Posts Tagged ‘E.C.R Lorac’

With thanks to the British Library for providing a copy of the book

The British library have now published a number of E C R Lorac mysteries, and though I haven’t read them all, it’s clear she has become a very popular writer among lovers of Golden age mysteries. She was a prolific and popular author during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and also wrote under the name Carol Carmac. These Names Make Clues was first published in 1937, when Lorac was already establishing herself as a mystery writer. However, Martin Edwards in his introduction explains how this novel came to almost be completley forgotten. It is surprising given how popular Lorac has been, and what a good example of golden age fiction this is.

Like so many of the best detective novels of this period, These Names Make Clues is set between the wars, April 1936 to be precise, and gathers a large number of people altogether in one place – at least to start with. The novel opens with Chief Inspector Macdonald at home, looking forward to settling down with a new book. He decides to open his post first though, and one of his letters is from Graham Coombe inviting him to a treasure hunt party. The treasure hunt is to have clues that are of literary, historical, or political nature, and those invited to play, Coombe explains, detectives of a literary, psychological, or practical bent. Would Macdonald consent to pit himself – and his skills – against Coombe’s invited guests of thriller writers and others? Initially, Macdonald is really not keen. He discusses the party and his possible attendance with his friend, the journalist Peter Vernon – but on the toss of a coin decides to go along after all.

The set up is all very Christie-esque, Macdonald arrives at Caroline House – the London residence of Graham Coombe and his sister – and is given a literary pseudonym, each of his fellow guests is similarly disguised. Various parts of the house have been given over to the treasure hunters in which to hunt for clues and make their investigations. The treasure hunt gets underway, and Macdonald likes to think he might know who one or two of his fellow hunters may be. Here the reader really needs to have their wits about them, because most of the people we meet at Caroline House during the treasure hunt have two names, the pseudonym given to them at the party, and their own name – confused? me? absolutely.

The fun stops rather abruptly when the lights all go out and ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room. ‘Samuel Pepys’ is revealed to be well-known detective writer Andrew Gardien.

“There was a desk by the window, on which stood the telephone. A large arm-chair stood in the middle of the small floor space, and against the wall facing the window was a fine mahogany bureau, whose heavy front was pulled out, though the flap was not let down. Pulling aside the chair a little, Macdonald said ‘I’m afraid he is here. Very much here.’”

Macdonald is on hand to look into the strange circumstances right away, and what initially appeared to have been natural causes is quickly suspected to be anything but. There’s quite a bit of who’s who to be sorted out, not to mention who was where, and who saw who in those places when the lights went out – all of which sets things up rather nicely for a very puzzling mystery.

Macdonald and his CID colleagues get to work, but the very next day, Gardien’s agent is also found dead, in very bizarre circumstances, but who died first, and was one responsible for the other?

Macdonald’s friend journalist Peter Vernon is drawn into the mystery when he gets talking to one of the treasure hunters at the inquest. Soon, he is chasing all over the countryside in a borrowed sports car, in the hope of landing himself a scoop into the bargain.

“The long straight stretch of road ahead was ideal for a chase. The M.G was new, and in tip-top order, and Vernon began to enjoy himself. He was soon near enough to read the registration number ahead and to realise that his luck was in.”

This is an enjoyable mystery, perfect for these autumnal evenings and lazy weekends, a little short on atmosphere perhaps, but plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing.

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I do enjoy these Second World War mysteries, and so when this one came through the door recently I knew it would be right up my street. E. C. R Lorac has quickly become something of a favourite among regular readers of the British Library Crime Classics series – though I had only managed to read one of them before, I have a couple more tbr.

E. C. R Lorac is the penname of Edith Caroline Rivett – who also wrote as Carol Carmac and produced an impressive number of Golden age crime books. Checkmate to Murder was first published in 1944 when the author was at her writing peak.

The novel opens on a foggy night in London’s Hampstead, an odd group of people are gathered together in an artist’s studio. I particularly enjoyed the opening to the story, which immediately transferred itself in my mind to a stage set. Characters moving in and out and around each other just as they might on a theatrical stage really helps the reader visualise the setting. Gathered together that evening are artist Bruce Manaton, his sitter, André Delaunier decked out in the robes of a cardinal, alongside two chess players bent over their game in concentration. In an adjacent kitchen Manaton’s sister Rosanne, also an artist, is getting supper ready and popping in and out of the studio from time to time.

“Rosanne, standing looking at the studio and its occupants, was intensely aware of the decorative quality of both of the groups in it on that foggy winter evening. She did not often paint herself now: line work was her medium, but she felt an impulse to indulge in a modern composition in which both chess players, painter, and sitter should form a pattern, irrespective of distances and planes.”

She pops outside to check on the blackout – as they have had problems with it before – and is visited by Mrs Tubbs, a cheerful cockney char lady who comes daily to help their immediate neighbour and landlord Mr Folliner, a miserly recluse. Mrs Tubbs leaves, and the stage – as they say – is set.

Not long after this Neil Folliner, the Canadian nephew of old Mr Folliner arrives on leave and finds his uncle dead. Neil is immediately arrested by special Constable Verraby who was coincidentally on the scene too. The assembled company of the studio are briefly drawn into the unexpected drama by the special constable who deposits his quarry at the studio while he goes off to telephone the official police. Neil Folliner has hurt his foot, and while being attended to insists on his innocence, to the odd group collected around him. It is noted by one of the chess players that Verraby looked afraid – but what could he possibly have to fear?

