Why write An Elegant Murder?

Given the right conditions, corpses can mummify, rather than liquefy and decompose.

An Elegant Murder is set against the background of the Brexit Referendum. The voters’ decision to leave the European Union plunged the country into chaos. Having lived among the farming community, I’m keenly aware of their tight profit margins and dependence on subsidies. People voted in ignorance of the repercussions.

Marcus Aurelius noted that: Poverty is the mother of crime. Farmers faced with losing their livelihoods might well be tempted to turn to crime. They, in turn, become victims of crime. I’ve known several farmers who had possessions stolen from their barns when they were away at market. Others had their livestock rustled from remote fields. Such incidents breed suspicion of strangers, as well as discord within the farming community—what if it’s your neighbour who’s the thief?

Farming is a lonely existence. In recent years, there have been several sad real-life incidents of people dying alone, their bodies not found for ages. In the UK 34% of people live alone, some not socialising with their nearest neighbour, who could be next door or, if in the countryside, half-a-mile distant. Given the right conditions, corpses can mummify, rather than liquefy and decompose. The dead farmer in my story lives a hardscrabble existence, relying on no one but himself, effectively not a part of the 21st century. He’s both indomitable and vulnerable, too proud and guilt-stricken to seek help.

His guilt is driven by religious mania, but his conscience is stricken by how he treated his adopted sister. Signing her life away, by having her committed to what was once called a mental asylum, for her promiscuity which tempted him, he punishes himself physically and by denial. Once incarcerated in the system, it was difficult to impossible for a patient diagnosed as mad to gain release, especially without family support.

Related image

The sister survives being committed, returning to the only place she was once happy, the remote farm in Cornwall. Not in her right mind and living in the past, she shares the house with the mummified corpse of her brother, something that people have done in real life, usually in a state of delusion, sometimes to carry on claiming the dead person’s pension. Oddly enough, the sister is the happiest person in my story, for though her attempt to resume her love life is a fantasy, she’s blissful until she meets her nemesis. I’ve worked as a counsellor with those afflicted by mental health issues, wondering sometimes at who was sane and who was insane and who had the right to make that definition.

Strong religious belief can be a comfort and a source of strength and inspiration, but also a way that people hold themselves back by pointless devotion, punishing their bodies and minds if they think they’ve failed.

Image result for hair shirt
Hair Shirt

Bodmin Moor is an ageless place, not much changed for hundreds of years. It’s the ideal location to set a story with ancient themes of love, lust, avarice and betrayal. I wanted to write a narrative that allowed me to focus on face-to-face confrontations between my Cornish Detective and witnesses and suspects, without the interference of technology. One of the biggest problems in writing crime novels set in the 21st century is having to include CCTV cameras, mobile phone tracking, social media accounts, DNA and fingerprinting. What if none of those elements could be used or were of limited use?

The scheming of people, how envy and lust drive foolish actions that have might have repercussions for decades, is made irrelevant if those selfish people suddenly realise that they are on the food chain…that they’re being stalked by a big cat! All of their weaknesses come into sharp focus. The legend of The Beast Of Bodmin Moor is older than that of the Loch Ness Monster.

Image result for beaST OF BODMIN MOOR

It has more probability of being true too, for The Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 brought in a licensing system that proved difficult to satisfy. Faced with having their exotic animals humanely destroyed, some owners released them into the countryside. One of the biggest surprises for me, when researching An Elegant Murder, was finding how many licences are still granted that enable people to keep bobcats, lynxes, wolves and mountain lions in captivity.

Anything smacking of myth will be used to promote tourism, including King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but a big cat on the loose in the Cornish countryside is believable. Dead sheep and deer savaged to death, on farms neighbouring where I lived, weren’t killed by dogs. The scene in my story, where the detectives realise a mountain lion is standing on the other side of their hide, is based on a true incident that happened to a sound recordist acquaintance of mine.

