St Michael’s Mount is the setting for a brutal death (or two)
PUBLISHED: 11:39 16 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:51 16 October 2020
The latest Cornish crime story by best-selling writer Nicola Upson sets murder on the ancient former monastery
Nicola Upson’s new novel, The Dead of Winter, is a contemporary twist on the Golden Age Christmas mystery and is set on a snowy St Michael’s Mount in December 1938, when storm clouds were gathering once again over Europe. The book is the ninth in Nicola’s series featuring the real life crime writer, Josephine Tey, and the fictional detective, Archie Penrose, named after the Penrose Estate near Porthleven, where the idea for the novels was born. In this latest instalment, Archie and Josephine gather with friends for a glittering festive house party, but two brutal deaths on the Mount – and the unexpected arrival of a famous film star, in need of sanctuary – interrupt the celebrations. Like all of Nicola’s novels, The Dead of Winter is inspired by real people and places, and pays homage to the Mount’s unique history. It’s the second book in the series to be based in Cornwall; the first, Angel With Two Faces, was set on the Penrose Estate and in Porthleven, where Nicola has had a home for 20 years, and where she writes all her books.
Do you remember your first impressions of Cornwall?
They were inauspicious! On my first Cornish holiday as a little girl, I got sunstroke on a beach in Newquay and was seriously ill. But coming back with my partner to make a home here, I think it was the extremes of life, the drama and intensity of the landscape and the fact that nothing is the same from one day to the next. That’s exciting and unpredictable, and it’s a fantastic atmosphere to write in.
I have two. From our cottage along the coastal path to Loe Bar, stopping for a picnic there and then on through the Penrose Estate, with the stillness and beauty of Loe Pool – magnificent in every season. Penrose was where the idea for my series originated, and I’ve named my detective in its honour, so it means a great deal to me. More recently I’ve come to love the walk out across the causeway to St Michael’s Mount; no matter how busy it is, there’s still a sense of leaving the modern world behind and stepping back into the island’s incredible history, and it was easy to imagine myself back in the 1930s there for the new book.
Porthleven beach, from the Blue Buoy steps to Loe Bar. It’s quiet by the evening, even in summer, and there’s nothing more special than taking a glass of wine down and watching the sunset – even though it’s a nightly ritual, we never tire of it. Several plot problems have been resolved on that beach, and my partner and I always go there to talk through important decisions.
We both love to cook, so we don’t eat out much in the evenings, especially as we’re spoilt with a wonderful fresh fish shop – Quayside Fish – in Porthleven. So it would be a long lunch somewhere local to catch up with friends – the Hideaway Café or the Atlantic Inn.
The train journey from St Erth to St Ives in winter, with the birdlife on the Hayle Estuary and the first glimpse of St Ives bay – it’s magical. I recreated it in Stanley and Elsie, a novel about the artist, Stanley Spencer. Spencer had a disastrous honeymoon there in the 1930s, but fortunately my visits have always been happy ones.
Favourite historical story about Cornwall (real or imagined)
The lifelong labour of love that is the Minack Theatre. I’ve worked in theatre and I love it, but I also know how hard it is to keep it going, so the fact that Rowena Cade not only shaped a theatre from the rock but also enabled it to flourish throughout her lifetime and beyond is nothing short of a miracle. Angel With Two Faces is in part a tribute to Rowena Cade’s achievement, and she appears as a character in it. I also loved the stories that some of Porthleven’s older residents told me when I was researching that book – the small details of everyday life here in the 1930s, and the myths and legends of Loe Pool.
What words/sentence sums up Cornwall for you?
Freedom. Energy. Peace.