It’s not long before Chief Inspector Macdonald and the men from the CID are on the scene. He is immediately faced with a perplexing collection of alibis and suspicions that are to lead him and his team in various directions. The previous occupants of the studio are soon added into the mix of suspects. It seems few people had reason to like old Mr Folliner, and locally there have long been rumours of his having squirreled away money and valuables in his broken down house.  There’s some nice interplay between police colleagues – and Macdonald seems to be a practical, sensible man.

“Macdonald went up the front steps and let himself in at the door: it had been left on the latch, and once inside he flashed his torch round the spacious hall and shivered. The place was dank, cold with an even coder chill than the outside air. The paper on the walls, once ‘grained and varnished,’ hung in strips, ghostly lines of white showing where it had come unstuck from the damp walls. The house smelt of mildew, unwholesome, sour. There was worn linoleum on the floor and the stairs, its pattern long since worn off by the passing footsteps. As he reached the turn of the stairs, Macdonald saw a line of light beneath a door, and he advanced towards this and let himself carefully into a brightly-lighted room at the back of the house.”

E. C. R Lorac is so good at setting a scene and creating atmosphere, she does this throughout the novel – it adds to the sense of theatre which I rather enjoyed.

The mystery is of course set against the backdrop of London in wartime, the dense fog lending an extra layer of darkness to the blacked out streets and adds a wonderful atmosphere to this mystery.

Checkmate to Murder is a good satisfying mystery – the denouement is clever; deftly explained. I was nowhere near guessing the truth.

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With thanks to the publishers for the review copy

I’ve been looking forward to trying the mysteries of E.C.R Lorac, her books have been reviewed very enthusiastically by lots of bloggers. I have a couple more Lorac tbr and anticipate them eagerly now. This Devon set mystery was a treat. A small, fairly isolated community is always a good setting for a murder story, and in this novel Lorac has created just such a community, steeped in secrets.

E.C.R Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett, she was a prolific writer of crime between the 1930s and 50s – and several of her novels are back in print thanks to the British Library. Murder in the Mill-Race first published in 1952 and shows real assurance in the plotting and characterisation.

Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife Anne; tired of the depressing slums, preventable disease and dirt of Northern city life, take the opportunity to swap life in a Staffordshire mill town for that of a Devonshire village on Exmoor. Raymond’s own poor health, the result of a Japanese prison of war camp, the reason for the change. In Milham in the Moor an elderly doctor is retiring, and Raymond decides to take over the practice, which is widely spread out over a large, sparsely populated area, but which should nevertheless make for an easier life.  Dr Brown will be staying in his own house, still overseeing the care of the children at a local children’s home; Gramarye. So, Raymond eventually agrees terms with Lady Ridding – a wily old aristocrat who drives a hard bargain – for he and Anne to take over part of the Dower House within the grounds of The Manor House. The Dower house is beautiful, and Anne falls in love with it instantly, it does seem as if she and Ray will be living their dream life.

Soon after their arrival in Milham in the Moor the Ferens begin to see that beneath the rural charm of their new surroundings there is also malice and hatred. The first indication of malign feelings comes almost immediately after the couple move in. They have already heard a good deal about Sister Monica – the warden of Gramarye – whose goodness everyone talks about as being something close to saintliness. When Sister Monica appears at the Dower house, walking through an open door while the Ferens are deep in conversation (Anne suspects her of listening) Anne is immediately convinced that she is wholly bad.

“Anne jumped up and ran across the room. The drawing-room, where they sat, faced south, as did the front-door which stood wide open to the sunshine. Glancing through the open door of the drawing-room, Anne had been aware of a shadow in the wide entrance hall beyond. When she reached the hall she had to choke back an exclamation of astonishment. In the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight, stood a figure so tall and dark and unexpected that Anne had a sudden qualm of discomfort, a sense that she was facing something unreal and utterly unlike anything she had ever known.”

Following an uncomfortable tea-time at Gramarye where Anne witnesses the unnatural silence of small children who have been trained to act like tiny automatons – Anne is even more horrified by the woman who in her heart she has already decided is wicked. Gramarye has been run for thirty years by Sister Monica who makes sure everything runs to her exacting and often eccentric standards, she is assisted by two old retainers; Mrs Higson and Hannah, who both declare Sister Monica to be wonderful – but is she?

“Gramarye smelt of floor polish and carbolic and soap: something of the unwelcoming smell of an institution, but behind the overlay of modern cleanliness, the smell of the ancient house declared itself, of old mortar, of stone walls built without damp courses, of woodwork decaying under coats of paint, of panelling and floor boards which gave out their ancient breath as the coldness of the stone house triumphed over the warmth of the midsummer evening.”

Ray doesn’t like the woman any more than his wife does – but in his new position is unwilling to indulge in gossip or speculation.  The Ferens have heard that a year before they arrived in the village a young woman drowned in the Mill-Race – she had been working at Gramarye – sent there to work from elsewhere, known as a bad girl. John Sanderson, the bailiff found her body.

A few months after the Ferens arrival – another body is found in the Mill-race – Sister Monica appears to have been knocked on the back of her head before falling into the water. Sergeant Peel has the thankless task of unravelling the truth – but with everyone talking of Sister Monica in hushed tones as if she really were a saint and no one really telling him anything – the villagers keen to keep their secrets, it isn’t long before Scotland Yard are brought into the affair – and Chief Inspector Macdonald is sent to investigate.

Macdonald is sensible, no nonsense detective who Lorac first wrote about in the 1930s. I like policeman like Chief Inspector Macdonald – no frills detectives who are utterly believable, a safe pair of hands.

Murder in the Mill-Race is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

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