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Kate Rhodes: ‘I set my crime novels on my favourite holiday islands’

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Cambridge crime author Kate Rhodes has made her favourite holiday destination into the setting for her series of murder mysteries - which means she must go back regularly to soak up the atmosphere.

The Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, have proven a dramatic backdrop for the crimes investigated by her hero DI Ben Kitto and each one has now had its own major incident.

This time, for her book Devil’s Table, it is the turn of St Martin's, where the fields are lush with blooms grown for flower markets on the mainland. But she reveals her favourite time to visit is in the depths of winter when the islands are lashed by storms and no one can leave because the ferries are cancelled.

Crime author Kate Rhodes (57233494)
Crime author Kate Rhodes (57233494)

Kate said: “I love the islands best of all in winter. They are so rugged, just lumps of granite stuck in the middle of the Atlantic. You really do feel the sort of beautiful isolation of them in winter. And it can make for some very dark, compelling crime writing if you're stuck in the midst of winter, and you're literally locked down on our island. It's nice that I don't have to pretend about in my books that because that does happen.

“My husband and I stayed on the island of Bryher for a month in the winter. And we experienced that lockdown mentality where everything's shut and the weather is awful and you're stuck there. There was a week when we couldn't even leave the island because of the weather. We'd hired a little cottage down the sea front and there was a really awful storm. We had just heard on the local radio that there was going to be no inter-island travel and all the ferries were off. That would be the case until the storm blew over.

Stormy sea at Hell Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England.. (57329190)
Stormy sea at Hell Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England.. (57329190)

“Then this lady that we hadn't met before knocked on our door and said everybody's going to the pub, we're doing we're doing dinner. Literally the whole of the island population packed into the pub for macaroni cheese. It was a super experience that was really different anything you could ever experience on the mainland. And it reminded me that these islanders are tough. They've got to cope with quite difficult situations. You've got to permanently keep your freezer full of food because you just don't know in winter when there's going to be a big Atlantic storm going through.”

In her latest book, The Devil’s Table, DI Ben Kitto is looking for a missing child, Jade, who disappears in the fog when she and her twin brother, Ethan, are attacked in a field, late at night. Ethan manages to return home but the shocking events of Jade’s disappearance have rendered him mute.

On a small island where there are few places a child can hide, DI Kitto has to battle the elements to search for Jade. When his investigation reveals that the Minear family have many enemies on the island, Kitto grows increasingly worried that Jade is in danger. To find the truth, he has to investigate the lives of the people he has known all of his life.

Crime author Kate Rhodes on Tresco, near Ruin Beach. (57233498)
Crime author Kate Rhodes on Tresco, near Ruin Beach. (57233498)

The landscape of the islands is almost an extra character in the books and determines the kind of story Kate sets there. Plus, they have some pleasing place names on the islands which become the titles for the books. This time it is Devil’s Table, which is a place in St Martin's.

Kate says: “The island is absolutely exquisite, with a tiny population of just 200. It has beautiful, clear sandy beaches that never seem to be busy.

“It’s a stunning landscape and they grow flowers all year round. So chances are if you go to St Martin's in the winter, they will be in the middle of picking the flowers. In the book I wrote about the daffodil crop which grows there because it's so much warmer than the rest of the UK. The first time we went to St Martin's in winter, I remember just smelling the air and it was heady with that lemony scent of daffodils. And it was like walking through a park in the middle of summer. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience to see all that happening in winter.

Devil's Table by crime author Kate Rhodes (57233502)
Devil's Table by crime author Kate Rhodes (57233502)

"I wanted to weave in some of the very specific elements into the story about of St Martin's being the only island with a vineyard and the island is absolutely dominated by flower growing. So, in the middle of these brilliant golden fields I have a really nasty murder take place.

"And I named it after The Devil's Table, which is a very ancient Neolithic rock structure, which they think may have been used for sacrifices back in the day.”

Kate used to holiday on the Scilly isles as a child but it was visiting them for holidays as an adult that made her realise that the remoteness and different characters of the islands would make the great locations for her murder mysteries. Since then she has got to know many of the inhabitants, becoming a local celebrity, and has made friends with the librarian as well as visited the school to talk about creative writing.

“I should stress that this is our holiday destination, which my poor husband gets dragged down there every year. Over the years we have stayed on every island. We stayed in the caravan and in a tent, and we stayed in a really ritzy hotel on St Mary's island for our 25th wedding anniversary and had our party there. It's reached the point now when we go on holiday there that people come running up and say ‘Who will you kill next? Can you start killing off lifeboatmen next because we'd love to be in it!’” she laughs.

Crime author Kate Rhodes on Porthcressa beach (57233500)
Crime author Kate Rhodes on Porthcressa beach (57233500)

“I’m very aware that I'm writing about their islands. They're not mine, I wasn't born there. I'm a holiday maker and I'm just a mirror of the landscape. And they'll say things like ‘The tide never comes in that high here. But you know, I kind of went with it because it's a story isn't it? And you always say it's just a story based on the islands’.

“I think they must enjoy them because they sell an enormous number of books down there. Which is really a kind of acid test, isn't it?”

Kate was amazed to find out that not only are her books well-loved on the islands but that she ended up being one of the most-borrowed authors from libraries during the pandemic. She has a theory about why they appeal so much.

“I wondered if during a pandemic, people were looking for small safe communities and beautiful landscapes to retreat to, because although some fairly nasty crimes happen on these islands in my stories, you can imagine the sea around you and the sea breeze and you can see yourself walking those white sand beaches.”

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