Category Archives: Lorac E.C.R.

Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

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And Then Put Out The Light: E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

E.C.R. Lorac’s (Edith Caroline Rivett) very readable Golden Age mystery And Then Put Out The Light opens with massage therapist, Gillian chatting with one of her many clients, Mrs. Bentham. It’s one of those odd intimate and yet non-intimate encounters shared by clients and professionals in which personal information is frequently divulged. This is certainly true in this instance when Gillian and Mrs. Allison Bentham discuss the recent, sudden death of Mrs. Lilian Mayden, a malicious woman who was disliked by everyone in the North Midlands Abbey town of Paulborough (with the exception of her equally toxic housekeeper/ former nurse, Garstang), a snobby little town inhabited by “ecclesiastical aristocracy.

It seems odd that Mrs. Mayden, a “chronic hypochondriac” dropped dead of heart problems when she’d never shown a sign of having cardiac issues before.  But wait … Mrs. Mayden’s previous doctor (now retired) prescribed heart pills to his patient basically to shut her up, but her new doctor said they were unnecessary and stopped the treatment; now Mrs. Mayden is dead. On top of this controversy, Mrs. Mayden’s long-suffering, browbeaten, spineless husband Guy is embroiled with a local girl who is pregnant, and right before Lilian Mayden’s sudden death, Guy asked for a divorce.

Gillian turned and faced her. “Well, it was a horrible thing to think of saying, but a woman like Mrs. Mayden might have made the mildest of men feel murderous.”

“My dear, my dear, never say that again,” pleaded Mrs. Bentham, “and if you hear anybody else saying it, stop them! It’s so easy to say, but so hard to unsay it.”

“But, Mrs. Bentham, no one on earth could think that of Guy Mayden. He’s the kindest, easiest-going fellow, and he was an angel to her.”

“Yes. He was.” Mrs. Bentham gave a great sigh. “You weren’t born and brought up in Paulborough, my dear. I was. I know that under the very shadow of that great Abbey there is more envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitablenness than in any godless ramshackle township in the Middle West. Plant a seed of slander in this soil and it grows. You should know that. You said just now, ‘She tried to ruin me.’ In any other place than this she wouldn’t have had much chance of success, would she?” 

In Paulborough’s claustrophobic snobby society, which runs with Victorian morality (there’s frequent reference to Trollope, by the way), rumours spread like wildfire. Mrs. Mayden, who loved to spread gossip, and even kept records of her malicious scandalmongering behaviour, was loathed and feared by everyone. Yet her death, rather than bury all the tensions in the town, seems to stir things up. First everyone leaps to the obvious conclusion that somehow or another Guy managed to murder his wife (not that anyone blames him) but then other past gossip begins to surface.

“Do you know there wasn’t a place in the town I could buy a bottle of scotch without Lilian finding out and raising hell about it?” He took the glass from her and drank thirstily. “Of course, she was brought up as a rabid T.T.,” he went on. “Before the war I never bothered. We never had so much as a bottle of beer in the house.”

The police arrive on the scene after being informed by Miss Garstang that she believes Mrs. Mayden was murdered. Emma Garstang claimed to know who killed her employer and how. … Enter Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.

At not quite 200 pages, this is a mystery that rips along, and E.C.R. Lorac’s writing style makes this a swift, pleasant read. Well structured dialogue and strong characterisation brings the inhabitants of Paulborough to life. I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and I suspect that most die-hard crime fans will do the same. Still this is an entertaining read that recreates post WWII Britain and its shifting socioeconomic and moral landscape.

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Fire in the Thatch: E.C. R. Lorac (1946)

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”

In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her,  persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.

June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.”  The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.

Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….

Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.  Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.

The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:

She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.

Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”

What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.

Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch,  a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.

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Bats in the Belfry: E. C. R Lorac (1937)

E. C. R. Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry begins with a handful of people gathered together following the funeral of a young Australian. The topic of death holds sway, and then a young woman, Elizabeth, brings up “an intellectual exercise” set for discussion at her club:

If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any liabilities?

A lively discussion ensues with various methods suggested, but oddly, actress Sybilla, the bored, unhappy wife of author Bruce Attleton has the best suggestion. In fact, her method seems to have been refined –almost as though she has given it some thought. Sybilla’s husband, Bruce, notes that one of the guests appears shocked by his wife’s calculated approach towards the disposal of  a body, but notes that his wife is “quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?” Discussing the best way to get rid of a body is hardly polite talk, but it’s a seemingly harmless discussion that has greater significance when a nasty blackmailer appears on the scene and Bruce vanishes …

Bats in the belfry

Bruce’s suitcase and passport are found in an artist’s studio in Notting Hill, and when a headless and handless corpse is found in the same location, it seems probable that Bruce is dead.

The novel’s main characters (and suspects) are introduced right away: Bruce Attleton and his wife Sybilla, friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham, Robert Grenvile and Bruce’s ward Elizabeth. Bruce had more than his share of enemies (including his wife) and so most of the book is devoted to the police procedural with the intrepid Inspector Macdonald at the helm of the investigation and its convoluted solution.

Unfortunately I guessed the villain very early in the novel, so that took away a lot of enjoyment, but I enjoyed the portrayal of Sybilla and her “apparently lazy make-up” (as in character). The novel is also dated with one character who punctuates his sentences with the verbal tic,“what?” a mention of “over-sophisticated, man-hunting pseudo-intellectual females,” and reference to a “queer-looking dago with a pointed beard.” Still I enjoyed the atmosphere of 1930s London and the arty-crowd.

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Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

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