Double Check on Cornwall

By sheer chance I am now reading two very different books that are both set in Cornwall: Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition and Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley mystery, Careless in Red.

I’ve never been to Cornwall (although I very much want to), so I can’t judge if both writers have captured the spirit of the place. But the backdrop of each story is so different that sometimes I feel they are set in different worlds.

Elizabeth George’s story is set on the coastline in an imaginary village with local small businesses catering to the tourists, especially those looking for outdoor sports like rock-climbing and surfing. As Elizabeth George explains, she always takes her inspiration from a real place, so readers familiar with Cornwall may be able to discover through the realistic description the real-life name and location of Casvelyn.

The book is set off season, so there is a definite small-town, gossipy, tightly-knit-against-outsiders and rather grim atmosphere. I’m not sure what are the most popular clichés on Cornwall, but there are definitely pasties, clotted cream, nice landscapes, back roads and lots of wind. Now, I’m not really a sports person (ok, I can hear Mr. Smithereens roaring with laughter already — I’m not at all a sports person), so I don’t care much about surfing, and I find myself rather annoyed by the very Cornish names of the massive cast of characters (it’s not the fact that they are difficult to remember, it’s the sheer number of them…)…

Mmh, maybe I’m getting off on the wrong foot with that one. I’ve often wondered about the fact that Elizabeth George, an American, writes typically English mysteries, and how true (or wrong) her books sound to British (or Cornish) ears. Most previous novels didn’t bother me that much, but on this one, her concern about local realism seems forced to me, even to my completely foreign ears.

Patrick Gale’s story is set in Penzance, and it definitely appeals a lot more to me, even if the subject was unfamiliar at first. It’s a family drama centered around the mother, an artist suffering from bipolar disorders and severe bouts of depression. The small-town feeling is also present (and the wind, but not the pasties 😉 !), but seen under a warm, human light, especially as one of the adult sons stays with his father to sort out stuff after his mother’s death. He appreciates the chitchat in the local shops, the feeling that people know and care about each other, although he is reminded of his teenaged years when all this slowness and closeness was oppressive and made him yearn to leave for the big city. It helps to say that the story is set in the Quaker community (a faith I didn’t know the first thing about), so it gives a calm, intimate and subdued atmosphere, completely at odds with the Elizabeth George mystery.

I’m sure that the truth is somewhere in between, or maybe in a combination of both. Imagine a bipolar killer who enjoys surfing, shopping for Cornish pasties in Penzance, before joining cliff-climbers going to a Quaker meeting… not really the best of both worlds!

6 thoughts on “Double Check on Cornwall

  1. This is very interesting — how writers use location in different ways. The most successful, I think, weave story and place together in an unobtrusive way and also write a story that could not take place in any other location — like Hardy, for example. The problem with the George book may be that the location is not actually necessary to the story, which is why the place descriptions seem maybe forced or pasted in. I haven’t read this book — and really like George — but every once in a while a writer, especially one under pressure to churn out the next volume in a series — misfires. perhaps that’s what happened here.

  2. I’d love to visit Cornwall sometime, too! I’ve read all of Eizabeth George’s mysteries except this one (haven’t gotten around to it yet), so I can’t offer any opinion of it. I generally enjoy her books but the later ones do tend to be pretty grand when it comes to cast of characters and complex plotlines. Sometimes that can be good, but sometimes it can just complicate matters unneccessarily. I’ll be curious to read this one! Hopefully it will pick up and really grab you! 🙂

  3. I’m just in the second chapter of George’s novel, but I’ve been to Cornwall–St. Ives, Land’s End, Penzance, and villages in between–and her descriptions have me yearning to return. In fact, interrupting my reading to run a web search for Casvelyn brought me to this website. I’m hoping for more, not less, Cornish description.

    A novel must be set somewhere. It already seems to me that George’s choice of Cornwall is natural to the plot. First, it involves a death in a fall from a cliff, of which Cornwall has many. Second, Cornwall is the family home of Thomas Lynley, one of her re-occurring detective characters, who has returned there to recover–or not–from the recent loss of his wife, murdered two novels ago.

    As an aside, I’ve recommended that people read George’s novels in order, except that A Suitable Vengeance, her fourth novel, should be read first since it is chronologically first by plot. I once asked her if she had written it in response to a demand from her readers to know more about the backgrounds of her reoccurring characters, and she was admirably honest in replying, no, that A Suitable Vengeance had been written first, but it hadn’t sold until after she’d had three successes.

    It seems to me that as George’s novels have become thicker and meatier, their plotting and character development have become to P.D. James what P.D. James was to Agatha Christie. I gobble’emup.

    • Hi Jack! Thanks for your comment! I was a bit disappointed by this book but I’m still a fan of Elizabeth George’s mysteries and will definitely “gobble” the next one too, just like you!
      About Casvelyn, you might have found on the internet someone claiming to have recognized the village of Bude in Cornwall. Having never been there myself, I can’t tell. The village itself doesn’t advertise its fictional counterpart.

  4. Having just finished Elizabeth Georges book I can relate to the general atmosphere of the people as I grew up in a small community somewhat depending on tourists/summer guests where it takes generations to become one of the locals. Until then you’re a newcomer and not really accepted and any passers through or tourists are just a nuisance even if they are a source of income.

    Of course the author have a higher concentration of originals and people with sectrets than in real life and probaly focuses more on these characters for the sake of the plot but all in all I think it’s plausible for an out-of-the-way village on a wind swept coast line. A place where, for generations, people have had to eke out a living from what nature has given them, or more likely have had to wrestle nature for.

    I was more annoyed by her description of the making of surfboards, the matrilas used and the workmanship involved etc as I have worked a bit with boats and sailing dinghies and think there were some errors.

    Regarding your comment on the cast of characters and the number of people making it difficult to keep up, I found it quite OK as she manages to present people, give them their own personas and put them into context. I have read far worse novels with people just thrown in and many parallel story lines to keep track of.

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