I’ve enjoyed mixed fortunes with the work of E.C.R. Lorac, from the high of The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938) to the low of Murder by Matchlight (1945), and a return to her work has always been on the cards. And so, with the British Library kind enough to send me a review copy of Crook o’ Lune (1953), the eleventh title by Lorac to be reprinted in their august Crime Classics series, we return. There can be no denying that Lorac has been a huge success for the BL, undoubtedly allowing the taking of a risk on some more obscure titles elsewhere, so I knew that there were plenty of others in print for me to read if I enjoyed this one.
Gilbert Woolfall, having inherited the isolated family homestead of Aikengill, in the rural Lancashire district of Lunesdale, makes frequent journeys from his home in Lancaster to sort through his great uncle’s papers, all the while trying to decide if he wishes to move into Aikengill himself. One weekend, when he is away from the house, its underground lumber room catches fire and, when the flames are quelled, the body of Mrs. Ramsden, the elderly housekeeper who should not have been staying there that evening, is discovered, having suffocated in the smoke. When it’s also discovered that two-score of local shepherd Daniel Herdwick’s flock of sheep were stolen that same evening, even the local police start thinking that the two events might be linked. And when Chief Inspector Robert MacDonald of Scotland Yard happens to be holidaying in the area, you know he’ll be pulled into the investigation before too long…
That’s very much the plot of Crook o’ Lune, but Crook o’ Lune is not a novel that compels itself for its plot. It’s a wonderful piece of writing for simply absorbing the setting and characters, with Lorac living in the region — and having set at least two previous novels there — and giving a tremendous sense of knowing first-hand the various filigree’d touches that bring her small cast to life. Whether giving you a two-scene farm labourer whose very sullenness seems to cause the page to clench in front of you, breathing life into “sour old cat” Mrs. Wetherby whose small-minded escalation of rumour-mongering is all the more incredible when you realise the woman never actually appears on the page, or simply summing up the unpopular parson Mr. Tupper magnificently on his first appearance, Lorac evinces a gift for simple touches that really fill out her characters so that they expand to meet the vast fell-land which they inhabit.
This is a part of the country whose very remoteness results in long memories, so that a man can, without need for preparation, recite the triumphs and otherwise of several previous generations of his family, and where gossip is never forgotten and the flinging of accusations will reflect poorly for decades in both directions. That MacDonald is not exactly cut out for this type of investigation is clear — “The whole thing was tied up with local usages and skills: with the training of sheep dogs, the movement of cattle vans, with local cattle markets and slaughter houses…” — and yet, by paying attention to the small details, and by listening to what people say and how events must have come about, he begins to slowly, slowly see a pattern to the crimes that have descended upon this remote corner of the land. And “slowly” is the word: Lorac won’t be hurried in her telling, and it’s a lovely time simply sitting back and basking in the confidence of her milieu.
I can’t say I’d want to read too many of these a year, but as a change of pace I found this completely delightful. The impact of the Second World War is still felt in men “back from the Forces find[ing] it hard to settle down to farm work and no gallivanting”, in city man MacDonald “groping for a tin hat and a gas mask” at the late-night sound of the fire brigade siren, in the abandoned schoolroom in High Gimmerdale with its peeling posters warning of gas attacks, and in the occasional references to rationing…which I, in my ignorance, would have assumed over and done with by the 1952 in which this occurs. There are also charming historical touches, like a man having to to put rocks behind the wheels of his parked car since its brakes may not hold it in place on an incline, and what was for me the hapax legomenon of a man being warned by the police that that he’ll “find some red paint on your tyre tomorrow” having parked his car by the side of a lonely road — no idea what that’s about, and its utter pointlessness makes it only more endearing.
There is a plot to deal with, however, and the small matter of whether Mrs. Ramsden’s death was intended or accidental must also figure. And, while I’m not entirely sure how MacDonald begins to make sense of the matter, it cannot be denied that the solution to these mysteries is well-handled (though hardly well-clued) and takes into account many of the factors of both the region and the era with the eventual reason certainly indicated in advance if not exactly well-hidden for how striking a turn the conversations take when MacDonald decides (somehow) that he knows where the truth lies. You get to know this small cast so well, it’s almost a shame that one of them has to turn out to be guilty of what has happened — Lorac striking a Christianna Brand-esque note in that regard, with the happiness of Betty Fell and Jock Shearling, the operation of the Herdwick farm in light of the losses, and the well-being of octogenarian fellsman “Young Aaron” Tegg meaning far more to me than I’d be willing to admit.
So, like I say, while I wouldn’t want to read two of these too close together, the arch plot-fiend in me thoroughly enjoyed the gentle-yet-insistent conduct of this investigation, and can well understand MacDonald’s desire to retire to the region and take up farming once police work has lost its lustre. So am I an E.C.R. Lorac fan now? That might be pushing it, but if anyone has recommendations from the other BL titles, I’d certainly pay attention. Just don’t try to convince me that Murder by Matchlight is any good — that far I shall not go…!
