Carola Dunn is best known for her popular series of cozy historical mysteries set in the 1920s and starring the Hon. Daisy Dalrymple (later Fletcher.) Her Cornish Mystery series may come as bit of a surprise. Set in Cornwall somewhen in the 1960s or ‘70s (well before cell phones and personal computers), the books’ heroine and amateur detective is Eleanor Trewynn, a widowed, middle-aged, and retired NGO aid worker living in the fictional (but very Cornish) village of Port Mabyn. Propelled by genuine concern for her fellow human beings and a fair share of curiosity, Eleanor occasionally finds herself involved in – and unofficially investigating – local crimes. In this, she is usually helped by her neighbor, artist Nick Gresham, and her niece, Detective-Sergeant Megan Pencarrow. The vicar’s wife and Megan’s boss, DI Scumble, are also recurring characters.
The Cornish Mysteries are a bit more serious and realistic than the Daisy Dalrymple books, which is not to say they don’t also contain moments of humor. But what really characterizes the Cornish Mysteries is Eleanor’s encompassing compassion, which is reflected in the author’s sensitive treatment of all the characters. Even Scumble, who started out a fairly unsympathetic character, reveals a more human side in this, the third book in the series.
In The Valley of the Shadow, Eleanor, Nick, and Megan are out for a walk down to a cove when they spot a man in the water. Megan and Nick dive in to rescue him; on returning him to shore, they discover that he is young, Indian, and unconscious. When he finally comes to in hospital, he is only able to utter a few words – enough to let Megan know that his entire family is trapped in a seaside cave, and at least one is dying. (If you’re at all familiar with Cornwall, either from visiting or through books, you’ll know that its rocky coastline is riddled with caves; it’s what made Cornwall a smuggler’s haven for centuries.)
This revelation spurs two simultaneous efforts: to locate and rescue the young man’s family, and to find and bring to justice the smuggler who brought them to England and then callously abandoned them.
One of the things I really like about these novels is that Eleanor is such a normal person. Yes, she spent twenty-odd years travelling the world for the charity for which she worked, so she is more comfortable with people of different cultures and ethnicities than many of her neighbors. Her life in third-world countries has left her quite cavalier about things like locking her doors, and she has a little martial-arts training. But she’s also a typical late-middle-aged woman of her time: she sometimes forgets things, she tires more easily than a younger person, and sometimes she feels a little achy or creaky – for instance, when climbing stairs. Eleanor doesn’t have the keen understanding and nose for evil of Miss Marple or the irrepressible nature of Mrs. Pollifax; she’s just an ordinary, caring human being who never stops trying to help. It makes her more relatable, in a way.
I also appreciate Megan, a young policewoman in an era when that was still a rarity. She’s good at her job, loves her aunt, and has a prickly, attracted-but-disapproving relationship with the rather bohemian Nick. The Valley of the Shadow introduces a new character who just might become a recurring one; I rather hope he does, as I quite liked him. And as I intimated above, I’m even warming up to Scumble who, despite his usual irritation with Eleanor and apparent insensitivity toward his underlings, proves in this novel to have a heart.
The only drawbacks to The Valley of the Shadow are that the plot occasionally feels a little disjointed, and the pacing is a bit uneven – minor issues in an otherwise well-written novel. I enjoyed this mystery as much as I did the previous two. I’ve had to learn to be patient for the next installment, though, since Dunn doesn’t write these as frequently as she does the Daisy series. I’m looking forward to the next one whenever it arrives.
Rating: 3 ½ stars
Recommended if you like: cozy mysteries, British villages
Series: Cornish Mystery #3
Publisher: Minotaur, 2012
Book Source: Public library
EDITED TO ADD: I’m counting this book toward the Cruisin’ through the Cozies 2013 challenge.