Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Novel Journey

“They were at the southern end of a long sweep of beach, about four miles long. At the northern end it swung into a narrow promontory where the lighthouse stood, almost lost to view in the haze … Julie stopped again. There was that salt breeze that you only ever get by the sea.”
- Hidden Depths, Ann Cleeves

Authors write from their imagination, but they also write from what they knowespecially the places they’ve been. As a two-time Smithsonian Journeys traveler on their mystery tours, I’ve walked through Morse’s Oxford, Dalgliesh’s London, and Rebus’ Scotland. On one particular blustery day in September, a group of us found ourselves gingerly negotiating a British stile for the first time and walking a deserted beachalmost the very same described by British author Ann Cleeves, who sets some of her books in the windswept coastal villages of Northumberland.

It was a simple thing, but for our mystery buff group, it was an adventurenot the usual type of tourist activity. And that’s what sets these tours apart. Let others walk the museums, our mystery buffs will walk the moors of The Hound of Baskervilles, or find the spot amid the Oxford colleges (at least approximately) where Lord Peter Wimsey proposes to Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. At the right time, Study Leader Rosalind Hutchison will whip out a book from her voluminous briefcase and read the appropriate passage, putting us at the scene of the crime, as it were.

We also meet with current-day authors, such as Cleeves, who described to us how characters appeared to her and how her stories came to be. One of the best parts of these tours, the part that, in fact, gets me to sign on, is our time with the authors. The list has included Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, Martin Edwards, Stuart Pawson, Andrew Taylor, Simon Brett, and Robert Barnard, the latter not only a witty mystery writer but president of the Brontё Society and who graciously gave us a tour of the Brontё Parsonage in West Yorkshire.

When you see a country through the eyes of its authors, you see a country beyond the well-traveled roads. And what you get is not a fictionalized version of the country, as you might think, but even a truer, sharper picture.

Click here for more information on our Mystery Lovers tour.