THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW is the third in the Cornish Mystery series, after Manna from Hades and A Colourful Death, by Carola Dunn, author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries . It will be out December 11th in hardcover and ebook, from St. Martin's Minotaur. It is on the Independent Bookstores forthcoming Great Reads list for December
The series is set in about 1970 on the North Coast of Cornwall, in SW England (the bit that sticks out into the Atlantic, between the Bristol Channel and the English Channel). It's a wild stretch of coast, with high, sheer, rocky cliffs and small fishing ports battered by Atlantic storms . The cover of the book is a bit misleading--it's more like Falmouth harbour in the south, where the denouement of the story takes place.
My protagonist is Eleanor Trewynn, a widow in her 60s. After working all over the world, she retires to the small fishing village of Port Mabyn, looking forward to a life of peace and quiet with her West Highland terrier, Teazle. However, peace and quiet elude her.
Here, she and her next-door neighbour Nick, an artist, and her niece Megan, a police detective, go for a walk down a narrow, rocky valley (more pics) to the sea:
The stony path climbed the hillside. Here and there bedrock protruded, making natural steps, awkward because of their odd sizes and shapes. Twice Eleanor stumbled and nearly fell, but her Aikido training helped her regain her balance.
Ahead, the valley widened, and soon the inlet came into view. The air was so still that there were no whitecaps, just an edging of creamy froth along the base of the cliff. The dark green swells rolled in with soothing regularity.
"The Isle of the Dead," said Nick.
"What?" exclaimed Megan, startled.
"Rachmaninov. The opening describes the sea's present motion perfectly, restless yet monotonous. But he was writing music about a painting, so I don't see quite how I can reverse the process..." He was momentarily silent, occupied with an inner vision. "Damn! I was hoping for waves crashing against the sheer headland over there in sheets of spray. I should have checked the tide. Or maybe it’s just that we haven’t had much wind recently. Oh well, it'll have to do."
They walked on until the path petered out into terraces and steps of slate. The abrupt edge was two or three feet above the smooth tops of the swells that surged onward to meet the stream in swirls of foam. Clumps of thrift, the flowerheads brown now, clung in crevices here and there. A grey and white herring gull launched itself into the air and joined its fellows circling overhead, their raucous screams cutting through the constant yet ever-changing sounds of moving water. High above floated a buzzard.
"Gorgeous," said Megan.
"Good enough." Nick fiddled with his camera's settings, peered through, and fiddled some more.
Megan jumped down a slate step. Eleanor sat on it, the sun warm on her back.
"What's that?" Nick lowered the camera and pointed.
Eleanor peered, wishing she had brought binoculars. Something dark bobbed in the water. "A seal?"
"No." Megan's voice rang harsh. "It's a man. And if he's not already dead, he soon will be."
How the hell was she to get the poor bugger out? Megan took a rapid inventory of her resources.
"Hang on, we're coming!" Nick bellowed through cupped hands.
A good start. "Aunt Nell, go for help." As she spoke, she pulled off her sandals and untied the bow of her skirt. "Doctor, ambulance, rope, rugs, hot drinks, anything else you can think of."
Her aunt hurried away up the path, white curls bobbing, Teazle at her heels. Megan turned to find that Nick had already stripped off his shirt.
"Pity I didn't wear long trousers." He knotted Teazle's lead together with one sleeve of the shirt.
Megan tossed her skirt to him. "On the diagonal."
As he tied the other sleeve of his shirt to one corner of the skirt, she slipped out of her shoes and ripped off her blouse, buttons flying, glad she was wearing a black bra and knickers. Just like a bikini, she assured herself.
"No need for that," Nick protested, tightening the knots. "I'm going in."
Megan shook her head firmly. "I'm a certified lifeguard. I'll need your weight and your reach to pull us out, if I manage to get him. " Without further words, she leapt down the shelves of slate and, mindful of hidden rocks underwater, did a shallow racing dive towards the floating figure.
With a shock of cold, the sea enveloped her.
Surfacing in a trough, she swam to meet the next swell. From the crest she couldn't see the body. Had it been a seal after all? She glanced back at Nick, who waved and pointed.
Thank heaven he had his wits about him. She corrected her course slightly and ploughed on.
Down, and up, and down, and up... Was she actually moving forward, or was a current stalling her in one place while the swells passed beneath her, lifting, dropping, lifting— But the current was moving her target, too. Towards the rocks? She must be getting closer.
There he was! A brown-skinned man, limp, floating on his back. Dead men float face down after first sinking. The dark patch she had taken for hair was his face, unshaven, eyes closed. He was alive!
Opening black eyes, he turned his head to look at her. As though the effort exhausted his last reserve of strength, he started to sink.
Megan would have said she was swimming as fast as she was able, but she put on a spurt. She caught him under the arms and raised his head above the surface. He neither struggled nor made any attempt to help. He hadn't choked on emerging. A bad sign?
She decided hopefully that his buoyancy meant his lungs must be full of air, not water. With one arm under his and across his chest, she swam backstroke, straining to hear Nick's shouted directions as single-armed swimming made her veer from her course.
"You're getting close!"
Megan changed tactics. One hand holding up the victim's chin, she twisted sideways and started a scissors kick. At the top of each swell she glanced backwards. As she neared the sheer rock face, she slowed, unsure what to do next.
Nick knelt down. "I'm throwing a loop of rope," he called. "Try to hook it under his arms."
Teazle's lead flew towards her. The weight of the leather and the metal clip carried the makeshift rope within reach, and the leather floated. Megan grabbed it with her free hand.
Hooking it under the arms of the flaccid body, while staying afloat and keeping his face out of the water, was easier said than done. She was growing tired by the time she accomplished it, but now Nick took the strain. He drew them slowly nearer. Megan was able to put out a hand to fend them off from the rock.
Unlike the smooth concrete edge of the swimming-bath she'd trained in, this edge was sharp. The sea's action flaked the slate rather than smoothing it. Getting out—and especially getting the helpless man out—without nasty grazes was not going to be easy.
Nick was lying full length now, awkwardly, on the shelving rock, his shoulders and arms over the edge. "Can you lift him at all?"
"Don't think so. Can't feel anything to stand on."
"Never mind." He reached down. "I'll hold him. Can you get yourself up?"
"I'll manage." She moved over a couple of feet and waited for a swell to lift her, then grabbed the edge above her head. There were plenty of toe-holds. Somehow, with the loss of some skin, she hauled herself over. For a brief moment she let herself flop, all muscles relaxed.
"Let's get him out. Is he breathing? I don't like the look of him."
"Hypothermic." She pulled herself together and shuffled crabwise to Nick's side.
He had draped his shorts over the edge as some protection against scrapes. What a pair, she thought, her in sodden black bra and knickers, him in white Y-fronts and string vest!
Turning his head, he caught her eye and gave her a crooked grin. "Needs must when the devil drives. Come on, we can do it. On three."
She leant down. He shifted his grip and she hooked her hands beneath the brown man's armpit. As another swell raised him towards them, Nick counted, "One. Two—"
"Hey, hang on!"
Heavy footsteps hurried across the rock. Megan glanced back to see a young couple in hiking boots and shorts, shrugging off rucksacks as they came.
"We saw from the cliff path," the girl explained breathlessly. "Sorry it took us so long to get here. We were way up at the top."
"I'll take over," the shaggy-haired youth said to Megan, kneeling down. "Super job, but you must be done in."
She was happy to relinquish her place. Her arms were beginning to feel like jelly.
As she sat up, Nick said, "Megan, be ready to support his head. All right, mate, at the top of the swell... One, two, heave!"
Megan managed to field his head before it struck the rock. She laid it down gently and brushed the straggling black hair from his face.
"A wog, eh?" said the stranger. "Indian, looks like. Stupid git, swimming in there. Starkers, too."
"Don't talk like that, Chaz," his companion remonstrated. "You don't know what happened. Is he breathing?"
Her hand on his chest, Megan put her ear to his mouth, which had fallen slightly open. "Can't feel any movement but there's a faint wheeze."
Carola will be talking about Valley of the Shadow and signing copies at Murder by the Book in Portland OR at 2 pm December 9th (at their holiday party) and at Seattle Mystery Bookshop at 12 noon December 11. Signed books can be ordered from either.