Although I prefer to call my mysteries “traditional,” my publisher, my reviewers, and my readers mostly describe them as “cozy.” I don’t go in for much graphic violence nor even a lot of angst, no horror, no terror, no serial killers. The emphasis is on character and motive, not blood spatters and bullet calibres. They’re nice, cheerful, friendly little murders that you can read in bed without having nightmares. They end on an up-beat.
All right, call them cosies. So what is a cosy-writer to do when a serious, even shocking subject grabs her by the wrist and says, “Write about me”?
Answer: panic. Will my editor reject the idea? Will my readers complain that this isn’t what they expect of my books? Should I try to ignore the story that’s shouting in my ear?
The first time this happened to me was when it seemed every time I read the news there was an item about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with horrendous invisible wounds: PTSD. My Daisy Dalrymple mysteries are set in the 1920s and frequently deal with the aftermath of the First World War, including what was then known as shell-shock. Daisy herself lost her brother and her fiance in Flanders. As well as bereavement, various of my characters suffer from wounds both physical and mental, but none of the books focussed on the subject. Suddenly I needed to write about the aftermath of war in a more serious way.
I’ve always loved the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a young Englishman who was killed in France just a week before the Armistice. He volunteered, and he fought bravely, but what he wrote about was the horror, not the glory of war. In particular, his poem Anthem for Doomed Youth still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. I borrowed his title for my book.
As I pondered how to make the grim story fit into the series, I decided to give most of the bad stuff to Daisy’s husband, DCI Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard. He has to find the link between the three bodies found buried in Epping Forest in time to put a stop to the killer before he murders another victim. Daisy, meanwhile, is visiting their daughter at her boarding school. Somehow the connections with the war crept in there, too, but the girls and Daisy’s friends supply a bit of light relief.
I found it impossible to provide a truly cheerful ending, as is my wont. It’s upbeat in a way, though, as Daisy sorts out the problems of her part of the story.
What have reader reactions been? One person who said it was too sad, not what she expected from my books. And quite a few who say it’s my best book. So an occasional venture outside the box doesn’t seem to be a major problem.
The poem: Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
My new book, The Valley of the Shadow, the third in the Cornish series, is set in the late 1960s. The previous two, like Daisy’s adventures, are about as lighthearted as murder can be. I started planning it without any particularly serious purpose. The inspiration came from a place, Rocky Valley in Cornwall, that I’ve known since I was a child. I revisited it with my sister, walking along the rugged path to the point where the little stream meets the ocean in a narrow inlet. My inner eye, the writer’s eye, saw a body floating in the swells as they rolled in between the sheer cliffs.
I don’t recall why I decided to make the drowning man an Indian, but having come up with the idea, I had to think up a reason for him to be there, in that unpromising spot for a swim. Cornwall having been a haven for smugglers for centuries past, the obvious answer was that something had gone awry with an attempt to smuggle him into the country.
I started researching reasons why he might have needed to enter Britain illicitly, and I opened a can of worms.
I grew up in England and I was vaguely aware of the situation in Africa, but I left in 1968, married an American in 1969, and had a baby in 1970, so I wasn’t following the news closely. I knew about the Mau-Mau fighters in Kenya, and no one could miss the horror of Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. What I hadn’t realized was the effect of East African independence on the settlers from India, many of whom had been there for generations, some longer than the British colonists.
At independence, they were offered a choice of citizenship. A few chose Kenyan or Ugandan; some, retaining strong ties to the land of their ancestors, chose Indian; many looked to the future and decided to retain the British citizenship they had as residents of the fading Empire.
The newly empowered governments started to expropriate the property and businesses of non-Africans. A flood of dark-skinned emigrants swept into Britain. Right-wing racist rabble-rouser Enoch Powell predicted–practically called for–bloodshed in the streets.
The British Government changed the rules. A British passport no longer ensured the right to live in Britain. If you, your father, or your grandfather was not born in Britain, you were out of luck.
East African Asians were shuffled around the world, with no country willing to admit them.
So there was my story. Nick and Megan rescue the young Indian from the inlet, but his family is stranded somewhere in the caves that abound in the cliffs of North Cornwall. Whether on purpose or by mischance, the smugglers have abandoned them, and if they’re not found soon they’ll all die.
In spite of the lives at stake, The Valley of the Shadow is a much more cheerful book than Anthem for Doomed Youth, with an upbeat ending. In fact, one reviewer has said: “The denouement is both wild and funny, and the author ties up all the threads in a surprising but satisfactory ending.” I doubt that readers coming to it with certain expectations of the Cornish Mysteries, and of my writing in general, will be disappointed.
If they are, no doubt I’ll be hearing from them. Visit my website http://CarolaDunn.Weebly.com