Impact of EvidenceGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
221 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
Near St Brynneys in the Welsh border country, isolated by heavy snow and flooding from the thaw, a calamity has occurred. Old Dr Robinson, a known 'menace o the roads', has met his end in a collision with a jeep at a hazardous junction. But when police arrive at the scene, a burning question hints at something murkier than mere accident: why was there a second body - a man not recognised any locals - in the back of Robinson's car?
As the local inspectors dive into the muddy waters of this strange crime, Chief Inspector Julian Rivers and Inspector Lancing are summoned from Scotland Yard to the windswept wilds, where danger and deceit lie in wait.
Puzzling and atmospheric, this exceedingly rare mystery from one of the masters of crime fiction's Golden Age returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1954.
It’s always exciting when the British Library Crime Classics series bring out another of E.C.R. Lorac’s books, especially the rare and out of print ones. I’m slightly less fond of Lorac’s work under the Carol Carnac pseudonym, perhaps because I’m not as fond of the detective — though Lorac’s McDonald doesn’t show us a lot of his personal life, he does show a constant decency and patience, and that impression has been cumulative through the books in which he’s featured. Lancing and Rivers don’t really compare (and don’t really stand out to me, either, though nor did McDonald at first).
In any case, Impact of Evidence is the latest, a book which is out of print and almost unattainable until now. The setup is intriguing: details are drawn from Lorac’s own experience of Lunesdale, but transplanted to the Welsh borders, and she depicts farm life with her usual care for what’s needed and how those communities worked. As usual, she’s idealised the working farmer a little here, with her usual “salt of the earth” rock-solid decent characters — but having read more of her work, one’s always aware of the tension there, and when those people might do wrong.
I admit I was onto what happened fairly early on just because of certain details that were drawn to the reader’s attention multiple times, but it was still interesting to see how it worked out, and how some things were subverted (like the Derings matter-of-fact behaviour about the accusations of them).
The Theft of the Iron DogsGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
284 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
While hot on the heels of serial coupon-racketeer Gordon Ginner, Chief Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard receives word of an intriguing incident up in Lancashire – the summer cottage of local farmer Giles Hoggett has been broken into, with an assortment of seemingly random items missing which include a complete reel of salmon line, a large sack, and two iron dogs from his fireplace.
What first appears to Insp. MacDonald as a simple break-in quickly spirals into a mystery of contested land grabs for fishing between farmers, made all the more enticing to MacDonald when a body is then found in the river – the body of Gordon Ginner. It’s up to Insp. MacDonald, aided by the locals of Lunesdale, to determine who broke into Hoggett’s cottage, where his irons dogs have gone, and how Ginner met his watery end.
For my money, E.C.R. Lorac is one of the finest classic crime writers. She writes compelling mysteries with an amazing sense of place and setting, and characters who are enjoyable, if sometimes idealised. There’s a sense with her books that the mysteries arise out of place and personality, rather than coming up with a mystery and then inventing a setting to fit around it, which is probably true if Martin Edwards’ introductions about Lorac and her love for Lunesdale are true.
The Theft of the Iron Dogs returns to Lunesdale, in fact, and the mystery is only unravelled because the people of the area have habits, patterns and expectations which aren’t obvious to people from outside the area, meaning the cover-up of the crime isn’t as perfect as the perpetrator thinks. The story features Macdonald, of course, Lorac’s series detective, with his usual conscientiousness and care, and his sense of compassion for the people affected by his investigations.
It’s a slow one, country-paced, in a way that feels right for the place and the story. I really enjoyed this one, and though the crime itself is not terribly “cosy” (is any crime?), the overall feel is a pretty cosy, lower-stakes kind of story.
Accident by DesignGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
Templedean Place in the Cotswold Hills of England was among the last of the truly aristocratic estates, where old family traditions still ﬂourished. When Gerald Vanstead arrived from Australia with his family, to attend his father in his last illness, other, more deadly things flourished.
Gerald's wife was the bickering kind; he drank too much, was given to feuding with the chauffeur, and seemed excessively tightlipped and disagreeable—and so no one was particularly sorry when one day the brakes on Gerald's car failed to hold, and he and his wife were killed.
A family picnic ended in the accidental death of another Vanstead, a fire destroyed what might have been a clue, and there was a night of horrible suspense before Inspector Macdonald could say who hated Gerald Vanstead the most and who, in a house of cultured, well-bred men and women, was most capable of murder.
I’ve said for a while that E.C.R. Lorac is one of my favourite authors from this period, and that’s in part because she can sketch in a place and a cast that one can care about, often full of decent people trying to do their best, and driven by her humane and careful detective, Macdonald.
Accident by Design is another case of that, but it subverted my expectations somewhat in the way the characters were set up, proving that Lorac was careful not to get too formulaic. It would be easy to slip into looking for a certain character type, and to feel sure that they are guilty, but Lorac doesn’t make it so easy.
In the end, it isn’t one of my favourite stories by Lorac (I think that still goes to Death of an Author, which isn’t even a Macdonald book, and is rather clever instead of being atmospheric), but it’s a solid example of her work. Perhaps best enjoyed once you’re used to her tendencies, so you get the surprise I did…
I continue to think Lorac’s one of the best of her generation of mystery writers — and that’s despite a fairly prolific output.
