I suppose three things predisposed me to like Elizabeth Montague’s story ‘The Mystery of Lydford Gorge’ when it was first submitted to me for inclusion in Enigma: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Crime/Mystery/Thriller Anthology 2018.
The first was my story background. I grew up on British police shows: I’m old enough to remember one of the first — the ground-breaking ‘Z-Cars’, which introduced the world to Brian Blessed amongst other things. But I also loved watching John Thaw as Jack Regan (long before he became famous for his portrayal of another policeman, Inspector Morse) in ‘The Sweeney’ and it was impossible not to be magnetised by Helen Mirren playing DCI Jane Tennison in the gripping series ‘Prime Suspect’ in the 1990s. What became known as a ‘police procedural’ thus entered my story bloodstream early on. The opening pages of Montague’s ‘Lydford Gorge’ story, therefore, plunged me immediately into a world with which I felt familiar, and it was done deftly enough for me to even mentally ‘cast’ the story as an episode in one of those police dramas:
Devlin frowned as he looked up to see his superior's careworn secretary at the door, gesturing for her to open it.
'I assume I've been summoned.'
'With haste,' she replied, 'as in yesterday.'
‘Buggeration,' muttered Devlin, swiping his jacket from the back of his chair as he got to his feet. 'On my way.'
'I'll listen for the screaming from the cafeteria.'
Devlin snorted, wondering if there would be shouting.
Crisply, then, we are set up for a standard police story. The dialogue following, as Devlin meets with his ‘Chief Super’, is straight from the best of the shows I remembered. All well and good, I thought during my first reading, as the submission was for a crime anthology. But then we got to my second predisposition: Devlin finds that he is obliged for political reasons to be assisted in his murder investigations by a psychic investigator. As readers, we are invited to share in our prime character’s scepticism of such things —but my (limited) knowledge of occult matters was then engaged. ‘It will be interesting,’ I thought, ‘to find out how this author deals with this sensitive and much-maligned field.’
Devlin gets to work and meets the psychic investigator in short order. I noticed another thing about this story at this point: it’s economy. There isn’t a spare scene, not even a spare word — everything keeps us focused, finely tuned and inescapably gripped. Good authoring is about writing stories in which every element serves a purpose, and ‘Lydford Gorge’ is a mini-masterclass of its kind in this regard.
But back to the tale. Amanda Brent, the psychic, is dealt with with such skill that the reader feels that one knows her, or has seen her, or at least can put a face to her. Devlin, arriving at one of the crime scenes with her, is our channel as readers as far as what Amanda actually does, but the third person narration of the tale (which could so easily have become a first person narrative, but which I’m glad wasn’t) permits us to see just a tiny bit beyond his limited perspective so that we begin to feel sympathy for the psychic and wonder what exactly she can do.
Thankfully, there are no ‘fireworks’: Montague gives us a person with ‘powers’ but not super-powers. Amanda makes just enough of a discovery to pique our interest, while not doing anything so out of the ordinary that the genre of the story shifts uncontrollably — we are still firmly in ‘police procedural’ territory, but with an intriguing difference.
Then my third predisposition kicked in: the sense of place. I have always been sensitive to the importance of ‘place’ —setting, environment, location — in fiction, as I have been in real life, and here Montague’s own familiarity with the area she is describing comes to the fore: it is so well done that one feels the rainstorm, sees the hillsides, can almost hear the waterfalls, and all of this adds up (with that brilliant economy mentioned earlier) to an emotional engagement. We pick up on Devlin’s weariness, share his frustration with the weather, feel his relief when Amanda invites him to stay in her cottage — a clever move which draws us further into sympathy with her as a character as we track with Devlin’s viewpoint.
And this is important, because the climax of the story — the high-speed pursuit, the drama of a potential murder about to occur which we can only just pick up on over the police radio, the careful authorial control which never lets us go — depends to an extent on us feeling that the place is real, with real distances, real roads and so forth.
A voice cut through the silence, pleading to be released.
Devlin’s heart leapt into his mouth, holding his breath until his mind caught up with the fact that it was once again not Amanda's voice. Still, the voice of the victim, who he had to assume was the missing Imogen, spurred him on and he pushed the car as fast as he dared along the winding roads of Dartmoor.
'Leave her alone!'
The screamed command had him hitting the brakes, tyres screeching on the tarmac loud enough to have been heard over the phone were it not for the shouting. Three voices were raised, the shouts fierce but distant. Not allowing himself to sit and listen, he sped off once more, turning up the police radio and issuing frantic directions to the team on the far end.
It could all so easily have gone badly wrong: the tale could have tipped towards the supernatural too far and lost its grip on the cold and wet and very real Dartmoor upon which it is set; it could have curved towards some kind of romance between Devlin and Amanda, which would have lost its sense of ‘X-Files’-like teamwork between them. As it is, this story haunts me almost as much as the spirits within it haunted Amanda — I could, and can, picture it as one of a series of stories, though the balances within it might be difficult to sustain over more than one tale. I can even imagine it as an ITV series with Rupert Graves as Devlin Scott. I can’t quite pick an actress for Amanda, but I can see that character’s face even now.
In brief, I might be predisposed on several fronts to like this story, but it has much to like in it. Multiple readings do not dispel my sense that here we have an author ‘firing on all cylinders.’ I recommend her collection Dust and Glitter, in which this story re-appears, not only because I published it but because this author fires on all cylinders in different genres too. Grab a copy.