#457: Black Beadle (1939) by E.C.R. Lorac

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It comes to us all in the end: the moment that a prolific, tantalisingly-just-about-available author we’ve been low-key enjoying without ever really loving suddenly turns in an utter duffer of a book.  It happened with the last Lorac I read — Slippery Staircase (1938) — and while Black Beadle (1939) doesn’t quite plow the same ignominious farrow, it’s not exactly leaps and bounds better.  And yet Edith Rivett’s take on the standard GAD milieu is so atypical that while she’ll miss the mark on a few occasions, I don’t believe she’ll have written anything without any merit whatsoever.  This is still a substandard effort, but with enough wrinkles to warrant attention.

What I especially enjoy about Lorac is her uncommon approach to what would otherwise be fairly standard setups — she has an eye for the new approach, or for presenting a problem in a surprisingly unconventional way.  It’s perhaps this which has kept her from true greatness in the genre — think of the number of books by Agatha Christie, or even Ngaio Marsh, where the essential plot can be summed up in a sentence, whereas even after hugely enjoying Bats in the Belfry (1937) I wouldn’t know how to go about précis-ing it.  So while I’d hate to say that Lorac didn’t possess the ability to plot in a compact way, it’s evident that she didn’t write that kind of book.  And, for better or worse, the novel of detection from the Golden Age is a beast that thrives on brevity and clarity.  Lorac, I feel, liked the muddiness of character interaction too much to want to over-simplify.

So while this takes a while to get going, it’s actually to the book’s credit: we start off with speculation about who will be chosen for a highly-influential business role by the out-going incumbent, veer into a semi-noirish follow-the-suspect tale, and, by chapter three, have a canny piece of role-reversal, an enlightening conversation, and a sudden new light cast on everything that has gone before.  And all this without any sense of what the actual plot is going to be — as likely to delight those who have read waaaaay too much of this stuff as it is to infuriate anyone after a two-line summary.  However, we then have a body to give everything some focus, and, it transpires, a raft of people with a vested interest in turning that ex-person into said corpse.  So, whodunnit?

And here, the wheels come off.

If I have a personal Hell, it is one stocked exclusively with books which continue to mention at the halfway stage information already imparted to the reader in chapters one, three, six, seven (twice), eight, eleven, and fourteen.  And, in fairness, Lorac only needs to do this here because at almost every juncture for well over two-thirds of this novel she piles more characters into each new situation — difficult enough to keep track of who’s who, but to add to the difficulty two of the central ones are called Garlandt and Mantland and I could not remember which was which (it’s quite important…and, boy, did I get them mixed up for a pastime).  Garlandt knows about Mantland, and Mantland knows what someone else knows about…Mantland?  No, wait, Gartland.  Manlardt?

And the real shame of this is that, inside the repetitious, s-l-o-w narrative, there’s some brilliant stuff: Barry Revian, essentially a likeable and trustworthy prospect for the aforementioned job, has a neurotic obsession about Jewish conspiracy where finance is concerned, and Lorac does some legitimately fascinating work with a sympathetic character nevertheless possessed of (and acknowledged as such in the book) a deeply unsavoury prejudice.  Taking, too, the publication date of this into consideration, it’s a doubly bold and brazen way of bringing a form of public discourse to the incredible wrongs going on overseas.  Never mind “GAD novels rarely mention the war”, this is a GAD novel that addresses the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany without even falling back on something as deniable as analogy to frame it.  I mean…holy shit!

Things do speed up towards the end, when you feel Lorac wrenching the reins back from the more important work to focus on plot, and even here she manages to take a GAD staple that was old, faded, stale, and cliché and turn it into something approached from a slightly different angle which again throws light upon a character which is both sympathetic and also somewhat awful.  Boy, will you leave this conflicted.  Though we can at least agree that the evidence outlined by Inspector Macdonald come the end — I forget to whom, it’s either Bar Graph or Man-Bat — is so lacking in any magnitude of actual, y’know, evidence of something that it’s a wonder the book reaches any conclusion at all.

For detection and plotting, then, this comes difficult to recommend, but one rather feels that Lorac’s fire at what was happening elsewhere in the world was more the motivating factor here.  And it’s a shame that her looser tendencies in the realms of plotting couldn’t have found an equally compelling narrative to marry to this, since it could have proven to be a bold social statement and a classic of detective fiction at the same time.  Still, old habits die hard, and so we have this uneven narrative on our hands as a result, and one I can’t in all fairness recommend as something that will enrich your GAD experience.  For bravery, though, I think this takes some beating.

~

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)

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Perjured Alibi from last week because, huh, well, I’d hate to spoil too much of either, so let’s say “blackmail” and leave it at that.

17 thoughts on “#457: Black Beadle (1939) by E.C.R. Lorac

  1. Sounds like an interesting failure.

    Re the Nazis: One of Lorac’s other books is about Oswald Mosley and English Fascism. They don’t come at all well out of it.

  2. I liked this more than you did, but I agree it’s not her best work – most of which probably was done in the post-war period, particularly those books set in the Lune Valley area.

    I wonder if i was the only person not to spot the clue to the anti-semitism theme in the cover art till after I’d read it?

    • Of the handful I’ve read, I#’d probably rank best-to-worst as:

      Bats in the Belfry
      The Devil and the C.I.D.
      Case in the Clinic
      Black Beadle
      Slippery Staircase

      …which would imply that I generally like her less as the war approaches. But then I’ve always been a bit of a fan of 1937 so maybe that explains things. Though, no, it doesn’t really.

      As for the cover art, I didn’t spot the swastika for a worryingly long time — so, no, you’re not alone in your inattention to detail 🙂

  3. Through your reviews Lorac continues to fascinate me, I look forward to getting to it. What makes this book slow do you think? I am pondering this week the virtues of slowness in GAD (currently reading an early Cyril Hare), and I wonder if there is a very fine line between thorough investigative plotting and dragging along.

    • What makes it slow is everything being put in place in place well before halfway, following a long (and atmospheric, interesting) setup…so, essentially, between maybe 25% and 50% of the way through. Then lots and lots of repetition of the same rumours (“Wasn’t there a story…?” — yes, yes there was a flippin’ story…!) and reminders of what has happened in the book to that point. It feels realistic, and is bold in how it builds up the flawed nature of practically every character, but as a novel it needs about twice as much plot (or at least something to happen in the second half).

      It’s not even an especially fastidious investigation, a la The Ponson Case which might equally be accused of not adding much in Part 2 but at least encourages alternative explanations of facts thus far given. This is weak tea in comparison, and Macdonald’s “reasoning” come the end is simply the worst kind of hand-waving nincompoopery. And that coincidence…oh, don’t get me started on the coincidence…

      • Hmmm, that makes a lot of sense. I remember a book that Lizzie was reading once my Kate Mosse where the main character is constantly saying ‘wasn’t there something’ or ‘something niggled in my mind’ about the same bloody obvious thing for 3/4 of the book. I like your idea that alternative explanations can be a fair and interesting way to extend an in depth investigative work. In fact multiple theories are often some of the most exiting things for me.

  4. Thanks for the review, which gives a sharply juxtaposed perspective to Kate’s – I recall she seemed to like it? I understand that Lorac has written many novels, and not every title can hit the bull’s eye. But it seems like review after review of hasn’t been overly-flattering.

    Then again, I’m tossing up between what to read next: either “Murder at the Mill-race” (which Puzzle Doctor wasn’t impressed by) or “Policemen in Precinct”. Hoping whichever I pick turns out to be a good one!

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