the early ones. And they happen by accident. Aunts and neighbours give books to small children, quite randomly, and young lives are changed and formed as a result. I might have been a very different person if I’d been given ‘A First Book of Chemistry’ instead of ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass’. Speculation along these lines is fun, of course, even though we can never know for sure what might have been.
As a teenager, living in a home with a limited number of books, I was devoted to my mother’s complete set of The Whiteoak Chronicles by Mazo de la Roche. This family saga drew me into the world of the Whiteoak family on the banks of Lake Ontario. I read the whole set at least twice, and am reading the books again now. I think I began to understand at the age of fourteen or fifteen how the written word can provide a reader with a reality that can match and even overwhelm the physical environment in which she sits with the book. I was consumed by a desire to create stories of my own, and actually completed my first short novel when I was eighteen. Nobody ever saw it, and it has long since been lost.
At around seventeen or eighteen, I was consumed with a love of the novels of Dennis Wheatley. Black magic, demons and sorcerers in many of them, but exploration into other worlds in others. The planet Mars and Atlantis, to take two memorable examples. I can’t say for sure what I learned from this reading, other than perhaps a grasp of basic plotting, with the great climactic conflict at the end. I generally follow this pattern in my own novels now.
Since then I must have read thousands of novels. Looking back over my book diary, I remember only a small minority of their plots, characters, settings. Those that stand out come from a wide range of genres. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Sons and Lovers by D.H.Lawrence are a few that I recall vividly from my 20s. Perhaps I understood from them that you can say anything you like in a novel. You can go anywhere, demonstrate an infinity of viewpoints, create characters who interact in a host of different ways.
I have acquired some recent favourites, of course. The novels of Magnus Mills are gloriously individual and quirky. So are those of Kate Atkinson. For insightful glimpses into the lives of past generations I return to George Gissing and William de Morgan whenever I find a moment. I seek out forgotten Victorian and Edwardian novels by such writers as Sabine Baring-Gould and Eden Phillpotts. Also adventure stories by Stuart Cloete, who has a great deal to say about the colonisation of Africa. I enjoy Westerns, too – Louis L’Amour is splendid.
The point, I think, is that novels from all periods and in all genres have something to teach a writer of whatever kind of book. Fiction is a wide, wide world of possibility, taking in fairies and kings, vampires and cowboys, all of them revealing some crucial facet of human experience and imagination. As I have said quite frequently, a crucial aspect of a writer’s working life is his or her reading. A writer who doesn’t read is working blind, unaware of possibilities and expectations. And he’s missing out on a whole lot of wonderful fun.
Rebecca Tope is the author of four murder mystery series, featuring Den Cooper, Devon police detective, Drew Slocombe, Undertaker; Thea Osborne, house sitter in the Cotswolds and now Persimmon Brown, Lake District florist. She is also a “ghost writer” of the novels based on the ITV series Rosemary and Thyme.
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