Curt @ The Passing Tramp: There is, however, not just natural death (or is it?), but murder and arson and sheep-stealing too–the latter crime, perhaps, being the one which most distresses the locals. Though not exactly the stuff that one associates with classic British mystery in its Golden Age heyday (there’s not a single bludgeoned baronet, nor a body in a library for that matter), the plot is nicely turned out; and the local color is impressively sketched indeed.
Joules @ Northern Reader: This book benefits not so much from research as experience of its setting, while the characters are well introduced and maintained in their variety and depth. The plot is clever and exciting, as figures that ought to be clear in such a deserted landscape appear unexpectedly. There is a good postwar atmosphere to the book, even though most of the inhabitants would not have had much direct experience of the War’s effects.
E.C.R. Lorac 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)
Murder by Matchlight (1945)
Crook o’ Lune (1953)
19 thoughts on “#993: Crook o’ Lune, a.k.a. Shepherd’s Crook (1953) by E.C.R. Lorac”
That sound you hear is a deep sigh of relief from across the Atlantic. I had been resigned to the psychic dissonance of having my favorite critic grow to hate my new favorite author, but even in that state I had secretly hoped that journeying out beyond the London rooming houses you found so repetitive would allow Lorac’s many charms to bloom for you.
For me, her combination of endlessly inventive character work, evocative place-setting, and subtly clever plotting is unmatched, and it’s such a pleasure to read your own growing appreciation.
I’ve found that her strong dialogue works especially well in the audiobooks voiced by David Thorpe and Mark Elstob, which, like albums of a favorite musical artist, I’ve played repeatedly instead of just charging on to the next one.
Of these titles, I can definitely recommend Checkmate to Murder (not least for its fair clueing), though so far the titles Martin Edwards and The British Library have chosen point toward an amazingly maintained high standard for one so prolific
Undercutting all this is how much I loved Murder by Matchlight, which I still think has a marvelous cast and a fabulous, unique motive.
But, yes, best if we just move on to all her other strong efforts!
Not a fan of audio books (they tend to make me fall asleep) but I love radio drama and Elstob was excellent as Number 6 in the audio re-imagining of The Prisoner.
Didn’t know about Elstob as Number 6–definitely going to check that out.
Back in my blogging days, reviewed the first audio box set at this link:
The sheer change of pace this represents in my reading was delightful. I’m a huge fan of just how much diversity there is in this little corner of genre fiction, and it’s pleasing to see something told with such obvious skill — keeping back revelations in a way that perfectly supports the people and the setting, rather than because a paucity of plot needs it to be stretched thin to cover enough pages.
Lovely to see that Lorac had the skill to do more than just change her setting to give the impression of diversity, as this really isn’t a story that would work in any other milieu. Incredibly insightful stuff, I’m amazed that the old man had so much blood in him.
Glad it was good – I have read no Lorac but was thinking of getting it for friends in fact, thanks chum. I think rationing for things like sugar didn’t end iuntil 1954 (I could look that up but will leave it there, off the back of my noggin’)
The temptation is to look stuff up in these information-rich days, but it’s so much more fun doing things the old ways and relying on potentially faulty memories, eh? A bit of ignorance feels like a luxury in these times.
So your armor can be breached! I have yet to read this one and really looking forward to reading it.
BTW—regarding the paint on the tire. Police would often paint or chalk a car’s tire in order to help them track how long the vehicle remains unmoved. If it remains unmoved beyond a given amount of time they issue a parking ticket.
Thanks for clarifying, it’s not a concept I’ve encountered in my reading anywhere else. It even failed to make Noah’s GAD drinking game, so you know it really must be an obscure principle 🙂
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Parking enforcement in Seattle uses chalk marks on tires (if they’ve stopped, it was quite recently, with the advent of the meters where you have to put in your plate number).
Huh, how about that? Lovely to think that these concepts aren’t all as antediluvian as we tend to imagine when reading about them in old books.
Yes what Laurie says about the red paint, sounds right. That is what I thought it would have meant. Not sure putting a rock behind your wheel is all that historical in terms of detail. More an indicator class/finances – so I imagine today it still very much happens. Sergio is also correct about rationing – it was 1954.
Really enjoyed the slow pace and spirit of place of Crook O Lune but I have enjoyed all of her Northern books. You don’t have to worry about Jock and Betty, they are still employed by Macdonald in The Last Escape, where the policeman is finally almost retired.
In fact, I like most of the books that Lorac wrote, except The Black Beadle. The racism of one character, who was supposed to be an honourable man was so disgusting that I never finished the book.
Disappointing to hear that about Black Beadle. From reviews from JJ and others, I had hoped Lorac’s addressing sensitive contemporaneous issues would be more in line with her more progressive views on gender and class disparities, but it seems like that’s not the case.
Yea, Black Beadle is difficult to read in these more enlightened times.
I gather that Death of an Author is due for republication next year, and would recommend looking at that when it appears. And hopefully The Theft of the Iron Dogs, another Lunesdale title, will follow, as that has a really nice bit of clueing in it.
Lorac has been a real success for the BL, so it does seem that we’re going to get a few more in the years ahead. I’m hopeful that Rope’s End, Rogue’s End — an apparently pretty decent impossible problem — sees the light of day before too long.