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.
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.
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.
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.
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.