He was part of a team sent out to investigate reports of a mountain lion being sighted near to Minions on Bodmin Moor. The plan was to camp out overnight to record audio and video of the big cat on the prowl. It rained heavily, so thinking the assignment was ruined, the sound recordist duo were just about return to their car, when they heard something big moving stealthily outside their canvas hide.

Figuring it was one of the camera crew having a laugh, their annoyance changed to terror when the mountain lion screamed! Holding on to one another, the two men attempted to work out where the big cat was, backing away from that wall of the tent. Their car was parked 200 yards away, too far to run in pitch dark, so they spent a sleepless night waiting for dawn. The cat only screamed once, and they hadn’t recorded it. Tracks around the hide had been made indistinct by the rain.

Imagine hearing that nearby in the dark!

No one really believed them, thinking they were making it up, but I did, for a couple of years later, I experienced a moment of great fear, when I realised that I was being watched by something in the bushes on the other side of the stream, twenty feet away from where I was standing on the sheep farm where I lived. I froze, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, as I slowly moved my eyes to see a dark shape move away from me. It silently crept off, slinking like a cat would, not trotting like a dog or waddling like a sheep and making a noise. I immediately returned to my cottage. Carrying a large walking stave and a diver’s knife, I returned to the scene the next day, to look for tracks, but could find nothing on the leaf litter.

As soon as you talk about anything like this, people immediately look for explanations to debunk what you saw and ridicule you. But, just think about how wildlife adapts to living among us, even in cities. Rewilding projects are moving ahead in the UK, for animals as diverse as beavers, bobcats, wolves and the native wild cat, all of which once lived here, but were driven into extinction by hunting.

I used many real locations in my story, including The Cheesewring and Gold Diggings Quarry. These are attractive tourist destinations, which have historical significance. The geology of Cornwall can’t be ignored, for it’s affected the industry and agriculture so much. Granite makes laying sewage, water and gas pipes impossible, hence so many septic tanks, boreholes and Calor gas ovens and heating systems. It’s also inconvenient for murderers wanting to bury a corpse, leading to shallow graves, which is how one of the victims is discovered in An Elegant Murder.

Farmers are hardy people—feuds exist—ghosts haunt the lives of those who live on. Face-to-face tough-guys bluff their way through gossip in the community and police interrogations, while being tormented by the spirits of those they hurt and destroyed. Superstitions abound and farmers invent their own, cleaving to habits that brought them luck before and not doing activities on particular days, as that was when something went wrong.

Three innocent people die in An Elegant Murder, two by physical violence, the other by stealth. Their killers sought money and freedom but condemned themselves to an eternity of torment.

It’s often those we’re closest to who kill us.

Book 3: An Elegant Murder

Investigating the puzzling deaths of two pensioners on Bodmin Moor, Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle uncovers hidden torment, avarice, lust and violence from forty years ago, which has modern day repercussions.

It’s a long, hot summer—good for Cornwall, which depends on tourist income—but, bad for crime. The heatwave drives people mad, and two corpses are found on Bodmin Moor.

The corpse of a mysterious elderly woman is found floating in a flooded quarry. Dressed in a 1950s ballgown, she carries no identification and can’t be traced.

Image result for 1950S blue BALL GOWN

Days later, a burglar discovers the mummified corpse of a reclusive farmer, who’s been sitting at his kitchen table for five years. His farm is off the grid, and only a short walk from the quarry. Are the two victims connected? No one has missed them.

Image result for cornish farm

The farming community on Bodmin Moor is insular, not given to sharing information, something Neil knows from personal experience, having grown up on a sheep farm. Thieves are around, stealing property from remote barns and rustling livestock. Stolen to order, by armed gangs from upcountry, it’s likely that they have cooperation from locals betraying their neighbours. Farmers are guarding their animals with shotguns. It’s only a matter of time before there’s a shootout.

Not all dead cattle, deer and sheep have been taken by rustlers. A stealthy four-legged killer stalks the land: the legendary Beast of Bodmin Moor looks to be a flesh and blood exotic big cat.

In a primitive landscape, unchanged for hundreds of years, and with no CCTV cameras and weak mobile phone signals, Neil Kettle tracks down his suspects, while becoming prey himself!

Book 2: The Perfect Murderer

Then, another murder happens, which doesn’t fit the pattern.

A second killer has joined in.

A serial killer, known as The Watcher, is terrorising the small market town of Liskerrett, Cornwall and the surrounding area, taking victims seemingly at random and with great expertise.

Neil Kettle is running a major murder investigation, as he struggles with depression, a delayed reaction to the accidental death of his wife four years ago.

Three people have been murdered, a child, an old woman and an American tourist, all dying by different methods. The perpetrator is playing a game, one as old as time. He’s a fantasist, but is he a psychopath? His killing skills suggest military training—he might have PTSD.

Image result for soldier ptsd

A master of disguise, he never appears the same way twice when spotted in public on CCTV, imitating women and disabled war veterans. Neil’s detectives have close encounters with the killer, not realising who he is. He could be targetting them.

Image result for lifelike asian woman vinyl full head mask
Asian woman vinyl full head mask

It’s almost Christmas, and Liskerrett is busy with thrill-seeking ghouls, visiting the murder scenes and hampering the hunt for a murderer who kills perfectly. Neil and his team of detectives are under enormous pressure to catch the killer, for Liskerrett is already being referred to as ‘Murder Town.’

The investigation becomes even more complicated, when MI5 and the FBI take an interest. They provide Neil with useful information about the perpetrator, but what are they keeping secret?

Neil feels isolated in command, his only friends the forensic pathologist Christie Cook, known as CC, and his father-in-law, the retired chief detective Roger Rule, an autocratic control-freak with a heart of ice. But, Roger was a highly successful murder investigator, so Neil turns to him for advice.

Image result for toe tag morgue

Then, another murder happens, which doesn’t fit the pattern.

A second killer has joined in.

Creating Kettle

A country copper with a strange mind, a weary heart and quick fists—what could possibly go wrong?

After returning to creative writing in 2013, I wrote enough short stories, novellas, poetry and song lyrics to self-publish 45 titles online. Initially, I used Smashwords, followed by Amazon, but then I moved my eBooks onto Draft2Digital, a relatively new operator—more 21st-century in its technology and look. Although I was satisfied with them, I recently decided to try KDP Select, which meant several weeks of waiting for my titles to be unpublished from vendors D2D had distributed them to. KDP Select insists on exclusivity.

It had always been my intention to write novels, but I was learning the business of publishing and improving my writing technique, so didn’t rush things. My first thought was to write a literary novel set in modern times and tackling such issues as social media, online dating, surveillance of the population, terrorism, austerity and the recession and Brexit. Thankfully, I hadn’t even got as far as making notes, when I saw advice from several writing gurus, that placing a literary novel with an agent and a publisher was the most difficult of all books. Genre writing was more popular. I changed tack to write crime novels.

After half-a-century of reading crime stories, I know the genre very well. Of course, every genre has sub-genres and I’m more a devotee of psychological thrillers, hardboiled tough guy mysteries, Southern noir and writing that has literary flourishes, including strong characterisation. I’m not a fan of cosies or animal detectives. My favourite crime writers include James Oswald, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Val McDermid, Kate Atkinson, Jo Nesbø and Andrea Camilleri.

I wasn’t that commercially aware when starting out, but I knew that Crime is the second best-selling genre after Romance/Erotica. Also, I live in Cornwall, where my stories would be set, which already has several noted authors, such as Daphne Du Maurier (Jamaica Inn), Winston Graham (Poldark), W.J. Burley (Inspector Wycliffe), Dominic Minghella (Doc Martin) and Patrick Gale (Notes From An Exhibition).