Post After Post-MortemGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
300 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
The Surrays and their five children form a prolific writing machine, with scores of treatises, reviews and crime thrillers published under their family name. Following a rare convergence of the whole household at their Oxfordshire home, Ruth – middle sister who writes ‘books which are just books’ – decides to spend some weeks there recovering from the pressures of the writing life while the rest of the brood scatter to the winds again. Their next return is heralded by the tragic news that Ruth has taken her life after an evening at the Surrays’ hosting a set of publishers and writers, one of whom is named as Ruth’s literary executor in the will she left behind.
Despite some suspicions from the family, the verdict at the inquest is suicide – but when Ruth’s brother Richard receives a letter from the deceased which was delayed in the post, he enlists the help of CID Robert Macdonald to investigate what could only be an ingeniously planned murder.
I normally love E.C.R. Lorac’s books, and I think this was a very fine example of her work… without being one that I, strictly speaking, enjoyed. She has a way of describing characters and places that can make you love them and feel their goodness — and in this book, the nastiness of murder feels particularly prominent. It’s less “good people overcome” and more “good people are overcome”, and it just hit wrong for my current mood, despite being well handled.
Those who read it should be warned that the setup has the murder being taken to be suicide at first, and that the family react accordingly, with shock and horror and the sense that the world is upended. And that isn’t the end to their sorrows.
It’s a good thing that Lorac writes such a sensitive, humane detective in MacDonald, because his sympathy also helped to make this book as powerful as it is.
In the end, the solution was also a sad one, and the whole thing just left me with a sense of melancholy. Beautifully written, perhaps among Lorac’s best — but perhaps not one that I’ll visit again.
Crook O’ Lune, E.C.R. Lorac
Crook O’ Lune is very typical of E.C.R. Lorac’s books: maybe slower than some, but using a strong sense of place to give the story atmosphere, and to create a mystery that fits into the setting, the lie of the land, the kind of people. It’s perhaps even better at that because Lorac based it on a real place, and even on her own house: you can feel the love for the house, the land, the way of life, in all the characters.
Of course, it’s a little idealised, and rather anti-urban in sentiment — even people who come from outside are by and large calmed by the land, connected to it all of a sudden, in a way that doesn’t ring so true to me (or maybe it’s just the changing times, and everybody was closer to the land then, and more able to be absorbed back into a rural community).
The mystery in this one takes a long time to get going, but it’s all necessary set-dressing, and it’s all relevant. I didn’t ‘catch’ the killer ahead of time, this time: I suspected someone else, based on details that… I’m not sure whether they were intended as red herrings or just part of the set-dressing. But it all makes sense in execution, and despite some of the sordid deeds and the sense of increasing hurry about figuring out what happened, it was a very relaxing read — you can rely on Lorac for that!
Death of an Author, E.C.R. Lorac
Death of an Author is another really enjoyable mystery from E.C.R. Lorac — one slyly self-referential, given the stuff about it being impossible for a female author to write such a mystery, and an outlier as well, because it doesn’t feature her usual series detective. There’s also rather less of an “atmosphere”, though she does describe a couple of the locations very vividly.
The reason I’m losing my head and giving it five stars is that I found the mystery so genuinely intriguing to turn over in my mind. Often when I read mystery novels, I just wait for the author to lead me to the clues, pretty much ever since Sayers and that cheat of withholding the flake white clue (yes, I know, I do bang on about that). I don’t trust authors to give the clues, and also I cynically know how the twists and turns of a mystery novel go. But I didn’t anticipate every step of this one, and I didn’t spoiler myself for the end either: I wanted the full experience, and to give the puzzle a try myself.
In the end, I got there with the solution, though some things happened that I didn’t quite believe (and there was a bit that relied extremely heavily on luck), and I really enjoyed the process of getting there. Lorac was a good writer, and her wry wit in playing with the questions of authorship here offered some extra piquancy. (I wonder how people took it when they thought she was a guy, thanks to her pen-name?)
Crossed Skis, Carol Carnac
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.
These Names Make Clues, E.C.R. Lorac
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.
Two-Way Murder, E.C.R. Lorac
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.
Checkmate to Murder, E.C.R. Lorac
Something about the setting and set-up of this reminded me of a previous book of Lorac’s that I’ve read (Bats in the Belfry, I think), but it’s more of an atmosphere thing than a repeat of the plot or something like that. I actually guessed what had happened in the end fairly early on, just from the way certain things were emphasised and leaned on, but I enjoyed the ride of how it gets unravelled and the culprit caught.
E.C.R. Lorac’s books always have a pleasant quality I find it hard to put my finger on. Part of it is competence, and the fact that I can trust her to work out the story in a satisfactory way. Part of it is that she doesn’t usually dwell on the characters who are awful, but on the decent and hardworking people who are trying to put things right, or adjust to the awfulness of whatever crime has been committed. Her detective is always so conscientious and decent — such a complete fantasy, but one I enjoy.