Another gentle tale of Northern homicide from the pen of E.C.R. Lorac, Fell Murder (1944) was Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald’s first visit to Lunesdale — I’m not entirely sure how many he would make over his career, but I understand it to be more than a few — and finds author and character both having a lovely time. This only falls down for me in comparison to the similarly-set Crook o’ Lune (1953) in that the eventual solution doesn’t feel quite so rigorously proved, relying on a few rather key assumptions which spoil the overall effect. Prior to that, however, Lorac’s melding of character and setting again shows through very strongly, making her popularity easy to understand.
Twenty-five years ago, Lancashire farmer Robert Garth disowned his eldest son Richard upon the latter’s marriage to a local girl, and Richard and his wife abandoned Lunesdale to make a life for themselves in Canada. In the intervening period, Robert — “an uncompromising traditionalist who resisted any innovation on principle” — has run his farm with the assistance of his daughter Marion and, in recent years, his son Charles, returned from business in Malaysia through a combination of illness and the war. Of the two Garth children, it is Marion who contributes the most, however, and whose knowledge and desire for speculation on the farm to increase their yield and profits are recognised in the locality.
The novel opens with the return of Richard, not to the bosom of his family but instead to the land of his youth, on shore leave from the Merchant Navy and wishing to cast his eye once again over that which he has missed for the last quarter of a century. He encounters local farmer John Staple and the two discuss their various fortunes in the time since last they met before parting ways, with Staple promising not to mention Richard’s presence to anyone thereabouts. Mere days later, following a local fox hunt at which a great deal of gunfire becomes simply background noise, Robert Garth is found shot in the face in a nearby storage shed and, since it’s unlikely so accomplished a fellsman would have shot himself by accident, the police are called in to investigate.
As with Crook o’ Lune, however, this summary of the plot is not really the reason to read Fell Murder, compelling itself far more keenly on account of the people who populate the land from which they make their living. Again, almost as a reader-insert to help those of us from less enlightened places, we have an outsider brought to the area for professional reasons — this time it’s policeman Superintendent Layng — who, on account of his inability to adjust to the local ways, finds himself shunned. Lorac does good work here illustrating both city man Layng’s own understandable frustration with people who won’t answer a direct question and the locals’ impatience with an officious outsider who doesn’t even try to comprehend the practices of the culture he is surrounded by. Showing the fault on both sides without unduly undercutting the point of either is a very tricky road to walk, and Lorac’s clear understanding of the farm folk who populate the majority of this novel is rarely better than in their dealings with and discussions about Layng.
Enter, past the halfway point, Chief Inspector Macdonald, who almost instantly demonstrates a keener appreciation of how to get along with these people, making a more favourable impression upon John Staple and, as such, almost guaranteeing his own warm welcome. This is the eighth book featuring Macdonald that I’ve read, and his patient and canny questioning of Staple upon first reaching the scene of the murder is, taken in contrast with Layng’s energy and frustrations, one of the neatest bits of character work I’ve yet encountered, and perhaps the first time I’ve really got a handle on Lorac’s sleuth. Added to the wonderfully straightforward thinking and dealing of these country folk (“Thirty years I’ve worked for Mr. Garth and not shot ‘im. Stands to reason I wouldn’t go and do it now…”), you have a book which offers much in the way of sparkling character delights in every chapter:
Did they date their houses here before and after Flodden Field?
The Garth menage — composed of not just Marion and Charles but also their weakling half-brother Malcolm and land girl Elizabeth Meldon — will, of course, become the focus of Macdonald’s investigation, with the unknown return of Richard, and a local agreement that nothing will be said of it to the family or the police, always in the background. Again, Lorac excels here in giving us a compelling group of characters who have, in each of their own ways, been under the tyranny of Robert Garth and who would each have their own reasons for wanting him out of the way. Lorac doesn’t quite manage Christianna Brand’s trick of making you feel sick with the anticipation of one of the core group of suspects having to be guilty come the end, but each member of that household breathes their own brand of air and, while the eventual answer might not surprise given some slightly clunky foreshadowing, I was willing to believe these red herrings to keep us guessing and so managed to keep myself in a certain agonised suspense for longer than the less self-confident among you might.
Where the plot’s eventual resolution was disappointing, however, the manner of gently prodding us with period details — the War Agriculture Committee and its expectations about the uses of land, a casual mention of how difficult it is to find labour — and allowing the reader in on what would otherwise be closed local discussions about topics like supporting Marion in taking over the Garth farm make the book difficult to dismiss. I find it immensely interesting that Lorac appears to have adopted this gentler, holistic manner of plotting for these Northern-set books, rather than simply taking one of her London plots and putting it in a different setting under the guise of diversity, and for this alone she has gone up immeasurably in my estimations. As I said with Crook o’ Lune, I couldn’t read too much of this a year, but it’s lovely to know that Lorac applied herself so intelligently to her fiction, and I look forward to making her acquaintance again before too long.
As a little bonus, and I really wish publishers did this more often, my British Library Crime Classics edition pictured above contains the short story ‘The Live Wire’ (1939), a brief tale of an ex-con going back to his ways after release from prison and the fate that befalls him as he attempts a bullion theft. It’s well-told for how Lorac makes you connect the pieces on your own at times, and wouldn’t be completely out of place in one of Tony Medawar’s Bodies from the Library (2018-present) collections. A nice addition; shame that there aren’t more examples of Lorac’s short fiction included with her novels elsewhere in this series.
E.C.R. Lorac on The Invisible Event: