If you seek evidence of my tendency to over-commit where GAD is concerned, look no further than my reading and reviewing two E.C.R. Lorac titles and then buying a further, ahem, six before actually getting round to reading any more. For all her perceived failings — not as rigorous as Christie, not as refined as Sayers, not as dull as Marsh — I’ve found my first few books by Edith Caroline Rivett to distinguish themselves in her approaching fairly standard setups with an air of trying to do something a little uncommon. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we are putting a different tread on the tyres.
Bats in the Belfry (1937) begins with a setup so classic in its ingredients that you know exactly what’s going to happen from the off: a long-lost cousin returned from Australia, the “intellectual challenge” of a murder game casually discussed amongst the well-to-do at a post-funeral gathering (How Best to Commit and The Hide a Murder?), and then the disappearance of one of those present and appearance of an apparent blackmailer who may or may not be involved and lives in the creepy old building of the title. It’s no headlong rush, we’re gently introduced to each element and then equally gently moved on, but before too long things are beginning to look a little fishy and so Inspector James (or is it Robert?) Macdonald is called in to investigate.
There is much I admire about Lorac’s writing, but top of the list is the casual intelligence she bestows upon her reader. The central problem here — and it becomes more problematic as it goes, grown but never bloviated by sudden and contradictory phone calls, characters appearing and disappearing, murder, and all manner of questions about identity and location — is the kind of thing that almost requires a table to keep in check. Most normal readers could well be expected to founder amidst all the possibilities, especially as you clearly think of a few permutations that Lorac doesn’t acknowledge, and so you’re playing a dual game of What She Has Said and What She Hasn’t Said, knowing that under the aegis of the tenets of detective fiction all points must be considered and that Lorac clearly isn’t doing this.
And then Macdonald will turn around mid-conversation and quietly and calmly go “Well, of course I’ve thought of that, and I’ve thought of this and this and this, too”. A lesser author would have their sleuth sit and sweat bullets over every possible combination of events; Lorac, to my reading, trusts that you, dear reader, are intelligent enough to do that on your own. It’s a low-key and possibly too-casual approach to the rigour of detective plotting, and one that leaves her vulnerable to accusations of over-embarrassment in her plotting — after all, she’s free to claim anything this way — but it’s an interesting reflection on fair play: if the situation is understood enough for you to speculate yourself on the available evidence, surely the information has been fairly communicated. I’m sure others will disagree, but I fail to see why we should be so grudging in giving Lorac the benefit of the doubt.
Macdonald, then, is a low-key copper for a low-key writer. No, he has no immediately-discernable personality as such, but Lorac isn’t one for glitter bombs to highlight his basic decency: witness how he suggests a subordinate be taken to assist at a burning building because the man “loves fires”, his reaction upon feeling the rough edge of a doctor’s tongue when committing a witness to the latter’s care, and especially the contempt he keeps bottled up when interviewing the wife of the missing man in her “silver boudoir”. And Lorac’s writing elsewhere is so keen in its insight and mood that I think it’s about time we a) saw more of this stuff republished an b) considered who out of March and Mitchell gets booted from that fourth pedestal (clue: it’s both of them):
There was something absurd about the feeling of tension that possessed him, here in the heart of the West End, with the smug-looking door-plates of fashionable specialists all around him.
Or perhaps you’d prefer:
Police work is always thorough and orderly, seldom spectacular, and on this occasion three experts in the detection of crime set to work as calmly — but more energetically — than [sic] the usual phlegmatic British workman.
Yes, there are flaws — the structure of this has given me an idea for my next Spoiler Warning post because, well, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve, even if it is very enjoyable — but it would be churlish to pretend that a puzzle must be insoluble for the book to have merit. Plus, it’s complemented by some subtle contemporary details, like a reference to someone’s health being “ruined by after-effects of war-time gas” and a character being said to have “footed it like the knife when he saw me”, and I’m a sucker for anything like that in this era of this genre of novel.
On this book alone, no, Lorac is not the archetypal bastion of classic detection, but there’s talent enough here to be excited about the prospect of more of her output coming to light. For a genre that admits a number of approaches and styles, an author who brings this rarefied touch to what we’ve seen done so many times before should surely be a cause for celebration. So can someone please republish the bastard things? I’m spending enough money hoarding Freeman Wills Crofts books as it is…
Current and forthcoming E.C.R. Lorac reviews on The Invisible Event: