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Gaynor Pengelly, co-author of Riverside Lane, takes a light-hearted look at why English villages make a perfect setting for a murder mystery
Whether it’s a knitting needle through the eye, deadly poison in the brandy or decapitation with a garden scythe, there are many ways to be mercilessly bumped off in an English village. Don’t be fooled by wisteria clad pubs, genteel church fetes, cucumber sandwiches and bunting fluttering in the breeze, English villages are a dangerous place to live.
“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful English countryside,” said Sherlock Holmes.
Author Anthony Horowitz agrees: “English villages are places of hatred, mistrust and bitterness. I love the fact that in a village everybody is hiding something and people are far more curious about what is going on behind their net curtains."
Welcome to the world of Cosy Mystery fiction, where from the comfort and safety of your armchair, you can enjoy the excitement and suspense of solving a grisly murder, without dropping a single crochet stitch.
Cosy Mysteries have long been associated with quiet English villages and rural towns. Agatha Christie’s first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, was set in fictional St Mary Mead, while the TV series Midsomer Murders - where a character is famously crushed to death by a wheel of cheese and another ‘dried to death’ in the spin cycle of a dryer - has attracted a worldwide following.
When we set out on our writing odyssey, Julia and I were quick to put our own English village at the centre of our novel, Riverside Lane. Having moved from London a decade ago, we have become great observers of the eccentricities and quirks of a small community and what could be better than the juxtaposition of an unexpected death in a beautiful rural setting? While Bray on Thames is not a place of family feuds and murderous intent, it does provide the perfect backdrop to a cast of colourful characters, all of whom have skeletons in their cupboards!
A small community is gold dust for writers of Cosy Mysteries, because every sleight and petty jealousy is magnified, making it feel so much more personal to the reader. It’s harder to hide your secret in villages because everyone knows your business. Family feuds can last for generations, with neighbours judging any misdemeanour in context with your entire family background. Unlike cities, which are too anonymous and frenetic for enmity to fester, a village provides the perfect breeding ground for vengeance and murder.
But what makes an English village a truly perfect location for dastardly deeds, is the adrenalin rush the reader feels when they empathise with a character. We have all dealt with difficult guests, challenging clients, and angry relatives. We know how it feels to be wronged, and in such a benign setting, suddenly murder doesn’t seem so implausible!
An English village setting provides the reader with that warm, snugly feeling that comes with immersing yourself in scenes of domesticity in a beautiful location. What can be more uplifting than the smell of freshly mown grass and rambling roses outside a thatched cottage, the thwack of willow on leather on the cricket green, the taste of tea and scones with a bunch of characters, with whom we would all want to be friends?
Reading a Cozy Mystery gives the same ‘ah’ factor as that first glass of wine after a long day, it’s an excuse to switch off the news, shut down your computer and curl up on the sofa. In these troubled times, it provides the perfect antidote and escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Ginger Black is a writing partnership between Gaynor Pengelly and Julia Thum.
Yet, as they attempt to solve the mystery of the stranger in their midst, it gradually transpires that there are more than enough secrets to go around in the village itself, harboured by the local MP and his uptight, ambitious wife; the has-been former game show host; the respectable couple with the jailbird son; the hometown journalist, striving for a scoop that will rescue her from debt; and so on. The place is revealed as a labyrinth of deception masquerading as a picture-postcard hamlet; tension begins to mount in between the dinner parties and evenings at the pub, and soon culminates in an unexpected death.
Behind perfect privets and brightly painted front doors, the lives of Riverside Lane’s residents slowly unravel. Tempesta, guarding his secrets with a vengeance, is suddenly threatened with exposure by the elderly religious zealot Ivy Midwinter, whose own past involved keeping professional confidences. When she challenges him in church, she learns that Tempesta will stop at nothing to protect his privacy ...
Set against the exquisite backdrop of a gastronomic village by the Thames, Riverside Lane is a tautly paced page-turner that also gently satirises middle- class English manners: the upstanding denizens of the village watch and whisper behind a mask of English hauteur, whilst their own fragile lives come undone.
Ivy bolted the door behind the journalist. Returning to her desk, she locked the drawer and squeezed her eyes shut. “The blind will see, and those who see will become blind,” she intoned, blinking furiously to dispel the strange dots that had started presenting themselves in her vision. They were becoming more frequent; Ivy knew she should visit an ophthalmologist. She hoped it was not un-Christian, but the thought of being unable to read her beloved sheet music upset her more deeply than any of the memories from her past. The Victorian marble clock, which comforted her hourly with its sweet Handel music, proclaimed that there was just enough time to deliver the cheque to the bank and get back to the Village for Evensong.
Standing at the bus stop with the melodious clock chimes still echoing softly in her head, Ivy caught sight of Luca Tempesta walking through the churchyard. Handel, she thought, had been sent to law school by his father, just like this American. The former had abandoned his studies and blessed mankind with the “Hallelujah” chorus; the latter, according to Ivy’s preliminary investigations, had abandoned his to set up a private-detective firm; then, some years later, he had apparently disappeared from God’s Earth without a trace. Except he had not disappeared. He was here in the Village, living in Clive’s house, next door to Frank, smoking Russian cigarettes. And Ivy Midwinter planned to find out why.
Julia left Somerset for London at 16. She founded & ran her own consumer P R agency representing a range of international brands including Braun, Molton Brown, Clairol & Kleenex. After selling the business she trained as a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders & hosted a phone-in show on Radio Luxembourg.
Julia writes bespoke literature & articles for private clients and visits secondary schools & prisons representing two national charities in providing emotional support to pupils & inmates. A keen kayaker and a passionate cook, she lives in Bray-on-Thames with her husband Nicolas and their four children.
Gaynor has worked as a national newspaper correspondent for more than twenty years, interviewing everyone from the great and the good to extraordinary people in ordinary lives. The rich variety of her subject matter and their circumstances has given her a rare insight into human nature and the challenges many people face.
Gaynor's great loves include sitting in pavement cafes watching the world go by, National Trust and English Heritage and hiking across the windswept Yorkshire moors. She lives in Bray-on-Thames with her husband Jonathan and their son, Freddie James.
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