Fifty pages into W. C. Ryan’s World War I mystery A House of Ghosts, I began to wonder if I’d read it before. Details of the island and former abbey were vividly familiar, though I’ve never seen the Devon-Cornwall peninsula. Did I once read another novel with essentially the same setting?
More than once, it turns out. My sense of déjà vu may come from P. D. James’s The Lighthouse or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, set on coastal islands off Cornwall and Devon respectively. I could almost believe the islands of southwestern England exist to inspire mystery novelists. Weather or tide traps a small group whose number includes an unidentified killer. If the only access is by a causeway at low tide, suspense rises with the water level.
Isolation creates tension on the mainland, too. To travel from London southwest to Penzance could take nearly as long as to Scotland. Rocky cliffs shelter smugglers and pirates; the “wink” in Martha Grimes’s The Lamorna Wink refers to a smuggler’s signal. Hikers on the coastal path risk a boulder from above (Christie, Peril at End House) or a fall to the sandy beach below (Elizabeth George, Careless in Red). Accident or murder? Bodies wash up or float away on the tide. A gothic sense of foreboding pervades crumbling coastal mansions, such as Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Farther inland is bleak Dartmoor with its ancient stone circles, deadly peat bogs, and notorious Dartmoor Prison (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles).
I finished A House of Ghosts and returned it along with another book chosen at random from the library’s mystery shelves. The narrator in Kate Sedley’s medieval The Saint John’s Fern crosses Dartmoor and walks at ebb tide to an island, where an abbey yields a vital clue. Coincidence? Perhaps not. The setting, after all, is custom-made for murder.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.