Image result for cornwall

Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places in the world, making it a popular tourist destination. But, beauty goes hand in hand with danger, for people die swimming in the sea and rivers, falling off cliffs or into disused mines. It’s a great backdrop for violent crimes. Daphne Du Maurier was inspired to write Jamaica Inn after getting lost on Bodmin Moor in the fog, whilst out horse riding. I know Cornwall well, having lived here for thirty years. I also know coppers (good and bad) and criminals, victims of crime, social workers and probation officers.

Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemos stated that: “The only things worth writing about are love and murder.” I’m inclined to agree with him, for both show life at the extreme. Writing about crime allows me to tackle anything in society.

In creating a protagonist for my stories, I wanted to diverge from the usual detective or private eye, who drinks, takes drugs and smokes too much, while gambling his money away, breaking laws and chasing women. Many authors have done well with such rebellious antiheroes, particularly Jo Nesbø with Harry Hole, but I decided to go with a career copper who’s a son of the soil, and also rather weird!

It always helps an author if their hero is monied, and Neil Kettle is a millionaire from the sale of his parents’ sheep farm, following their premature deaths. His wife died in a traffic accident, meaning a life insurance payout. He’s not interested in money, rarely thinking about his savings, but it does give him a reputation for being his own man. He stays a copper for the intellectual challenge and to right wrongs in society.

In those ways, he’s conventional, but he’s unusual in how he’s in tune with nature, which helps him in his rural investigations. Clean-living, he’d rather have herbal tea than a shot of whisky; he doesn’t smoke. He’s more left-wing or green politically. A frustrated artist, he paints, draws, is learning to play the guitar and is growing a wild garden to encourage wildlife. He reads widely and listens to different types of music to help him meditate on cases.

Image result for big bear choppers

Neil Kettle has a rebellious streak, riding a long black Big Bear chopper, which was a trophy taken from an evil criminal. He loves being a copper with a chopper, for he gets treated as an ordinary bloke while out riding it. Like his surname, Neil Kettle is content to simmer away most of the time, but he comes to the boil quickly with a violent temper. He’s more a hunter than his laid back personality suggests.

Neil’s persistence and aggression see him triumph over serial killers in Book 2 The Perfect Murderer and the fourth tale Sin Killers, where the predators stalk him.

A loner since being widowed, he struggles with depression in the first two books, but is rebuilding his life and is more content about the future by Book 3 An Elegant Murder. His closest friend is CC, the police force’s forensic pathologist. She’s like a considerate but cheeky aunt to him, offering useful insights into the offender and wise counselling about life.

While grieving, I didn’t give him a love life, though he has an online relationship with a witness who finds the victim’s body in the first investigation Who Kills A Nudist? Mish Stewart is an American photographer, who returns home to Wyoming to decide what she wants to do with her life. There’s a mutual attraction between Neil and Mish, but the timing is wrong.

Their relationship alters for the better when she unexpectedly returns in the fifth story The Dead Need Nobody. It won’t all be plain sailing, for she has a complicated criminal history, which comes back to haunt them in Kissing & Killing. I’ll begin writing Book 6 this summer, hopefully typing The End about Christmas time.

The Cornish Detective novels are based in mid-Cornwall, with Neil operating from the police station at Liskerrett, which is the ancient name for Liskeard. I altered various geographical features in a writerly way, but not so much that they can’t be recognised.

Although Brexit is slowly going ahead, Neil Kettle investigates crimes linked to Europe, for crime is international and Cornwall’s rugged coastline is ideal for smugglers of drugs and weapons and human traffickers to sneak their ill-gotten gains in.

It’s been that way for centuries, and there have always been a few dedicated law officers who track down the criminals. Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle leads a crack squad of officers in the Major Investigation Team. Each of them has their own skillset, but ultimately it’s Neil who gets the job done.

A country copper with a strange mind, a weary heart and quick fists—what could possibly go wrong?