I have thus far seen E.C.R. Lorac’s Chief Inspector Macdonald investigate a handful of rather unusual crimes — a man dropping dead in his garden, a body appearing in a car during a London Particular, and maybe a murder following a “How would you commit a murder?” game — but this is by far the most unusual: an old lady falling down the communal stairwell outside her top floor flat. Footprint evidence shows no-one could have been near her at the time and, but for the equally unsuspicious death of her sister in virtually the exact same manner a few months previously, there is no reason to suspect foul play.
Anyone else would be happy to leave it at that — hell, even Inspector Joseph French, never one to shy from an apparently insoluble problem, required some notion of a crime having been committed in the first place — and seeing a murder investigation spun from such unpromising beginnings has given me some additional insight into Lorac’s writing. Because while this demonstrates a fecundity of imagination in escalating implications very intelligently from seeming barren wastes, it is mired in a turgidity of prose which is rendered somewhat necessary by the slimness of the opening conceit.
Lorac lacks the simplicity and clarity of Agatha Christie — the opening chapter, in which two people leave a party on the ground floor to go upstairs and discover the body, is dense and confusing where Christie would keep it light and clean — and also doesn’t have anything close to the elaborate construction of John Dickson Carr or the character-work of Christianna Brand. But, see, those authors also could not have written this book; give Carr this setup and he’d have to embellish it somehow in order to increase the peril, even if just through utilisation of some fabulous adjective placement. Christie might make it a short story. Brand would make the people involved live and breathe rather than simply exist and lie to Macdonald so as to spin out 217 trade paperback pages of a not terribly interesting problem.
The first half is, however, reasonably enjoyable, and helped along by the notion of how younger generations are coming in an eschewing the habits and trappings of their forebears, exemplified no more perfectly than in Juliet Romney’s disdain at artist Martia Vannery having divided up her father’s sprawling Regency townhouse into five self-contained flats:
“Everyone yearns for the commonplace nowadays,” she said scornfully. “Mass production, cut to pattern, parts supplied, no deviation from the norm tolerated… Haven’t you any feeling for atmosphere, any desire to live in a place that’s out of the common rut?”
11 thoughts on “#426: Slippery Staircase (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac”
Well, I guess you’ll be looking forward to The Sixteenth Stair when Lorac returns to the crazy world of falling down stairs – the how is cleared up quite early in that one, iirc…
Well, at least she appeared to learn from the experience here and make that one shorter!
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A bit dull then? I’d still be keen to see more by this writer back in print.
A bit dull, but who doesn’t write a few dull ones in 70-some books? Lorac has appraoched some unusual crimes in uncommon ways — not for her a Lord found stabbed in his study with all the doors wide open and The Help given the night off — and I think this was perhaps over-reaching herself. Something of a failure, undeniably, but c;learly a well-intentioned failure.
Yes – and while this is admittedly 2nd hand info for me at this stage – it’s that penchant for tackling the unusual that makes her work sound attractive. And I quite agree that a few less than stellar efforts in a long and prolific career is nothing to get too upset about.
I’m still waiting for my Freeman Wills Crofts moment! When do I get to find that prolific author who I can’t get enough of and who I can sell and sell to my fellow bloggers. Where’s my Brian Flynn or John Rhode? Where’s my Delano Ames??? All the authors I have loved have written three books tops. Is my future as a GAD blogger to be seriously curtailed? Will I have to wait till retirement until I can relax and poke around a pokey book?
I think I’m having an existential tantrum here. Just ignore me . . .
I’m not quite as Crofts levels of obsession with Lorac yet — I stand by calling for a full reprint, but Crofts is on my experience so far infinitely the better author.
Also, let us not forget your Agatha Christie obsession which got you through your formative years. Some of us only have these backlogue-rich authors because we’re coming to detective fiction in relative decrepitude. And, hey. there’s plenty of Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Carolyn Wells, Norman Berrow, Henry Wade, and others I’m too tired to remember to sink your teeth into…
Hmmmm. Ahhhh. Thanks for the review – yet another less-than-outstanding novel by Lorac. To be fair, this one sounds like it is worse-than-average. 😞 I concede that with a massive output of 70 over novels, there are bound to be more than a handful of mediocre entries. I have “Shroud of Darkness”, “Policeman in Precinct” and “Death of a Martinet” sitting on my TBR shelf, and I’m hoping that one of these titles lifts my estimate of Lorac.
I’ve read quite a few reviews of her works in a couple of blogs – and many suggest her contribution within the genre to be somewhat middling, or at best good without being great. 😞
I get the impression from the handful I’ve read that your assessment is corect — she’s done consistently well without ever rising to timelessness. However, the way she doesn’t just set herself standard murder problems commends her to my way of reading things; she seems like someone who was keen to expand what was permissable within the genre, widening the scope for interpretation and presentation of criminous deeds.
If she’s thwarted in the realisation of this by a somewhat circuitous approach to the occasionally underwhelming problem because she made it too vague an idea…well, I’ll tolerate that. I’m no fan of slight schemes, but I’m — I guess “pacified” would be the closest I can get — by the fact of her at least trying to create a new niche or to step in the uncommon places. There will, however, be the odd duffer, but she’s hardly alone in that.
That’s the one and only Lorac novel that I’ve read, and it’s the reason I haven’t bothered searching out any of her other books. Not awful, just terribly average.
Well, if it’s any consolation, there are definitely better out there…