#279: The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac

51w0ewg0t4l-sx316My 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.

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The novels of E.C.R. Lorac published by Ramble House:

The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938)
Slippery Staircase (1938)
Black Beadle (1939)
Case in the Clinic (1941)

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I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Skeletal Hand or Skull.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The D.A. Calls it Murder as both begin with dead bodies whose precise identity is unknown.

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The Men Who Explain MiraclesToday also sees the release of the second episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles, the podcast Dan from The Reader is Warned and I started.  Excitingly, though in a stark contravention of the title, it’s a very nerdy interview with YA author Robin Stevens — whose impossible crime novel First Class Murder I reviewed here — author of the new “increasingly less possible” (Dan’s words) novel The Guggenheim Mystery.  Expect much discussion on the GAD conventions, use of clues, and possibly the single best use of the Knox Decalogue ever recorded.

You can read Dan’s far fuller version of events here, and the episode itself can be found here at our SoundCloud page — we hope you enoy it even half as much as we enjoyed recording it!

13 thoughts on “#279: The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac

    • The more I read about Lorac, the more I like the sound of what she brought to her books. The setups are just odd enough that you feel a new take on an old trope, as she always has a way of twisting something to make it that little bit more interesting or complex. That’s how it sounds, anyway. I’m eager to try more, and bought Murder by Matchlight immediately I finished this one. So more will definitely follow!

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    • As I say, there’s plenty of merely okay Christies or Carrs or Rhodes, but there’s equally enough superb in there that the occasional okay title is more than acceptable; more data is needed, hence I throroughly approve of these (hopefully) two reprints — come on, the BL, get ’em ready!!

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  1. British Library is going to reissue Lorac? I highly approve of that decision! Only read a handful of her books, but wanted to sample more of them after her locked room novel, Rope’s End, Rogue’s End, but they’re not always easy to come by. So reprints are more than welcome.

    I see you already bought Murder by Matchlight, but, in case anyone missed it, there’s a 2015 reprint edition of the book available from Dover Publishers. I don’t remember much about the plot, but the black-outed, war-time setting was very well done.

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  2. Glad that this one seems to be stronger than the other titles… I have it waiting on the metaphorical TBR pile in my Kindle. 🙂 I wasn’t overly-impressed by ‘Murder by Matchlight’, so it’s good to know that there is nonetheless a good read awaiting me. Will you be trying ‘Black Beadle’? I seem to recall Kate enjoying that one very much.

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    • Oh, yes, I will be chasing down the other Rmable House titles. Not necessarily any time soon — I’ll probably do MbM first — but I’ll definitely commit to those at this point; I share Noah’s intrigue with Lorac. She may not be the greatest author ever, we can’t say yet, but I can believe that her novels would bring to light much of interest that would be absent from the collected bodies of work of several of her contemporaries.

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  3. When I first started focusing on Lorac, looking for more titles to read than the commonly-available handful, I thought this was exactly what I’d always been looking for — a masterful writer who had been unjustly overlooked and not reprinted much, and who had a huge backlist that I could enjoy for years to come. I cannot honestly assert that she is of the highest rank of writers, but GEE she sure has a lot of skills and a very enjoyable way of presenting a story. I’ll absolutely assert she’s been unjustly overlooked by the industry and I hope more people find her work as interesting as I do, and that she becomes more widely known. She has clever plots and a great way of explaining social issues as part of the background. Perhaps it’s merely her relative scarcity that intrigues me, but I do want to read them all!

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    • Well, of the 70-odd books to her name there are five available — these four from Ramble House, though not the cheapest editions, and Murder by Matchlight which I picked up new online for £3 — and perhaps a couple more coming from the british library if what Puzzle Doctor says above/below is correct.

      It would be fascinating to get a sense of her an an author, especially as there’s so much of interest in just the two I’ve read, so let’s hope the BL reprints are successful and the rights people amenable and more follow. After all, the BL have published like seven John Bude titles, and I’m confident that Lorac is a superior writer to Bude in just about every regard 🙂

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    • I tend to love Ramble House publications, but they are pricey, so Noah, out of the titles listed, is there one you would recommend for my first Lorac? The one with the spinsters falling down the stairs sounds intriguing.

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