Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow
There may be as many as twenty-five pipers in a typical pipe band. But when you’re writing a crime novel with a title you must obey – Eleven Pipers Piping – how do you reduce the numbers?
Add a snowstorm.
Eleven Pipers Piping, along with its predecessor Twelve Drummer Drumming, is set in Devon, England, a place with little of Canada’s experience with the dreaded white stuff. The Thistle But Mostly Rose South Devon Pipe Band is to have its annual Burns Supper at a hotel in the village of Thornford Regis on a Saturday in January, but one of the worst snowstorms in British history sweeps through the island, clogging roads and lanes, bringing the country to a near halt. Only eleven members of the band are able to navigate the snow to their destination.
When I was beginning to plot Eleven Pipers Piping, I very much wanted a weather event of some nature to isolate and entrap the characters, to delay their responses to a death in their midst, to complicate their lives, and to reflect in its freakishness the aberration of the murder. I considered rain, but the people of that soggy island are generally well equipped to handle rain. Blazing heat wouldn’t do. England is too temperate. Ditto hurricanes and tornados.
As my novels fall within the cozy category (though I’m not sure they’re that cozy), having the village enveloped in a thick blanket of snow seemed to me to be the ideal choice. And research demands, I knew, would be few. Snow is a substance I know well. I live in Winnipeg.
But novelists seek verisimilitude. Could southwest England really be visited by such a debilitating and dangerous quantity of snow? Torquay – which is near my fictional village of Thornford Regis – has palm trees, for God’s sake! Would I strain readers’ credulity by introducing a snowstorm?
Lucky me. As I was pondering these problems in late 2009 and early 2010, one of the worst snowstorms in a generation blasted through the UK and visited upon the British all the things I hoped a snowstorm might do to an unprepared people. Except, perhaps, reduce a pipe band’s numbers and complicate a murder.
In this excerpt, Eleven Pipers Piping’s amateur detective-hero the Reverend Tom Christmas, vicar of St. Nicholas Church, awakens to a new landscape:
The sunless world Tom stepped into when he left the vicarage at ten-thirty was even more choked with snow than he had imagined it might be at seven when he woke and stumbled to his bedroom window stupidly expecting to assess road conditions in the pitch black of a January morning … The stone walls bordering the vicarage garden were buried up to their haunches and when he tramped through the drifts into Church Walk, the first things to greet his eyes were two great anonymous white humps, which he presumed concealed two parked cars. Past the lychgate, in the churchyard, only the tops of the more ostentatious markers showed, like black buoys in a still white sea, and even they wore crowns of snow.
C. C. Benison is the pseudonym of Winnipeg writer Doug Whiteway. He is the author of five previous novels, including Death at Buckingham Palace, which won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award. Benison's sixth and latest novel is Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in the series of crime novels inspired by the verses of the well-known carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.