My first foray into the work of E.C.R. Lorac was long on character and setting but short on plot. This time there’s plenty of everything to go around, and I’m now very intrigued by what else Edith Caroline Rivett may have cooked up in the realms of GAD writing — am I right in saying that it was mentioned at the Bodies from the Library conference that one of her books will be a future British Library Crime Classic? On this evidence, and trusting those fine folk to continue their habit of making generally good selections, that could be something worth anticipating. She’s not quite Agatha Christie yet, but if you’d read only Destination Unknown and Third Girl then even Agatha Christie wouldn’t be Agatha Christie…
It doesn’t hurt that I’m starting a late in life love affair with Freeman Wills Crofts and there’s something more than a little Croftian about this setup and execution: Lorac equally values the effort put in by an entire police force in the resolution of a crime, drawing on the resources and knowledge of a vast body of men and women rather than simply letting one firebrand be the standard-bearer. There’s a celebration of Routine (capitalisation not added), and of the roles played by astute members of the various arms of the constabulary, that really makes this feel like something more acute and astutely observed than your standard, dashed-off, forgotten GAD missive:
To the men working under him Macdonald could leave the immense detail of routine work — interrogation of the waiters and barmen, cloakroom attendants, chauffeurs, as well as of the dancers at the Veterans’ Ball, who might have some detail of evidence which would turn the scales.
When Inspector Macdonald abandons of his car in a London ‘pea-souper’ fog to help a woman whose purse is snatched, he returns to find a dead body in the back seat, the victim of a stabbing who is dressed up like Old Nick and proves remarkably difficult to identify. Essentially, that’s yer plot: Macdonald must identify the corpse and bring the killer to justice. The setup is loose enough that there’s the real chance someone less sure of themselves could turn in a poorly-focussed and meandering novel that wanders in a few circles before heading off in a definite direction at the three-quarter mark, but Lorac avoids that and produces something with rather more intent.
The complexity of what emerges is never going to give Crofts himself nightmares, but there’s a clear purpose at each stage, some excellent detective work by Macdonald and his associates, and a superb line in well-drawn characters and moments of steel-eyed brilliance that Lorac captures very keenly (Macdonald’s brief reflection at the final unmasking of the guilty party in particular). Added to this, we also get no mere perfunctory passing over of atmosphere, and some great scene setting captured with rare élan:
Miss Filson took the photograph and held it in her long pale fingers. She studied it for a considerable time, not moving, her flat, mask-like face inscrutable, without a trace of expression. The room was very still, the golden light as gentle as the silence, and Macdonald had an odd feeling that thoughts lingered in the air, became perceptible, like the elusive fragrance of Eastern silk and cedar which hung about the room.
Sure, there’s a coincidence or two — though reasonably well justified on the basis of the sheer number of people able to bend themselves to the task at hand — and the odd leap in logic that might not quite hold, but the plot is always moving (though I’d be inclined to skip Chapter 6, as it removes an element of doubt from one thread that I think would have enhanced that particular seam) and Lorac offers up some intriguing variations: this is the first time, for instance, that I’m aware of a female police officer being dispatched to do the whole ‘pretend you’re a journalist and find out if…’ routine, and while Macdonald isn’t overburdened with personality he emerges much more clearly here than in Case in the Clinic. Lorac has a real skill in conveying her policeman in brief moments of response or reflection, which is far more telling than any tragic backstory or bitter ex-wife could ever be.
So, a distinct improvement, this — there’s a lovely motif that sees the invocation of our eponymous chthonic overlord by name in a manner that feels like a sort of game Lorac is playing unbeknownst to her characters — and easily enough to warrant further investigation of Lorac, Macdonald, and their other cases. If only they weren’t so damned difficult to come by…which may be less of an issue in future if I’m remember correctly about that British Library Crime Classic. And, hey, if I’m not, maybe they should look Lorac’s way for future titles. Either way, here’s hoping.