Carol Carnac is perhaps better known (at least since the British Library Crime Classics started coming out) as E.C.R. Lorac — one of my preferred writers from that series of reissues. It’s not that her plots are particularly original or different, and in fact they’re usually easy to work out, but it’s the way she writes about people and places, bringing out the atmosphere of place and writing well about ordinary, decent people (for the most part — aside from the criminal).
All in all, her books epitomise the sense of things being set to rights that’s common to a lot of Golden Age crime fiction, and that can be rather comforting if that’s your thing. They’re a reasonable puzzle, and the detectives are generally likeable (unlike, say, John Dickson Carr’s); more Agatha Christie than Dorothy Sayers on the scale of literary pretension. This book is exactly what you’d expect, as a consequence: a decent sense of place, a series of thumbnail portraits about decent, pretty ordinary people in a pretty ordinary situation, and a couple of red herrings.
I found this one a tad obvious, because I very quickly narrowed the field down to two possibles, from all the descriptions and actions of the characters. The setting, though, is lovely — you get the sense of the crowded trains, the cold air, the bubbly enthusiasm of the group of Brits getting away on a skiing holiday together, slightly lacking in inhibitions because it’s not Britain and they don’t all know each other well. The characters are mostly sketched in because the group is so large (16 characters in the traveling party), so I didn’t find it quite as good at bringing characters to life, here.
It all sounds a bit like I’m damning Lorac’s books with faint praise, but I genuinely pounce upon each one that gets reissued, and enjoyed this one too — but it’s like enjoying food from the fish and chip shop rather than a fancy restaurant. Solid and satisfying, but usually not surprising.
You know, I don’t really know what to make of this one. There is something energetic and compelling about it, and yet I also wanted it to just get to the point already! I think it makes itself feel more convoluted because of the various different comic turns various different characters do, and that makes it both lively and frustrating.
The plot hinges on who had a motive for an old man to die after Christmas, when everything seems to point to the fact that it would really have been more convenient for most suspects if he’d died before Christmas. Despite the inquest bringing in a verdict of accidental death, nobody’s quite satisfied because of all the weird coincidences and red herrings… and it takes an unconscionably long time to get everything sorted out because everyone’s flinging out more red herrings with every word.
I feel like the comic speeches lost their amusement value after a while; there are some really fun character sketches, but in the end it’s just too convoluted (and we spend too much time hearing from the detectives about how convoluted it is — scenes which seem to be intended to help the reader keep things straight, but which definitely kill the pace). So… fun, but outstayed its welcome.
In some ways, this doesn’t really feel like one of Lorac’s books. It’s not quite a John Dickson Carr, but there’s something overly convoluted about it, and a bit less of the good-heartedness I think of when I think about Lorac. Her characterisation of Macdonald feels slightly different — he’s still a solid, good man, but he feels more stereotypical as a Scotsman, and it just… feels very typically of that era.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because I enjoy books of that era — that’s how I even discovered E.C.R. Lorac in the first place, of course. But it feels like she hasn’t quite found her voice, maybe, in this one… and I’m not too surprised that this is one which seems to no longer be available anywhere, even second hand, as Martin Edwards says in the introduction.
It remains an enjoyable little puzzle, though it withholds some key information to make the puzzle difficult to solve. I do not have a mind for anagrams, but even if I did, I don’t think you get all the information you need about a particular character in order to figure out whodunnit and why.
I basically sat down and devoured Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Chianti Flask in two sittings (one before dinner, one after). It’s not very typical of the British Library Crime Classics, being deeply interested in character and motivation, and it felt rather… mournful. The main character’s despondence and depression is rather vivid, and the love affair too. It’s much less about the crime and more the aftermath of it. In some ways, it felt almost like a romance, albeit one scarred through the middle by the mystery which hangs around it.
Given the trial setting at the beginning, and the accusation of a woman of being a poisoner (and dealing with that even after having been acquitted), it has a couple of similarities to Sayers’ Strong Poison in theme, but it is not the usual comfortable, well-worn Golden Age mystery I tend to expect from the British Library Crime Classics. (That’s not a bad thing! I go to them because they’re mostly Golden Age or Golden Age-esque, and I can expect a mildly interesting mystery and the world being set to rights.)
I don’t know how much I liked it, actually: the depression of the main character is really compelling, and then the romance is rather intense (and sometimes wretched). But it almost doesn’t matter if I liked it: I rather admired it — despite not loving the writer’s style at first. I certainly don’t regret spending the time on it, which is an experience I’ve had with some of the other atypical British Library Crime Classics (The Spoilt Kill comes to mind).
This was a mostly unremarkable mystery, except that the focus was on characters of the lower classes, and on an area and professions that most books of the period avoid. I knew nothing about the laws for the relief of the poor before I read this book, and you get a bit of a flavour of what that was actually like, because the book is set so firmly in that world.
Otherwise, I didn’t find it too remarkable, and I found the misunderstandings between the characters a bit infuriating (Dalek voice: comm-un-i-cate! comm-un-i-cate!) — so all in all it wasn’t hugely enjoyable for me, beyond being a bit curious about how it all worked out and about the setting.
