Hazel McHaffie

The Lake District

There’s nothing quite like reading a book about an area you’re currently inhabiting or have just explored, to bring a story to life.

So on a short break to the Lake District this month I snapped up two novels based in the very area where we were staying. They’re written by Rebecca Tope, who makes a virtue of identifying real places – not just towns and rivers, but hotels and monuments and shops in her scene-setting.

The Windermere Witness is set against the stunning landscape around Grasmere, Ambleside, Conniston, amidst the very mountains and fells and lanes we were walking in, alongside the history and ghosts of famous writers and painters we were hearing about.

Following a personal tragedy, Persimmon Brown has moved to the Lake District and built a more peaceful life for herself as a florist running Persimmon Petals, but finds being part of key events in the lives of her new neighbours gives her insights normally denied to incomers.

As a florist, Simmy understood that she was assumed to be on the side of froth. She was expected to focus on matching shades of peachy pink, and the exact drop of a swag of autumn leaves – and she diligently fulfilled such expectations. … Few people grasped that a florist has to listen to stories of sudden deaths and inconvenient births. They had to take enormous care over wording on cards and timing of deliveries. The wrong flowers could cause decades of offence. They were invisible but crucial bystanders at the major life events that overtook every family in the land. Where a wedding demanded far more labour than any other occasion, Simmy was fully aware that the really important work lay with a funeral.

But with one of her customers – the millionaire Baxter family – deaths and weddings seem to be inextricably interwoven, and Simmy is sucked into their intricacies and affairs almost against her better judgement.  Who exactly were these people with their overt affluence but impoverished relationships? They include …
… a jet-set couple, carelessly creating a child between other relationships, the mother virtually forgetting about him
… five unmarried men and one girl, friends for years, with their own secrets and passions impenetrable to an outsider
 … the bride’s brother, insured for millions, found dead in the lake on her wedding day
 … the bride’s father shot dead the following day
… the chief suspects all intimidating, volatile and secretive.

And how come that she, Simmy, is embroiled in both murders? She’d encountered the murdered boy hours before his death, and felt an inexplicable sense of dread. Why had he singled her, a stranger, out for special attention? And why had she been invited to a specific place the following day, and hence been actually present at the second murder? Suddenly everyone wants to talk to Simmy: she is the principal witness. The sense of personal menace grows stronger.

Ambleside Alibi finds Simmy an unwitting witness again. First for a man suspected of having something to do with a murdered old lady, Nancy Clark. Then the innocent provider of flowers to another elderly lady, Mary Joseph, who’s received the sub-standard bouquet from someone claiming to be a granddaughter about whom she would be unaware. When unexpected links emerge between the two, unease and suspicion mount.

By now, with a second case in their area, she’s in an established ‘gang of three’ with a very bright teenage boy, Ben, and her own one-eyed part-time shop assistant, Melanie, and she shares her misgivings and dilemmas with them. Much of their analysis in the days leading up to Christmas, when snow and ice turn the beautiful area into a treacherous location, is more conjecture than evidence of anything sinister … until, that is, an attempt is made on Simmy’s own life. Two people she has instinctively liked are in the frame. Who can she trust?

Neither tale would have appealed to me without the link to my visit to the Lake District. But they were an easy read and I could easily overlook the improbable elements, and enjoy visualising the locations.

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