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?”