Brackdale must be one of the nicest valleys in Cumbria. Off the beaten track, peaceful, unspoiled and tucked away beneath Priest Edge, it is usually ignored by tourists intent on reaching Lakeland’s heart as quickly as possible. The tiny village of Brack, the dale’s main community, boasts a lovely old-fashioned pub, The Moon Under Water. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Problem is, you won’t find the valley on any map because Brackdale is a fictional setting created by crime writer Martin Edwards, the man behind the Lake District Mysteries featuring Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. Martin has completed the first draft of The Hanging Wood, the fifth instalment in an evocative series, while the fourth novel, The Serpent Pool, is published in paperback this month. Hannah, a detective chief inspector, heads Cumbria Constabulary’s Kendal-based Cold Case Review Team and finds herself drawn into a relationship - professional and increasingly personal - with Daniel, an Oxford don and TV historian who has downshifted to the idyllic Tarn Cottage in nearby Brackdale.
A partner and head of employment law at Liverpool solicitors Mace & Jones, Martin, who lives in the Cheshire town of Lymm, introduced Hannah and Daniel in the 2004 novel The Coffin Trail. The Cipher Garden (2006), The Arsenic Labyrinth (2007) and The Serpent Pool (2010) followed in a series acclaimed by critics and readers alike.
By the time he wrote The Coffin Trail, Martin, aged fifty-five, was an established author. His career as a published writer began in earnest during his twenties with numerous legal articles and books, before he penned a series of crime novels set in Liverpool and featuring solicitor Harry Devlin. The first Devlin book, All The Lonely People, hit the shelves in 1991.
After seven Devlin novels, switching tack from the urban bleakness of Liverpool to the green and pleasant Lake District was a huge leap, but one Martin made happily. “The Devlin books were quite successful, but I wanted to do something different,” he recalls. “I don’t think it’s good for a writer to get stuck in a rut. I wrote a book, a one-off called Take My Breath Away, set in London, and that was taken by a different publisher. He said he would like me to do a new series, but with a rural background. I’ve always been keen on the Lakes for obvious reasons, and thought ‘the Lake District has never been in a crime series, how about the Lakes?’ He was very receptive to that, so I worked up the idea of the relationship between Hannah and Daniel, and put that to him for the book that became The Coffin Trail.
“I was a visitor to the Lakes. I wouldn’t say a regular visitor, but it’s just an hour and a half up the motorway and I go there when I can. The idea of having an excuse to visit more often was very attractive. Writing about a rural background is a different experience to writing about a city. There’s a different pace, a different culture and a different landscape, so I set about doing things differently from the earlier books. “One of things I tried to do was set the series up in a situation with potential and with space for the characters to develop. I wasn’t quite sure how the relationship between Hannah and Daniel would develop - and I’m still open-minded about it. New people appear and competition comes into it, particularly in the new book. One of the things that has been pretty interesting for me is that I originally conceived Daniel as the main character. In the first book, Hannah doesn’t appear until some way through. But I realised she was the main focus and she’s definitely now the dominant character.”
Though the later books feature locations such as Coniston, Esthwaite Water and Ambleside, Martin chose south-east Cumbria as the setting for The Coffin Trail. “I wanted Brackdale to be close to the motorway in case there were scenes in subsequent novels in places such as Morecambe and Lancaster,” he says. “It may not happen, but it seemed to be a good base, and I rather like Kentmere and Longsleddale, so I stuck Brackdale between the two. I thought I’d start with somewhere fairly obvious and Kendal was a good location. In real life there is a police station there, although mine is somewhat different, and I like Kendal and the surrounding area. I thought I would start there and move the scenes around in terms of setting from that point, so the book I’ve just written (The Hanging Wood) is around Keswick. Although the Lake District is a small area, it’s pretty diverse and I wanted to explore different aspects of it.”
Despite that, Martin is anxious that his books are seen very clearly as fiction. “When you get something like the Derrick Bird shootings, it’s a reminder that fiction is all very well, but real life murder is a terrible thing,” he says. “I don’t forget that. In a number of areas, I’ve done my research into a particular world outside the Lake District. So, for example, for the museum in The Arsenic Labyrinth I researched a museum in Yorkshire. The police information comes primarily from people outside the Lake District because there is a danger that if it is too localised you get a collision between fact and fiction that isn’t really appropriate.”
The Lake District Mysteries have been well received in Cumbria and across the world. The Arsenic Labyrinth was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year award in 2008. “That’s the most significant reaction I’ve had in the county,” Martin says. “I get emails from exiled Cumbrians, as well as people based in the Lakes, who say nice things about the books. The feedback is very positive, and it’s encouraging. I’d like to think the books offer some potential for Cumbria in terms of attracting additional tourists, especially from overseas. The Lake District has a very high profile, but Oxford had a very high profile and it still benefited a lot from Inspector Morse.” Martin’s prodigious output encompasses short stories, crime fiction reviews and editing anthologies, while he is also the archivist of the Crime Writers’ Association. Expertise in his branch of the law has led to him being dubbed ‘Mr Employment’. When does he find the time for his novels? “I do the writing in the evenings, at weekends and on holidays,” he smiles. “If you write a bit most nights, it adds up. I might write better books if I didn’t have a full-time job; it’s difficult to tell. I may be under less time pressure, but sometimes the pressure is a good thing.”
Wife Helena and children Jonathan and Catherine have been a great support, and often accompany Oxford graduate Martin to Cumbria on research trips. He recalls a February visit to Coniston while preparing The Arsenic Labyrinth. “They’ve found a few locations a bit challenging, and that was the nadir,” he laughs. “It was pouring down. ‘Why are we here?’, they asked. ‘I’ve got to see what it’s like!’, I replied.”
Many would regard Daniel’s relocation to a Lakeland beauty spot as living the dream. And that’s essentially what Martin is doing. As a young boy, devouring Christie and Conan Doyle, entranced by the idea of detectives, clues, red herrings and surprise solutions, he dreamed of becoming a crime writer. “When I was nine, reading Murder At The Vicarage, the thought that someone would take the time to visit me to ask about my writing, I’d have settled for that,” he says. “It’s very rewarding, and most solicitors don’t get that added benefit, so it’s a pleasurable experience.” Might Martin, Cheshire born, raised and domiciled, consider - like Daniel - downshifting to the Lakes? “I’ve got an open mind,” he says. “My daughter will be off to university soon, and my son is already there, so you never know.”
We could in the future see Hannah and Daniel on our televisions. Interest has been shown in adapting the series for the small screen, but none of the proposals has yet reached the stage of a signed agreement. Not that Martin, modest and softly spoken, is worrying about that. He aims simply to write better and better books. His growing army of admirers is in no doubt he is succeeding in that ambition.
Article reprinted courtesy of Andrew Gallon and of Cumbria Magazine.