My new book, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY, begins in my English hometown of Brighton, but the action quickly moves west along the southern-most edge of the country to an imaginary village near Penzance in Cornwall, in the far southwest of the UK. It’s a beautiful part of the country—full of jagged, surf-pounded cliffs, golden sandy beaches, stark moors, and lush gardens, and remarkably unspoiled little fishing villages.
I’m not sure what made me pick Cornwall as a destination for my main character, but somehow I always knew that that was where she would end up. Whatever the reason, I’m not the first writer to have experienced the pull of Cornwall as a fictional backdrop. Here are a few of my favorite reads set in and around the Cornish countryside.
When talking about Cornish novels it feels just plain wrong not to include the grande dame of them all. Daphne du Maurier set many of her novels in and around her real house, Menabilly, in Cornwall, but REBECCA is arguably the most famous. It also draws most closely on Menabilly as an inspiration for Manderley—the country house where the heroine of REBECCA finds herself, following marriage to the enigmatic Maxim de Winter.
I watched the classic Hitchcock film of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic masterpiece starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine for the first time in years the other night, and in loving it was reminded of how much I also loved the book. Is there a first line of a novel more evocative than “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”? Only Hitchcock could do justice to the moodiness and plot twists of Du Maurier’s genius work.
Like du Maurier, Winston Graham was not a Cornish native, but the Poldark novels are a love letter to his adopted county, and to his wife, who is said to have inspired the character of Demelza. Like many others, I came to the novels only after watching the magnificently bodice-ripping BBC drama, but the fabulously atmospheric descriptions of the mines and the painstakingly rendered Cornish dialect lend an extra dimension to the story.
I am a sucker for alternate history, and this is particularly well done. Set in an England where Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, FALSE LIGHTS tells the story of Hester, an heiress fleeing her Cornish home after the murder of her father, and Crow, an English soldier-spy trying and failing to outrun his demons. The Cornwall Whittaker conjures up is rich, blood-soaked, and darkly romantic, and cleverly mixes real history with imagined events.
This is a little bit of a cheat (okay, a lot of a cheat) because it actually takes place just across the border from Cornwall, in neighboring Devon (an important distinction to inhabitants of both counties!). But the setting is so fabulous that I can’t resist including it anyway. EVIL UNDER THE SUN is set in an exclusive island hotel, based on the real Burgh Island Hotel off the Devon coast, where guests are brought over in a “sea tractor” according to the tides. The plot makes full use of the various coves and winding coastal paths, and the atmosphere of stifled luxury is very much Christie’s home territory.
Of course, no list of murder mysteries worth its salt can leave out legendary writer Agatha Christie. In EVIL UNDER THE SUN, meticulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on the trail of the killer of a sun-bronzed beauty whose death brings some rather shocking secrets to light.
Written when Mary Wesley was in her 70s, THE CAMOMILE LAWN makes the most of its setting in the beautiful Roseland Peninsular, at a country house reportedly based on Boskenna, where Wesley had stayed years before. A group of cousins gather for the funeral of their aunt in the 1980s, and the reunion brings back bitter sweet memories of the summer they spent at her house in 1939, the last summer of peace before the cataclysm of World War 2 descends on them all and changes their lives forever.