The Cipher Garden by Martin Edwards

published 2005

Miranda squeezed Daniel’s hand as they stood on the shingle at the head of Mardale, looking towards the remains of the drowned village. Holding him tight, as if not wanting him to stray to his sister’s side. Louise stood a few feet away, gazing over the bleached and barren stretches left exposed by the receding water. 

The mountainous ridge known as High Street lined the horizon. In front of them, the preserved remnant of a grey tree stump rose from the stony ground. Other lakes had lush green shores, but Haweswater was different. The drought was revealing a landscape from a lost world.

An elderly couple waved a greeting and stopped to take in the view. The woman’s weather-beaten face was a patchwork of wrinkles, her husband reeked of tobacco. They were both wearing white floppy hats and khaki shorts that stretched to their brown, bony knees. ‘My grandma came from Mardale Green, y’ know,’ the old man said out of the blue. ‘The buggers flooded the valley seventy years back so folk in Manchester could tap into the reservoir.’

observations: Martin Edwards – expert, blogger and writer in the world of crime fiction – did a guest post on the blog last month, on his new non-fiction book, the Golden Age of Murder, which I then reviewed here. So it seemed like a good moment to look at one of his own crime stories, the second in his Lake District series. (He also has the Harry Devlin series, set in my hometown of Liverpool).

He mentioned this one to me a while back, because I did Poison Pen week on the blog: The Cipher Garden has a starting point in poison pen letters, and Martin pokes fun, as I did, at some of the conventions:
‘Whatever happened to the finest traditions of anonymous mail?’ Linz tutted as she laid the message flat on the circular table for Hannah and Nick to see. ‘Me, I yearn for the good old days. The golden age of the poison pen. Letters cut out of a newspaper and glued on to paper. They always seem so spookily romantic and mysterious, don’t you think, Sarge?’ 

‘Too right. Brown capitals in broad felt tip? Hopeless. Totally lacking in character, let alone charm.’ Nick ran a hand through his eternally untidy hair. 
‘Even if this note is in freehand, our correspondent might just as well have used a stencil. How bloody inconsiderate.’ 

‘Would handwriting analysis be a waste of time?’ 

‘Try it, we need to tick all the boxes. But if you ask me, we’d get better information from an ouija board.’

The letters are reviving interest in an unsolved murder: Warren Howe – a landscape gardener with an eye for the ladies and no interest in anyone else’s happiness – was killed as he worked on a client’s garden. The crime was never solved, but now it’s time for another look…

I always expect to enjoy books about cold crime investigation, and I was not disappointed. Every time I thought I had spotted a twist, Martin pulled another one out of the bag, and the end solution is complex and elaborate and rather sad.

The Lake District background is used to great effect – the drama of the scenery, the unpredictability of the weather – and the private lives of the investigators give another aspect to the story, particularly important when most of the people involved are local.

There is a fascinating sideplot about the cipher garden – what can historian Daniel Kind learn about the previous occupants of his cottage by the way they laid out their garden…?

And even if I didn’t know about Martin’s interest in GA crime fiction, I would guess from the quiet references scattered in the book: ‘Didn’t someone once call it ordeal by innocence?’

Altogether a most enjoyable book, and I’ll certainly be reading more.

The excerpt above features Haweswater, a real place: the valley was indeed flooded to create a reservoir. The photograph is "Footpath below Whelter Knotts - - 1065472" by Oliver Dixon, taken from a path along the shore of Haweswater. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I did track down a book or two of his - Harry Devlin's I think. More contemporary crime appeals to me much more than GA!

    1. Yes, much more your thing - I think you'll like Harry Devlin when you get to him, Liverpool setting can't fail....

  2. Oh, so glad you enjoyed this, Moira! I like this series very much. As you say, Edwards is good at creating plot twists that are credible, but that you still don't necessarily see coming. And I have to say I like his writing style too. And I've come to like some of the 'regular' characters. I hope you'll like the others in this series.

    1. Absolutely Margot - I thought this was intelligent, clever, had great characters and was well-written - what more could we want from a murder mystery?

  3. This one's on the TBR in fact - thanks Moira.

  4. Moira, I have read just one book by Martin, "All the Lonely People" in his Harry Devlin series, and I liked his writing and plotting. I will be reading his other novels.

    1. Yes, me too, Prashant, I'm looking forward to them.

  5. I have read the first in this series and have Cipher Garden to read. Glad you liked it. I also have All the Lonely People that I want to read.

    I have read at least one other book about a valley that was flooded. An interesting topic. I did not realize so many areas in Alabama were flooded (by the Tennessee Valley Authority).

    1. I've read a few flooded valley books too - it's not that common an occurrence, but it resonates, and can make a good plot of course. Interesting about Alabama.


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