Given the number of people who applied themselves to the challenge of writing a novel of detection during the Golden Age (precise dates pending…), it is to be expected that a fair number of wonderful novels, plots, ideas, and authors will have been lost in the tidal wave of creativity. Through the continued efforts of publishers like Ramble House — who were reprinting this stuff before it was cool again — we’ve been able to rediscover Max Afford, Norman Berrow, Rupert Penny, Hake Talbot, and others, and it’s this path of frank fabulousness that has brought me now to E.C.R. Lorac, author of some 70-odd novels under a couple of pseudonyms. Does she belong in the realm of How In The Hell Is This Stuff Overlooked? Well, on this evidence…maybe.
Much of the work done in the first quarter of Case in the Clinic is as smooth and professional as you’d hope — with consummate ease we have hearsay spun realistically out of hand, a gossipy cause-and-effect that sees suspicion for a number of deaths directed at a particular person who could well be blameless, and a borderline-impossible murder (if it was murder…) for everyone to puzzle over. Lorac catches the mood of a small community with pin-sharp precision, even though we only see a very few characters, and the bitchiness and suspicion that this breeds feels quite astoundingly present without ever really exposing us to it directly. As essentially a Village Poisoning Tale, the establishment of all the necessary factors is seamless.
It also takes place without the Second World War really intruding at all — Richard A. Lupoff says in his introduction that it was most likely written before the war started and then published later, but any ret-conning is all but invisible: we have a cast of men, the youngest of who is in his mid-forties, that it is entirely possible would not be caught up in war work, and a brief mention of ‘the international situation’ and we’re done. And little details of the period inform this effortlessly: a minor plot point revolves around the telephone exchange being ‘automatic’ and so not logging the numbers of local calls, one character owns “a very good car, in tip-top condition, capable of doing seventy miles an hour”, a vacuum cleaner is remarked upon as a new invention…there’s charm and period detail a-plenty.
However, Lorac isn’t exclusively offering a rose-tinted glimpse of the past, and mixes in a dash of bitterness at times that feels very in keeping with the shifting mood given ‘the international situation’ and a gradual disenfranchising of the people who are all too aware of the stakes at play outside of their bucolic world:
“A jury wouldn’t hesitate, I’d lay money on that, and I’ve had fair experience with juries.”
“Damn the jury!” responded Macdonald cheerfully. “Twelve fools are twelve times as foolish as one fool.”
“Are they? What about twelve wise men?”
“No-one alive has ever seen twelve wise men in agreement — because you never get twelve in company. Twelve fools are a commonplace. Twelve wise men would be a phenomenon.”
There is much, then, to enjoy, even to applaud, in what Lorac establishes. But where she falls down, where this book beings to drop off the shelf of Neglected Brilliants, is how she then uses this. Come the half-way stage you have pretty much everything you’re going to get, and the plot seriously needs a kick in the pants to rev it up again, but this never comes. Macdonald’s investigation is thorough and fastidious, but thoroughness and fastidiation (no, that’s not a word) are no replacement for sheer incident and excitement when it comes to this sort of enterprise. There’s a superb motif of how the behaviour of each of the suspects doesn’t make sense when considered in the context of finding which one of them is guilty, but not very much is done with this once it’s pointed out, and the same could be said of most of the threads started in that opening half.
The solution, when it comes, is…fine, but really not all that interesting when you get down to it and, worst of all, the explanation is garbled and told all out of sequence in a way that’s a bit confusing. It just about holds together, and accounts for the actions that each character goes through up to that point, but there’s just…something…missing to make it feel a bit more worth the effort of getting there. And as for clues…I’m not really sure there are any, to be honest, but I don’t wish to say too much more as that may be a spoiler.
So, a mixture. Brilliant in some ways, disappointing in others. Certainly good enough to warrant another look at Lorac, but the experience of reading this falls below that bracing first dive into Ramble House stablemates Berrow or Penny, or the delirious insanity of Afford. As a tempter, it definitely has its temptations, though. Time will tell if there’s more to offer as reward for the faithful.