Monday, July 25, 2016

Sinister Source Material of Saltmarsh

Back in February, Commentor Darrell provided me with some intell on a literary precedent to module U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The work in question is a murder mystery written by British author Gladys Mitchell titled, somewhat obviously, Saltmarsh Murders and published in 1932.

Despite the prevalence of murder and sex in this story--fear not, prudish readers, all the juicy stuff happens off stage--the novel has a definite Wodehousian feel to it. So much so that every time that tea was announced I more than half expected Aunt Dahlia or Gussy Fink-Nottle to be among the guests. The narrator, a slightly daft young curate (4th level cleric) living at the local vicarage, was clearly modeled after Bertie Wooster, though he's slightly less bungling. Although not without its comic moments the book has a darker edge than one typically associates with the great P.G.W.--what with the murdering and sex mentioned earlier. But what will prove most sinister to modern readers will be the implication that suspicion of miscegenation should be considered justifiable cause for murdering a pregnant woman. Yikes! That's a scary combination of misogyny and racism.

But you're not here for a book report, you're here to find out what bearing this novel had on the origins of the U1 module and, perhaps more importantly, can it be used as  a source for creating an actual town of Saltmarsh to fill in the one major deficiency in the original.

As Darrell pointed out, there are obvious similarities: the action takes place in a small town on the south coast of England called Saltmarsh, there's a house on a cliff overlooking a cove, a secret tunnel to the cove, a smuggling operation in the cove, even ships crew members using lanterns to signal to shore. (The narrator did not observe a shore-to-ship signal, sadly.) And that's pretty much where the similarities end. There are no ghosts, actual or suspected, threatening to haunt the house on the cliff, no lizardmen riding shotgun on the smuggler's ship, no one seeking the philosopher's stone. There aren't even any similarly named characters. Indeed, while U1 obviously borrowed some points from this tale, it is clearly not a modulization of the novel. There is a sequel--or several, Ms. Mitchell wrote some 60 murder mysteries spanning the bulk of the 20th century--but I haven't read it/them and cannot confirm the existence of an impending sahuaguin invasion.

But what I did find was further evidence that both versions of Saltmarsh were inspired by the town and/or environs of the actual town of Seaton, Devon [see Sinister Location of Saltmarsh].

The real smugglers cave is a bit harder to get to than U1 enthusiasts will expect.

For instance, just down the coast from Seaton is a cave in the cliffs that was used by smugglers in the 18th and 19th century to stash contraband, as is detailed in the memoirs of famed smuggler John Rattenbury. No doubt there are loads of smugglers caves along the cliffy coast of England, as it seems that inveigling un-taxed merchandise into the realm was considered the national pastime back then.* But this particular cave leads from the cove to a nearby quarry, such as the one adjacent to the smugglers house in the Saltmarsh Murders novel.  No doubt the cliffs of England are likewise riddled with quarries, but does this not give a slight bit of credence to the notion that Seaton of Devon was the inspiration for Saltmarsh?

Also of possible note, according to Google Maps there is a small hamlet called Vicarage just west of Seaton; was this little community perhaps the inspiration for placing the narrator of the tale in such a residence? Since 7 out of every 9 murder mysteries written by British authors in the first half of the 20th century take place in or somehow involve a vicarage, this seems unlikely. 

* Both the novel and what I've read about this Rattenbury character give the distinct impression that smuggling was a rather common activity on the south coast, practiced by a wide swath of society--more than a few clergymen got in on the action as well. This portrays the smugglers in a vastly different light than the murderous bastards under the haunted house and on the Sea Ghost in U1.