It did also include a very gruesome discovery of a body that I’d like to stop thinking about now, thanks.
Calamity in Kent is narrated by a journalist who happens to stumble across an amazing scoop — a really unique murder case — while recuperating at the seaside. In a further amazing stroke of luck, the Scotland Yard man assigned to the case is someone he already knows, and they swiftly strike a bargain to help each other. Thus does Jimmy manage to inveigle himself into the investigation, and provide some of the key pieces of evidence… while phoning it all in to his paper, of course.
I didn’t much like Jimmy, really, and the pile-up of coincidences that made the story run right from the start were annoying. Still, as a locked room mystery, I found it entertaining enough, and of course, I wasn’t picking up a classic crime novel expecting complex motivations and realistic plots! For what I expected, it delivered: a puzzle of a mystery, the pieces to put it together, and a Golden Age-typical ending where all’s well at the end. I know that sounds like damning it with faint praise, but I don’t think all of these crime novels are intended to be works of art. They’re entertainment, and that’s what you get.
(There certainly are crime novels which are works of art, and novels in this series of reissues which are better than others — E.C.R. Lorac’s always have a finer touch about them, for instance. But entertainment is a worthy end too.)
It’s perhaps not my favourite of the series, and I don’t think I loved Rowland’s other novel in the series either, but I wouldn’t sniff at reading another of Rowland’s books if it gets brought out in one of these editions.
The Cheltenham Square Murder is a pretty standard Golden Age murder mystery, without major surprises and tending towards being a police procedural, given that the two detectives are both police — and not even Scotland Yard, but local police, albeit one of them displaced from his usual area by a holiday — and the plot follows the step by step by step of their assembly of suspects, witnesses and evidence. There’s even a map!
I’ll admit I jumped ahead to the solution by guessing who seemed most unlikely and who had the absolute best alibi, because that’s how it goes with a lot of the Golden Age novels. It ends up being fun enough, a little puzzle with low stakes for the reader, without great attachment to the innocence or guilt of any particular character. Needless to say, at the end order is restored and justice will be done — and all ends very comfortably like that.
So, not inspiring or surprising, and the writing quality doesn’t elevate it (as I would argue E.C.R. Lorac manages with most of her novels) — but fun enough if you know that’s what you’re getting, which is exactly why I picked it up!
I didn’t think this book was going to come together well, after reading a couple of chapters. It consists mostly of character sketches, which constitute little thumbnails of lives which might (maybe) give the characters motive, means and opportunity for the murder which occurs at the start of the book. They’re quite disconnected, and they go some very different places — one cobbler ruined by a scam who turns to pickpocketing and then goes straight again; one mini-spy story in which a German refugee is rescued by a determined but naive and rich young Englishman; one miniature love story chronicling an adulterous affair…
And in a way, they don’t really pull together, in that the various stories barely touch at all, but they do manage to achieve something: I very much knew who I wanted to be the murderer, and I knew who I didn’t want to be the murderer. I won’t spoil anything about who is who, but it’s perhaps useful to know going in that the effect does work in the end! I wouldn’t say it’s a favourite, but it comes out as surprisingly solid.
Unusually for the British Library Crime Classics series, this is a book that was never published before, lightly edited and prepared for publication now given the popularity of Lorac’s books within the series of reissues. It features not one of her usual detectives, but a new group of characters — and on the detection side of things, I have to say I prefer her actually-published books. This felt like it was missing a bit of the warmth and humanity that you feel (however muted) from her usual solid and decent detectives.
I do wonder if I’d have preferred it if Lorac had actually prepared it for publication herself, rather than it being pulled out of the archives and published for the first time. I think she’s likely to have had some changes to make, at least.
That said, it works as a story, shuffling the puzzle pieces around until — click! You’ve completed the puzzle. You have most of the info you need to solve it, but there are a few surprises lurking. I suspect I was partially surprised because this is Lorac, and I’d expected certain things of her characters, too.
I can’t say it’s one of my favourites, but it was enjoyable, and features her usual attention to place and how a place can affect a crime and those all around it.
This is one of the British Library Crime Classics, by an author I’ve read before, under another name — Anne Meredith. I don’t recall loving her other book, but I enjoyed this one a bit more, despite there being a fairly strong note of melancholy in the ending, and some real awfulness between the characters.
The mystery was okay: it took some untangling, and I didn’t call the final twist. I wasn’t in love with the characters and their attitudes toward each other — okay, I disliked it quite a bit — and the narrator is pretty much a non-entity (aside from being a Moaning Minnie about everything), and Jeremy seems like a dick. There is something interesting about the mildness of Dennis placed beside his obvious competence and self-assurance, though. I did find the character of Eleanor to be an interesting study, really: that strange utter selfishness about preserving her relationship with her husband, alongside the narrator’s obvious reverence for her.
In the end, it was an entertaining enough read, but not one that will stick with me in any way.