Cornish Mysteries // by Carola Dunn

  • Manna from Hades
  • A Colourful Death
  • The Valley of the Shadow

Note: this series also includes Buried in the Country, which I did not read at this time, for reasons that shall be revealed below…

So a while back I read through Dunn’s other cozy mystery series, set in the 1920’s and starring Daisy Dalrymple.  I overall really enjoyed that series, although it had its ups and downs, so I thought that I would give this set of Dunn’s books a go.

//published 2009//

Set in the late 60’s or possibly early 70’s in Cornwall, Eleanor Trewynn (widow) has retired to a small coastal village.  She and her husband worked for many years for a charity organization whose purpose was honestly rather vague but I think somehow involved giving food and shelter to poor people in… places??  (It’s called the London something-or-other, but they travel all over the world, so apparently it’s for lots of other countries as well?)  Since her retirement, Eleanor has been living in the upstairs apartment of a cottage she purchased, and has renovated the downstairs to be a thrift shop whose proceeds benefit this charity.

There were aspects of these books that I liked.  I felt that the setting was done well, and overall the mysteries come together decently.  But there were little things about these books that aggravated me. Usually I enjoy reading a series straight through and really immersing myself in it, but I think these books would have benefited if I had read them spaced apart a bit, as those little aggravations become more annoying with each passing book, and by the time I finished The Valley of the Shadow, I realized I had literally zero interest in picking up Buried in the Country.  Valley was honestly a bit of a struggle for me to get through; I was just so bored while I was reading it.

I really like my current method of reading four books at once and rotating between them, but the disadvantage is that it sometimes takes me longer to realize that I don’t actually like a book, and that’s what happened here.  I enjoyed these books less and less as I went along, but kind of didn’t notice it until I finished Valley.

//published 2010//

So I realize that the things I’m going to complain about are going to sound rather nitpicking and maybe overly-sensitive, but hey, it’s my blog so I can say what I want!

The biggest thing was Eleanor herself.  I started out not exactly liking her but at least not being actively aggravated by her.  She’s kind of a batty old woman, which was definitely at its worst in the first book – I honestly just wanted to shake her at multiple points in time because she’s so vague and rambly and someone has been murdered and yet it felt like she wasn’t even making an effort to remember things or get things straight.  It wasn’t quite as bad in the next two books, but I did get very tired of hearing how bad she is at remembering to lock up (because she’s spent so much time in countries that don’t even have doors, much less locks!  Like how many times do you need to tell me that…???) but how even though she might be vague about some things she has an excellent sense of direction and always can find her way through the rambling lanes of Cornwall.  Blah blah blah.

I also realized that the more I read about Eleanor, the more she came across as just obnoxiously superior.  The biggest place that this came through was in her relationship with her supposed best friend, Jocelyn.  Jocelyn is the vicar’s wife, and also is in charge of the charity shop.  She’s efficient and intelligent, yet Eleanor/Dunn always manage to sound incredibly condescending about her, because Eleanor isn’t religious.  This, of course, makes Eleanor superior because she does charitable things out of the goodness of her heart, while Jocelyn only does them because of duty.  Eleanor has the flexibility to make her own decisions about what is best to do or say at different moments in time, but Jocelyn is bound by duty because of all the annoying religious rules she has to follow, so obviously she can’t listen to gossip even if it may aid the investigation, and she’s going to be super judgy about a pair of strangers living together because her religion has made her so sanctimonious and sheltered that she doesn’t really understand real life like Eleanor, who has traveled the world and seen lots of other cultures and realized that everyone has a legitimate point of view so she’s incredibly open-minded unlike poor, narrow, stick-in-the-mud Jocelyn.

//published 2012//

It just felt like these comparisons happened more and more frequently as the books went on, or maybe I just became more sensitive to them.  I found the constant snide remarks about how Christianity, and religion in general, is only for people who aren’t strong enough to be compassionate on their own.  They are only compassionate because of rules and duty and are also only compassionate to people who fit within their boundaries of rules and duty.  But people like Eleanor are much more enlightened and superior.  Besides being a complete misrepresentation of Christianity, it also got quite old, as a reader, to listen to how clever and kind Eleanor was.

Eleanor, as an aside, also knows a special martial arts that she still practices, and of course this means that she’s basically invincible (in her mind).  On a couple of occasions she even uses “a move” to get out of a bad situation.  While I find this realistic, the concept that she could then continue to fight her antagonist and come out ahead – I’m sorry, an elderly woman vs. a young man, even where elderly woman knows martial arts, is never going to actually end with the elderly woman winning.  The best she can hope for is what she did – to stun/startle her opponent long enough for someone else to step in.  But Eleanor is convinced that she could basically win any fight that comes her way because of her martial arts, and this made me roll my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head.

The other nagging thing, besides Eleanor herself, was her niece, Megan.  I actually like Megan a lot.  She’s a detective and so is another connection in Eleanor’s involvement in various mysteries.  Of course, this is an earlier time, when women weren’t often on the police force.  For the most part, I felt like Dunn handled this well and didn’t make to big of an issue of it.  Like yes, it’s a thing, but there is more to Megan’s character than that.  But she still managed to bring up things that just felt obnoxious.  Like at once point, Megan is in the car with another officer and something happens and he swears:

Dawson reversed, swearing.  He shot Megan a half-shamefaced, half-defiant look and muttered, “Sorry,” as he backed into a passing niche.

After six years in the police, she still hadn’t worked out how to deal with this situation.  He’d never have apologised for bad language to a male colleague.  On one hand, he was being polite.  On the other, he was treating her differently because she was a woman.  She muttered something indistinguishable even to herself.

Here’s an idea:  just say, “Hey, no worries,” and then move on with your life.  Stick with the part where he’s being polite, accept it for what it is, and move on.  This crops up in multiple places, where men do something that is just simple, basic politeness – like holding a door – and Megan has all this internal angst about how she should respond to this.  SAY THANK YOU AND MOVE ON.  It’s not that hard.  In none of the situations are the men doing it in a way that is condescending or acting like she’s inferior.  It’s just regularly politeness, and Megan consistently acts like it’s this big deal.  None of the other officers act like she’s weak or pathetic or can’t handle the job.  She ranks higher than many of the other characters, and they consistently treat her with the same deference as their other commanding officers.  If she was in a situation where she was really battling against a lot of snide treatment, or if guys were holding doors open with an attitude like they had to do this because she’s too incompetent to handle it herself, I could understand where she’s coming from.  But instead it felt like she was always making a mountain out of a molehill.  The best way to blend in and not make a fuss is by saying thank you and not making a fuss.  Sheesh.

So this is a lot of griping for three books that I just felt incredibly meh about.  I honestly wasn’t full of rage while I was reading them, but I did realize as I went on that I was just really bored of them, bored of the characters, bored of the story, and bored of Eleanor’s superiority.  The mysteries themselves were fine, but didn’t really have any kick, and The Valley of the Shadow especially felt polemic as it was about illegal immigrants, of course comprised of a poor, upstanding, well-educated, hardworking family with small children, because those are the only types of illegal immigrants that show up in literature.  (Not that there aren’t poor, upstanding, well-educated, hardworking families with small children who are illegally immigrating, but they aren’t the only ones or even the majority so.)  In the end, the book felt like a long lecture about open borders instead of an actual mystery.

In the end, 3/5 for the first two books and 2/5 for the third and a pass for the fourth.