The Coffin Trail (2004) by Martin Edwards

This is the first in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, a series I haven’t tried before. The story begins with Barry Gilpin on the run after a night time romantic tryst has gone horribly wrong, finding the woman in question murdered at their meeting place on the Brackdale Fells. Privy to his thoughts we realise his terror of becoming a scape goat for a crime he didn’t do and we can also begin to see through his own admissions that he doesn’t fit in, he struggles to understand others and he had an obsession with facts and data that others laugh at. It is a few intense pages of getting to know somebody and for a very good reason. Running in the wet and in the dark is never a sensible idea and in this case the prologue of the story closes with Barry falling into a ravine. He is convinced someone will come by and find him, yet the reader knows better…

The Coffin Trail

The narrative jumps ahead in time to Daniel Kind, an Oxford historian and his partner Miranda who are visiting Brackdale. Although just a holiday, Miranda falls in love with a cottage, insisting that they both sell up and move there, regardless of the demands of living in a rural area. Daniel is more cautious but his love for Miranda makes him go against his better judgement and in a way this drastic move is akin to an escape and the reader is left to discover what traumas they are trying to escape from. We also find out that the cottage they are moving in to was where Barry and his mother lived and that Daniel whilst on a childhood holiday (the last before his father left them) became friends with Barry and has always been convinced that he was innocent (as in the interim Barry did indeed become the scape goat for the murder of woman – a tourist named Gabrielle Anders.)

Therefore coming back to the area gives Daniel more than an excuse to start asking questions about the case, much to the disgruntlement of his partner and the local inhabitants. Alongside this set of characters, there is another group, the Cumbria Constabulary Cold Case Review Team, headed by DCI Hannah, who worries it is a ‘step down’ after a case she worked on collapses in court. This may lead some readers to think of the BBC drama New Tricks, but there is only one retired policeman in the review team, ex- Detective Superintendent Les Bryant. Various connections are made between the newcomers, Miranda and Daniel, the police team and the local inhabitants, allowing for different types of information (pertinent to the case) to be shared and communicated plausibly.

Original New Tricks Cast
Original New Tricks Cast

However, the opening of this case puts a strain on many people in the book and this case does have the potential for derailing more than one relationship as various people attempt to find the truth and the fact that important information is often revealed through past indiscretions. This re-investigation also brings up a lot of old memories which have the power to incriminate, leaving a killer in a very precarious position and with only one option… This revisiting of the past puts several characters in jeopardy, not just of being injured or killed, but of also becoming the second scape goat…

Overall Thoughts

Although there is quite a large cast of characters, Edwards does a superb job of making sure the characters are easy to identify and place within the wider plot of the book and his characterisation skills are strong, with information about characters coming in layers rather than massive chunks. I particularly liked the character Daniel, not because he is infallible but because of the way he approaches life and the cold case with the historian’s approach. I think also, well for me anyways, there is a greater identification with him and his position than with Miranda whose greater spontaneity is quite demanding and irresponsible. Furthermore, in the early chapters of this book, with the prologue featuring Barry still clear in my head, for me there was a distinct parallel between him and Daniel in regards to their relationship with women, as both of them seem to be placed in the weaker position.

The cold case team is also well created, with their interactions with each other being quite nuanced and the team as a whole is a source of gentle comedy in the book. For example many of the other team members, including Hannah are prejudiced and have assumptions about the retired policeman, Les with one character saying, ‘I was hoping for Gandalf. Looks like we finished up with Eeyore.’ Whilst another says that:

‘we’re being lumbered with some wrinkly has-been whose old lady is sick of him getting under her feet… so we can look forward to an open-minded, forward-thinking colleague who’s always first to buy a round at the bar and the last to venture a controversial statement, for fear of giving offence to those who might disagree. And is that a pig I see flying past the window?’

Another part of the book I found quite funny was when Hannah describes her Assistant Chief Constable’s approach to her subordinates:

‘Raising children was, Hannah thought, ideal training for a woman who had to deal with rebellious or intransigent police officers. Hannah didn’t have any kids herself, although occasionally she wondered if she’d spent the last seven years sleeping with one.’

This example also embodies another theme of the novel and perhaps the Lake District series as a whole, which is of marriage and relationships – neither of which tend to be depicted positively. Issues such as unfaithfulness, deception and even domestic violence occur and at the end of the book the reader is definitely left wondering which relationships will survive. Relating back to the characterisation in this book, I think Edwards is very good at playing with readers assumptions with characters, even double bluffing us as to what sort of person some characters might be. The twist at the end was first rate and a definite surprise and the denouement of the book leaves you wondering about the notion of closure and whether it is really achievable and what it actually consists of. All in all an enjoyable read, which certainly makes you think twice about wandering about the Lake District in the dark!

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. Ah, this novel and the one by Ann Cleeves on trial were two modern mystery novels I tried out recently. I think in both instances I preferred other titles by the same writers. In Martin Edwards’s case I recall enjoying ‘All the Lonely People’ better. Do you have a preference between ‘Coffin Trail’ and ‘Lonely People’?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I preferred The Coffin Trail more than All the Lonely People for its setting and characters. My next read is one by Ann cleeves – Murder in my Backyard and I haven’t read any of her novels before, so I’m interested to see how I find her work.


  2. The Coffin Trail was not my first introduction to Martin Edwards, but it had always stayed in my memory as I continued the series and many of his other books, contributions..
    Ann Cleeves has a similar artistic narrative style that also, always, delivers an leaves this reader wanting more..

    Liked by 1 person

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