#426: Slippery Staircase (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac

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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?”

In fact, the changing nature of houses and their running forms an at-times appropriate background to the murders on the page, with even Macdonald moved to reflect that “the time was now past when domestics were willing to toil like troglodytes in the underground vastness of Regency kitchens and pantries … Now a flat an a sequence of charwomen were the custom, and these great houses doomed to destruction”.

And yet for all the motif of the living customs being in flux, very little is done with the characters in Martia Vannery’s flats: the three Bright Young Men looking after a friend’s flat in their absence, the retired actor, the widow: these are archetypes that pop up, are rendered reasonably well, and then sort of fulfil some obligations when the plot needs a nudge or two.  Macdonald is a sharp and observant policeman who uses the information to hand (often in his hands, rather than the reader’s) well, and the occasional set peice spices things up — a late night farrago involving a mysterious individual, a hidden staircase, and the untimely intervention of two residents is amusing but adds nothing to the narrative except to conjure a criminal record out of nowhere so Macdonald can spend four pages accusing someone of having a hand in the murder — but the more this goes on, the less there is that really happens.

It’s certainly not helped by Lorac muddling the investigation where simple, clear ideas would help.  If Fanny Seely were pushed down the stairs, there’s an impossible element to it since, as mentioned above, a record of footprints on the clean boards show she was on her own, and Macdonald praises work done by one of his subordinates recognising this which he estimates “nine men in ten” would have missed…and then goes on to insist that “someone had counted on the evidence of those stair to prevent suspicion ever arising” — so there’s a 10% chance it would be noticed that no-one else had been on the stairs, meaning a 10% chance this wouldn’t be thought of as a murder, and the murderer is counting on that?  A 90% chance of foul play suspected?  Jeepers, I do no like those odds…

It devolves into a series of repetitious interviews and then someone turns out to be guilty by a scheme that is half-clever (there’s sort of a sort of alibi trick…sort of) and half Looney Tunes (I could make an old woman fall down some stairs much more easily than is achieved here…though, upon reflection, that’s an odd boast to make).  And, boy, do you feel it —  at about page 180 I was dragging myself through inchmeal progressions in 12 page chunks, hoping there’d be the narrative musket blast of brilliant surprise leaving me agog at the end but, in all honesty, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.  When you start feeling your feet sliding out from underneath you at an increasingly steep narrative declivity, it does somewhat take the gloss of the experience.

The risorgimento of interest in classic detective fiction will not be helped by this book, and it’s easily the weakest of the Loracs I have read to date, but it does show some other school that sits between the Humdrums and the Intuitionists in drawing out unlikely-looking situations into full-blown novels of detection.  Whether it’s a school we need is up for some debate, but I also acknowledge that this is not one of Lorac’s finer efforts under its auspices.

~

Current and forthcoming E.C.R. Lorac reviews on The Invisible Event:

Bats in the Belfry (1937)
The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938)
Slippery Staircase (1938)
Black Beadle (1939)
Case in the Clinic (1941)
The Sixteenth Stair (1942)
Murder by Matchlight (1945)
Fire in the Thatch (1946)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to And So to Murder from last week because in both books the apparent absence of any motive for the crime plays quite a large part in making it so difficult to solve.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category An Artist/Photographer.

11 thoughts on “#426: Slippery Staircase (1938) by E.C.R. Lorac

  1. 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…

    • 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.

  2. 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…

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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