#167: Case in the Clinic (1941) by E.C.R. Lorac

case-in-the-clinicGiven 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.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

E.C.R. Lorac on The Invisible Event:

Bats in the Belfry (1937)
The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938)
Slippery Staircase (1938)
Black Beadle (1939)
Case in the Clinic (1941)
Murder by Matchlight (1945)
Crook o’ Lune (1953)

26 thoughts on “#167: Case in the Clinic (1941) by E.C.R. Lorac

  1. Thanks for the review, and I was looking forward to reading it to see if I should purchase a copy. I’ve only read ‘Murder by Matchlight’, and the investigation leading up to the solution was definitely stronger than the solution itself. Which was disappointing.


  2. The dream, of course, is to find a “forgotten” author of 70-plus novels who IS damn good. From what you and JFW say here, you might have pinpointed the problem: good setup, no follow through. That is disappointing because I’m lazy and I need a prolific mystery writer in my life again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I know the feeling. I think I’m down to about 8 Christies, around 35-40 Carrs (mind you I’ve been telling myself this number for a while, and I keep rereading old ones…), technically 39 Queens since I intend to read them all in order (yes, I shall being giving The French Dullard Mystery another go…)…but then it gets trickier.

      I mean, I’m warming up to Brand but she’s not exactly hugely prolific; there’s Stuart Palmer, but I haven’t read enough to come to an opinion yet; Joh Rhode/Miles Burton is virtually OOP; I could attempt to work out what ES Gardners I’ve not read, but that would take bloody ages…; I’m loving Norman Berrow, as everyone should, but there are only 16 more of them; frankly, where do we turn to next? Henry Wade? I’ve still not got round to any of this stuff, despite being quite excited that The Murder Room was bringing him back…maybe that’s a source to start mining….


      • If you’re looking to sample Rhode/Burton, try archive.org — they have a couple of dozen available. Henry Wade is absolutely worth your time, as are Stuart Palmer and Gardner. (Try reading the Cool & Lam novels from the beginning. They’re like Perry Mason crossed with Travis McGee.)
        I have a copy of Case in the Clinic (mine is the Collins White Circle Canada paperback edition that spells the victim’s name wrong on the cover LOL) and although I have become a Lorac fan over the last few years, this one is not memorable IMHO. I hope you keep going with some of her other titles, I suspect you may enjoy them more.


        • I’m tempted to reattaempt the Cool & Lam books in order, especially with the ‘new’ one out soon, since — as with most Gardner I’ve encountered — I’ve read a handful in a higgeldy-piggeldy orer and am developing an increasing fascination with the chronological progression of an author’s ouevre.

          Any particular Wade (or Wades) you’d recommend? There seem to be, like, 30 available. I hear Heir Presumptive is good, but it could be like The Hollow Man: famous, yes, good, yes, but not the place to start.

          I have Lorac’s The Devil and the C.I.D. on order from Ramble House, as I enjoyed this one easily enough to try her again. Knowing my luck I’ll fall in love with her writing and only have the four RH have reprinted avaiable to me… 🙂


  3. I only read a couple of Lorac’s and remember liking Rope’s End, Rogue’s End the most, but it was still one or two rungs below the work of her more famous contemporaries. Lorac seems like a solid second-stringer of the Golden Age.

    And a warning about your next read: Murder Gone Mad opens relatively strong, but the plot and storytelling gets mired in repetition very quickly. It’s a murder first, then a letter from the killer arrives, followed by talking with suspects and witnesses until another murder is discovered. This pattern is repeated until the book ends on a disappointing note. No idea why Carr liked this one.


    • Thanks for the warning — X vs. Rex was much the same, but I wanted to give Macdonald another go, especially as Carr was so keen on him. Have you read any of his (Macdonald’s) impossible crimes? Do they fair any better?


      • I shied away from Macdonald’s impossible crime novels after (accidently) reading a spoiler-laden review of one of them, which described an embarrassingly stupid method for making a razor blade vanish from a locked room. No idea if the other one is any better, but I would advice to avoid the throat-cutting one.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I agree, Murder Gone Mad is horrible. It’s not really a mystery — it cannot be “solved” in the traditional sense. More like a modern day serial killer novel. Because it’s such an early example of that sub-genre, it’s important, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable. Similarly problematic is what we’ll call the “razor blade one”; I agree with TomCat, and “embarrassingly stupid” is a good description of the solution.
            I can’t think of a Philip MacDonald that’s specifically an impossible crime, off the top of my head. I cannot guarantee that The Rasp qualifies, but it’s worth your time. as is Warrant for X (The Nursemaid Who Disappeared), which absolutely is not an impossible crime. Honestly, for someone who wrote such good movie scripts and scenarios, it’s annoyingly difficult to recommend a good MacDonald. The Rynox Mystery has many adherents but it’s very slight.
            If you can get hold of a copy of Lorac’s Death At Dyke’s Corner, that’s my favourite of hers so far. I’ve reviewed both it and Henry Wade’s New Graves at Great Norne in my blog. The Wade title is beautifully written but has a rather dissatisfying ending. I certainly enjoyed The Hanging Captain. I understand Lonely Magdalen is highly esteemed, but it’s been 30 years since I read it and I barely remember having done so.

