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.