            Liked by 1 person

            • There were a couple of Macdonald novels in the Locked Room Library that John Pugmire wrote up on Mystery*File — I seem to remember Rynox and The Polferry Riddle (I could check, but where’s the fun in that?). Anyway, I appreciate the warning, will see how it goes.

              Shall keep my ever-roving, book-hungry eye out for Lorac’s Dyke’s Corner, too, and Wade’s Constable Guard Thyself is apparently an impossible crime…so that seems like as good a place to start as any…


  4. Re: Henry Wade – I read The Dying Alderman and enjoyed it, especially the interplay between three very different sleuths. I tried reading A Dying Fall and couldn’t get through it. His style is a little dry. Then I found two paperbacks out of the blue at a local bookstore that has been, to all intents and purposes, useless to me: The Hanging Captain and New Graves at Great Norne. So I have some Wade to dig into when I’m so inclined. I think the main thing you get from him is a lot of stuff about the fading out of the old aristocracy after WWI. The solution to Alderman was quite touching, and there was even a dying message to be had!


    • Hmmm, yeah, with that many books there’s going to be a range of successes. I always have to apply the Christie Test and say “Well, if They Came to Baghdad, Destination Unknown, and Partners in Crime had been my first three Christies, there probably wouldn’t have been a fourth”!. Hence, I am grateful for this advice — much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I have met a number of folks who don’t like her at all . . . and they are basing that opinion on their one and only read – Third Girl or At Bertram’s Hotel! Of all the damn luck!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting review. Only read one Lorac novel which interestingly focused on a hit and run crime, which I quite enjoyed. Been meaning to give Lorac another go, though I’m not sure this is the one to start with. I don’t seem to have the same need as you and Brad for having a very prolific author to go at. Seem to be quite happy dotting from writer to writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aaaaah, but isn’t it nice to have someone to relax back into? Y’know, you have a tough week, the last five books you’ve read have all been shite, and you just want something…good, something you can rely on that — even if you don’t love it — you have enough of an overview to appreciate what the author was doing when they wrote it? And then the knowledge that there are another 30 or 40 books in that same vein…honestly, that’s what I love about Carr and what I’m especially grateful for in discovering Berrow. Dunno how I’m going to cope when I finish Dame Agatha (well, no, I do, I’m going to reread them), but it does feel like a relationship that is coming to an end — or, y’know, I’m hugely overthinking it. Yeah, probably that…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I kind of get it, though probably because in the past I have binge read prolific authors I have enjoyed. I don’t tend to have long series of really bad reads, but maybe I’m easier to please or luckier in my book choices. But even if I did have 5 bad reads I’m not sure I’d need to go back to a familiar author – I’d just trust my luck to pick a better book from my TBR pile. Did have a bad read this week though, which will be coming up as my next TNB post – which may or may not include a brief rant where I suggest the book under discussion is a country house novel which morphs into a Le Carre novel on speed.
        I totally get your hang up on nearly finishing Christie though, as you wish there was just one more, unless it’s another Passenger to Frankfurt…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it’s a guy thing?!? Of course, I love to have a variety to choose from, but man! Finding a good to great prolific author is like mining for gold and striking a large vein. You know you can kick back and spend for a while without having to dig so hard! You keep finding all these fun authors, Kate, who have written two, three or four novels! Finding these writers and running through them in the blink of an eye is – you should pardon the expression – murder on this reader!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It sounds like more Lorac novels might be worth checking out, if this one is promising. I usually try and give a writer two goes before dismissing them. This is because the first Christie I randomly read was the awful ‘Postern of Fate’. It was also one of the first mystery novels I ever read, and put me off the entire genre for several years, fool that I was. Later I reluctantly picked up ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ which blew me away, and opened up the genre to me once again.

    Saying that, perhaps unfairly, my first Gladys Mitchell novel was also my last. I disliked her writing style so much!

    Here’s hoping you fare better with more Lorac.


    • I’ve wasted time giving authors about six or seven goes in the past — Mitchell is one who fills that category, certainly, and I was convinced I must be missing something. Nope, turns out not. I was so convinced that I wanted to like Raymond Chandler (or more perhaps that I should like him) that I ploughed on through his books despite absolutely hating them in virtually every regard. Weird how the mind works sometimes, innit?


  7. Pingback: #279: The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac | The Invisible Event

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